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  • Writer's pictureJ&J

So Close, Yet So Far Away - Pittsburgh, PA

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

It’s a bad sign when your car produces its own self contained earthquake. If you’ve ever popped a tire before, you know some semblance of the feeling - you’re driving along, everything is going smoothly, if you’re anywhere in the middle of the USA your radio is likely tuned to country music, a sermon, or static. All of a sudden, the pavement feels like it’s been turned to a boulder field. One quick calculation of how to pull off to the side of the road and you turn the wheel, hit the breaks, and skid to a halt, hopefully in the shoulder. You open the door, inspect the damage, and see a filleted band of rubber trailing off behind the car.

When our car suddenly went to war with itself, a blown tire (albeit a severe one) was my initial take on what had happened. The vehicle rumbled with a ferocity that had me sure the entire cab was about to come unhinged. Fortunately, we were in the right lane and there was a pull off immediately available. We were also within 10 miles of our destination which, for the only time in our traverse between New Hampshire and Utah involved staying with friends in a house rather than in our tent. Unfortunately, knowing little to nothing about cars, the mechanical issue wasn’t immediately apparent. All four tires were right where they should be, still inflated in all their rubber donut glory. The shifting mechanism however had made a desperate bid for freedom, wiggling around from park to reverse, to drive nearly at will. There was also a large bar on the underside of the car that had become dislodged from its previously appointed home. We would later learn that this was the drive shaft.

We were stuck. Time to call AAA.

If there is one thing I can recommend for an extended road trip, it is having access to roadside assistance. I’ve had a few different carriers since I began traveling and AAA is still my favorite, namely because they actually show up. My mum was kind enough to upgrade us to the Plus Plan which allows for up to 100 miles of towing rather than a total of 10 which is good since we needed it.

The call went smoothly enough - “Hello, my car is broken, I’m somewhere in Pennsylvania on highway 76. We’re pretty close to Pittsburgh. No, I don’t know where I want the car towed to could you recommend a place? The car is green but the registration says it’s silver. No, I don’t have COVID. Okay. Thanks. See you soon.” I hung up, and Jacob and I did the most logical thing for two travelers stuck on the side of the highway. We pulled out books, peanut butter, crackers, water bottles, and had ourselves a breakdown lane picnic (in the grass off the highway, of course).

Within 5 minutes, I received a call back. I was surprised and impressed that roadside assistance was on its way so quickly given that we had been told there was a “heavy volume of service calls” that day and that we could be expected to get picked up within an hour. Alas, there had been a mistake. It turns out that AAA can't tow vehicles that break down on the Pennsylvania turnpike.

So, back to hunting for a tow we went. The process was relatively painless, AAA gave us an affiliated tow company to call up. The tow truck arrived within 25 minutes. However, this tow truck could only take us to a spot immediately off the highway where we would need to call AAA back, get one of their roadside assistance providers to come pick us up, and take us to the nearest repair shop. By the time the car transfer from one tow truck to the next was complete, it was 6:20PM. There was only one repair location in the area that was still open. By the time we made it to the repair shop, a Pep Boys in the town of Monroeville, PA, all four wheels on the car had locked and the shop was in the process of shutting down for the evening.

The tow driver and the machine team puzzled their way through extracting the car from the tow bed without any of the wheels able to turn, took a brief look beneath the car, remarked to me how busy they were and that they would hopefully get a look at the car the following day (I’ve come to learn that “hopefully” is a term of transfer in the auto repair industry and, without copious prodding actually means “no”), and described the repair with significant exhales and shakes of the head. That was Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon, following a walk around the Allegheny Cemetery and a much needed sleep at our friend Jeremy’s house, we called the shop back to check on the car. The verdict? “We haven’t really had time to look at the car, but the issue seems catastrophic. It’s probably that something is seriously wrong with the transmission and that’s beyond the scope of our shop. You’ll have to go to the Subaru dealership. They aren’t open today.”

And that was that.

Monday morning arrived with the fresh scent of more logistics in the air. We laced up our battle boots (sandals), grabbed some liquid power (cortado with honey and cinnamon for me, mocha for Jacob), and cruised back over to the shop to meet with our third tow truck driver of the adventure.

His name was Roy Smith and I could have kissed him.

After signing off on the service form in the parking lot, I let Roy know of the difficulties that the last group had weathered trying to get the car on and off of the tow truck without any of the wheels turning, intending to save him a headache by letting him know that the others had needed to use those “rubber wedge things” on the wheels. He chuckled, smiled wide and said, “Hand me the key. We’ll see about that.” I liked him instantly. J and I stepped back against the brick wall along the side of the repair garage while Roy went to work doing something that no one besides Jacob, who has about as much experience with cars as I do, had done thus far. He actually lay down on the ground and looked around to see what the issue was. Five minutes later, he pushed something into place and voila, all four wheels came back to life and with them, the $3600 transmission repair disappeared. Poof.

