My mom predicted that whichever car I purchased would die on day one. Mother was correct except with regards to timing. It took fourteen days. Her prophesy goes to prove that mothers are blessed with disturbing intuition, which I’m sure derives from mothers having known the prenatal triggers that brought about the finicky midnight kick or having to quickly and deftly discern the ways in which their child interacted with the world and how the world interacted with their child. Moms, so tuned, are their children’s greatest and most eager prophets.
But also, god fucking dammit.
Here’s the story:
My mom was working an LAX-AKL flight and was scheduled to arrive Friday morning. We planned to spend part of her two-day Auckland layover celebrating a belated Thanksgiving. I had passed the night in a small encampment within the Waipoua Forest*, and it was three hours driving from there to Auckland, so I departed near sun up to allow myself ample time to stop at a self-service wash-and-hoover to clean Ruthie of the filth from one week’s travel (NB: Ruthie will henceforth be referred to as “Bitchface.” Noting here too that Bitchface required not insignificant pecuniary outlays following the road trip, such as, e.g., gas, spa and facial, which only serves to increase the vehemence with which I call her Bitchface). Done, I checked for an updated arrival time and saw that mom’s Flight 83 went from an exact morning time arrival to a “—”. My immediate reaction was that “—” is airline filler for “This plane has crashed and will not land, except that it already has, as a matter of speaking.” I tried calling both AKL’s help desk and American Airline’s New Zealand office for clarity. Neither provided satisfying answers, and no in-flight tracking information was showing on Google. It was not until mid-afternoon that my mom provided one info morsel that would dash our plans: Stuck in Tahiti.
Over the turbulent Pacific a passenger suffered a medical emergency, which forced the plane to make an unscheduled landing. The passenger was admitted to a hospital, and, as of last hearing, the passenger’s condition stabilized, but the landing and after affects provided the minuscule island with a deal of excitement.
As of that landing, American Airlines had no provincial contacts, so the French speaking tarmac crew had no idea how to re-fuel a Dreamliner, and it took an open line between American operations in Texas to work the steps out for them. This delay caused the AA crew to go “illegal,” which is industry parlance for the point at which the crew has gone over the maximum number of hours allowable under union contracts. A crew can continue to work while earning time-and-a-half pay, but only if there’s unanimous flight attendant approval to keep going. One flight attendant voted against the proposition, thus grounding crew and about two hundred passengers, for whom lodging then needed to be arranged.
My mother finally arrived a day late—bearing the gifts I’d requested: Cholula hot sauce, a blanket for Bitchface’s interior, and a cast iron skillet since the pans that came with Bitchface were hazardous and shed what I’m sure were carcinogens (durable, quality pans in New Zealand are triple what one would pay in the States). Mother even paid Bitchface a compliment, which Bitchface promptly acknowledged by stalling on a hill top.
Our mother-son plans shortened to two quarter days and a night, our Thanksgiving one that was a Thanksgiving in name only, I said good-bye and began driving south to Rotorua, which is in North Island’s central region. I was to meet some French travelers I’d connected with during my Northland trip, and we’d scheduled a time to meet in the afternoon.
The Auckland-Rotorua route fell shy of three hours driving and was mostly straight, at least when compared to the Kardashian curves of Northland. Yet within the first forty minutes I was exhausting my forearms because Bitchface’s alignment skewed her hard to port. It was like wrangling a very weak bull. On straightaways, and with no cars around, I chanced to take my hands off the wheel; Bitchface darted left the way a rabbit pinned down might when the hands that clamp it lift up. In no time she passed out of the lane and sang on the warning ribs built on the shoulder. The alignment issue was annoying but seemed like a minor, fixable issue.
