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Eric: Apropos of Nothing, Custom Ringtones are Cool.

It was, at best, a long day.

Days when I'm traveling to Ottawa are days I generally try to take off from work -- or at the least take a half-day in. The trip is relatively long, there are bits I much prefer to drive in daylight than at night, there is a border crossing involved -- all told, I like to get going as early as possible.

Friday... that couldn't happen. There were two other people at work -- including my boss -- who were already scheduled for the day off. I couldn't very well take it off as well. Not with students in the halls. So the absolute earliest I would be able to leave would be three, assuming I could slip out early. And I was up early to boot, so I could be in an hour earlier than usual. Which meant I was also operating on less than normal sleep.

As it worked out, I didn't get out of work before four, and at that point I really needed a shower. So we were looking at four-thirty to five o'clock in the evening before I made it onto the road.

That was looking to be a very late night. But still. Get there. Kiss my fiancee. Say hello to Frank and/or Megs, depending on who was still up. Crash until morning. Get up. Pack the car with Weds's things, and drive back. That was the plan, and I was still focused on it.

It worked fine -- it worked like a charm....

...until Vermont.

I have a usual plan for a usual stop. I climb the mountains of Vermont along Interstate 93 to I-91, then an exit before I enter Canada I pull off and follow the GPS to my usual gas station. At said station, I make sure I have sufficient coffee for the long run through Quebec (I prefer not to stop in Quebec, as I've mentioned before), use the restroom, get any necessary snack food, and fill up on gasoline. (By filling up at the last possible moment before Canada, I reduce the total amount of gasoline I need to get in Canada. On the trip back this time I grabbed twenty five liters, which was more than I needed. But I was being extra-cautious. You will see why.)

Naturally, climbing hills is hard work for the little Honda Civic that could.

And I was tired.

And monofocused.

And my GPS had my gas station as a target, and I was keeping my eye on it and on the road.

It was just before sundown, and I was climbing one of the taller mountains -- a significant slope that goes for four or more miles before Cresting--

My car lurched. I blinked.

My car lurched again.

My car began lurching like it were going down a ski slope of moguls, instead of up an interstate.

Eyes wide, I looked down to my dashboard... and saw (to my shock, horror, and surprise) that my gasoline telltale had lit up, and my gauge was well below empty.

My GPS said I was fourteen miles from my gas station.

Had I not been on a slope going many miles angled upward, I might have made it. Seriously. As it was, whatever gas was left in my tank was pooling back on the opposite side to the intake valve, and there was no possible way I was going to make it. I gave it my level best, letting the car lurch a bit before it began to simply lose power. I pulled off onto the shoulder, coasting up as far as I could before the vehicle grew quiet, and I turned the engine off.

There was no two ways about it. I was out of gas. In Vermont. Halfway up a mountain. On the Interstate.

I had done a dumbass thing.

I'd love to tell you all the justifications. I was tired. I was monofocused. Going uphill had taken more gasoline than expected. Alien spores. But the simple truth is I was an idiot. I didn't pay close enough attention to how much gas I had left, and I had run out of gas.

So, when you're a dumbass, you cop to it. I called AAA -- the national association for bailing dumbass drivers out of their dumbass situations.

"Where are you located," the dispatcher said.

"I'm on Interstate 91, somewhere between exits 24 and 25," I answered. The GPS couldn't tell me more than that. It's designed for directions, not coordinates.

There was a pause.

"Can you see a mile marker?" the dispatcher asked. She was young, and cheerful, and clearly wanted to help.

"Nope," I said as cheerfully.

"All right," she said, and verified my cell phone number. "We'll have someone on the way. As you're on the Interstate, you're a priority, so it should only be a few minutes!"

"Thank you!" I said. And I made the two calls you have to make when you're a dumbass.

The first was to my fiancee, who was waiting for me in Canada, many hours away. I got her machine, and left a message.

The second was to my parents.