Like I said, I could have kissed him.

Roy returned to us, a big smile on his face. “I like to see what I can do”, he joked, before getting in the truck and driving the car over to the dealership.

We arrived at the dealership significantly more hopeful than we had arrived at Pep Boys that morning. I had a feeling, one that said, “Now your drive shaft is the only thing broken. They are a dealership. They have the parts. We will be out of here tomorrow!” My hunch was wrong.

The Subaru staff is very friendly. Since we called the breakdown in on Monday, I have had almost daily chats with Shane (please read as - I bug him regularly for progress checks) and he has been gracious in answering all of my questions. However, being nice doesn’t equate to quick repairs. Following the drop off, I was met with a friendly smile, some banter about being in Pennsylvania and coming from Massachusetts, and then,

“Okay, thanks for bringing your car in. Hopefully (there’s that word again), we’ll get to look at it tomorrow, or at the latest, Wednesday.”

I smiled back. “Thank you. Please keep me updated.”

“WEDNESDAY?! It doesn’t even get LOOKED AT UNTIL WEDNESDAY? We broke down on SATURDAY”

Oh the myriad shocks of being unfamiliar with the time that large scale repairs take.

It was time to recalibrate our plan.

We had a lot of work to do over the next two days. CoGRAVITY was scheduled to teach its first virtual workshop of the tour, I had a major grant application to finish for a client, Jacob worked to reorganize possibilities for our drive to Utah, we had an upcoming application deadline of our own, and I had two mentorship chats that I wasn’t about to miss. For two days, we settled into a hotel by the dealership and drowned ourselves in work, research, and, in Jacob’s case, reading through the entirety of American Gods by Neil Gaman. Clearly, this was a unique time. In our entire relationship, I have never seen Jacob pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

In this case, “hopefully” did come true. Of course, it came with a catch - namely, another “hopefully”. The dealership called us back on Tuesday night, a promising sign since the last agreed upon “hopefully” came with a contingency buffer that carried into Wednesday.

I picked up the phone. “Hello Jennifer, this is Shane. We’ve had a chance to look at your car. When the drive shaft broke, it also took with it the shift selector cable which means we have to replace the shifting mechanism as well” (not surprising given the shift selector’s prize winning performance as a bucking bronco when we first broke down). “The parts are in California.”

Cue the pit of stomach drop.

“Hopefully they’ll arrive by Friday. If not, we’re closed for the weekend and they’ll get here Monday.”

We have to be in Utah by Monday. I haven’t been clued in yet to anyone who knows how teleportation works. This has to work another way.

For a moment I said nothing.

Shane: “I could call up to the machine shop and see if they can put a rush on things”

Me: “That would be good”

Pause and hold music while Shane consults the machine shop. Machine shop seems to be on a break. Interlude. I call my dad who advises next day air. Back to Shane.

Shane: “Okay, it looks like they can do expedited ground shipping.”

Me: “How about overnight rush?”

Shane: “I asked. These parts have to go by ground transit. I’m sorry. The good news is that hopefully they will arrive by Thursday or Friday. If we get them in Thursday morning, we can have the repair done by Thursday evening. If we get them in Friday morning, we can get the repair done by Friday evening. If we get the part in Friday evening, the repair will be done by Monday.


I use my smiley voice. Thank Shane, and say I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Understandably, it’s not his fault that he’s managing a whole mess of cars and that the parts I need are three time zones away.

We all deal with stress in different ways. I deal with it by doing stuff. Writing is a great outlet. It helps that most of my non dance work requires copious amounts of writing and that there is always more writing that can be done. I write emails, proposals, Facebook messages, this blog post. It passes the time beautifully. Jacob and I also remember that we are not just in a limbo of waiting, we are on an adventure together, as uncanny as that adventure may be. We take a journey to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and have a date walking through rooms laced with ferns, cacti, orchids, bonsais, citrus trees, heirloom vegetables, and all other manner of greenery. It’s a treasure of a place.

Thursday afternoon, I call Shane:

“How are things looking?”

“Good news! The park came in about an hour ago. We’ll get started on it this evening. Hopefully, by tomorrow at lunch time, the repair will be complete.”

I conclusively decide that, this time, “hopefully” means “yes”. That is the only option.

I thank Shane and end the call.

Utah, I manifest. Utah. Utah. Utah.

#roadsideassistance #breakdown #roadtripdiaries #Pittsburgh #waiting

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