Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 5, 2014

Marta Hepler Drahos: A return trip from hell

Local columnist

---- — It’s a week and a half before Christmas and we’re on our way to Virginia for an early celebration with my sister.

We’re loaded down with gifts, clothes, a giant Christmas wreath, cold-weather and rain gear, cameras and a laptop, books and holiday CDs, a cooler and snacks.

We stop in Lansing for my favorite pizza and a hasty tour through the world market. On our way out of town, the car starts to lurch and the engine light comes on. Steam billows from under the hood.

We limp to two or three repair shops before we find someone with the tools to diagnose the problem: a misfiring engine coil. The good news is that he can fix it. The bad news is he won’t be able to get the part for two days.

We’re frantic because we have reservations at two of our favorite places that night and the next, plus special holiday activity plans we don’t want to miss. Since going home isn’t an option and we don’t want to be stranded in Lansing, we decide to rent a car. We call several places and learn they’re all closed and won’t be open the next day, either.

I have a fit, then remember the airport. Surely an airport would have a car rental agency open at what is now 5 p.m. on a Saturday. It does, so we limp there, rent a car and learn we can’t park our own there until a tow truck can pick it up. So we find a car dealership that handles our make and drop the key with a note in the night deposit box.

It’s dark and numbing cold as we transfer all our stuff from our car to the rental. Finally we’re on our way again.

All is well until Detroit, which is just recovering from a snowstorm. We discover that the rental car slides on the slightest slippery patch. It’s too late to return it, so we drive 45 mph all the way to central Ohio, where we finally run out of snow and ice. We make it to Kentucky but are too tired to reach our destination. At 2 a.m. we pull into a motel and fall asleep the minute our heads hit the pillows.

We have a wonderful vacation with my sister. But on the way home, when we pull into the dealership to pick up our repaired car, we see a sign on the window that says its closed because of a power outage. We flag down a car circling the parking lot and learn it’s the dealership owner. He helps find our invoice and key, takes down our credit card number, wishes us a merry Christmas and leaves.

We transfer everything from the rental car to our car and begin to follow each other to the airport to return the rental, a process that’s complicated by the fact that all the traffic lights are out on Lansing’s busiest boulevard.

Almost immediately my gas light comes on. The car starts to buck (another misfiring coil, we later learn). Steam once again belches out from under the hood.

We find a gas station with power, return to the dealership, repeat the transfer in reverse, leave a key with a note in the night deposit box, and call the rental agency to extend the rental agreement for another week.

We drive home and hope the coming New Year brings better luck.