"Hi Dad," I said. "You ever do a really dumb thing?"

"Countless times," Dad said. He sounded amused. Which may have been his way of thinking 'if he's not in jail, this couldn't possibly be that bad.'

"Well! Me too! I ran out of gas."

My father did not laugh at me. He might have chuckled, but that was clearly with me. My father is not the sort of person who laughs at a guy who's waiting by the side of a major interstate -- by Vermont terms -- for AAA to send a wrecker out to pour three gallons of gas into his tank.

My mother, I believe, was sorely tempted to laugh. But she may have gotten it out of her system before Dad handed the phone to her. We all agreed on the most important -- one could even say central -- points. Namely, that I had done a dumbass thing.

For the most part, I was laughing, and cheerful. When you do something stupid, there's no sense in trying to deny it or trying to mitigate it. You're a dumbass -- end of story

We hung up, and I glanced out at the sunset. It was really beautiful. The trees on one side were still snow covered up at this altitude. The rock face on the other side of me still had long, almost magical white ice shimmering along it, gleaming in the dying sunlight. It was peaceful.

So, I listened to This American Life on my iPod and I waited for rescue.

After another fifteen minutes or so, my phone rang. It rang to the tune of "Angel Dressed in Black" by Warren Zevon, which meant Wednesday was calling.

Wednesday was, first and foremost, concerned that I was safe and help was on the way.

Secondly, she was also in agreement that I had done a dumbass thing. "I tell you not to wait for the light to come on!" she said, somewhere between exasperated and laughing. "I tell you to fill the tank when you get to one quarter!"

Which is true. She has told me this before. And I, with a particularly male sense of smug superiority, have told her that I know my car. I know how far I can stretch it. I know how far I can go without getting into trouble. Don't worry about it.

So. Not only was I a dumbass -- I was a dumbass who did a dumb thing that the woman he loved had specifically cautioned him about. Which is hardcore dumbass.

Weds was reluctant to mock me. I had to insist. Because dude -- I had done a stupid thing. I deserved mockery. I expected mockery. Hell, I expect the comments section under this post to be filled with variations of "Jesus, Eric. You're a dumbass!"

Which, you know, I was.

We elected to hang up, in case I needed cell phone battery power.

I noticed it was full on dark now. A nearly full moon provided most of the illumination. And it was getting cold. I idly remembered that I had noticed there was still snow on the trees and rocks here. Which is another way of saying "it's still winter here, y'moron," And the sun had gone down and it was now night. And I had no heater nor any way of turning the car on.

I bundled under my coat, reflecting on the 60 degree weather I had left.

And noticing that it had been quite a while since I called AAA.

So I called them back. The dispatcher I got this time said that yes indeed, a wrecker had been dispatched, and should be there any time. He (it was a he this time) cheerfully paged the driver, who said he was almost there.

I thanked him and hung up.

And waited.

And waited.

It was very dark indeed. The long road let me see headlights from a far way back, my flashers reflecting off the snow and rocks nearby, once every second and a half, for maybe half a second's time each. And it was quite cold now.

I checked the time. It had been more than an hour since I made the first call. I wasn't listening to This American Life anymore. I had long since made sure to reserve battery power for the hazard lights. Those lights meant cars shooting past me at seventy miles an hour going up the mountain didn't hit me. Those lights meant the wrecker, whenever it showed up, would see me and pull over. Those hazard lights, in other words, were going to get me back on the road before, oh, morning.

My phone rang. The theme from the Rockford Files, which meant my phone didn't know the person calling me.

It was AAA. "Hi!" the dispatcher said. "Our driver can't find you! Can you describe any landmarks?"

"He... can't find me?" I asked, somewhat incredulously. "I'm off the shoulder of the road on an Interstate."

"I know, sir. What can you tell me? Can you see a mile marker? It's a small green side at the side of the road."

I could not. And I knew what mile markers were. "It's a mountain," I said. "I'm roughly halfway up a mountain."

