Recently Brad and Jonathan from ChooseFI invited me to tell my story on their podcast. Their questions focused more on my financial story and my background not covered within this blog. Those were my pre-full-time-travel days.
During the interview, I described a car accident that was treated more like a minor blip than a disaster. Our car was totaled by a drunk driver just outside of Memphis, Tennessee. After the police report, we calmly drove to Walmart for some duct tape, taped up the car and drove home to Pennsylvania.
Trin and I were still dating, but I loved his reaction. I knew that I wanted to be with a man who let trouble be, rolled with it and enjoyed life anyway. It was an attitude that confirmed that trouble doesn’t have to be a disaster.
That accident was not the only time trouble happened on a vacation. In my article on how to be ready to seize opportunities, I mentioned a vacation where our car died 200 miles from home. It all happened
The Perfect Weekend Getaway
It was a memorable 3-day weekend where we got to ride our bicycles around an island and enjoy some coastal scenery. It was also a weekend of impromptu car shopping, tire blowouts, loud explosions, and a runaway spark plug.
But all that was yet to happen as we pulled into the parking lot outside of the REI in the town of Cranston (a lazy anagram of our then-hometown of Scranton). The day started well enough. It was 2009 on the verge of summer, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was a relaxing four-and-a-half hour drive into town in our 1991 Subaru Legacy. We went into REI and checked out some camping gear, just for kicks. Our planned bike ride for the day was not too long and we had some time to kill.
After browsing REI, we decided to go somewhere for lunch. We got in the car and Trin fired up the engine. The car started right up, idled for a second and then there was a loud bang. It sounded like a backfire. The car continued to idle but it sounded like a small boat engine, a very slow cadence. It was running on three cylinders.
We turned off the engine and popped the hood. One of the spark plug wires was dangling over the engine and a spark plug was sitting on the radiator. The car had spat out a spark plug.
Trin got on his bike to buy a new spark plug and a wrench. Just as he was riding out of the parking lot, his rear tire went flat. He fixed the flat and went on his way.
When he came back, he installed the new spark plug. It seemed like there was not much resistance when the plug was screwed in but it was worth a try. I started the car again and it made another loud bang. Even though we half-expected and hoped against it, it was still as startling as the first bang, just as loud, and just as embarrassing.
A guy driving a restored roadster parked next to us and offered to help. We let him. He screwed in the spark plug and we tried it the third time. Third time’s the charm, right? Nope. The threads were stripped. Almost twenty years and 330k miles, I suppose the car held up for as long as it could.
We sat inside the car and discussed our next move. We could try and limp home on three cylinders but it probably wouldn’t have worked. With a gaping hole on an engine head, there would be no compression and no power.
We decided to do our bicycle ride for the day anyway. It would give us time to think of a few ideas along the way. Maybe we would even stop in at a few car dealerships if we passed any.
Then my bike started
About two miles down the road, Trin pulled off. He looked back at me and smirked.
“My front tire is flat,” he chuckled. It’s a good thing we carry spares.
He pulled out another spare tube and CO2 inflator.
I ran over to make sure Trin still had all his fingers. The CO2 cartridge had exploded. He looked up at me still in shock. Then we both started laughing. I mean really, a dead car and three flat tires and exploding CO2 inflators. You can’t make this stuff up.
He pulled out the hand pump and inflated the spare tube. We packed everything up and continued our ride.
There was a Ford dealership up ahead and we thought we’d give it a shot. We waited at the light on our bicycles to do a left-hand turn into the dealership. While we waited, a truck pulled up next to us.
“You goin’ in there to buy her a car?” the driver, an older gentleman, asked Trin. We said yes, and he laughed and drove off giving Trin the thumbs up.
In the used car lot, we walked around looking for a car. There were a couple of good candidates that we might want to test drive, but after a long while, nobody came out from the dealership.