The two lane highway passed a property filled with recycled rubber tires. My window was up and I was listening to a podcast. We cleared a bend and I smelled an acerbic burning, which I assumed was tailing me from the property. The road dipped and turned to a point where the smell should have been gone, but still it accreted into the cab. The smell at this point was no longer a passing musk, but rather a pressing redolence that needed discovering, so I rolled down the window and turned off my podcast (because when making olfactory determinations one needs complete silence). Reducing the podcast volume amplified another undiagnosed ill omen: clicking. The engine clicked each time my foot was on the accelerator and the speedometer topped 80 kmh, but then the clicking subsided when my foot came off the accelerator and the speedometer fell under 80 kmh. The smell was potent. Smoke leaked into the cab. I ceased touching the accelerator, my concentration moved from diagnosing to realizing I faced an urgent problem for which I needed to pull over. This is when the engine stopped. Saying “the engine stopped” likely has you imagining the controlled cessation of engine sound, a cooperative shut off of energy. When I say the engine stopped I’m referring to something else: a stubborn mechanical lock done at the height of toil. I’m talking about a stoppage that is more like you are sprinting and mid stride your legs are struck by rigor mortis and there will be no shimmying the joints to move, not even to bring both legs at ease on stable ground. I was coasting downhill and slowing the vehicle so I could turn when safe. When the engine failed I lost power steering though, so I needed to torque Bitchface’s wheel to turn onto a long, straight county road with an ample grass shoulder.
The smoke’s origin I realized was the passenger seat, under which the engine lay quickly melting. I pulled over and, in what seemed like a sensible move, opened all the doors and tossed anything valuable onto the grass shoulder. My thinking was if there is smoke then there might be fire. There was no fire though, and the smoke volume lessened, but even a quarter hour later the engine clacked and smoke threads came up from the oil slick on the engine.
A week earlier I’d purchased a road side assistance policy that then and there paid off. A local mechanic and tow truck were dispatched, and an hour later this mountain of a man with thick pink skin on hands and legs hopped from a tow truck cab. His embroidered shirt said Will.
“So what seems to be the problem?” He asked. I recounted the above narrative, adding that the heat odometer was short of lapping itself when I pulled off. He opened the passenger side and hooked the seat up to take a gander at the engine. He unscrewed a cap. A sick vapor stewed out of it; it smelled like burned food that’s been left in a hot pan too long without water. “That smell isn’t a good sign,” he said. “We’ll take the car into town and I’ll do a test. I have bottles of coolant that I’ll pour into the overflow tank. What you will be hoping for is that I pour just a little coolant before the tank overflows. If I do this and I go through two or three coolant bottles before we see any overflow, then we’re looking at a real problem.”
Will hooked Bitchface onto the flatbed and together we drove to Ngatea.
Ngatea is pronounced “nah-tea-ah.” Mastering the phonetics took the first three minutes of the ride. I kept slipping into the elementary school habit of sounding out the syllables, despite what pronunciation that landed me. “Forgive me,” I said, “Am I saying this correctly?” Asking with the type of temerity you’d expect if I were a teacher and came to the name “Phuc Dat Bich” during roll call. “It’s—I know I’ll get this wrong—the town is Naughty?”
Will was the town mechanic. He was also an amateur dairy farmer who oversaw 1,000 head of dairy cattle, because fucking of course he was. The dual knowledge made for an education filled twenty minute drive. Ngatea and surrounding territory were in the throes of milk production, and our drive was twice interrupted with cattle crossings steered by work dogs and, to Will at least, familiar cattle farmers. He pointed to the verdant acres we passed that were part of his landholding and said about the hundreds of slumped and slumbering cows there, “That’s what dairy farmers like to see—sitting cows.”
Bitchface struggled against starting on the tow truck incline when we arrived at Will’s shop, but we did manage to get her into a mechanical bay. Will prepared his test, bringing near him a few coolant jugs and uncapping a full one and then upturning the entirety of its contents into the cooling reservoir that he opened. He didn’t futz with the pour, simply upturned the entire bottle like prepping a beer bong for a bro named Chad. And one, then two full bottles upturned and still not a modicum of evidence that the flow would ever stop. Liters of shamrock green coolant now unaccounted for. “Take a look under the car, there might be a leak in the cooling system so there’s a chance we’re swimming in coolant.” I peeked down and the garage floor was dry. “One more,” he said and punched a hole in the foil seal. Finally coolant poured from the open reservoir.
