I had been looking forward to Thursday all week. The weather has been gorgeous. Not your run-of-the-mill summer weather, but the idyllic, warm all day with just enough ocean breeze to keep you comfortable. The kind of heat that just never happens in Ukee. Weather that’s a crime to waste inside. Beach weather.
We set aside Thursday to go to the beach. We post-poned appointments to keep Thursday for ourselves. We neglected household chores. We needed a beach day. It was going to be awesome.
This is why I was so disappointed when, as we packed for the beach trip on Thursday morning, Sunshine the cat hopped up on to the bed and showed me a long, nasty wound on the back of her thigh. It was two inches long and round, as wide as a toonie. I was sure it would need stitches. So much for the beach. Kat & I would have to spend one of the hottest days on record driving our cat an hour and a half to the nearest town with a veterinarian.
We drove through the mountains at high noon. As warm as it was on the coast, it had to be at least five degrees hotter in the valley. We baked in the car. Our poor cat cried in her kennel, and began to pant from the heat. We cranked the air conditioning and aimed all the vents right at her kennel, which gave her some relief.
Sunshine was an angel at the vet’s and complained only mildly as her rear end was shaved and cleaned. It turns out her wound was a burst cyst, an infection under her skin that probably started as a small prick from another cat. It’d likely been bothering her for weeks, and finally ruptured from the freakish heat wave. It looked terrible but was not at all serious. Sunshine received an antibiotic injection, some subcutaneous fluids, a pain shot and I left with instructions to perform “hydrotherapy” on the “affected area” for ten minutes twice a day. For the next six weeks.
Oh yeah. I’ve got to give my cat butt-baths twice a day, everyday, for a month and a half.
Ever tried to bathe your cat? That part of your cat? Twice in one day?
I was glad that Sunshine had been pumped full of fluids before we left the vet’s. I was worried about her getting dehydrated in the car, and she was refusing to drink the water we’d offered to her. The downside was the fluid was rapidly being absorbed and processed, and soon we could smell the sharp ammonia aroma resulting from a cat being kept too long from her litter box. The heat in the car amplified the smell.
We debated running a couple of errands in Port Alberni while we were there, but the heat was so intense that we had to take turns staying in the idling car with the a/c blasting on the cat while the other went to the washroom in Tim Hortons. We figured it would be easier on Sunshine if we just went straight home. We could get her settled and comfortable and then salvage an evening at the beach!
As we drove back through the mountains I was pretty cheerful. I’d been worried about a potentially expensive vet bill, but the end result was only slightly more than her annual vaccinations. I’d been worried she’d need surgery, but nope, she’d heal up on her own. Everything was just fine.
Until I noticed the “Check Gages” light show up on my dash.
Check gages? I thought. I glanced to the left – a yellow symbol I’d never seen before was flashing urgently. What was it shaped like? Was that the battery?
Wait no, it was an engine. Crap! It was the check engine light! Oh my God! I looked at the temperature gauge: HOLY CRAP THE TEMP GAUGE IS IN THE RED ZONE AND IS TRYING TO PUSH PAST IT! If it was a cartoon thermometer the mercury would be exploding out the end!!
In all the car maintenance reading I’d done before buying a car, I’d learned that the check engine light is the worst possible light – it should be called the “You’re Screwed!” light. When you see that light you have to pull over IMMEDIATELY.
My fingers stabbed at the a/c button shutting it off, and I turned the heat on full blast – another thing I’d read you should do if the temperature was high and you couldn’t stop right away. Desperately I searched for a safe spot to pull over on the shoulderless road, the heat from the engine rapidly filling the sweltering, smelly car, too pre-occupied with staying on the winding, climbing highway to spare a hand to roll down the window. Beads of sweat burst from my skin. My mind filled with images of explosions from under the hood, flames shooting upwards, smoke pouring from the engine and twisting into the sky.
Thirty long seconds later, through the heat shimmering off the pavement, I saw our safe haven – a beautiful, spacious dirt parking area marking the highest elevation on our Port Alberni – Ucluelet commute. The Mt. Sutton pass. I thought I heard an angelic choir as I eased Emily Carr off of the highway, shut down the engine and popped the hood.
Kat & I pulled out the car books we kept in the dash for just such an emergency. We read that yes, indeed the “Check Engine” light means you’re pretty much screwed. Getting overheated means you’ll probably need a tow. I was hoping we could let her cool down and try again, but that was before I noticed the green coolant that filled the wheel well.
Something must have burst, a hose or something. We had no idea if it was safe to try to drive her again. We figured we’d have to have her towed to a shop, and seeing as we were still closer to Port Alberni than to Ucluelet, it made sense to try and get a tow back to Port.
But how do you get a tow when you’re stranded on a mountain top with no cell phone coverage?
You hitch a ride with a trucker.
And that was when the day started getting awesome again.
The good thing about overheating your car as you drive up a mountain on the hottest day of the year is that you’ll have plenty of company. We hadn’t been stopped more than fifteen minutes before a young couple from Toronto driving a twenty year old Volvo station wagon pulled over to cool their car down. Their car was packed to the gills so they couldn’t offer us a ride home, but they offered to keep Kat and Sunshine company while I went back to Port Alberni.
At that moment an eighteen-wheeler, hauling what looked like a giant bucket, pulled off from the oncoming lane and the driver hopped out to inspect the wheels. I trotted over to him and explained that we’d broken down and how very much I’d appreciate a ride back to Port Alberni, if he was able to provide one, so that I could procure further assistance from town.
“Sure, hop in.”