There we were, two people on bicycles looking at used cars. From my point of view, we were the perfect customers – we obviously needed a car. But I guess they didn’t see it that way. Maybe we didn’t look like we had money to buy a car, or maybe they just didn’t care, I don’t know. We shrugged and gave them the figurative boot the way a cyclist would – we peeled out of their lot, at 10 miles per hour.
On the third used car lot that we visited we found a Subaru Outback that we test drove and it seemed fine, though the A/C didn’t work. We at least had an option. We could either buy that car or do a one-way car rental to drive back home. It was getting late in the day and we still had two more days of our trip left. We saw no reason to cut it short, so we continued with our planned activities, except that we’d be doing more riding than driving.
We rode our bikes to a hotel halfway towards Point Judith.
The next day we rode our bikes down to Point Judith, took the ferry to Block Island and spent the day riding there.
On the ferry ride back to the mainland that evening an idea occurred to me. I called James, my brother, who was living in Elmira, NY at that time. He was between jobs.
I explained to him our situation about the car and how we were kind of stranded in Rhode Island.
“So we could rent a car to drive home. That will cost us about $550. Or, if you are available, and feel free to say no, you could come down, do some sightseeing and then drive us home. I’ll give that money to you instead,” I said to him.
He said he’d be happy to do it.
I felt so much better about giving the money to my brother than spending it on a rental car.
He arrived the next morning in his minivan and we strolled along the Cliff Walk in Newport looking at the mansions and enjoying the beautiful coastal walkway.
After lunch, we drove back to the REI parking lot and emptied the Subaru. We took pictures of it one last time, and to my surprise, my emotions began to surge. Cars are funny sometimes. I don’t always know the makes and models like Trin does. He’d say, look at the negative camber on that slammed WRX, whereas I’d say, look at that blue car.
I have a pragmatic view of cars, the get-you-from-point-A-to-point-B sort of view. I like them to be reliable and inexpensive. In a span of about seven years I got attached to this car. It was 18 years old, slow as molasses, its engine was loud. It was a clunker. But it was
Later, Kars4Kids would come to pick her up.
We got home safe and sound. We got in all the sightseeing we had planned, just a little more riding then originally expected.
Not a D
So we had a few mishaps, but it wasn’t a disaster. In fact, it’s a memorable vacation that we still look back upon and chuckle whenever we remember it. We had a great weekend.
The trouble wasn’t a disaster because flat tires are expected, and we knew that at some point our old, trusty Subaru would eventually die.
Trin and I owned that car for seven years free and clear. It cost only a few thousand dollars when I originally purchased it a few years before meeting Trin. Going seven years without car payments allowed us to save up enough money to pay cash for any car on that lot where the dealers wouldn’t give us the time of day. Their loss!
We came prepared with spare tires and we had savings to get us another car or easily pay for alternate routes home without having to skip meals the next month. Trouble was just moments of inconvenience that is part of what living frugally and saving for a rainy day does.
We chose to continue to use that old Subaru until her last day. Seven years without car payments based on today’s average is almost $45,000 even without compounding interest. The current average car payment in the USA is currently $523 a month! We only put a tiny portion of what we saved on car payments into the next car purchase. The rest is part of our funding for full-time travel now.
We chose to drive old cars in exchange for freedom.
Financial freedom gives us peace of mind while we travel. Throughout our first two and half years as nomads while we were exploring Central and South America I knew that at any time if we didn’t like where we were or if we were tired of it we could just catch a cab to the airport and fly “home.” Even the last night in Bolivia when I thought I was going to die of hypothermia and altitude sickness, I knew that the next day we could head to someplace warmer. Even being “stuck” in Australia during a pandemic was a choice we were able to make because of financial freedom to do so.
Financial Freedom opens blue doors of opportunities – opportunities to still enjoy a weekend filled with trouble. It can pave the way for less worry and make it easier to laugh off the trouble. A breakdown doesn’t have to be a disaster.
Find your blue door – or maybe start saving for it.