I could feel one wheel dangling in the air. Then everything started to heave over. I thought I could just throw my weight across the passenger seat to stop the car, but gravity didn't care. 'Shit,' I thought, 'I just rolled the Bug.'
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
So it's a cold morning, late last February. I take the train out to Queens to pick up my Baja from the shop where they've somehow managed to fix the engine so that, hey, it idles now. This is a major improvement over how it'd been performing earlier, when I had to heel-and-toe the car to keep it from stalling at stop lights or in heavy traffic. Living in Manhattan, this was not an ideal setup.
Now, the car's been in the shop for a few weeks, and it's the longest I've been away from it since I bought the thing in December. My first car that I've owned, my first introduction into getting a car registered and insured and properly maintained and driven whenever the hell I want. I've been missing the car, and I had a plan for the perfect reunion drive with my beauty.
I had the Google Maps route saved on my desktop as 'Dream Drive' — a little loop through rural country roads an hour north of the city, twisting through Fahnestock State Park. One road was dirt, the other two were cracked pavement, and all the way you're winding through beautiful bare forest, snow blanketing the undergrowth.
And the drive up there goes great. The Baja's running like a top, sucking in cold air getting colder as I make my way up into the mountains. The first two roads I know pretty well and drive is going as well as I'd imagined.
Then I turned off for the third and final road. I've never driven this one before. It's steeper and narrower than either of the others, making its way up and down a ridge in the forest. I know there's a tight hairpin about halfway along it, but that's all I know.
So the road cuts through this collection of houses and then it turns downhill. It starts getting real narrow, maybe a lane and a half or a lane and a quarter wide and steep. And that's when I see the hairpin. It's tighter than it looked on the map, and oh fuck it's a whole lot steeper on the other side and fuck the brakes just locked up and fuck I'm really going off the road fuck. Fuck.
There's a split second when everything feels fine. The road is winding down this ridge, and the ground falls away just past the edge of the pavement. But I've still got all four wheels on the dirt. Wait, no, no.
It's a very strange sensation, a slow rollover. It feels like how a car feels going around a tight corner, the momentum pushing you to one side. Only the momentum doesn't stop, it goes up like a wave. And that wave breaks, and you tumble down to the ground.
Twigs are poking in through my open window, all my crap on the back seat is resting on the dashboard, and amazingly nothing's hit me in the head.
I crawl up out of my seat, open the passenger door and jump out. Somehow the car missed landing on a huge rock by inches. Somehow the car missed hitting a tall stump just off the side of the road by maybe an inch. Somehow the car landed on a downed tree resting on a thick bed of snow — it's like it landed on a spring resting on a pillow. I couldn't have been more lucky, I think, snapping pictures of the car, not sure what else to do. Wind sways the thin trees and I can hear the car creaking on its supports. I think about trying to roll it back down the hill onto four wheels, but it's not moving anywhere.
I settle in for what's going to be a very long day.
As it turns out, I've just gone through the easy part of the whole affair. I'm fine and the car looks like it's going to be fine.
But then, the insurance.
You see, I got this car for $1,500. I paid for it in fifties. I do not have any coverage for damages. I do, however, have roadside assistance for some reason, so I call up State Farm and tell them I need a tow.
No problem, they say, they'll send a truck for free, they just need my location. Well, I'm not exactly on a streetcorner or on a highway. I'm on a single-lane country road in the middle of nowhere, twenty minutes from the nearest town Cold Spring, NY.
I can barely find where I am on Google and my very kind operator can't find me at all on Mapquest. About an hour into the call ("No, no Canopus Hill Road, not Canopus Hollow Road...") I get dropped. I call again, next person finds where I am, but gets cut off before she can give an estimate of when the tow truck should arrive. I call again, get routed to the tow truck dispatchers that State Farm outsource to and they say it'll be a couple hours before the tow truck gets there.
A little while after this a guy in a Ford Ranger pulls up and asks me if I'm okay. I say sure I'm fine, but I've got to wait here for another hour and a half before a tow truck is supposed to get me out and I can drive home. He says that there's actually a tow truck place just up the road, maybe 15 minutes away. Would I want a tow from them?
I decide to call up my insurance again. I explain that there's a tow truck right near me, would that be covered? Well, it would, but I'd have to pay them then apply for reimbursement. If I use the State Farm tow it'll be no paperwork, just free.
Now, I immediately figure that any time you ask an insurance company to cover something you've already paid for, they're just going to find a way to screw you out of it. I decide to wait for the State Farm tow.
It starts raining.
A loose dog shows up, barking.
The dog does not, thankfully, pee on my car.
The dog leaves and I actually miss it.
My phone dies.
It gets dark.
The tow truck grumbles into view.
The tow truck driver is this average size rural New Yorker. Thick accent, doesn't mince his words. He steps out, takes one look at my car and says to me, "oh yeah, you're not covered for this."
The guy calls for backup, wraps a chain around one wheel and winches my car up out of the ditch. I can't describe the kinds of crunches and snaps and creaks and groans that my car makes coming the few feet out of that ditch, but echoing through the night it's about the worst sound I've ever heard.
This is when things get questionable.
The tow truck driver calls the cops and then he winches my car straight onto his flatbed. The cop shows up and asks me if I have insurance. I say yes, not realizing that I only have insurance to cover other drivers when I hit them, not to cover damage on my own car. I ask to start up the car and drive away. The tow truck driver refuses. He says he can unload my car off his truck and I can start it there, but if it doesn't start he's leaving me alone in the forest.
The cop sides with the tow truck driver — he says my car is a road hazard, driving it is unsafe, and it has to get towed. The next morning I will find out that my car is indeed safe to drive, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I ask again and again if I can just start my car to see if it runs. That way I can just limp home and not have to pay for a long tow and the storage fee for a night in an impound lot. "I have just one more question," I ask. The cop turns to me. "It had better not be about starting that goddamn car."
So the tow truck driver takes off with my Baja strapped onto the flatbed and the cop, probably taking pity on me, gives me a ride back into Cold Spring to get a train home to New York.
When I'd left that morning, I didn't expect to be in the back of a cop car by night. I didn't expect my dream car, the first car I've ever bought, the first car I've ever owned, the car that I dreamed of buying ever since I saw a grey Baja Bug just like it when I was growing up in my hometown in Northern California, to be towed to an impound lot in the middle of nowhere.
And on the train ride home, I think my heart broke. Little did I know that when I got home, things were about to get worse.
Stay tuned for part two of the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, when he faces off against the tow truck driver yet again, gets totally and utterly defeated, and then stands up against State Farm itself. And succeeds. It gets worse before it gets better, people.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove