Two hours of 60 mph in steady rain brought us about 30 miles from Harrisburg on 81. We pulled into a Pilot and parked at the end of a row of sleeping tractor trailers. We staggered out and went to check on the cats who had been locked in the bathroom. The trailer suddenly seemed very small next to the big rigs, but it was still exciting to be a part of those-that-sleep-on-the-road. The cats were curled up together on a towel sleeping like this-was-how-they-always-did-it. We got the kids out of the truck into their bunks and Bethany and I headed for the big neon DINER sign. I was starving. We’d lived on nothing but snacks for the last 36 hours, and I could already taste a big greasy cheese-burger and fries. I’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve. The diner was closed. We went back to the camper, crawled into bed, and fell asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof and cat-feet in the camper.
Four hours later we awoke to no rain and the sun breaking over the tail-end of the cloud-bank. This was a truly fantastic Christmas morning. I just went back and checked weather history to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it had misted for 2 straight weeks, and found that on Dec. 15 the sun HAD come out for 2 hours in the morning, but that was it. From the 10th on it had been sunless. There was a Ray Bradbury story we read in grade-school about these kids living on Venus where the sun would shine for 3 hours every 7 years. It felt about like that.
I grabbed my moustache-soap and the kids, and we headed for the Pilot restrooms to freshen up. What a motley lot of transients deck the halls of a truck-stop on Christmas morning! It was an honor to belong in a way I never had before. I fell to conversating in the mirror with a trucker fascinated by my waxing process. Turns out he used to be a scenic working on set designs for commercials in Atlanta. Anyone remember a Nintendo commercial for a Star Wars game where Darth and some storm troopers burst through the door on these kids playing the game? This trucker was operating the fog-gun on his back under the bed.
We got the cats back in the bathroom, hopped in the cab with some fresh coffee and beef-sticks, and hit the road by 8:30. SUN! If all went well, we’d hit Knoxville in time to open the presents Keren and Bobby had for the kids before Christmas was over. We hadn’t had time or mind power to get the kids anything ourselves, but we all agreed a camper on the road was what we’d all wanted most. Just when it seemed my confidence would allow me to keep up with traffic at 65-70, the winds began. All through Maryland and into West Virginia we were yanked this way and that, forcing us to go 55-60.
We made our first stop at the West Virginia welcome center. Bethany went into the camper to get something and discovered the bathroom door had not been latched properly. The cats were at large and quite at ease. Well, that was that, then. Actually, it was a relief. We had hoped they could adjust enough to watch out the windows while we drove, but no-one expected this much progress in half a day.
By now everyone was ravenous. I could tell by the way Douglas and Fynn said such beautiful things to each other. We determined to pull off at the next exit with food. A mile before the exit the truck started losing power. All of it, really. “What’s happening?” Bethany asked, as I futilely kept tromping the gas, pulling to the side. “I don’t know.” The truck putt-puttered to a stop, and the battery light came on as it coughed its last and died. “Maybe it’s the alternator.” I remembered noticing 2 weeks before that the headlights would brighten slightly when revving the truck at an idle. I turned the key off, then on. The truck turned over sickly but did not catch. We looked under the hood, feeling completely inadequate at diagnostics. My stomach was singing a mournful song of auto-cannibalism.
“Maybe having the heat on in the camper is draining the truck battery,” Bethany suggested. “That’s run off the propane,” I said. “The fan is electric,” she said. “Oh, yeah, right!” We turned off the heat. We hauled out a compact battery charger we were bringing to give to Keren and Bobby, hooked it up, and what do you know? VROOOM, VROOOOM, VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! Matilda was back in action. We revved at high idle for a while, then put it in gear and headed for the Waffle House.
“Do we turn it off?” Bethany asked in the bank parking-lot next to the Waffle House. “Yes. If it doesn’t turn back on, we’ll figure it out. At least we’re in a town now.” Matilda was purring normally and if there was still a problem, I didn’t want to pussy-foot around it.
I can’t remember ever enjoying a Waffle House meal more than that. I had a bacon-egg-n-cheese on French toast with hash-browns and everything else my family didn’t eat. Douglas, who is normally Bethany’s gluten-free partner, was allowed to eat Waffles for Christmas. It was bliss.
The truck started fine. We headed into Virginia. The wind stopped and I got up to 75. The sunlight on the Blue Ridge mountains was glorious. They were really blue! And only got more so as we enjoyed a fantastic sunset.
When night settled, we received a text from Keren: Dear Douglas and Fynn, This is Santa. If you don’t make it to Knoxville before midnight, I’m taking all your presents back up the chimney! We laughed. Then we noticed the running lights of the camper winking off and on in our mirrors with every bump. We pulled off at the next exit, strapped on our headlamps, and went to investigate. We unhooked the supply at the hitch and there it was: a bent prong in the plug. A small flat-headed screwdriver unbent it. All the lights came on, and we were back on our way.
We got 3 miles farther before the lights started winking again. AAAAAAAAAAH! We took the next exit and found a well-lit gas station this time. I crawled under the truck and began checking the truck wires surrounding the hook-up. Two sets looked hand joined with electrical tape. I held one and wiggled the other. “Bethany! What are the lights doing?” “Nothing.” I held the other and wiggled the one. “They’re flickering!” I stripped and sanded the wires and twisted on a wire-nut. Bethany fed me tools. The lights came on and stayed on. Not a flicker. The store there had camper bulbs (2 were out) and we got a jar of Nutella for Fynn and a jar of Homemade Black Cherry Jam for Douglas as Christmas gifts. We had to get them Something!
It was about 9:30 and we were back on the road. The wire problem was fixed, and it sure explained the burning brakes on the top of that first mountain! It looked like we’d hit Knoxville by 11:30.
At 10:30 the truck began losing power. I tromped futilely on the gas as we putt-putted to the side of the road. The battery light came on but the headlights didn’t dim. This made me think it might not be the alternator. We were out of ideas. “Maybe it’s the timing belt,” I posed, remembering a similar incident with my dad when I was about 9. I found out later Matilda doesn’t even have a timing belt. “Um, I guess we pray.” I said. We told God we didn’t know what to do and we could use some help. We tried starting the truck. I came to life like nothing was wrong and after a few minutes of revving we pulled back on the road, and made it into the city limits of Knoxville by 11:58.
Four hours of sleep wasn’t much to go on, considering that had been the average for the last few weeks, but we were almost there. The impending relaxation was palpable. Keren texted to say we shouldn’t go the route Map Quest proposed but should come a different way. An easier way. Now my sister is a very visual person, so things like what color gas station sign can be seen from a curve to the left, or how high the Starbucks sign goes above the trees, stick in her mind a lot easier than which direction North is and what number exit to take. Bethany was tearing her hair out to establish where to put Map Quest down and pick up Keren’s texted fragments and clarifications. Exit 6 was actually exit 3A which would have been the first exit after exit 5 were we going East not West. But after a Merry tour of Knoxville’s North side and Bethany got Keren live on the phone, we were guided into the skinny lanes of Sherwood Forest, Keren and Bobby’s neighborhood. It was 12:30.
I was able to back the camper down a hill and turn into their 40 foot drive in one shot. The satisfaction of that helped unclench my jaw a bit, and all remaining frustration was squeezed out with bone-crushing hugs from Keren and Bobby. It was a good landing.