I have always wanted to see the inside of one of these huge trucks. The dash was as wide as a chalkboard and covered with glistening, burled walnut veneer. Behind the seats, a bed was made up, neat as a soldier’s. There were twenty round gauges displaying various temperatures and pressures of brakes, wheels and engine. There were at least a dozen silver flip-switches and buttons. My fingers itched. I desperately wanted to press a few buttons, find the horn, ask the driver to get on the CB and call someone “Big Red”. I almost burst into song! On the road again! Nuh-nuh-na-nana! The road again!
But I didn’t of course, this guy was doing me a huge favour, and I didn’t want to be a pain.
“I’m Jack,” the driver offered his hand. “I’m Kiersten,” I replied as I shook it. Jack began to talk, and I listened as best I could over the roar of the engine and the wind snapping through the windows.
It turned out that Jack was driving his friend’s truck, and his friend lives in Ucluelet. The truck itself was coming from Ucluelet Harbour Seafoods and its cargo was:
Fish guts! A truck full of fish guts!
What are they going to do with a truckload of fish guts? Why, process it into garden fertilizer, of course!
“Yup, this is my last run for today. I’ll get the fish guts to Nanaimo and then back home by 9:00 tonight – which is probably sooner than when you’ll get home!” He burst into rough, good-natured laughter.
By the time Jack pulled over to let me out at the 7-11 in Port Alberni, he’d given me the name of several trust-worthy mechanics in Port, and a couple of towing companies he had used before. This information is golden – I’m sure it’ll save my butt many-a-time in the years to come. He advised me to call Budget for a rental car first thing, as their office closed at 5:30 and it was now 5:25.
I thanked Jack profusely and then sprinted into the 7-11. The counter clerk kindly allowed me to use the store phone and as luck would have it, Budget was still answering their phone and had one car left! The budget office manager drove around to pick me up at the 7-11 and by 6:00, I was driving a mint green Hyundai Accent back up Mt. Sutton to retrieve my stranded sweetie and our cat.
Kat and Sunshine were sitting in the shade, not far from Emily Carr. While I was gone, several people had pulled over to offer Kat assistance. One guy advised Kat to pour one of our bottles of water into the coolant tank while he watched under the car for leaks. Apparently there were none, and he explained that likely the heat had triggered the overflow mechanism which drained all the coolant from the tank before it exploded.
This was good news. Our poor, twenty year old car had been badly neglected while her driver was too distracted by an ailing cat to remember to keep an eye on the temperature gauge while driving over two sets of mountains on the hottest day of the year. She then endured driving around the valley in 35 C heat with the a/c blasting, without a chance to cool down, before being forced to drive back up the mountain again! It was an endurance test that was simply beyond our old-lady of a vehicle, and she finally broke down in the car equivalent of tears.
She was badly beaten, but potentially not broken at all.
We decided to let her cool completely overnight, get our injured cat home and call up a few mechanically-minded people for second opinions before attempting to drive her home.
We arrived home in the Hyundai at 8:00 pm. We managed to cook a modest dinner before our power cut out. Apparently, three breakers had overheated and burst atop Mt. Sutton, not far from where our lonely car sat abandoned for the night. Oh yes, it was that damn hot.
“Well, we’d better give the cat a butt-bath while there’s still daylight.”
There’s a sentence I never imagined I’d say.
I held Sunshine gently on my lap, seated on a plastic deck chair, while Kat aimed warm water at Sunshine’s rear with a 60cc syringe. The water ran off of the cat’s butt, through the towel on my lap and down my leg. We would have to come up with a new system.
We grabbed the remaining anniversary wine from our fridge and drank it out of mugs while sitting on the deck, watching the stars show themselves on that perfectly clear night. A few trawlers puttered up to the dock, unable to offload their catch at the fish plant without power. I smiled as a tractor-trailer backed up to the plant, and leaned back in my chair to gaze up at the sky.
“Well that was sure no day at the beach. What a life we have here.”
“A good life, indeed.”
In a flash, a ball bright ball of light streaked across the sky and burst like a silent firecracker. The most spectacular shooting star we’d ever seen, a sight we’ve only seen before at the Wild Women base camp in Northern Ontario. A sight that usually marked the end of a wilderness adventure, and the beginning of another year together.
We kissed for good luck. But we’re pretty lucky already.
We retrieved Emily Carr from the mountain top on Friday; as we’d hoped, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her. She made it home without the temperature gauge approaching the halfway-hot mark.
We have been roundly scolded by several friends and neighbours for not calling them when we’d broken down. Oddly, it hadn’t occurred to either of us to try and call someone we knew for help. While we’ve adapted painlessly (so far) to small town life, when it comes to handling a crisis we default to city-mode. We pull out our credit card and deal with it, imposing as little inconvenience upon others as possible.
But that’s the difference between rural and city living. People are happy to take the time to help you out. They really want to. They’re kind of offended if you don’t ask. I have jumped at the chance to help jump-start the stranded cars of others, but when it came to needing assistance ourselves, it didn’t occur to us to ask our neighbours.
I learned a lot on the day we didn’t get to the beach. I learned to mind the limits of the vehicle I am driving, and that God (or deity of your choosing) really does take special care of fools and children. I got to see the inside of a big truck. I learned what happens to fish guts. And I learned to lean on my community for help when we’re in need.
Yesterday, Kat & I returned the mint green Hyundai Accent in Port Alberni and took our friend up on her offer to drive us back to Ukee. On the way home we shared sour jujubes, conversation, and a distinct sense of solidarity.