When Life Gives You a Car Breakdown, Make…Orange Juice?

A car breakdown, a colorful tow truck driver, a polygamist, and a ten-pound bag of oranges – not what the Sundin family expected this past weekend.

Our oldest son finished his first year at UCLA, so my husband and I, our fifteen-year-old daughter, and our twelve-year-old son loaded our Highlander hybrid with his dorm stuff and headed north.

Interstate 5 runs in almost a straight line through California’s Central Valley. Trucks and vacationers speed past large farms and ranches. About every thirty miles, an off-ramp leads to fast food restaurants and gas stations. Quick but bland.

Or so we thought.

At six o’clock in the evening, north of Buttonwillow and south of Lost Hills, our car died. Toyotas don’t do that. My husband steered the car onto the right shoulder, and I called AAA.

My husband had a business trip scheduled, with a 6 am flight the next morning. Not happening. He got to work on his cell phone. Our not-so-little kids, cramped in the back seat of a rapidly warming car, by God’s grace alone, did not whine or bicker. This is out of character. Not for God – for the kids.

AAA called back with a problem. The tow trucks only carried four passengers. We had five.
“What am I supposed to do?” My voice cracked. “Stand on the side of the road with my kids?”
“Are you there by yourself, ma’am?” Concern flooded her voice. “How old are your kids?”
“Oh…well…” It’s hard to gain sympathy when oldest child has a driver’s license and a beard.

Before I could call for a cab, Joseph the tow truck driver arrived. His truck carried five. He’d found a repair shop open that late on a Sunday, the best in the Central Valley, Joseph said. We liked him already.

Joseph has a sand-colored billy goat beard and a great sense of humor. He apologized for the truck he’d borrowed while his was in the shop. His truck was clean. His truck was stocked with diapers, baby wipes, and bottled water. His truck had a smoother ride because the suspension was properly positioned in relation to the winch. On the drive to Buttonwillow, we learned about tow truck driver culture. Did you know there was a tow truck driver culture? I did not. Rivalries, practical jokes, the importance of a clean truck, the lack of sleep, the knowledge of every little side road…I gained a great deal of respect for Joseph and his profession.

After making restaurant and hotel recommendations, Joseph dropped us off at the repair shop. Julio would take good care of us, he said. We had to wait while Julio helped the previous customers, a couple traveling with a vanload of children, one in diapers. At least they had another woman along to help.

After they left, Julio approached us with a grin. “That guy’s a polygamist. He introduced me to both his wives.”
“That explains it,” my daughter said. She’d seen the little white stick figure people on the back windshield – a man in the middle, a woman on each side, and a cloud of children below.
Hoo boy. There’s something you don’t see every day.

One of Julio’s friends was hanging around with his produce truck. It didn’t take long to realize his mind wasn’t all there – but his heart was. He was genuinely concerned for us. Then he mentioned he needed a few more dollars to get home that night. Red flag! How many times have I heard that line from panhandlers? But then he said he just needed to sell some more fruit. My heart softened. I could buy fruit. So he showed me what he had. Cherries? My refrigerator is full of the bounty from our cherry tree. Oranges? He had ten-pound bags. Not sure how it would fit in our jam-packed car, I bought one.

Julio did his best. He gave our car a jumpstart. Nothing. He replaced the battery. Nothing. While we love our 25 mpg, the hybrid engine has its peculiarities and needed the help of a Toyota dealership. In Bakersfield. Thirty miles away. Closed for the night.

After dinner at the Joseph-approved Mexican restaurant – great food with manana service – we spent the night at the clean and friendly Joseph-approved Motel 6. The next day, while Toyota performed its diagnosis, the courtesy shuttle hauled us to a shopping center.

The mall has a “Forever 21” in an old department store. My teen daughter put on her biggest eyes and sweetest smile. I’m immune – and wise – to that face, but I took her there anyway. The store went on and on, packed with clothes for teen girls, so big it was divided by color scheme – blue clothes here, red there, pastel here, black there. Oh my goodness. My daughter wandered around, fingered a few items, and headed out. She didn’t buy a thing. Didn’t even try anything on. She looked dazed. “It’s…too…much.” Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

Toyota had to order the part – under warranty! – so they paid for a rental car. By dinnertime, we were home. All five of us, our luggage, and ten pounds of oranges.

Orange juice, anyone?

12 Responses to “When Life Gives You a Car Breakdown, Make…Orange Juice?”

  1. Lois Hudson

    Great story, Sarah. When you posted earlier about the components, I knew you’d get a blog post out of it. I know that long valley – traversed it last fall in the move from Southern California to Nevada – and have a son and daughter-in-law in Bakersfield – with a brand new grandson, whom I’ll be going to meet in a few days.

  2. Lisa

    Glad to hear that it all worked out ok and that at least the part was covered by warranty! Thanks for sharing your adventure and for giving me a much needed chuckle this afternoon! 🙂

  3. Sarah Sundin

    Lois – that’s what I kept telling myself 🙂 At least I’d get a blog post. And congratulations on the grandson!!!
    Marcy – me too!

  4. Lori Benton

    What a weekend! I thoroughly enjoyed living that vicariously through your post, Sarah. You reminded me of last July when our car died somewhere in the mountains between OR and CA, in an attempt to reach Sacramento. Talk about a long get-to-know-your-northern-California-tow-truck-driver afternoon. We spent our time waiting for him on the side of Interstate 5 watching Eureka episodes on the laptop, and the semis looming in the rear view mirror.

  5. Anne Baxter

    One of these days I’ll blog about my hubby’s famous CA to MT trip hauling a load of furniture for his son. Well, almost to Montana. He broke down in an area where cell reception was difficult. He climbed on top of the pickup cab and held the cell up over his head. Much to the bemusement of the highway patrolman who had stopped to render aid. And the story goes on. Look for it next week on my blog (pewperspective@blogspot.com). Hey—we could start a blog tow-truck adventure series…

  6. Sarah Sundin

    Lisa – thanks! And the car’s all better now. We just have to drive BACK to Bakersfield this weekend to pick it up.
    Lori & Anne – I’m thinking we need a new blog just for roadside stories 🙂

  7. Krysti

    Polygamy? Not a big deal. Now; there’s this naturopath I’ve written a letter to about finding an identity in who God made them. You can pray for him. I mean her. Um, I’m not sure which it is anymore.

  8. Rita McCall

    Kudos to Joseph and Julio for helping you and your family in times of dire need! It is really hard to deal with car troubles, especially if you are in the middle of the trip and traveling with kids. Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere and worrying about the kids is really troublesome. But at least something good came out of this unfortunate incident – you and your daughter went shopping!

  9. Sarah Sundin

    Rita – thanks for dropping by! Yes, it was quite an adventure, but totally worth it. It’s gone into the family story bank and gets pulled out quite often. I have a hunch my kids will be telling their kids…