"Can you see any bridges?"

"No... um... I'm halfway up a mountain."

"Because we can usually track locations by bridges."

"No bridges. Sorry."

"Hm. It would help if you could find a mile marker. Could you back your car down the mountain until you pass one?"

I paused for a long moment. "You mean... release my brake, roll backwards in a totally unpowered car in the middle of the night, in hopes I'm close enough to a mile marker to see it?"

"...yes, sir."

So I did.

I believe the white markers without numbers are set a tenth of a mile apart. By that reckoning, I rolled backwards down the mountain for three tenths of a mile before I decided I simply couldn't safely continue. There was no mile marker to be found."

"All right, sir. We'll have the driver keep looking."

It was dark, and cold, and now I was on the nervous side. I was on a highway with literally nowhere I could be except on the side of the road, and AAA couldn't find me. On a mountain. In rural Vermont. With absolutely no means of moving my car.

It occurred to me that I had seen this movie before, and dumbasses in those movies got killed by slashers wearing masks. And if you think that's stupid to think about, you've never been stranded on the side of the road in increasing cold in Vermont waiting for a wrecker to show up for a long period of time.

It also occurred to me that no police cars had happened by. None. I was sitting on the side of the road for an awfully long time, and a police officer would pull over and render assistance if he saw me. That's just part of what police officers do. But none came.

Well, obviously the wrecker finally showed up. What had happened was simple enough. AAA had told him I was between exits 26 and 27, so he'd gotten on the highway at exit 260 and ridden up the road a long way, then didn't find me before the border, so he'd ridden back down south to exit 25, circled around and did it again, and then back down to exit 24.

Exits in Vermont on this stretch of road were about twenty miles apart. He had put a hundred miles on his wrecker trying to find me.

He gave me gas. And jumpstarted the car, the battery so run down that I couldn't have started it myself. I pulled out and drove to my usual gas station. I had been waiting well over an hour and a half. Which added at least that much time to my trip.

And yet, I couldn't be upset at the wrecker driver. He went where AAA said. I couldn't even be upset at AAA. Because in the end, I'm the one who ran out of gas. I had done a dumbass thing. That's not AAA's fault or the wrecker's fault or work's fault. It's just my fault. And you sometimes receive an object lesson about stupidity when you do stupid things.

This trip marked the only time I've ever had a hard time crossing into Canada. The border guard was at the least... curious about a guy who was driving with little luggage to Ottawa -- their nation's capital -- then turning around and coming back the next day. It was many hours to Ottawa from that crossing.

My favorite question he asked, with a certain amount of incredulity, was "why do you have a Canadian girrlfriend?"

I swear to God, I said "I have taste?"

I'm somewhat surprised he didn't search the car then and there.

Needless to say, I got in the country. It was well after one in the morning that I arrived at the house. Frank had gone to bed, but Megs and Weds were both up. Weds was profoundly relieved I was there. And despite friends of hers saying she should hit me with a broom, she elected to be happy and friendly and welcoming.

The next day, as I mentioned, I was overcautious with gasoline. I wanted no more trouble.

Which was no doubt why I got stopped for speeding in Quebec. And thank God Weds was in the car, because not only was I incapable of speaking French to the woman, but I actually managed to say "pardon me, I speak French" to her. I blew my language roll when all I was trying to say was "I don't speak your language."


Oh, and an hour and a half from home the Check Engine light came on. I'm hopeful that's telling me I need to change my fuel filter or air filter, but I'll get it checked out tomorrow. Certainly the car was running well, regardless.

So. A late trip. An hour and a half plus on a mountainside. A speeding ticket. A check engine light. A Canadian Border Guard who wanted to know why on Earth I would fall in love with a Canadian.

(The American customs agent was just concerned we were planning on getting married while Weds was here in an attempt to keep her in the country. We made it clear that one of our trips was to go to the processing center to do such things legitimately.)

