On Tuesday, we took our car in for a routine oil change and service. I had noticed a funny rhythmic swishing noise, and the check engine light came on about two weeks ago. I asked our mechanic to take a look at those, too, since we were leaving on a long road trip. It turns out our glow plugs, timing belt, and water pump needed to be replaced for a grand total of $900. Okay, sounds good, at least we caught those problems before we went on the road, we thought.
On Friday, we drove out for my PhD graduation. We stayed with some good friends and went out to eat at a Thai restaurant. Soon after we came back home, I started feeling unwell. At first it was just a general bloated feeling, then it progressed into an angry, hot stomach. I laid down with Zari after I got her to bed, hoping it would go away. Well, it didn't. It turned into full-blown food poisoning. I was puking and running to the bathroom until 3 am, when it finally subsided a bit. I started sipping water and orange juice to replenish all the fluids I had lost and slept fitfully until morning.
I had a full day of graduation-related activities on Saturday. I almost didn't go to them, but I finally peeled myself off the couch. My parents had traveled down and I figured this only happens once in a lifetime. So I made it through a formal reception for doctoral students. I stayed sitting down and managed to eat two crackers and three strawberries. Graduation itself wasn't too bad, since we were sitting down except for the hooding ceremony. By the evening I was feeling well enough to go to a restaurant with my parents, although I was still only able to eat a few bites.
Side note: I find the academic robes & paraphernalia quite hilarious--in any other context you'd look like an utter fool, but because everyone else is wearing the same silly robes and funny hats, it's distinguished and solemn and oh so serious. The seamstress in me was analyzing how to make the doctoral robes and hood, in case I ever go into academia and need to wear them again. There's no way I would ever pay the $700 for the costume when I could certainly make it myself!
On Sunday morning, the temperatures had dropped to below 0 (Fahrenheit) with a biting wind. And our car wouldn't start. We plugged in the engine block heater, but our battery--which had been having a problem holding a charge--just couldn't turn the engine over. Finally my parents jumped us, and we were on our way to my sister in Dayton, Ohio. It's normally an 8-hour drive. The first two hours of driving were terrible: icy roads, whiteout conditions, close to 100 cars in the ditch. Probably 1/3 of them were upside down.
Just as the blowing snow and ice cleared up, our car stopped working. Just stopped, totally. In the middle of the freeway, with temperatures below zero and the windchill around -30 F. We couldn't get the car to start, and in fact the battery wouldn't even turn over. It was completely dead.
I pulled out my cell phone (a Virgin Mobile pre-paid phone that costs only $5/month--love it!) and discovered that the battery was almost out. I tried calling our emergency roadside assistance company and got a message that due to heavy call volume we would be on hold for a while. So I called my sister-in-law and relaid what had happened, and she was kind enough to go on hold for me. Forty minutes later, she called back with bad news: the company was so busy that a tow truck wouldn't be able to come for at least 3 hours and that I should just try to find someone on my own to help us and apply for reimbursement later.
Great. So I dialed 911 and explained my situation to the operator. She relayed my information on to the local police and towing companies and said someone would be coming by to help. It was at least another 45 minutes before the police car showed up. By then we were all getting quite cold. We had our coats on and were wrapped up in quilts and blankets, but there's only so much you can do when it's below zero. The officer was a very nice man. We sat in his warm car and chatted while we waited for the tow truck to arrive. Another 45 minutes later, we were finally on our way.
The next challenge was to find a mechanic who was open on a Sunday night. The first place we tried, Wal-Mart, didn't do anything but oil changes. Fortunately, Sears' auto center was not only open, but the mechanic on duty was also certified to work on diesels (we have a diesel VW Golf). We wandered around the mall, waiting for the mechanics to take a look at our car. We suspected it was a case of frozen fuel lines combined with a bad battery and/or alternator. A few hours later, they called and said they'd replaced the battery but were still unable to get the car started. We plugged in the engine block heater and waited another 45 minutes. Finally, it started! Woohoo! As we had guessed, the car had died because of frozen fuel lines and wouldn't restart because the battery was toast.
We were on our way by 8:30 pm. We fueled up and added a diesel anti-gel supplement to prevent any more fuel lines from freezing. At this point there was no way we would be able to make it to Dayton, which was still 6 hours away. Instead, we drove to our house and arrived right around midnight. We had a good nights' sleep and were on our way the next morning.
Thankfully we have had no problems with our car (or with food poisoning) since then.