Sometimes, It Takes a Village: The Day We Blew a Head Gasket

MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA- Margot and I were cruising along Caves Road, windows down, wind whipping through our hair, sun streaming through the glass, rocking out to STS9 halfway between Margaret River and Augusta when the engine started to sputter. We knew we were cutting it close with the tank an eighth full, but Augusta was only 30 miles away, and we figured we’d make it there in time. Besides, driving to the gas station would have taken us a half-hour or so, and we wanted to make it to the docks by one o’clock.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and Sunday afternoons were reserved for adventures. Whale-watching had been on the docket for some time, and today was the perfect day: the sky was a crystal blue and the winter weather was temperate enough where you might need a sweatshirt out on the water, but you’d be fine with a t-shirt and jeans on shore.

Our trust car, Erna—at least for a little while

Our trust car, Erna—at least for a little while

“Shit”, Margot said as she guided Erna towards the side of the road, knowing we only had a few more feet to go before the engine conked out, “Something’s wrong with the engine”. Erna sputtered to a halt on the side of the road.

Apparently, the shaking noise that we heard and felt when slowing down is not indicative of an empty gas tank. Margot’s suspicions were confirmed when steam crept out from under the hood the moment we settled on the side of the road. Shutting off the engine and getting out of the car, we popped the hood as a plume of smoke erupted from the hood.

At this point, it was fairly obvious that we wouldn’t be making it to Augusta in time to whale-watch. Quickly running through our options, we realized that we didn’t have many. New to the area, we didn’t have anyone to call for a lift. We had begun working at a vineyard a few days before, but couldn’t possibly call anyone we worked with for help. No tow company worked on Sundays, and our roommate Cher was out for the weekend with a guy who came to town to visit her…locking eyes, Margot and I shouted, “Damian!”, and immediately got Cher on the phone.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Cher! Where are you, right now?”, I ask.

“Ehm, well, I’m right at home, sitting on the wee couch. Damian dropped me off about a half hour ago. He’s on his way back to Perth. Where are you guys?”

“Damn you, Cher!” I shouted into the phone and clicked off. She would be of no help to us. It looked like we were on our own, stuck on the side of a road that only a handful of cars had passed in the last twenty minutes.

We began our second week of work the next day and needed the car to get there. We didn’t know anyone that could pick us up from where we were and even if we did, we had no idea what to do with the car. If it was just out of gas, that would be one thing. We could hitch to get gas, fill ‘er up, and drive Erna into the sunset. But if there was an additional problem with the engine, we would need a tow, and that meant big money and a few days of missed work.

Thinking logically, the obvious first step was to put gas in the car and see if it started. It would be pretty embarrassing to get a jump only to see her sputter and conk out again because we didn’t think to put any fuel in the tank. There was only one thing to do…

Edging out onto the side of the road, thumbs stretched out, we could only laugh that things had come to this. Traveling makes everything an experience, and you need to take such mishaps in stride. Getting aggravated when your $500 car shits out on adventure day just isn’t worth the hassle; things turn out differently from the way you want them to, and that day we were just going on a different adventure: capitalizing on the kindness of Australians.

Fortunately, the first car that passed us by pulled over. Sitting in the front were a couple in their late 60’s—we had been joking about what kind of people might stop to pick us up, but we didn’t think it would be a set of grandparents. As the couple amiably motioned for us to hop in, we were startled to see that they actually were grandparents: there was a small child sitting in a car seat in the back. Quibbling amongst ourselves before opening the door, I insisted to Margot that she sit in the middle…the blonde girl with the pretty smile would undoubtedly be less of a threatening presence than the bearded man with the toothy grin.

“No! You go. I’m not good with kids! It has to be you!”, Margot argued with me. Reflecting on the fact that she’s right, I’m probably better with children than she is (if by chance, there happened to be a squirrel in the backseat, Margot would have been the obvious choice to sit next to the little critter, but alas we had no such luck). Opening the door, I jumped right in and cozied up in the middle seat..

“Hi there! My name is Rachel. What’s your name?”, squawked the small ball of blonde chub in the car seat next to me.

“Why hello, Rachel, my name’s Matt, and this is my friend Margot! Our car had a little trouble, and you guys sure are kind to help us out…is it OK if I sit here?”

“Of course! This is my Nanny and Poppy. I’m spending the weekend with them. But I’m from Queensland. Where are you from? My parents are back home in Queensland. I like Queensland a lot; it’s really hot. Have you been to Queensland? Did I tell you that I’m here visiting my Nanny…?

Apparently, this wasn’t a kid that worried about making friends, she was chatty to the point where I ignored her for a while so I could introduce myself to Nanny and Poppy and explain our predicament. Australian sensibilities don’t really have the guarded American wariness of strangers that I’m so used to…they were perfectly comfortable driving us all the way into Margaret River, sitting next to their granddaughter and dropping us off at the edge of the gas station, wishing us good luck. They never did let on where exactly they were headed, but I’d reckon they went quite out of their way to take us into town.

