So we made it through the tunnel without incident and finally were on our way, rolling down the Turnpike, driving, not having to navigate terrible traffic. There was traffic of course because this is New Jersey, but compared to Canal Street it seemed like Kansas by comparison. I exhaled a little, even as I tried to not inhale as the cabin reeked ever more of used cat litter.
Still, it was almost scenic. Northern Jersey, especially near the Turnpike, still shows some signs of its long-past former wildness. In other words I was in The Meadowlands. Really the Meadowlands is one large swamp and watershed, with innumerable streams that criss-cross through the tall grass and cat tails. When you look at it the right way, in the right light, it is easy to imagine what the first travelers here could have seen.
As I drove down the road, over the Meadowlands, I looked up to the sky and saw something that made me catch my breath. It was a fish, flying in mid-air. Then I looked closer: no, that fish was not flying. It was caught in the talons of a great raptor bird, either a hawk or an eagle. I couldn't tell which because I could only see its silhouette as it flew toward me. I watched it for as long as felt safe, maybe five seconds, but tiny sensations of awe rippled through me as I continued to ride through perhaps the most suburban of all states.
I fiddled with the radio and adjusted the AC. Ah, movement at last. As long as this kept up I would be at Mike's before not too much longer, maybe another hour or so.
After about forty minutes on the road I realized that relatively soon I would have to get some gas. Despite the fact that I had barely gone anywhere, as the crow flies, I was still down past half a tankful. I wanted to be super cautious about this, as I really didn't know how far this fully loaded truck could go.
I passed one rest area, then another. I realized, though, that I would have to go into the next one that comes up because otherwise I might not be able to get gas for far too long. The Thomas Edison Memorial Rest Area would be my ticket.
It had started to get dark. On either side of the road I rode past streams and less and less urban density. It was beautiful in its own New Jersey way. In fact, despite its terrible reputation, only part of New Jersey is choked with refineries and wall to wall homes or ghettos. Most of it is far more bucolic.
As darkness began to ascend I pulled into the rest area. I had two competing impulses. I needed gas and I needed to go to the men's room. I decided to do the men's room first, as the thought of pouring copious amounts of liquid into a vehicle while I needed to expunge copious amounts of liquid didn't seem all that appealing.
I wasn't sure where to park the truck. It seemed too big for the car parking lot, but too small for the tractor trailer lot. I decided to go with the latter anyway, just to be safe. It was entirely full. Man, the tri-state area, always so many damn people.
Though I couldn't get a spot I could park alongside the curb at the rest area. I felt a little ridiculous with my little U-Haul amongst all these giants, but oh well.
I wasn't close enough to the curb, really, but I could readjust it after I got back from the bathroom. I put the truck into park and turned it off. Then I rolled down the windows a bit, and told the cats I would be back soon. Cromwell meowed in annoyance.
The bathroom was crowded and not too messy. Then I got a bite to eat at Nathan's. The hot dog was sub par and they didn't even have french fries, only potato chips, which was ridiculous. I then took my drink and walked back to the truck.
Once inside I buckled up and turned the key in the ignition.
Once again ... nothing! It was deader than disco.
The farkin' battery had died once again! Dammit, dammit, dammit! What to do? What to do?
I remembered the U-Haul emergency number, yes! This would have to work. I called it, was put on hold once again -- due to "unusually high caller volume," as before -- and was finally put through to a young woman spoke with a heavy urban accent who sounded completely uninterested in my dilemma. Nonetheless I still got her name and wrote it down. She in turn gave me still another number to call. I called it, and was put through to a very friendly woman named Patty. Patty asked me where I was. I told her I was at the Thomas Edison Memorial Rest Area on the Jersey Turnpike.
"No, where are you? What town is it in?"
How would I know? No one ever knows this stuff.
"Call me back when you find out," she said. And I got her number as well.
How to find out? Did they have a mail box? A post office? I would have to figure it out. I walked into a convenience store attached to the larger rest area and asked them which town we were in. The Mid-Eastern woman behind the counter was very helpful, and told me that we were in Old Bridge (it was either that or Woodbridge, please forgive me for not being exact with my "bridge" memory right now). She then gave me a receipt which had the address on it, and I thanked her.
Once back at the truck I called Patty once more and told her my exact location. She then explained they would send out a local mechanic to replace my battery. At this point I also gave her the claim number for my prior dead battery, which she took and noted. She also gave me the mechanic's name and number.
How long would it take? Anywhere from an hour to two hours she said. It was a busy night.
Oh man. Two hours? At this point I called Mike and told him that I guess I would be late, or at least later, and that I would let him know when I would be back on the road. He said okay, and that I should keep him updated. I also called my mom, who was sympathetic, and Randi who was doubly sympathetic.
Since I was stuck here I decided to try and take in the scenery. Believe it or not The Thomas Edison Memorial Rest Area was kind of pretty. I looked over a stream that ran along the rest area, saw birds fly by as the sunset became increasingly more and more impressive.
