Andi (my girlfriend) and I just got back from a brief trip to the northern Sierra Nevada. There were a few adventures on the trip such as a concert with the English Beat, and a couple of nice hikes; but for the moment I want to tell the tale of our car trouble. It’s a tale of drama, intigue, and absurdist comedy which took place just a few miles from where the Donner Party spent their fateful winter. Fortunately, our story turned out better than the Donners’.
It was supposed to be the last day of our trip. Instead of the faster, but boring freeway route home from Truckee, we were heading north, with the intention of going over Yuba Pass, seeing some new country, and taking a couple of short hikes along the way.
We stopped at Kyburz Flat Interpretive Area, a mile up a gravel road from Highway 89. Kyburz Flat features historical sites from three groups of humans: Native American Washoe, Goldrush-era northern Europeans, and Basque sheepherders. We looked at the Washoe “cupules” carved into the rock, walked through the site of an old stage coach stop, and were starting to drive to the Basque site, when Andi’s 2001 VW Beetle started beeping and flashing the red temperature indicator on the dash.
We stopped, popped the hood, and looked inside. Have you ever looked under the hood of a 21st Century VW? It doesn’t look much like the guts of a traditional car. More like a spaceship, actually. I found what appeared to be coolant storage, and sure enough, it was nearly dry. Before I put water in it for the trip back to civilization, I checked the manual to make sure that that plastic box thing was actually coolant storage. The trace of fluid there was an odd reddish color, and I didn’t want to put water in a tank that was for brake fluid or some such.
Yup, the box thing was for coolant all right. BUT, the manual says to never ever put anything in there except VW’s own special coolant. No plain ol’ water, and especially no Prestone. So we decided to use Andi’s cell phone and call for help. We started with VW’s roadside assistance (the number was in the manual). Cell service was pretty poopy in that corner of the world, so it took a while to communicate. But they reiterated the no water, no Prestone thing, and suggested we call AAA.
For whatever reason, we couldn’t get a strong enough signal to communicate with AAA from that spot. We were walking toward open, higher ground to try again when a Forest Service ranger happened by. He offered to take us to a spot which had better cell network coverage. Andi went to make the call; I stayed with the car and her pets.
An hour drifted by while I walked the dogs, found some grinding holes near the pictograms, and read a little. Andi returned; AAA was on its way. We ate lunch, played frisbee, and waited for the tow truck. And waited. And waited. After a couple of hours, we managed to find a nearby spot where, if she stood at just the right angle, Andi could get a decent cell signal. She called AAA again to see if the tow truck driver had gotten the directions wrong. She said he sounded drunk and/or stupid, and he was just now heading in our direction.
Since by now it’s getting close to 5 o’clock and we have a usable cell signal, we start researching the question of where to tow the car. Can the locals in Truckee handle the problem, or do we need to get towed all the way to the VW dealer in Reno? We track down the service department of the Reno dealership. They say to fill the coolant tank with water and drive it in. Apparently, we don’t need the tow truck after all, and the last few hours have just been a stupid waste of time.
Back to AAA. When we track down the tow truck driver, it turns out he had just cancelled the call. His truck had bald tires, he was slipping on the gravel, and we’d have to find “commercial” towing. Really fills your heart with confidence in whatever tow truck company AAA uses in Truckee, doesn’t it? Since it turned out we didn’t need the tow anyway, that part was just laughably pathetic, but what if we were really, truly stuck? What kind of towing company does such a lame job of maintaining their vehicles or hires such bozos?
So, we filled the coolant reservoir with water, drove to Reno, they fixed it the next day, grossly overcharged us, and we came home. The whole episode doesn’t feel my heart with warm fuzzy feelings about Volkswagon; and the mountain tow truck that can’t drive on gravel is truly a comedy gem.