The time my (Austin) America let me down


‘In the middle of my twenties in the middle of Missouri in the middle of the night

Oh, and if that weren’t enough “middles”, it was also in the middle of a rainstorm.

But before I start my exciting tale of alone-by-the-roadside automotive woe, let me tell you exactly what it was that sparked this sodden, scary memory.

See, The Child is in her fourth day of a three-week hike along the John Muir Trail in California. It’s 200+ miles through High Sierra wilderness — and she is doing it alone.

The Child, on top of Half Dome, at the end of her first day on the John Muir Trail. Fingers crossed that a bear did not take this photo

A view of The Child and her 47-pound pack, pre-hike

The Dude and The Child’s friends, not being mothers, are all “wow!” and “isn’t this exciting!” and “good for you!“, while I am all “but there are bears” and “must you do this alone?” Trying to reassure me, The Child said, “But I’ll be running into other people on the trail all the time“, and I said, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

The Dude and I out on a trail in the wilderness. But with other people. And rum

Like I say, I could relate to being in my twenties and taking a trip by myself. Though mine wasn’t on the John Muir Trail, but on I-70, which is the interstate highway that I would drive from Kansas City, Missouri, where I was living at the time, to Carlyle, the small town in Illinois where I grew up.

Me with my Dad at about the time of this story. We look pretty hot and sweaty, so this must have been a summer visit

I lived in Kansas City for close on to seven years, and made that drive so many times it became easy-peasy routine. Except for this one time.

On this particular trip, I was driving my Austin-America. No, no, not the Aston Martin, which is that James Bond car. And not even the Austin-Healey, which Wikipedia says Helen Mirren drives. No, the Austin-America was a British car that was supposed to be a competitor to the VW Beetle, but wasn’t nearly as sleek, as sexy, or as reliable. Tiny, boxy, and (in my case) brown, it was probably the clunkiest car ever to park in a driveway. (Ever wonder why it is that you park in a driveway, but drive on a parkway?)

How I happened to have this car is a pretty interesting story in itself. I bought it for $800 cash from a woman who was saving up so she could flee from her abusive husband. And how did I know this woman? I worked with the husband.

I showed up, as instructed, when the hub wasn’t home. She took me in the kitchen, where I handed over 800 one-hundred dollar bills. After counting them carefully, she folded those bills and hid them inside a Ritz Cracker box, which she then put back in its spot on the shelf.

You wouldn’t be lonely for long if you broke down in the middle of this highway. Though probably no one would stop to actually help you

Me, I walked out with the keys to the Austin-America. Which I drove without major incident (except this one time I’m going to tell you about) until it finally conked out a few years later. When it did, it had absolutely no trade-in value, though I briefly considered turning it into a planter or maybe a bus shelter. It did get great gas mileage — so great I probably only had to fill it once. Which was fortunate because, among other things, the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll down. Which meant I had to speak to the gas station attendant through the little flip-out wing window.

Anyway. Back to the “major incident”.

I was driving back to KC after visiting my parents. I’d lingered a bit too long in Carlyle, probably enjoying another slice of my mother’s excellent banana bread, and got a late start. So late that, when it started pouring — and in the Midwest, if it starts pouring, we mean pouring; like some Rain God is emptying a giant pitcher over your car and everything around it — it was, like, three in the morning.

I’m soldiering along though, not tired one bit, squinting through the sheets of water slashing my windshield, trying to keep my spirits up by listening to Top-40 Radio KXOK, when the car starts slowing…and slowing some more. Before it can coast to a stop, I wisely steer it to the shoulder. Where I sit. What on earth is wrong? I wondered. The lights are on, the gas tank is half full.

No one has invented portable phones, much less cellphones, so there is no way to call for help. So I turn off the engine and lock the doors — and sit there.

Me, a few years and a completely different hairstyle later, still living in Kansas City, but now with a Mercedes. And yes, there’s a story there too

This being the middle of the night, there are very few cars on the road, even though it’s an interstate. Where are all those Highway Patrol Guys when you need them? But there are truckers. And, sure enough, after about half an hour a big ole rig pulls up on the shoulder just ahead of me.