After scrounging up some cash, we rented two canteens from the clerk and filled them with $15 of gas. Now all we had to do was make a sign saying “Caves Road”, and have Margot wait by the exit with her thumb sticking out and a pleading face. Not more than a minute passed before a couple in a car that was way-too-nice-to-be-picking-up-hitchhikers motioned for us to get in. Holding up the gas canisters with hopeful smiles, the driver nodded and popped the trunk. Dutifully piling in to the back seat, I felt like I was being picked up from CCD by my Mom.

Pulling out of the gas station, we filled them in—our car had run out of gas on Caves Road, and we’d appreciate it if they dropped us off on the way—as far as they could take us would help. Bill and Cindy were in their late fifties with four children scattered across Australia and the greater Oceanic area, and they told us that they hoped if their kids were out hitchhiking from a gas station, that someone would pick them up, so they’d like to return the favor.

It’s nice to be part of this small, tightly knit group of people looking out for each other when we’re far from home. It made me feel at ease knowing when I returned home that I would extend a helping hand to anyone who needed help—especially someone far from home. Bill and Cindy had shrugged off our pleas to let us off at the mouth of Caves Road to hitch for another ride, and told us they would drive us all the way to our car. The casual sense of helping strangers in need is strained a bit though as the conversation lingers and it’s apparent that, as we had said, we are at least a 25-minute drive down Caves Road. But they’re in no rush, happy to help, and soon enough, we seen green little Erna all alone by the side of the road, lonely and in desperate need of fuel.

Erna, in big trouble.

Erna, in big trouble.

Jumping out, we immediately filled the gas tank, which, with $15 worth of gas, didn’t take more than a minute. The needle sprang to somewhere between an eighth and quarter of a tank; more than enough at the time. Bill and Cindy had done enough for us, and we thanked them profusely, hoping they would drive away. There comes a point where you are gracious for accepting help from a stranger, but eager to regain some degree of self-sufficiency. Ever the parental types, they insisted on staying until they saw us drive away. Getting behind the wheel, Margot cranked the engine. The car sputtered and sputtered, but to no avail. She tried again—more sputtering, but the spark plug or some shit wasn’t catching, and the engine wouldn’t start. Maybe we did have more trouble than an empty gas tank…

At the very least, we had a dead battery.  

Walking over to see what the problem was, Bill offered to give us a jump—if we had cables, since he didn’t. I had purchased them a week earlier on my own, not quite convinced that it was wise to drive a $500 car without them. Linking up the two cars side by side, Bill turned his engine on, and we were ready to go. I was seated behind the wheel—they were my jumper cables after all—and turned the key…the engine sputtered once, sputtered twice, and finally caught! We have liftoff! Revving the engine once, twice, oohhhhh baby, revving the engine three times, we had liftoff. Grinning from ear to ear, I thank Bill as we disconnected the leads.

He barely has a chance to get back in his car before the engine started springing steam again, and the car made that evil stuttering noise most decidedly not associated with an empty gas tank. Dejectedly shutting off the engine and getting out of the car, a quick survey of the engine indicated we were having a problem with our coolant fluid—possibly a leak, possibly a crack—but that our engine was overheating since the fluid couldn’t cool the engine down. Apparently the coolant fluid is empty, and as luck would have it, we don’t have any water. Bill and his wife insist upon getting us some, and hop into their car, driving away before we can even protest against their further assistance. For whatever reason, it seems silly to be so reliant on a couple that wants to help us so much—we’re not against accepting it, we just know that we’re taking so much time out of their day to help.

Almost thirty minutes pass before they return, and by this time we’re running out of daylight. The engine has cooled to the point where we can safely remove the cap of the radiator tank without burning our hands, and we pour the de-mineralized water right down the tube. Hopefully this will do the trick—at this point, we just want to get the car off the road and back to our place. We’ll deal with finding a ride to work the next day when we need to. Jumping back in our respective cars, I turn on the engine, which thankfully catches on the first try, and pull back onto Caves Road. Good fortune is not with us though; we don’t make it more than a half-mile before the $500 piece of junk starts sput-sputtering again, and before we know it, we’re on the shoulder.

I feel as if I’ve let my own parents down as we get out of the car, and walk over to Bill and Cindy.

“Say no more”, they say. “Leave a note, grab your stuff, and jump in. We’ll give you a ride back to your place.”



