An adventure with Joe on Devil’s Night

Joe is loaded up for this third and final tow in 24 hours.
Spoiler alert: This is how this story will end.

ST. ALBANS, VT — “Whoa whoa whoa! Bad noise! Bad noise!” is not really what you want to hear from a cop in a deserted mall parking lot at nearly 1 a.m. Frankly, even “Do you realize how fast you were going, ma’am?” would have been better.

When I left Montreal around suppertime on the night before Halloween, I didn’t foresee having any contact with police. I don’t, you know, because I don’t speed and I signal my turns and I’m a middle-aged white lady, so I don’t get stopped randomly. I was just hopping across the border for a few hours to pick up Melani and the baby at Burlington airport after their sojourn in Colorado Springs.

My biggest adventure of the night (I thought) was when Alpha the GPS, peeved because I’d taken the Mercier Bridge rather than the hateful Champlain, led me through the darkness directly to the edge of the water and said, “Now, take the ferry.”

Alpha the GPS decided -- in the dark, without warning me -- that we were about to take a ferry in Vermont.
Alpha the GPS decided — in the dark, without warning me — that we were about to take a ferry in Vermont.

Once my ladies were safely back in my possession, I appeased Alpha by letting him choose the route home. It was late, and the Champlain is slightly less hateful once the traffic’s gone.

Joe the truck started vibrating a few miles south of the border. It was a gentle shake that worked its way up to jiggle my arm fat and cause mild emotional distress.

“It’s just the road,” Melani assured me, because she knows how much I worry.

Nevertheless, I left the highway and when I turned the wheels to enter a gas station, Melani said the genle click-clunk just sounded like I’d run over something. We continued to disagree about severity of the issue—gently, because we’d been separated for a week and we’d missed each other. At the end of the not-argument, I exited the gas station, promptly turned the wrong way and had to make a U-turn in a shopping-mall entrance.

Only Joe wasn’t feeling up to a U-turn. He got as far as an L-turn and groaned and yelled like he’s never done before.

I love Joe. When he hurts, I hurt. So I cut the engine, sighed heavily and pretended I wasn’t sideways in a mall exit after midnight.

Melani was on the phone with triple-A when a pickup and two cars full of men surrounded us on three sides. It could have been the opening scene of a Law & Order: SVU episode, but turned out to be three groups of guys—none of whom knew each other—making sure we were okay and offering to help.

They were long gone by the time the bright light filled the car. I had the baby on my lap and thought for a moment that we were about to be alien-abducted together. Then the light started cycling red, white and blue, and let me tell you this: I read this cool cop’s blog and I listen to this jailer podcast, so I know better than to swing my door open in the middle of the night with suspicious cops right behind me.

“DO NOT EXIT YOUR VEHICLE,” he bellowed into a megaphone and I froze with embarrassment.

He relaxed the moment he’d flashed his light into the car. We’re not a very menacing crew. I explained what happened and he explained that we really couldn’t leave our car sideways in a mall exit, offering to give us a push a little off the road. I did tell him the wheels weren’t happy about having to turn, but he really wanted me moved. He smiled. “It probably won’t even make that noise now that we’re here.” He didn’t say “little lady” out loud, but it sure hung there in the air.

I dropped it into neutral and the cops got behind and gave me a gentle push. Wouldn’t make that noise with them there, indeed.

Clunk cluck clunk GRIND YELL UNHAPPY.

“Whoa whoa whoa! Bad noise! Bad noise!” one of them exclaimed, stepping away from poor Joe as I cut the engine and pulled the parking brake.

I wasn’t smug and I didn’t say I told you so. I thanked them for the push to somewhere safe and thanked them again when they said they’d be back to check on us. They parked across the street at the gas station for a while and kept an eye on us.

Joe settles in for his tow from St. Albans, Vt., home to Montreal.
Joe settles in for his tow from St. Albans, Vt., home to Montreal.

The tow-truck driver was a darling, but he didn’t have his passport with him. He’d take us as far as the border, he said, and leave us at the duty free. Sounds reasonable, right? But you know us. You know it couldn’t possibly be a warm, brightly lit duty free at a nice big border with lots of traffic and fun things to look at. You just knew it, didn’t you?

I was a little mad by the time the second tow-truck driver showed up. We’d been told there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab for us and a car seat, so Melani unloaded most of her stuff onto the shadowed, cold dirt of the parking lot and was determined to wait there for her mother, who’d been woken up after midnight and drawn into our chilly drama.

Her mother was not answering her cellphone, so we couldn’t explain to her that the duty free probably wasn’t what she was expecting. It was a good distance off the highway, down a twisty, heavily wooded road. It was a small, dark shack with a looping parking area surrounded on three sides by thick black forest and this—this!—is where my bride expected me to leave her for an indeterminate amount of time.

I was that sort of mad where, as I buckled myself and the baby into the tow truck, I thought, “If she gets herself disfigured by a man with a hook, I’m gonna kill her.”

The driver was round and baby-faced and earnest. He wanted to talk about cars, and five minutes into the drive he’d determined that I knew just enough about vehicles to be a satisfactory sounding board.

“What does her mother drive?” he asked as we approached the boarder. He was squinting toward the U.S. entry, scanning the cars on that side.

“A beige Ford.”

He shrugged, because she hadn’t gotten there yet, and we speedily crossed the border ourselves, whereupon he continued to tell me about his cars and what he was going to do to them. He asked me again what sort of car Mel’s mom drove and he peered at approaching headlights seriously.

Moments later, he filled in the blanks: “A Taurus? 2003 or 2004? She just passed us.” I sighed and relaxed, because everything was going to be fine, and then I realized he’d gotten model and year of her car from the shape of headlights travelling past us at 100 kilometres an hour. I was probably about as impressed as he’d thought I’d be, but not as impressed (how could he have known?) when he said slightly shyly, “You know another thing I’m kinda into? Demolition derbies.”

