Grace in Sutherlin

After driving for about 6 hours, leaving right after church, we decided to have dinner at Taco Bell.

We needed a break and something more than quick business at a rest stop. Had about three and a half more hours to go until we arrived at Amy’s mom’s house and I’d been driving for about 4 hours.

In late afternoon, we drove through the shocking scene of the fires from last summer. Acres upon acres of devastation north of Lake Shasta. The forests started returning when we got into Oregon but we started losing light.

At dusk we drove through Grant’s Pass. We kept going. For another little while at least, until Roseburg. That’s the end of the twists and turns and ups and downs, and around the time we usually switch drivers.

How about Denny’s, I asked, as we drove through Roseburg.

Amy has a thing against Denny’s, so it was more of a joke than a suggestion.

We drove through Roseburg without anything grabbing our attention.

There was another town only a bit farther, smaller and more set up for those just wanting to eat a little, gas up, and get back on the road.

Saw Taco Bell listed among the dining choices on the handy blue next exit sign. Vianne likes burritos and Taco Bell has at least a passing resemblance to those. I was tired of driving and there wasn’t another town too close. This was it. We exited, made a left, and wound our way into the parking lot.

It’s next to a Subway that has an empty store front on one side of the building, making it look like the Subway isn’t yet finished. It has been that way for at least a few years.

We’d been to that Taco Bell before, don’t let me fool you. I like Taco Bell too, I’ll admit. I also like Mexican food. They’re not the same.

It was a nice dinner, a welcomed break. My mom texted, “How’s the journey?” just as we were getting a table, after we had ordered. I responded, “Good! Stopped in Sutherlin for dinner!”

We ended up staying in Sutherlin for a couple more hours, at at an even less appealing place, on the side of I5.

Amy took over driving as we left Taco Bell. We stopped for gas at Shell. Going to Shell means using a rewards card, don’t you know, for those times we don’t have a handy Costco for cheaper prices.

Remembered to stay in the car. Time to start getting used to Oregon again.

“Fill it with regular,” Amy said to the attendant, handing him our credit card. He goes to the pump, puts the card in, pushes the appropriate buttons, puts the nozzle in the car, hands the card back. Same as you and I do in most every other state, but in Oregon, it’s a specialized job not allowed to civilians. The gas tank fills up, the nozzle clicks off, wait a minute or two, the attendant is back with a receipt. Off we go!

Amy started the car up. There was a curious little flash on the dash board. I didn’t see it, but Amy says the battery light and another light flashed quick. They didn’t stay on, so no worries. Right? Amy was more worried and rightfully so, but we kept on. Places to go and a grandmother to see, after all. Wanted to get to Canby before it got too late.

We got on I5 (which is what they call the 5 in Northern California and Oregon), and the dash lights flickered a bit, and the battery light flashed on, then off, then on. I saw it and it was more troubling as it didn’t quite stop.

Then the headlights shut off. Everything else stayed on. The radio, the interior lights, the engine, the windows, the little lights on the shifter, all working fine. The car ran great. It was just now dark in front of us, thick with clouds and no significant settlement for quite a while.

“Should I pull over?” Amy asked, rightfully concerned.

“Yes! Pull over,” I answered, hiding my concern a lot less. Not really panic, but definitely not suave confidence.

We pulled over to the side of the freeway. Fortunately, it was a nice wide shoulder. The kids were now getting concerned.

I got out. A fuse? Something else? Lights going out but everything else running wasn’t something I’d dealt with. I’d just replaced the headlights a month before. Both out at once? Amy and I traded places.

I tried the ignition. The car turned on great! Tried the lights. Funky flashing and flickering on the panel and now the radio, but no headlights. Can’t drive on I5 at night without headlights. Not with kids at least.

I turned the car off, opened the hood, checked what I thought to check, which is me basically looking for something out of the ordinary. The battery was new, and all the cables looked fine. I also checked the oil. Our year of Subaru Outbacks doesn’t have a helpful oil light and it doesn’t have a volt gauge. Low oil is signified by a seemingly random flash of other warning lights on the panel, and, of course, your engine eventually seizing up.

So, that came to mind. We had plenty of oil and there wasn’t anything obviously amiss with the engine.

We had just paid about $1700 to fix our front and rear drive shaft assembly among other things, so maybe something to do with that? Our finances were stretched very thin and I didn’t want it to be anything big. I wanted to see something easy.

But why the lights? Didn’t make sense. We pay AAA every year, and so I gave them a call.

“We’re stuck on I5” I told the very helpful operator. “About a mile north of Sutherlin,” I added. “I can see the Motel 6 sign,” I added some more.

They must hire operators who are skilled in both crisis management and organization. They’re always very friendly and helpful. “Help is on the way,” she said.

About 40 minutes later, I called back, wondering about the help. Usually it’s quicker, and I hadn’t heard anything. “They’ve not gotten in touch?” she asked. Nope. She put me on hold, and then said, they’ll arrive soon.