And yet, it is Sunday morning, and my fiancee is sleeping in the next room.

Dumbass or not, I'm a lucky man. And all is right in the world.

Of course, now it's time to eBay a bunch more stuff. As it turns out, Canadian speeding tickets are surprisingly expensive and Christ knows what's wrong with my engine (and whether or not it was caused by someone running out of gas while climbing a long hill).

I'm a dumbass, but I'm honest about it. And I'm home with Weds. And that's pretty nice.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at April 1, 2007 10:53 AM


Comment from: Rasselas [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:18 AM

Classically, one picks up the girl before running out of gas in a remote location.

"We'd better sit in the back seat to conserve heat. That noise was just a raccoon. Let me undo that for you...."

Comment from: Copper Hamster [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:47 AM

Interesting. In Tennessee, and Texas, Interstate exits are numbered by the mile marker they are in generally (and they A, B, C, etc for exits within a mile marker)

Comment from: Aulayan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:48 AM

Well the Canadian speeding ticket is in Canadian dollars, so theoretically if you gave them a buck you'd get 85 cents back in change...

Hrm, I wonder if my years of telling jokes like this about the Canadian and Australian dollars is part of the reason why the U.S. dollar is falling against said currencies.

But to get to the proper point, yes Eric, you did a dumbass thing. But, dumbass things lead to rather amusing stories you can tell over the years. A life without dumbass moves would be a boring one, especially since you'd have to invite friends over to entertain your own (future) children.

Also, without that dumbass move, I wouldn't have sat glued to this chair while reading the compelling post. Nicely written.

Comment from: Copper Hamster [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 12:06 PM

Also you should know, Never let your car get below half a tank. You never know when you might need it.

Of course not being an assassin for hire, I guess you might not.

Comment from: kirabug [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 12:38 PM

As soon as I started to read the trouble you were in my uncle's voice was in the back of my head asking, "Did he pack water? Because you don't go into the mountains without water, just in case of a thing like this."

This may have something to do with the fact that he lived in the Rockies. I've found it's still decent advice, even if you're not going into the mountains.

Anyway, glad you're okay, and that your dumbass thing didn't cost you more.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 1:52 PM

I did a similar thing a couple of months ago going back to college after Thanksgiving. The car gave out in the desert between Phoenix and Tucson. I was incredibly lucky, because the car started dying twenty feet from an off-ramp, so we got it halfway down that, then my two friends and I had to push the car. I don't have AAA, so we pushed the car about 2-3 miles before we got to a gas station. To this day my friends give me shit about that night, and like you said, the only thing you can do is laugh, and admit, yeah, you were a dumbass.

But you can look at it this way: at least you had AAA. A guy who knows that somewhere, somehow, he will likely be a dumbass and need to be bailed out is smarter than most.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 1:53 PM

I believe the Buddha once said that on the road to Nirvana, you're going to act like a dumbass many times. At least I think he said it - it might've been his really sarcastic student instead.

I'm half-surprised the border guard didn't do the air quotes motion when he said "Canadian girlfriend." I snicker every time I hear the phrase, myself.

Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 2:20 PM

After a long wait like that, I think "I have taste?" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to a silly question like that.

*scritchies* I'm glad you're safe.

Comment from: Nentuaby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 2:57 PM

It seems to me like that border guard was seriously out of line asking that. (That in particular- of course asking questions is a border guard's job. Even if I do think the US/Canada border really ought to be an open one.)

Personally, however, I would have said "Wait, you mean somebody ACTUALLY has a 'She's Canadian- you don't know her' girlfriend?"

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 3:05 PM

Dude, Elsinore Brewery.

Comment from: Bertson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 4:38 PM

Man, you just DO NOT sass the border guards.

My Dad always tells me a story from when he and a bunch of his friends were driving down to the States in the 70s. The border gaurd was a very attractive woman, and he and his friends were trying to chat her up while she was doing the border thing. When she was done, he asked her "So are we clean, baby?". She then asked him to pull the car over to the side, and pop the hood.