When I squealed and matched his excitement, he whipped out his phone and navigated (the highway was dark, but straight and empty) to his demo videos, which I watched the rest of the way home.

And though Joe was going to be just fine (he had a broken axle), I made him a silent promise right then that when his time came, he wouldn’t go off to some lonely dump—he’ll be donated for a demolition derby and go out in flames.

Here’s my favourite of the tow-truck driver’s videos (or one very similar). The guy in the bottom vehicle controls the gas—the guy up top steers.

‘Wait … this is a two-way street?’

Long, wide, flat, good gravel. Just how I like ’em.

PRINCE OF WALES RD. – A great cheer went up. I’ll admit: I was one of the people cheering. We hadn’t taken Joe the truck off pavement since that oh-shit-we’re-gonna-die road in Georgia last summer.

While we relax in Wasaga, Trevor’s spending the week at Unicamp, an hour’s drive away, halfway down a long strip of gravel road. It’s well maintained and just enough country for me to put a little Kane on the iPod and belt out tunes.

We were early, though, so Melani wanted to keep driving to see where the road would take us. And it was an easy road, like I said, so I humoured her.

We waved at the farmer hauling hay and when we passed the horses, I pointed at the pinto and said, like I always do, “Let’s slap his butt and see what happens!” Trevor laughed, because that’s how I’ve raised him. Melani didn’t, because she knows I’ll love her anyway.

But then we crested a hill and road just fell away. True, I exaggerate, but it was much steeper on the downside and narrowed to barely Joe-width.

“Sorry, guys, the fun stops here,” I said, reversing into a farm lane to turn around. I’m very good at ignoring “Awww, Mom,” and “C’mon, loser!”

We doubled back to the highway and meandered along till we found a roadside stand with green beans that tasted exactly as green beans should. A little farther along, we stopped at a full-service gas station where we paid twenty cents less per litre than we would at home. Nice. So with Joe full of gas and us full of beans, and nearly completely lost on back roads, we set the GPS to take us back to Unicamp.

Shoulders? We don’t need no stinkin’ shoulders.

We’d done a three-quarter loop and the GPS looks for the shortest route between A and B. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

Back on gravel, Joe bopped along. The rocks were loose but the road was flat. There was nothing but fields to our right and left, old, swaying trees far in the distance. Melani started to giggle. “We’re coming at it from the other side. That hill’s going to get you coming or going.”

The hill I’d scorned at the beginning wasn’t so bad, it turned out, but that might have been a matter of perspective, as getting there meant being jostled along loose gravel and mud for more than ten kilometres, on a road barely wider than Joe.

“Go faster!” Trev encouraged.

“Yeah, and what happens when I meet a car going the other way?”

“Wait … this is a two-way street?”

Yeah, that’s right. Because that’s the way we roll.

Half the fun is getting there. Right?

CHERRY LOG, Ga. – She does this to me every time.

Meat Cove, Cape Breton.

The A-frame in the Okanagan.

That red-dirt “shortcut” in P.E.I.

“It’s fine,” Melani says. “See how thick the road line is on the map?”

Blue Ridge Mountains, Georgia.

This trip, it’s Cherry Log Mountain Retreat in northern Georgia, in Chattahoochee National Forest. The road on the map is not very thick, and I swear to God it’s actual size.

From the interstate, we took a nice little divided highway to a skinny two-lane road that brought us halfway up the mountain. Then the fun starts. And I use the word “fun” in the most sarcastic sense.

Our crazy steep driveway with hairpin turn. And that’s a two-way road, my friend.

Generously, it’s a lane and a half wide. On one side, forest and rock. On the other, forest and rock and certain death down the side of a mountain.

The road is so steep, Joe, my economy truck (and “truck” in the South, remember, has two or three syllables) strains and complains. When the road dips, it does so violently, with a sharp turn at the bottom. The misfortune of meeting another truck means the driver who isn’t on the death side of the mountain has to pull into the forest and wait.

Our ears popped three times before we reached the cabin, but the journey didn’t end there, because the steep driveway is a hairpin going the wrong way – I have to drive another quarter mile to where the road ends, do a crazy three-point turn on  a wicked incline and double back.

My nerves are shot, but let me tell you a little about the cabin: The master suite is a loft with a separate, full bathroom. Downstairs, there are two bedrooms, another full bathroom, a washer and dryer and a full eat-in kitchen. There are three TVs with cable. Off the living room is a porch with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A lower deck has one of the largest Jacuzzis I’ve ever seen.

Night is black. Through the impossibly tall trees, Jupiter is shining, a bright yellow pinprick. Frogs and birds and bugs are a buzzing, loud soundtrack. We can hear something moving in the woods – something that is larger than a raccoon. In the silence after turning off the hot tub, we can hear coyotes or wolves barking and whining at each other.

Is it worth the trip? Just this once, I’ll keep my own counsel.

Pretty. And peaceful, once you’re finally there.

Meet Santa Fe Joe

The upside to totalling your car (everything happens for a reason) is that you drop a few pounds when you start walking everywhere again, and you get to go car shopping.

We had two criteria: More trunk space and more leg room in the back seat. While I loved my Ford Focus, Trev’s grown so much this year that his knees were up near his chin in the back.

We were in the market for a good old-fashioned station wagon, but sometimes your car chooses you. Joe chose us.

He’s a Hyundai Santa Fe and — I still can’t believe this — as fuel-efficient as the old Ford.

I’m always a nervous wreck the week before a road trip (our summer holiday starts Sunday), but it’s amplified now that I truly, truly understand how qiuckly accidents can happen and that they can happen even when you’re doing everything right.

We’ll be travelling in style and extreme safety.