I was impatient. Vianne was starting to get really nervous and even had some tears. Amy was calm and encouraging, as frustration started to build up in me.

Oliver was sound asleep.

Amy spoke words of faith and hope and peace. I needed that, needed a calming presence as I felt the responsibility weighing down on me.

I had a thought. How about the high beams? I turned the ignition. Car came right on! Turned on the lights. Nothing, except the panel flashing. Switched to high beams. They came on! I got to thinking we could make it to Canby even still, then get the car repaired the next day.

What should I do? I felt a rising panic and chaos. I decided to give it a try. Merged back into traffic, the lights stayed on, but the panel started flickering again, more nervous, more chaos, peace fled entirely.

I can’t do it, I told Amy. I don’t trust it.

She called AAA and told them we were about a mile farther down the freeway than originally said.

Waited a fair bit longer. I felt the frustration, discouragement, irritation, all the cues of impatience and chaos poking at me. Amy had a lot of peace. Vianne was nervous. Oliver was still asleep.

I kept fighting the urge to turn the car back on and just go, just go, get back going, push pass my caution. Be bold! Grace whispered to me, and had just enough momentum that it blunted the impatience, and I waited. Finally, I saw the flashing lights of a tow truck approach and then pull over in front of us.

Chaos had taken over the evening. We were stuck on I5 with a broken car, a mystery problem, financially strapped because of our recent bills, financially uncertain because of a very tenuous job situation in 2019. Lord I don’t believe. Help my unbelief!

I got out, waited by the front of the car for the AAA tow truck driver to get out and come over. It was a familiar scene. I’d done this quite a few times before. Cars are a weak area in my menagerie of faith issues, since I’ve run into a lot of breaking down and falling apart.

Indeed, had two major repairs around Christmas 2017–one for our Subaru and one for our Civic–which tapped our finances for much of the year. Added to this, my old Honda Civic stopped running in November, and we got tired of throwing more money we didn’t have at it, so were now down to one car.  We thought it was dependable.

She said hello as she got near. Every other tow truck driver I’ve had were men. So, this was a change. I shared what was going on with the car.

Grace began to abound.

She was a voice of calm. There we were on the side of I5, chatting about possible issues, and as we talked I felt more and more peace. Usually I’m impatient about trying to sort out possible solutions when the obvious isn’t working. But, she was so nice, and suggested we check the fuses again, try a few other things.

She was flummoxed, and yet it was a peaceful flummoxed, not the kind I had. All things are possible when you have a large tow truck and have seen much worse situations on much worse nights.

Nothing worked, she called her husband who is a mechanic, and he suggested some things, but it wasn’t those. I asked if we could make it to Canby. She nor he wanted to venture an opinion about that possibility, though it didn’t seem an absolute negative.

I decided to give in. Canby was outside our 100 mile limit, so that was right out. I had originally told the AAA operator we would go to Motel 6 (it was within view! or at least was until I made things slightly worse) and find a mechanic in the morning.

In our wait, in experiencing a moment of grace, I thought I’d look for a nearby Holiday Inn Express. These are handy places, serving us well in times of stressful long roadtrips and occasional business trips.

We have had a membership there for a while (more points!), and they have dependable rooms, breakfast and other amenities. Not much more in cost than Motel 6. If you can’t afford a hotel, you might as well not afford a somewhat nicer hotel and get some points for the bother.

We transferred the kids, car seats, and other items into the four (or five) person cab of the tow truck. Vianne was distraught but is always adventurous, so getting into the big truck perked her up.

Oliver stayed asleep.

The 10 mile drive back to Roseburg was, grace-fully, actually pleasant. The tow truck driver–whose name and company escapes me since when I should have paid attention I still had a lot of chaos bouncing around my head–was extremely nice, and we chatted about Oregon and California and things she’d seen and cars she’d rescued.

Got to the Holiday Inn. Amy had called ahead about a room. They had a lot, so we weren’t too nervous. But, you know, at this time of year, it can be difficult to get a room at an inn. I’ve read about that happening.

Took a bit of time to check in since as we got there another family had just arrived at the front desk, and they had some complications to sort out.

Amy, and the kids, waited in the car.

I got a room. The tow truck driver drove to the edge of the relatively empty parking lot, lowered the ramp, backed the car onto the asphalt. We said our very heart-felt thanks, and then good-byes. Grace abounded from her the moment she pulled over to help on I5. I really want to hunt down that company and say even more thanks.

I reparked the car. It ran great, just no lights.

We unloaded the kids and unloaded what we needed. Not too easy since we didn’t expect just a quick overnight. And we hoped that’s all it would take on this eve of Christmas eve.

View from our hotel

My experiences, though, had me uncertain, and quietly faithless. Things that start well end poorly in far too many of my memories.