She then proceeded to disassemble the car's engine. She pulled off every single piece that she could, and after about twenty minutes, walked away leaving them to put the thing back together themelves, telling him "NOW you're clean".

Comment from: megs [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 5:58 PM

I just related this to Frank and after commiserating, he said that "they should have known better than to speed in Quebec" as evidently the frenchquebec-ytermforpolice that he said in French are anal about that. Despite being behind the piano, I gave him a blank stare. Because *I* don't even know that and we've had conversations about the differences in what speeds you can get away with in different areas in mph and kph. All I know is no right turn on red.

Glad you both got back safely and have a great time! We actually sat down last night and made frowny faces because the house was so empty. And then the Leafs game came on.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 6:09 PM

Jesus, Eric. You're a dumbass!

Sorry. Had to do it.

Comment from: Thomas Blight [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 8:12 PM

You know, the CAA (the AAA's Canadian equivalent) always seems to be slow. We were in the middle of the city and it took their driver an hour to reach us. Luckily, our car had stopping in the parking lot of a plaza that contained a Mandarin buffet, so all was good.

Comment from: Darrin_Bright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:05 PM

So... wait, you had a GPS unit in your car? Did it ever occur to you to give AAA your GPS coordinates? Then again, I have no idea how many tow trucks/wreckers are driven by muggles.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:22 PM

Unfortunately, the Garmin unit I have won't give coordinates. Trust me, I tried. ;)

Comment from: J Ryan Beattie [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 1, 2007 11:53 PM

Couldn't you have mentioned the gas station as a landmark, since you knew how far away it was?

Comment from: ferret-aaron [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 2, 2007 1:49 AM

It's not that you're a dumbass, Eric. It's that Vermont is the most ridiculously hostile state for drivers that ever lived. Yes, you can drive a hundred mph (how much is that in Canadian mph?) without any interference. But there are so many ways they get back at you for that. The worst thing in the world is driving at night, in the rain, on I-91.

Actual signs I've seen while driving in Vermont:
Caution: Falling Rock Zone
Warning: Low Flying Planes
Careful: Moose Crossing

Comment from: Chris Anthony [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 2, 2007 1:24 PM

Glad you're home safe, Eric!

I'd almost forgotten about my own adventure at the border until this post reminded me. There's nothing quite like being stopped for a potential drug bust at the border between Canada and the US because your job involves studying marijuana and cocaine use in Chile...

Comment from: Darth Paradox [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 2, 2007 5:03 PM

You think you're a dumbass?

I once ran out of gas on the Blue Water Bridge, crossing from Canada to the US at Port Huron. The bridge authority had to come up and push my car off the bridge (the long way, thankfully) and into this awkward no-man's land just outside the US customs booths. And waited there for half an hour so AAA could, presumably, cross into Canada, explain to Canadian customs that they had a dumbass driver who ran out of gas on the bridge, cross the bridge again, and give me a gallon of gas so I could make it to my planned gas station, a quarter mile past the border crossing, which I had intended to stop at so I didn't have to buy gas in Canada.

No. I'm a dumbass.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 3, 2007 12:14 AM

Wait, what's the point of being able to go 100 in a state the size of Vermont?

Comment from: Matt Buchwald [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at April 3, 2007 11:26 AM

Oh man, I love silly border guar questions. My bachelor party was in Niagara falls. On the return trip, we stopped at the duty free and my best man picked up a big bag of beef jerky. My best man was driving and there were four of us in the car. After the usual quick ournd of questions, the guard asks us, "Are you bringing any purchases back with you?"

"Some beef jerky," says my best man.

And then, with the straightest face possible, the guard asks, "How much beef jerky?"

The air in the car was silent with restraint.

"Just one bag."

"Alright you can go."

About three hundred feet down the road, we finally burst out in laughter.

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