“There’s one more test,” he said, “I need to trigger the starter just a bit, but stand back because you might be in splash zone.” He inserted the car key and slightly turned it. A click sounded from inside the coolant reservoir and a massive bubble burst from it. He turned the key a few times more and with each turn coolant bubbled up in a torrent like some dam with a great mass behind it was being opened for a moment and the mass and the liquid the dam held back surged into the opening. The engine was drenched. Coolant pools moved on the ground.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Will looked at me, “Cha-ching.”
Bitchface’s head gasket was blown. A failing head gasket is a surreptitious problem to detect unless you have the good fortune of noticing that the heat gauge on your car dash ticks above normal or white exhaust spouts from your tailpipe. Bitchface evidenced neither. The heat gauge needle for me had at all times split the C and H until it no longer did. When I performed a pre-purchase inspection and crouched near the tail pipe while the previous owner turned on the ignition, I did so partly to determine what color smoke came out. The tail pipe blew clear. But if a head gasket’s impending demise is implausible, then its failure is catastrophic. The head gasket itself, a flat piece of metal that looks like a cup holder and is indispensable to the proper cooling and functioning of the engine cylinders, is an inexpensive piece, rather it’s the attached labor that makes a broken head gasket one of the more notorious and expensive automotive fixes, a horror for car owners and boon for mechanics. In America the quote is generally between $1,500-$3,000, whereas in New Zealand it’s $2,500-$4,000, as simply getting to the head gasket requires disassembling the entire engine, which, of course, needs to be reassembled. Hence Will saying “cha-ching” with dollar signs making a dancing laurel around his head.
I faced an additional problem though, whose attestation was the terrible charr smell and the complete engine lock. During the long duration of overheating it was likely that the engine cylinders warped. And no engine cylinder is malleable, capable of being banged into a usable semblance of its previous form. So those four old cylinders that struggled to bring Bitchface to hill summits—the entire engine in fact—would need to be rebuilt.
“What do you want to do?” Will asked.
“Finish a bottle of whiskey and sleep on my options.”
With a deft bit of maneuvering, Will steered the mortally wounded Bitchface across the street to a free camping lot behind Ngatea’s municipal office building. Bitchface wouldn’t run unless pressure was on her accelerator, so Will pigeon toed himself to keep one foot on the accelerator and the other on the break.
Bitchface broke down early afternoon, so I still had a quarter day of sunlight to wallow about my luck. I got locked in one of the parking lot bathrooms too. They were “smart” bathrooms that came replete with sliding doors and button triggering locks and a narration. When locked, a computer voice explained that doors would unlock in ten minutes, and then users were subject to a computer created acoustic version of “What the World Needs Now is Love,” which played from warped speakers until the ten minutes to disengage the locks lapsed or the user manually unlocked the door (the unlock button didn’t work for me).
I was, officially, stranded. I still had hope to continue south to connect with the French travelers (I’d apprised the French people and they offered to store both body and a hiking bag for a short duration) and continue with my itinerary while incubating thoughts on what I’d do about Bitchface. Yet I Googled and learned that Ngatea is off the path for regular bus service, and with the mismatch of timing and transfers it would take me at least two full bus travel days to arrive in Rotorua unless I could hitch a ride to a nearby larger town where I could find a once a day direct route (or route with a feasible transfer) to Rotorua. In the parking lot a pair of German girls lounged in a camper van watching a movie. A hippie Patrick Bateman look alike cooked noodles near the tire of his sedan. Both parties were northbound travelers, and throughout the evening all the travelers who parked for the night told themselves to be northbound. My most promising prospect was an Italian couple going east, but they had no obvious place for me in their overpacked wagon and they explained how terrible it is to smoke while rolling their own cigarettes.