I roll down the window as he approaches the car, and explain the situation. “There’s a truck stop up ahead,” he says. “I’ll give you a lift so you can get help.”

I do see a glow of mercury-vapor lights on the horizon, and he didn’t look too terrifying, besides which I didn’t relish the prospect of sitting in a wet car all night, so — bless my heart — I got out and went with him. And sure enough, as he boosted me up to the truck’s cab, he says, “You know, I’ve got a bed in back. You’re welcome to stay here if you want.”

Gulp. I can’t remember now how I managed to gracefully get out of that one, but he did indeed take me to the truck stop where a helpful mechanic listened to my story and goes, “Oh, one of them little Brit cars, eh? They’ve got their engines mounted sideways. Which means the alternator can get wet when it rains as bad as this. You just wait till it stops. It’ll dry out, and you can drive it on home.”

Which I did. And, trust me, I never drove that car in the rain again. Not even in a sprinkle.

But back to The Child. So far, she’s shown pretty good judgment, so I just have to cross my fingers and trust that she’ll be safe out there on the Trail all alone. At least I can console myself with the thought that it’s highly unlikely she’ll run into any truckers, helpful or otherwise.

Amagansett, New York. July 2019

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23 thoughts on “The time my (Austin) America let me down

  1. Oh wow, yes, as a mom now I’d be just a tad nervous. But I’m sure she’ll be fine and find herself or just get in even more amazing shape along the way! I’ll stick to traveling by car. In fact, when we were kids, my dad had an Austin-Healey–racing green and beautiful. We called it our “ice cream car,” cuz that was the only time he took it out on drives–to get an ice cream cone in the summer. Great post!

    • I’m getting used to The Child hiking alone (liar!) but it has been ten days and (gulp) so far, so good. I love the fact that you have some Austin Experience, tho yours is the Good Austin (the Healey) as opposed to the clunky boxy Austin (the America). I would have had a hard time getting ice cream in mine, since the window didn’t roll down! That being said, thank you — as always — for taking the time to read and to comment! xoxo

  2. Well, I think hiking is over-rated, but I LOVE 20s solo trips, kudos to The Child. And I loved your car story. My solo trip was from NY to Seattle via Amtrak, both ways. A month in the middle where I tried vegetarianism.

    • Hey Lorna! I too took a solo trip by train — but mine was from Seattle to Kansas City, where I lived at the time. (Gosh. Thanks for the inadvertent writing prompt; I haven’t yet told that story) I simply must add at this point that the most daunting part of your adventures, to me anyway, is the “month in the middle where I tried vegetarianism”. Brave, that!!!

  3. Tiffany La Forge-Grau

    Oh gosh, been there done that. It can be very scary but it’s definitely a learning experience!

  4. Lizzie

    Wow she is amazing! I can’t believe she’s doing it alone but I know it will be a time that she cherishes and remembers for the rest of her life. The John Muir trail is beautiful and challenging. Absolutely love Yosemite! Can’t wait for an update 🙂


  5. Erica

    You’ve got a brave kid. Oh, and I love the story of how you got that car. I just wish it hadn’t broken down on you!

    • Yes, thank you. That kid is a brave one. As for the Austin-America, except for the part about it being somewhat unreliable (!) it was a fun little car. And, as I mentioned, it had superb gas mileage. I swear it ran on fumes (!)

  6. I’ve never heard of an Austin America, an interesting story. We are due a storm tonight in the UK. They are forecasting 30mm of rain in some places. I don’t think your little Austin would be happy tonight.

    I think cars have come along way since then, though my car had a problem with its diesel freezing in really cold minus 7 temperatures last year..

  7. josypheen

    Woooow! Your child is kick-ass and awesome! I hope she has an amazing time and only sees bears from a good distance!

    As a Brit, I feel bad that your rubbish unreliable car was from the UK. Sorry about that. To be fair, although the UK is famous for its soggy weather, we don’t really get epic rainstorms like the ones you get in North America (and Japan.) They may have designed the crappy car just to cope with drizzle!?

    • Hahahahaha, Josy! Yes, they have some doozies of rainstorms here. But no, I don’t blame the Brits. My square little chunk of a car served me well. Except for that one time (!) Thanks for your comments on The Child. She is indeed kick-ass and awesome! ?

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