This is the second post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.
As Lynn and I were about to leave Madison for Chicago, the car’s engine light came on. I drove to my cousin’s house, pulled Bluebell into the driveway, and popped her hood.
“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” I told Lynn.
“I know—I always bring mine to a garage—I don’t even know how to open the bonnet,” she replied.
I pulled out the dipstick, already knowing it would be impossible to tell if the oil was full or empty due to one of Mini Cooper’s many design quirks.
“Maybe the engine is hot?” I suggested hopefully. The coolant container was clearly marked: “DO NOT REMOVE CAP WHEN ENGINE IS HOT.” I unscrewed it anyway and quickly jerked my hand away as steam exploded out of it and coolant ran out onto the driveway. I screwed the top back on and waited for it to cool down so I could see how low it would be now—now that I had made sure it was low on coolant.
I didn’t think my cousin knew much about cars, but I still wished he was back from the pow wow. Car problems are the one situation in which I revert to my primitive, dependent woman self. I wanted a man to deal with it. A man would know what to do, right? Never mind the many times I had asked some male relative or coworker about a car issue and they got a panicky look on their face because they knew, as men, they should know about cars but didn’t know jack.
I also fell back on an old coping mechanism—denial. “I think it’ll be okay to drive to Chicago. I’ll deal with it in Chicago.” Thus commenced several days of flipping back and forth from outright heart-thumping panic to the blissful Zen of denial.
When you Google “Chicago tollway” here are just a few of the images that come up:
The engine started chuddering along the way and the drive was every bit as stressful as I’d remembered, with the added feature of an endless road construction project which had us all swerving into new lanes every few miles, amidst massive piles of concrete rubble that looked like a moonscape.
Every time we approached a tollbooth I had to talk Lynn through how much money to pull together. “Those little ones are called dimes; they’re 10 cents, get 15 of them. And 10 of the big ones, those are quarters. They’re 25 cents” This is one of those micro culture shock things: the UK has 20 pence pieces, while we have 25 cent pieces.
Each time we slowed, the car shook harder and I feared it would kill and not start again. I made a conscious effort to keep my back and shoulder muscles relaxed. The previous day, it had seemed like a good idea to take a new pilates class. You know, get some exercise in before sitting all day in the car. My torso felt as tight and tense as a loaded steel trap.
I didn’t trust what Marge, my GPS, was telling me, so I exited the tollway early and drove stop-and-go slow for miles through the city streets. The streets were swarming with crowds of people out enjoying the 75F spring weather. Marge got her revenge by beeping loudly at every intersection to tell us there was a speed camera. Fat chance of triggering one of those during rush hour.
Lynn had found a great little place called the Old Chicago Inn just south of Wrigleyville. Lynn and the Innkeeper carried in the luggage while I searched for a parking space. The inn came with free parking—a permit to park wherever you could find a spot in the vicinity. I found a spot two blocks away and killed the motor. I checked the trip odometer—we’d driven 450 miles that day. I sagged over the wheel and exhaled. I thought about calling AAA but then what? They would tow my car to some garage in Chicago, one of the most corrupt cities in America. I was determined to get to New Orleans.