At this point, we’re really not in a position to turn down the offer. We’re twenty miles form where we live, and it’s getting dark—quickly. We’re unlikely to pick up another ride, and this couple really does seem set on helping us. Dejectedly, we write out a quick note so the authorities don’t tow us before us, grab our valuables from the car, and jump in the back of Bill’s sedan. It was mostly a silent ride back to our apartment, and oddly my thoughts wandered to the arbitrary pursuit of wealth. Here are two scraggly young travelers who can’t make it by themselves—today we needed the help of the village to get ourselves out of the situation we’ve found us in. Bill, on the other hand, is at the other end of life—he and Cindy are obviously well off; they’re dressed in expensive, clean clothing and drive around in a reliable old Lexus. There are some merits to the material comforts afforded by the accumulation of money, and I’m experiencing one of them at the moment: the ability to buy a reliable piece of machinery likely to run without breaking down. Whilst I ruminate on the merits of the pursuit of financial gain, Bill ferries us home, eventually turning onto Gnarabup Drive, the long, winding road straddling the beach.

Bill and his wife are fairly amazed this is where we live; I think they figured we were squatting in a cave down by ocean after seeing the car we drove. Pulling into the parking lot, I asked them to please hang on for just a second. I raced back to our apartment and rifled through our wine collection, pulling out the most expensive looking bottle. Hurrying back to the car, I gave it to them and joined Margot in profusely thanking the two of them for their help.

“No worries, mate, we’re just trying to help”, Bill says to us. “No need to thank us like this”, though they do, in the end accept the bottle. They are Aussies, after all.

While our car is still sitting on the side of the road, Margot and I were elated to be back at the apartment before sundown. Fortunately, our roommate, Lucas, had a friend over, and the two of them plus Cher made for a willing audience as regaled them with our tale—having to hitchhike all over town, relying on the kindness of strangers to finally, FINALLY, get back to our apartment, and before daybreak at that. We couldn’t stop gushing about how friendly and helpful everyone had been, how poor our luck was, how much it sucked the car was on the shoulder of Caves Road, how we started our first full week of work the next day, and needed to call Merv, our boss, to tell him we wouldn’t be in, since we didn’t have a car…

“Aw yeah, well, you know, that’s trevellin, bro”, Lucas’s friend Ryan said, which both irritated and relaxed me at the same time.

He was right. We hadn’t exactly been stressing all day, and there was really no need to start now. Ryan is soft-spoken and super-chill, so I almost didn’t hear him when he offered to give us a tow; he had just bought a brand-new Nissan Xterra with four-wheel drive—a fourby as they like to say, and had some rope in the trunk for a tow. “Yeh bro, no dramas bro, we can go right now if you want to. I have a buddy of mine that owns a body shop in town, we can drop it off there tonight and I’ll shoot him a message. He can look at it first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Seriously, Ryan, you can take us to get the car right now?”

“Yeah, bro, no dramas, let’s get going. No twos about it, eh mate?”

Taking this as a yes, we put our coats back on and hopped into the back of Ryan’s truck, a large white SUV that looked fully capable of towing our little ’92 Toyota Camry hatchback across the Nullarbor if need be. The drive gave us a little time to get to know each other, and Ryan turned out to be an amazingly awesome guy, a full-scale member of the club of people-who’ve traveled-looking-out-for-each-other. He’s traveled enough that he’s more than willing to help out anyone in a bind, especially when it meant making a few new friends.

Once we got to Erna and inspected the grill, we determined the metal frame attached to the front of the body had two holes in it through which we could easily thread the rope. Margot, a rock-climbing instructor in college, was elected to take care of this. She can tie a mean figure-8 follow-through knot, a skill which I immediately learned and prize to this day. She rigged the two cars together with a frightening amount of slack, and I was elected to pilot the wheel of the Camry. Margot will go with Ryan in the Xterra to reduce the weight of the Camry by a solid eighty pounds or so.

After giving Ryan the all-clear sign through my open window, we slowly pulled onto the road. It was pitch black outside, and the stars shone brightly above us, a clear winter’s night with virtually no one else out on the road. It lent a sort of eerie clarity of purpose to the whole ordeal as I steeled myself for the coming drive. Mostly straight roads, there were a few tricky turns and hills I was wary of tackling…it was less that anything would happen to either car while driving, but more that we would end up stranding the car in a location worse than it already was. By this time, we’re cruising.

We couldn’t have been going more than twenty or thirty miles an hour, but it felt much faster. My job was to keep the Camry in a straight line, following in the tracks of the Nissan. Before we left I thought there was too much slack, but now, being pulled along by the same amount of rope at thirty miles an hour I would have killed for a bit more slack…I had to keep my eyes fixated on Ryan’s brake lights, and every time he tapped them tap my brakes immediately, lest I coast into his rear bumper. Soon, we’re slowing down, and it’s time to make a right turn.

“All good back there brotha?”, I heard Ryan shout.

