(Hickory, NC) – “On this trip, there will be no break-downs,” I said. “On this trip, everything will go smoothly,” I said.
It’s a great big, brand new Thomas school bus – one of those buses with a flat front, more like a city transit bus than a school bus. They ride nicely, they’re fun to drive, and this morning, I started out from home about 6, to take this bus to Portland. It’s a five-day trip across North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. I enjoy this drive, and I’ve done it so often, I can get from High Point to Portland without a map, or GPS. Which is good, because my GPS is still at a bus dealership in Texas.
I started up that bus… it only had 24 miles on the odometer. I even like the way it sounds when you start the engine and release the airbrake. Put my headphones on and dialed up an audio book… all ready to go. I hit I-40, which would be my home for the next 8 or 9 hours… then in Nashville, you switch to I-24, and head north. I had a room booked at the Motel 6 in Metropolis, which is the self-proclaimed Home of Superman.
I got as far as Hickory. Then I noticed something disconcerting: the check engine light came on. I briefly considered fixing it by putting some electrician’s tape over it. That generally works pretty well for me for a week or so. But I could NOT ignore the digital display which, in no uncertain terms advised me to CHECK COOLANT. ENGINE TEMPERATURE 210.
No… NO! In just a few recent trips, I had brake problems on a new bus… the battery cable on another new bus worked itself loose… the tread stripped off a tire on a nasty, smelly old used bus… and this was NOT supposed to happen.
But, well, there we were. There was an exit just ahead, so I pulled off, and parked in the lot of a Raceway convenience store/gas station. I went around to the engine compartment, and opened the door. And coolant was everywhere. It had sprayed all over the engine, was dripping off the door, and was copiously leaking onto the ground, creating a pink puddle.
It was time to start calling my list of numbers. First, to Rob, who owns TransBusiness, the company I was driving for. We discussed what to do, and then I called Freightliner’s roadside assistance hotline (it’s a Thomas-Built bus, but the chassis is made by Freightliner.) The voice on the other end said, cheerfully, “Thank you for calling the Freightliner Assistance number; this is Rhonda – how may I help you.” I couldn’t help it. I said, “Help, help me Rhonda…” She had apparently heard this before.
I gave her the numbers she asked for: The VIN, the body number, my phone number, all that. And she responded that for some reason, she was “unable to mandate the warranty.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. She gave me a number for Thomas, but it’s Saturday, and evidently Thomas doesn’t believe in 24/7 assistance hotlines, because although the pleasant recorded voice assured me that my call was very important to them, they were closed, and I was urged to call back on Monday. I was also encouraged to have a good day. It was already too late for that.
More phone calls, more messages left, and finally I got hold of the West Carolina Freightliner Sales and Service Center, which was right there in Hickory! Not only that, but they work 7 days a week. Take that, Thomas. A few hours later, an enormous wrecker pulled up, because, as I was informed, they don’t do roadside service.
I got a ride in the truck (We’re goin’ for a ride in a big truck!! YAAAAY!) to the Freightliner place. Rob had said he didn’t think it would be anything serious. Probably a hose that hadn’t been tightened enough or something. Sometimes those guys do miss tightening things. On one bus I took to Oregon a few months ago, we discovered that several of the lugnuts were not tightened. So I figured I’d be back on the road in a jiffy, or perhaps the twinkling of an eye. Or maybe a New York minute. I settled into the drivers’ lounge, surfed the web for awhile, even went back to the bus and got some ramen which I cooked in the Official Drivers’ Lounge Microwave.
Then, in walked Mike. He had the demeanor of a doctor who was about to say, “We did all we could… but….” What he actually said, though, was, “It’s a molded hose.” I though he had said a moldy hose, and I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was telling me. But what he was telling me was that a part had to be replaced before the bus could be driven again. And that was not a Freightliner part, it was a Thomas part. And, as we have discussed, nobody’s at Thomas to help on weekends. So with any luck, the part will come in on Monday… but it’s more likely going to be Tuesday before I can get back on the road. This causes all kinds of problems, because I have a flight home booked on Thursday, and there’s no way that’s going to happen
So Mike offered to drive me to a motel… and here I am. Rob thought I should go back home and wait there. But there’s no way to get home except by AmTrak or Greyhound. And I had to cross AmTrak off the list of possibilities, because they don’t have Hickory-to-High Point service. The nearest Greyhound station to High Point is in Greensboro… about 23 miles away, and the fare is $45. So after doing the math, I realized that it’ll just be cheaper and easier to stay here in Hickory for a couple of days.
There’s not much to do here, and I have no transportation. Uber hasn’t arrived here yet, and as I discovered this afternoon, the cab fares are very high. Nonetheless, it’s the first time in months I’ve really had a break, with nothing I should be doing. Actually, of course, there are things I should be doing, but they’re back in High Point. And I’ll be reimbursed for whatever I spend on accommodations and food, so I’m just going to relax and enjoy. Later in the week, I’ll resume the trip to Portland. What could possibly go wrong?