There still might be a chance we could hit the road tonight, I realized. So I might as well use this time to move the cats back into the car.
I walked back to the trailer and tried to open the back door to the Honda. Nope, it only opened a few inches because the movable fender had been put in the "up" position and was now stuck. I had no idea how to get it down. Crap! Not this too!
How to fix this? I had no idea. Antoine hadn't told me back in Brooklyn. Now I was stuck in a rest area, waiting for some mechanic, in the boiling summer heat, and couldn't even move the cats back into the car. How would Mike even be able to take the trip with me now if I couldn't find a place to put the cats? This was just not my day.
I called Patty back at U-Haul and told her my problem. She told me to look on the trailer and see the instructions written there. I saw a lot of things that told me to not mess with the trailer in any way, but nothing that told me how to lower the bumper. Maybe it could and should only be done by a certified U-Haul employee? Maybe if I did it wrong I would screw up the trailer and the whole thing would fall apart as we cruised on down the road? I didn't know!
Patty said she would have to look it up and call me back. Much to my amazement she did. Then she walked me through how to do it. I needed to go the movable fender and find two rubber plugs. I saw them. Now, she said, unplug them from their mounts. I did so and soon the fender revolved downward, so I could open and close the car doors. Oh phew! At least one minor disaster had been averted.
I decided to move the cats later, for now I needed their company. It was dark, and together we sat in the cab of the truck. All around me 18-wheelers were in their slots, all of them with the motors running despite there being no one that I could see inside. I guess that's how truckers do it. I talked to the cats and told them, again, I was sorry it had worked out like this. Cromwell didn't understand, of course, but he rubbed himself up to the kennel's bars so I could pet him. I did, and we both felt a little better.
In this manner an hour past, then an hour and a half, then almost two hours. Where was the mechanic? I called him, and got a voice mail. Then I called U-Haul and told them this guy was late. They told me he was in the area and would be there within half an hour.
Finally at 10:30 p.m. a huge, beautiful red truck pulled up. This was my guy. I got out to say hi, and he didn't even acknowledge me. I popped the hood and asked if there was anything else I could do, and the mechanic, a middle aged white guy with a mustache, said "I should be home by now!"
Okay, sorry about your job.
Without any additional chit-chat he changed the battery and turned the truck on. It started and I said thanks. Then I started to pull out. It was awkward, though, because I was so close to the truck ahead of me, I would need to back up a little for some clearance. The mechanic stopped me.
"You can't back up in these things. You'll snap the metal of the trailer and then you're done!"
Okay, I said, chastened. After he pulled out and left me I slowly inched forward, free at last. I would still need gas though.
I pulled up to the truck gas area, and the attendant waved at me and said many things in a language that I simply could not understand.
I got out. "What?"
"No, other one. This is for diesel!"
He pointed to where all the cars were getting gassed up about twenty yards away. Great, I would have to find a way to drive all the way around in order to get gas, since I couldn't back up. Everything with this trailer was more than twice as hard as with a typical car.
It took some time, but I eventually got there, and filled the tank, $60. Ouch! I had barely even gone anywhere. This could end up a very pricey trip.
Now I would have to get back onto the Turnpike. Somehow I missed the first ramp onto the 'Pike, and had to drive around yet again. Soon I ended up in a desolate part of the rest area, and made a right turn here, a left turn there, in order to get back to the road. Soon I saw a ramp back to the road, my ticket out of there. I slowly got on and started to ride up.
It was too late by the time I realized I was on the wrong ramp, the one that lead to the northbound side of the Turnpike, not the south. I was headed in the goddamn wrong direction.
How to explain such an obvious and bush league mistake? There are a few culprits, it was late, I was in a vehicle that was virtually impossible to drive, I couldn't go in reverse to correct mistakes. But I think the most likely one is simply fatigue. I had been going nonstop, in highly stressful situations, since 6:30 a.m. It was now some 16 hours later, and I hadn't yet had a real break. Worse still, I still had more to do, though I couldn't know how much more. I was a wreck. There was traffic all around, the cats were constantly on my case, and if I made one false move as I drove down the street it would be a big, big disaster. These were not optimum conditions. Well, at least it hadn't rained.
I would have to find a U-turn for my U-Haul. Yet there were no U-turn signs. I could risk simply getting off at an exit and hoping I could turn around but this could be quite the gamble. New Jersey is an almost infinitely complicated set of roads, jug-handles, arteries, side streets, one way roads. In short it has more pathways than the average brain. If I made a wrong step I could end up very much where I did not want to be. And for a long, long time.
I had no choice, I would have to play it safe and drive back to an exit that I knew would let me turn around without too much fuss. That would be at least ten miles north. This trip just kept getting longer.
Next Time: I finally get to Mike's