My stomach felt queasy. How was this was going to work out?
We were camping in Washington State when the alternator of our ’91 Mazda died. At least that’s what Fred suspected after he checked under the hood.
“The kicker is that I have a spare alternator sitting at home,” he sighed.
Home was three hundred kilometres away and Winthrop, the nearest town, was thirty. We placed the dead alternator in a bike pannier, put on our biking clothes, and headed south to Winthrop to find a mechanic.
Ten kilometres away we discovered Mazama and its amazing general store with a gas station, locally roasted coffee, ice cream, pottery, organics, freshly baked bread, bike rentals—and a pay phone with a phone book, no less. We called the only garage in Winthrop and found out that the mechanic wouldn’t be in until Monday. It was Friday and we needed to be in Canada to meet up with my siblings by Monday. Before Fred hung up, he asked about car rentals. The nearest agency was in Omak, a hundred kilometres east.
“The part won’t likely be in until Tuesday,” Fred surmised. “ A new one costs a couple of hundred dollars and shipping would double the price. I guess I’ll have to hitchhike to Omak, rent a car, and go home and get the spare.”
My heart sank. “Maybe someone could bring it down to us?” I suggested.
“It’s worth a try.” I swallowed my pride and phoned our daughter.
“Ooh, that would be fun. Call me back in twenty minutes; I need to check a few things,” she said.
For twenty-five minutes I enjoyed the idea of my daughter and her family joining us for the weekend. But that feeling evaporated when Fred called her back. “That’s all right,” he said. “Don’t feel bad. We’ll manage.”
God, I know that you are with us in this. What should we do?
I made a few more calls, but no one was available to make the drive.
Time was ticking, so I began approaching anyone and everyone who stopped at the store and asked them for a ride to Omak. But no one was going east.
Meanwhile, Fred struck up a conversation with another cyclist. “I’ve hitch-hiked for years in this area and it’s very difficult to get a lift that way,” he said. “And if you do, there is no guarantee you would want to ride with the person offering to take you. I’d drive you myself, but I have guests coming from Seattle.”
“Maybe someone around here would loan us their car,” I said wondering if this fellow might.
The cyclist looked at me hard. “Most people around here keep to themselves. I lived here two years before someone would loan me their car. You don’t have two years.” He paused to let that sink in then continued. “I know who can help you: Liam, the mechanic. He can fix anything. He’ll get you on the road in no time.”
Yeah, but at what cost? I thought.
“I’ll call him,” he said, but he didn’t have Liam’s number. Nor did the staff inside the store that sees him come in every day for coffee. “No worries,” the cyclist said, “I’ll bike down to his place. It’s just five miles down the road. I’ll get him to call you. Stay by the phone.”
Twenty minutes later, I was about to call Heidi back and plead our case when I heard a fellow say, “You must be Fred.”
After a short conversation and a look at the faulty alternator, Liam was on the phone to an auto parts store in Twisp, a town just south of Winthrop.
“They can get the part in tomorrow at 9 a.m. It’s kind of pricey though,” Liam said. “A hundred and twenty bucks.”
“And the shipping?” I asked.
“That includes the shipping,” he said. “Would you like them to order it?”
“Yes!” we said.
Liam offered to drive us down the next day to pick it up, and he didn’t want more than the cost of the gas to do it.
“You’ve been generous with your time already. “ I said. “ It’s OK. We can bike down and get it.”
Liam sized up the grey-haired couple he was talking to and looked sceptical.
“Really, it’s not that far,” I said.
Fred offered to give Liam something for his time, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He left us his phone number and instructions about what to do if the car still didn’t run with the new alternator.
We biked back to the campsite somewhat relieved.
After supper Shirley and EJ came over from two campsites down. We met them the night before when they needed help getting their thirty-year-old Coleman stove to work. When I had heard they planned to hike up Cutthroat Pass, I asked them about the snow levels and wondered if it was still too early in the season to get up to the pass. But they were confident. “We’ll come by tomorrow and tell you how things go,” Shirley said.
Over a glass of wine, we heard about the hike and their lives. Both women are in their sixties. EJ teaches special education in Hawaii and has travelled extensively. Shirley teaches classes in justice at the University of Western Washington and has recently won a humanitarian award for years of advocating for refugees. When they heard about our day they said they’d drive us down Twisp to pick up the new alternator.
“We’re too tired to go on another hike tomorrow anyway,” EJ said.
Was I detecting a theme? God’s intentions couldn’t have been more obvious.
Once again I swallowed my pride. “That would be great,” I said.
The next morning we got into EJ’s old Toyota and shared stories all the way to Twisp and back. Before the women went on their way, we exchanged e-mail addresses and hugs.
Fred installed the new alternator and started the engine. No warning lights. He wiggled a happy dance behind the wheel.
We talked about what happened for the rest of the weekend. “You know, if we’d just stayed calm and thought things through, we could have solved the problem ourselves without needing anyone’s help,” I said. “But I’m kind of glad we didn’t figure it out.”
“Otherwise we never would have met four incredible people,” Fred replied. “And that would have been a shame.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.