My saving grace for passing the day was that it was evening in California and I had Joshua awake to conspire with on options. I’d been updating him throughout the ordeal, giving a wide array of updates and pictures to which he responded with, “Oh damn,” “not a good sign,” “this was just an unlucky situation,” and also “damn damn damn.” His parting advice was “take a picture of her and send her on her way.” For a comedic moment I considered having the repairs done, and, instead of paying outright, I would offer my soap washed hands as labor for Will’s dairy concern. I called him and proposed this. He responded that he’d need to discuss with his wife and business partners. This wrapped me with its NBC primetime comedy potential. A corporate lawyer sick of the life goes on a soul searching expedition to New Zealand with grand plans to trek on a journey to the depths of himself and the Southern Alps but his car breaks down in cow laden country and with not enough money in his bank account, his car being his major asset, he becomes indebted and each episode charts his assimilation into small town New Zealand and all the accompanying characters and hi-jinx that are inherent in the city slicker to country boy plot line. No sooner than an hour after my proposal did I lose the will to see the offer to its conclusion, but Will never revealed the fruits of the promised discussions and I never followed up.
I ended up pulling the most potent of an expat’s tools—telling a sob story at the local bar.
Ngatea is a barren social place, even on weekdays, but that I was there on a Sunday meant I had to deal with a special species of emptiness. Most of the businesses were those that cater to farmers—boxy pre-fab chains that sell cattle feed and tractors—or locally owned establishments that service a population whose mean income is less than the national median—low-end used car dealerships and hybrid cafes that are also motor inns and post offices. I found an open bar, an empty place with not a person in it even as I approached the taps. A cricket game showed on the television, and I had to ring a bell set out before a young Bangladeshi man came from a back room. I ordered a beer and sat at a high table. A man came in and scouted the unseemly American ball cap, the Billabong shorts, the chambray shirt, the top siders on me and said, “Where you from?”
This man, whose name I didn’t record so we will call him Ben, was a retired cattle farmer with hours to spare each day. He came to the bar for news and a self-proscribed 340mL of hop medicine. After niceties he asked the “what the hell are you doing here?” question and I recounted the story above and my conundrum. “Well look here mate,” he said, “It so happens that there’s a fair chance I’ll have to make my way to Paeroa early tomorrow morning. There’s a bus to Rotoroa that leaves from there daily. So I can give you a ride.” Another man just then walked in and Ben said to me, “This may be your lucky day because Mike [fictional name] is a truck driver and may be going all the way to Rotorua. Mike,” Ben said, turning his attention, “This fella here needs a ride to Rotorua, are you heading that way tomorrowid?”
“Tomorrow I’m not.”
The Bangladeshi bar tender came onto the floor, “Tomorrow is my off day and I was going to Paeroa. I can go earlier and take you.”
“That settles it then,” Ben said, “Because there’s only the chance that I’m going and am going far earlier in the morning. If Jas is going you can sleep in.”
“That does settle it,” I said, and all that was needed for bond was a toast to the kindness of strangers and another purchased beer.
I made the bus at Paeroa. On my way to Rotorua I felt an emphatic pull towards all those people who’ve abandoned their responsibilities and deserted from their posts—as terrible as that is to admit—for adding the simple buttress of miles lessens what seems daunting. Somehow the gravity of the problem Bitchface created warped to a common conundrum that required simply a following through of steps to rid it. The future of the trip changed, true. The ideated dreams that kept me up months earlier would stay dreams. I would have to spend the remainder of my trip pouring and fretting over logistics. Yet this obstacle had a clear solution, it was only a matter of realizing it. So, while sitting next to an Irish girl who explained how important it was that she have her own bathroom while traveling, I thought how lucky we’d all be if we could see our problems so plainly broken into steps that lead towards mending.
PS: As the last paragraph hints, the resolution is unexciting. I posted Bitchface for sale. I found a seller within 24 hours. We coordinated pick up and key exchange logistics, and in December I met a surfer with shoulder length hair, exchanged cash for keys, and I happily bid both Bitchface and Ngatea goodbye, relegating each of them to that part of the memory palace where bitterness begins its decades long brew to sweet so that in twenty years maybe I’ll be able to look back and laugh.
*The encampment was an origin point for raised wood platform walkways, built so as not to upset the bed soil of kauri trees, a spiritually significant coniferous tree that invites Swiss Family Robinson type floor plans.