And this trip had started well, and now we had encountered the poorly.

Though that tow truck driver was sure nice and we found a good hotel to stay at.

Even better than I expected. Third floor room, two queen beds, and all the rooms faced one way and had a balcony, which overlooked the Umpqua river. That’s a nice view! Weather was cloudy but not rainy, and I’ll take that anytime I’m in Oregon.

After getting settled, we fell asleep. It was about 10. I slept great for about 4 hours, woke up around 2:30, then my thoughts started, then my uncertainty blossomed, and chaos entered my soul. I pulled out my phone and started looking for a mechanic, since it seemed something I needed to do.

Had a few listings, and one stood out. Five stars on Yelp. That’s a good sign. The reviews were helpful and it happened to be less than a mile away, just across the bridge and a couple blocks. I felt a lot of peace, decided that’s the place I’d risk (I’ve had bad mechanics before), and fell back to sleep.

We woke up around 7:00, we got some breakfast at the nice buffet, then went back to the room. I had a surprising amount of peace, and had burgeoning hope.

Waiting room at the mechanic

When it turned 8, I called the mechanic, they answered on the first ring, and were happy to help. I drove the car over (it ran great! just no lights).

Decided to wait as they diagnosed it. Took about 40 minutes for them to get to it. But they had a problem to fix. Overcharging alternator.

I’d had bad alternators, but when that happened the car doesn’t run and definitely doesn’t get started. Bad alternator meant “no charging” to me. I’ve not had too much charging. But I was a bit stuck, gave them the go ahead, then googled the issue.

Usually googling a problem makes things worse, but this time it actually described what we were dealing with.

My mom called me (she doesn’t call that often) to check in. I gave her the update. Then started the walk back to the hotel.

It was a misty, cloudy, but not rainy day to walk through an older part of Roseburg, across the Umpqua River, back into our hotel. Vianne and Oliver were in the indoor pool, and Amy was calmly reading a book nearby. The kids were thrilled. They love to swim.

The car wouldn’t be ready until 2 and the desk clerk said it would be entirely fine to have a late check out set for 2.

Good mechanic. Indoor pool. Food to eat. A room with a view and the freedom to stay for the day. Kind driver, kind staff.

Grace abounded again and again.

View of our hotel from the bridge over the Umpqua river, as I walked back from the mechanic

Had a nice morning of it, decided to go to lunch. The only place within walking distance? Denny’s.

Fate had its way.

I ordered a nice breakfast for lunch, and Amy ordered a Cobb salad. Vianne had chicken fingers. Oliver wanted a cheeseburger and a side salad.

When the plates came, we all were pleased, except for Oliver. He was bordering on ecstatic. It was a big salad, with everything he likes (tomatoes, lettuce, etc.)

Vianne has always loved eating and food. Oliver has been much more laid back about it all. Until the time we had Denny’s in Roseburg. I have never seen him enjoy his meal more.

He ate it up, every bite a moment of joy. The salad fulfilled his dreams and the cheeseburger his hopes (“It’s so cheesy!”). All the bother might have been worth it just to see his joy upon feasting on salad and a cheeseburger at Denny’s.

Car got fixed a little before the expected time. I walked back over. It was raining a bit now, but I didn’t mind. All is well, and a walk in the rain across the river does a soul good.

The cost was less than expected, so good, but a new alternator, new headlights, one new taillight, and labor isn’t cheap.  Somehow, I still had peace.  A lot of peace.  I may have even been cheery.

Everyone was very friendly, and to get it diagnosed and back on the road in a few hours on Christmas eve was beyond welcomed.

The car started right up, and even as it started it sounded a lot healthier, no longer having that burst of extra gusto it had been starting with for the previous week. I didn’t tell the mechanics about that, but they apparently fixed it by replacing the alternator.

Back on I5. This time the car kept running. We drove to Canby, getting there for dinner.

We didn’t get there in time for the Christmas eve service, but truth be told, we had our own Christmas eve service. Grace abounded in a time of frustration, peace came through when we were stuck and dependent on others. As the time in Oregon continued, we experienced more and more grace at each step.

Oregon Coast in late December

Lord, thank you for helping my unbelief. I thank you for your grace, for your hope, for your bounty that you showed us during what might have been a very discouraging time. Thank you for bringing people of kindness our way, for the generosity and encouragement.

Thank you for the hope you brought us on Christmas eve. Thank you for the grace we experienced that started in Sutherlin and carried us into the new year. We had a great time in Oregon, feeling rested and excited about what you will do in the midst of our continuing questions about 2019.

The weather in Oregon continued to be great, by the way. We even had some sun and relatively warm weather when we visited the coast. Vianne got to experience her happy place again, by dancing in the Pacific.

Amy and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary with a quick getaway to a hotel in Washington.

Amy Oden

It was just off of I5 and we had a 3rd floor balcony that looked right out over the Columbia River.

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