I’m here. I’m settling. I’m still collecting my thoughts on California, but in the meantime I wanted to tell you about the other time I moved across the country from Massachusetts to Austin. Otherwise known as the time Tim and I set my car on fire.
Every time Tim and I made a significant move, we rented a big U-Haul truck. We’d tetris all of our wordly belongings into the back in some precarious kind of way, and Tim would drive for hours with me in the passenger’s seat and the dogs sandwiched between us in the small console. Right before we moved to Austin, the lease on Tim’s car was up so he decided to return it in New England and go sans car for a while. That meant we only had one vehicle to bring down south, and we choose to tow it behind the U-Haul.
When you tow a car, there are a few options as far as trailers go, but we choose the one where only the car’s front wheels are on the trailer which makes things significantly cheaper.
For the journey from Boston to Austin, we decided to take a crooked path and see some family on the way to break up the drive. The first leg of the trip landed us in North Carolina to see my parents. On that stop, my Dad took our vagrant ways as an opportunity to send me home with some of the things I didn’t bother taking to MA in the first place. One of these items was my western saddle, which he threw into the driver’s side of my mostly empty car since the U-Haul truck was full.
The next morning we pulled out early, wanting to make it to Mississippi that afternoon with enough time to spend with Tim’s aunt & uncle before making the final trek to Austin. Now I have a lot of pretty okay qualities, but being super alert and aware early in the morning is not one of them.
As we hugged my dad goodbye and walked to the truck and trailer, I remember thinking, Are the rear lights on my car supposed to be lit up red like that?
Then we drove through the neighborhood roads a bit to head towards the highway. While stopped at a red light, I smelled something funky.
“What’s that weird smell?” I asked Tim-who-had-not-yet-got-coffee.
“Car next to us must be having brake problems,” he responded.
I nodded, and continued to mentally prepare myself for the flat, boring drive to Mississippi.
We drove away from the light, and headed to the highway a mile or so away. As we accelerated to merge onto I-40, I leaned my head against the passenger window and saw an unusual sight in the side view mirror. Gray smoke was billowing out of the back of my car.
“The car is smoking!”
“THERE IS SMOKE COMING OUT OF MY CAR!”
He immediately threw on the hazard lights, and pulled over to the side of the highway. The sun was just starting to rise, and the roads weren’t busy as the two of us scrambled out of the U-Haul. The gray smoke ballooned out of my car, spreading out in thin sheets above us, and through it small orange flames shot through the haze. They came from above my back wheels, right where the brakes were, and they immediately brought my deep fear of car explosions to full fruition.
“THE CAR IS GOING TO EXPLODE!” I said without actually moving away from said car.
“The car is not going to explode,” Tim replied with his hands by his sides. He was either catatonic or composed. I chose to believe he was composed.
“We need to call the fire department!”
“We need water,” he said, ignoring my hysteria.
Running to the U-Haul, I pulled out the 2 liter soda bottle that I had filled up with water for the dogs. Tim grabbed it with both hands and squeezed the bottle to shoot water down into the brakes for both back tires. I listened to my car hiss and steam as he walked from side to side, dousing the fire with a mere 2 liters of water.
The two of us stood there in the tentative, amber light of sunrise – everything dulled by the smoke dissipating above us.
“We should call the fire department,” I said again without looking at Tim. There were no visible flames coming from the car anymore, but it was still smoking.
“We’ll lose too much time if we call them,” he replied. More cars were on the highway now, whizzing by us on the side of the road. No one stopped.
“I don’t understand what happened,” I said. My brain was already circling around the extensive damages, and how much it would cost to fix them. Once the smoke cleared, you could see thick char streaking across the silver finish near the rear wheels of my car.
Tim walked to the driver’s side, and opened the front door. I followed behind him, and saw the western saddle slung on the floor. The horn was perfectly pointed right over the brake pedal. For a solid six miles, we had hauled my sedan at speeds up to 60mph with the brake mashed all the way down.
We never called the fire department. Instead, we swung back in the cab of the U-Haul and drove to Mississippi to drop my burned VW off at a repair shop before heading to his Aunt’s house. The report was not good.
“This is a mess,” the mechanic said into the phone. “You burned the brakes, the brake line, melted the pins, damaged the wheel drum. There’s no way I can repair this in a day. It’d take a week at least, and the wheel is so fragile right now that a big bump could cause more friction and it’d burn again.”
We didn’t have a week. Austin was calling. So the next morning we picked up the car, attached it back to the U-Haul and ignored the mechanic’s advice completely as we towed it to Austin.
Ten hours later when we could just the skyline from the north stretch of I-35, the car started smoking again. Tim and I looked back at it through the sideview mirrors, seeing much smaller trails of smoke streaming behind us. This time the highway was full of cars, and we were surrounded by both sides with steady Austin traffic. He looked down at the navigation on his phone.
“We’re only three miles away,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
I nodded. My fear of car explosions was not stronger than my faith in Tim.
When people honked their horn at us or frantically waved through the window, pointing back towards the smoking car, we kept our eyes forward on the road. Leaving a trail of smoke behind us, Tim kept his hands at ten and two o’clock — unwavering in the forward pursuit of our new life.