Six Feet Shy

Six Feet Shy

A middle-of-the-night adventure in rural Wisconsin

Late in the summer of 2009, I hauled some of my son’s belongings from our house in Urbana, Illinois to his new apartment in Minneapolis, where he was beginning a new graduate program. It was more than an eight-hour drive (~515 miles), but my circadian rhythms are weird and I’m used to staying up very late, so I didn’t leave home till 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.

It was getting late and I knew that the highway ahead was fairly devoid of commercial establishments, since they tended to close in the late evening in that area, so I stopped for gas in Wisconsin Dells. While I was stopped I checked the headlights on our well-used Dodge Caravan, because they seemed to be dimmer than usual. I decided that they were fine, just clouded over because the headlight covers were becoming grungy. Earlier I had paused to eat, so by the time I stopped for gas it was around 11:30 p.m.

As I drove northwest from Wisconsin Dells on Interstate 94, I observed that practically the entire state had rolled up its sidewalks. Towns with gas stations seemed to be perhaps 15-20 miles apart, but the gas stations I could see in the deep darkness were all closed. As were motels and all the other businesses.

And my headlights definitely were getting dimmer!

An “idiot light” appeared at some point on my dashboard—one I didn’t even know was there. It indicated that my battery was not being charged. Which meant that the only source of electrical power was the battery. Not good. Especially at night on a deserted highway.

I didn’t want to waste power by pulling off the highway to read my atlas, since stopping and then starting would use more power than continuing to cruise; so I temporarily turned on a (very dim) single overhead bulb and checked out that section of Wisconsin while simultaneously driving with one hand. It wasn’t encouraging. By then it was around 1:00 a.m. The only town that surely would have an open gas station where I might park my minivan and, more useful for me, an open motel, was Eau Claire, still at least 60 miles ahead. I had no choice but to keep going forward.

I turned off everything that used electricity: the dashboard lights, the radio, even my headlights. The interstate was virtually empty. On the one occasion when headlights approached from behind, I waited till the car had approached to within about a hundred yards before I turned on my feeble lights so that they would see me. That earned me a few irate honks as the car whizzed by. I’m ignorant about cars. I had read that automobiles were most fuel-efficient anywhere between 35 and 60 mph (depending on what I was reading, and depending on whether I had read it a couple of years before or thirty years before). I only guessed that maybe that would translate to greater electrical efficiency at slower speeds (I still don’t know the answer to that), so I drove around 50 mph. The moon was nearly ¾ full, but the pavement was recently laid dark asphalt and difficult to see. I could barely see the white stripes that marked the edges of the highway, and sometimes there weren’t any stripes. It was not at all unlikely that I might drive off the road. With my lights off, I straddled the faint dashed stripes in the center of the pavement as best I could in order to prevent disaster.

I passed exits for a few small towns, but there were no lights, no freeway gas stations or motels, nothing stirring.

I offered a simple prayer:

“Lord, if it would bring glory to you, if it would be a blessing to you and/or to some people I haven’t yet met, for me to be stranded on a rural highway in Wisconsin for the rest of the night, then I’m definitely willing to do that. But if there’s no particular blessing to be obtained if that happens, if it’s all the same to you it would be really cool if you’ll help me get to civilization where I can get a motel room and then do something about the car tomorrow. Whatever happens, I trust you. I am absolutely confident that you will bring a blessing out of this situation, either the hard way (groan!) or the more comfortable way. So I’m gonna thank you in advance for that blessing.”

I repeated variations of that prayer quite a few times—not because I imagined God didn’t hear it the first time, but because I needed to remind myself that he really is trustworthy, and he really would bless me no matter what happens. It helped temper what wanted to become a growing level of panic.

The car began to jerk every once in awhile as the battery was getting so low that it couldn’t provide spark to the cylinders. It continued like that for several miles, the engine spasms occurring closer and closer together. It was clear that the end was near.

Then, on the horizon in front and to my right, a faint glow! A sign said the exit for Osseo, Wisconsin, was one mile ahead. I wasn’t sure I would make it that far, but my (not very optimistic) hope was that, if I walked the rest of the way, I might find a place to crash for the night. The engine kept coughing, faltering. I groaned when I saw that the exit ramp for Osseo was a very long uphill grade. Just as I reached the stop sign (which I ignored) for the cross road from the overpass, the engine died. I shifted into Neutral as I turned right. The gas station immediately to my right was open, but that was way down on my list of needs at that time of night. What I needed was a bed. Then I spied a sign, 500-600 feet away, for the Ten Seven Inn, a small independent motel whose glory days obviously lay in the past. Still in Neutral, I continued to coast—thankfully, there was a slight down slope from the top of the overpass—until I turned left into the Ten Seven Inn’s parking lot. A second sharp left pointed my car toward the motel’s office. The car rolled to a final, exhausted stop six feet shy of the office.

I laughed out loud. Ha! One of my Lord’s delightful jokes! Had I needed to use my brakes to stop, I wouldn’t have known how much further I might have been able to coast. But this way it was unambiguous: I would go only this far. Spark plugs powered only by the battery, I had driven over a hundred miles since I first suspected the headlights might be dim. And God had plopped me down six feet from the office door of a motel run by a kind old gentleman whom I roused by tapping an old-fashioned steel bell. He helped me push the van the final six feet in order to get it out of the way. I walked to a very plain but clean room, fell onto the bed, and was soon asleep.

The blessings didn’t stop there.

The next morning was sunny, so I paced back and forth in the parking lot behind my van as I called Triple A on my cell phone. As you may know, they contract with independent tow operators. It wasn’t at all unlikely, I imagined, that the closest AAA-affiliated towing company would be in Eau Claire, 25 miles to the west. The friendly operator at AAA laughed when she finally identified the closest available tow company—it was about three hundred yards from my motel. I could see the tow truck from where I was standing!

I walked to Loft Towing, described my situation, and my car was inside their garage within ten minutes. It turns out they don’t just offer tow services: They’re mechanics too! I took a walk down a pleasant, deserted country road while they diagnosed the problem—which I assumed and they assumed would be a defunct alternator. Which it was. The drive time for the delivery from Eau Claire’s NAPA store was  about forty minutes. I walked to the Golden Express Travel Plaza—the 24-hour facility I had seen the previous night—and lingered over a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage and toast and jelly and coffee.

The total ticket for installing the rebuilt alternator was $388, which I put on my MasterCard. I called my beautiful wife to let her know what had happened and that I would be delayed getting into Minneapolis and therefore delayed in getting back home to Urbana that night. It was a brief conversation. But she happened to mention that we had received a check in the mail that morning from our daughter’s landlord—a return of our damage deposit from the previous year when our daughter was about to move into the place. It was for $382.

Close enough. About six dollars shy. And that was great.