“Ready when you are!”, I responded, preparing myself to execute the slow right turn as Ryan pulls wide and I slowly follow behind. About ¾ of the way into the turn, he hits the gas, and pulls me smoothly through the turn, onto the intersecting road.

“Yeeeeewwwwww!”, I hear Ryan say, and he sticks his hand out the window, waving his shakah. Ryan is a stereotypical surfer guy; with long curly blonde hair and the cadence of Bret and Jermaine, you would never guess he was a 28-year-old homeowner with an impressive resume of trade experience under his belt. He’s just the kind of guy you want towing you in his Nissan.

Coming up next was a large hill, the part I’m most nervous about getting through with our jerry-rigged contraption. Craning forward with both hands on the wheel, I kept my eyes focused on the Nissan’s brake lights as Ryan kicked her into 3rd gear and gave it more gas. Of paramount concern was to pay attention to the smoothness of movement…if the Nissan accelerated too quickly, it would snap the rope, and all would be lost. Acceleration had to be slow to give the rope time to tauten before we could tow. But once the rope caught, we were in business, moving along quite nicely. Slow, steady, smooth…no jerky movements. Precision. Executing each turn meticulously without a moment’s hesitation…as I kept my eyes glued to the brake lights in front of me, the Nissan steadily climbed the hill.

Steadily cresting the hill, I hear “YeeeeeeewwWW!!”, from ahead, “we’re good, Matty boy!”—Ryan’s call that everything was A-OK.

Once over the hill it was just a matter of keeping our speeds closely in tandem on our way down; I had to be exceedingly careful to ride the brakes just enough to match his speed, but not too much that he’s going faster than me, snapping the rope. Hands at ten and two, eyes ahead, tap and go, tap and go, I rode the brakes lightly so that our speeds matched…fortunately, we had only seen one other car on the road. Things would have been considerably more difficult to pull off with traffic …

We now approached a traffic circle; Australia, like New Jersey, is not a fan of stoplights, so to execute a right turn (remember, driving on the left-hand side of the road), one needs to bear right around a large circle. This is generally not an issue, but I was increasingly worried about the rope snapping…steadily entering the traffic circle, we had momentum, and didn’t need to stop and worry about the rope snapping when we started moving, so Ryan cruised into the traffic circle and turned slightly right as I entered the circle behind him, steadily, following, and he continued further right as I fully entered the traffic circle, and he almost completed the right turn when I was still moving forward and—SNAP—the rope went, and I was driving on my own, still going ten or fifteen miles an hour, moving straight, so I turned the car right through the circle and followed Ryan out, slowly coming to a stop in the middle of the road we were turning onto.

“Shit!”, I thought to myself. We were doing SO well, the body shop was right around the corner, we were almost there…and here I was, stuck in the middle of the fucking road, and now there was a car behind me, of course, and I was right off of a traffic circle that is fairly busy during the day, probably one of the worst places to be stalled, and the car behind me flashed its brights at me, and all of the sudden, there were four guys getting out of the car behind me, and-

“Oy! Eh Bra, you need a push there, aye?”

Helping hands. Strapping, helping, placed-there-as-if-by-the-will-of-God-himself hands, placed there to push me out of the road, right up behind Ryan’s car, safely on the side of the road.

“Oy, mate, cheers, mate”, and just like that the four lads jumped back in their car and drive off before I could know them as anything more than silhouettes. Two cars over the twenty miles we had covered so far, and one of them happened to be filled with four Aussies able and willing to lend a hand at the exact moment we needed them…

Fortunately, the rope snapped in a spot where it was easy for Margot to fashion another figure-8 follow through, and she got another one tied up in a jiff. Before I knew it, disaster had been courted, defeated, and overcome, and we were on the road again…just another half mile down the road, and we pulled into the auto body shop. Stopping right outside, Margot jumped into the driver’s seat as Ryan and I pushed it into a parking spot in the lot. We were just brushing the dirt off our hands when a white station wagon rocketed around the corner and screeched to a halt outside the body shop.

“Lucas, my man!! What’s going on?”

“Oy mate, aye, I came to pick you boys up now, ay, wasn’t gonna let Ryan drive you all the way back to our spot, now was I mate, aye?”

Thanking Ryan profusely, with all manners of claps and handshakes, we locked up Erna and jumped in the car with Lucas. Speeding off into the distance, driving with his knees as he lit a cigarette, Lucas asked us how we were getting to work the next day. Margot and I exchanged glances and realized that we hadn’t thought about it at all.

Rocketing over a bump in the road, windows down with a brisk chill mixed with the ashy scent of ciggy smoke rushing through the car, Lucas said “oy mate don’t worry there Matty boy, I’ll take ya’s tomorrow. I’m Aussie bro, of course, we help a brotha out when he need”. It wasn’t the best arrangement, but for now we had to continue to rely on the kindness of strangers, and take any help we could get. Love live Aussies.