It was 1AM and I was stranded on the 101 in Calabassas.
I had driven two hours that day with one of my best friends to meet several of my family members at the Oregon v USC football game. (My die-hard Duck uncles drove all the way from Portland for the game, so how could I not go?)
After a full day of driving, tail-gating, cheering, etc., I left Los Angeles exhausted, hungry, and in dire need of my bed. But home was two hours away without traffic, and holy shit was there traffic.
I eventually maneuvered through downtown LA, made it onto the packed 101 freeway, set my cruise control... and felt the car engine just sputter and die. It just died! I was somehow (literally still don't know how it was possible in LA traffic) able to cross 5 lanes of LA freeway on momentum alone, to slow to a stop on the shoulder.
Backstory. My car had some previous trouble with oil consumption, and by that I mean it seemed to just eat oil. I was told that I was "supposed" to top off the oil every time I got gas, but as a cheap college student, I tried to skate by and only do that every couple of fills.
Luckily, there was a gas station an exit back from where my now stranded car had stopped. So I left my hazards on and started hoofing down the shoulder at 1AM with my buddy. (Side note: don't ever do this. It still amazes me that paranoid, pessimistic me actually braved walking an LA freeway. The things we do to get back home to our bed and Gilmore Girls and ice cream.)
I usually refilled with only one quart of oil, but to be safe, this time I bought 5 quarts. I KNEW that my car would start if I filled it with oil. We started walking back on the shoulder to my car, when headlights pulled up behind me. We just kept walking, because, um.. it's one o'clock in the f#cking morning and some creeper has pulled behind me on the freeway. I am not out here to make money. Sketch central.
Then we heard the voice on the megaphone: "Put your hands up slowly and turn around." I did my best to calmly drop my bag of oil containers, put my hands above my head, and turn around. After explaining what we were doing there, the police car slowly stalked us back to my car. (Did they offer to give us a ride? Oh no. Just followed behind us at walking pace. Thank you, LAPD.) When we got back up to my car, I threw up the hood and tried desperately to "fix it." I don't know why, but having the police there - not helping, no, just sitting in their car with their brights on (Thank YOU, LAPD) - made me even more nervous.
They eventually got out and watched as I finished pouring in the first 3 quarts. I assured the officers (somehow confidently) that this was all that it would take. They waited until we got back in the car before speeding off into the distance. I waited a few minutes, and checked the dipstick. Dry. Totally dry... Okay, so I poured in the next 2 quarts; waited hopefully; checked again. Still dry. What the f#ck.
Unwilling to accept the fact that I was doomed, I turned on the car. The engine seemed to start up, but when I put my foot on the pedal, there was no movement. At all.
I accepted my defeat then at 2AM. We spent the next two hours in the tow truck. (Thank all that is good for AAA. Totally worth it.) As I walked back to my apartment at 4AM, I not only felt exhausted beyond belief, but I was also so incredibly frustrated with myself.
Because when the mechanic took a look the next day, he said that my entire engine would have to be replaced.
Don't be like me. Don't let this happen to you....
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Even if you cannot afford a full service on your car every other month as is suggested, or if you know nothing about cars, you can avoid major headaches, heartaches, and overdraws by being aware of (or, for the handy among you, taking care of) the simple but necessary maintenance on your car.
5 Ways to Keep Your Car Running and Your Wallet Full
- rotating tires - Ever had a tire go flat on your way to work because it had no tread left? I have. Rotating your tires ~5k-6k miles prevents that uneven wear that can cause your tires to need early replacing (e.g. if you see wires or mesh on either side of your tires, it's too late to rotate - you'll need new ones). And rotating your own tires is super simple - jack up your car, put the front tires in the back and the back in the front (and if you're feeling cheeky, you can go diagonal). Plus, it is a great skill to have when the stars align just right with Jupiter and you get stuck in the rain on the side of the road in your own "Christmas Story."
- fuses and lights - Power locks don't work? Windows? Tail lights out suddenly? Blinkers? Dead fuses can cause all sorts of problems. Nobody likes getting pulled over for a headlight, and you CERTAINLY don't need to pay for someone else to diagnose it or fix it. If something that starts with "Power X" doesn't work, or there is a light out, check your fuse box (Google where to find it on your car - usually underneath the dash somewhere). Your manual will have a list of what every fuse does, and if one is "blown" - which happens when the single wire that runs through it breaks, so power can't get where it needs to - all of a sudden maybe your radio won't work. A box of assorted fuses is $5 just about anywhere (Target, Walmart, etc.), and if the fuse looks okay and your lights are still out, lightbulbs cost the same, and can usually be done with just a screwdriver and a glass of wine. If you do both things and the lights are still off, time for a mechanic.
- wipers - This one probably seems silly, but bad wipers statistically cause all sorts of accidents. So save the telephone pole, the tree, your car, or that person's bumper, and just change these yourself. Old wipers can be "unhooked" from your car and new ones can be reattached in a few minutes (I found Google helpful when doing this the first time also). The labor costs are definitely not worth it.
- break pads - This one is a bit trickier depending on the car, but needless to say, your breaks are important. When you start to notice your brakes getting "sticky," or if your breaks start that high-pitched "squeaking," it's time to change them. If you let them go for too long without a change, your rotors can also go bad, which just costs you more $$$. This is another one that you can do yourself if you have a couple of wrenches lying around the house and access to the many YouTube videos that show you what to do, but if it makes you nervous, find a Midas coupon online and get them done for ~$100.
- wiper fluid - This is very cheap to buy and typically gets rolled into a "fluid refill" at your mechanic. If you are so broke that you can't buy wiper fluid, a little known fact is that it's just colored soap-water. DIYers out there: make your own. Just add a mixture of about 1 part soap to 4 parts of water, and fill-er-up. The refill tank is under the hood, and it has a cap symbol that looks like a whale clearing its blowhole.
- coolant - Temperature gauge getting above halfway on the reg.? Might be time to check your coolant level. Changing your own coolant isn't very difficult on most cars, but it can be if it requires you to get under your car. For people with extreme claustrophobia and a paralyzing fear of getting trapped under 2-ton metal boxes like me, this one could be very very difficult.
- oil - After 2k-3k miles driven for older cars (or 5k-7k if you're on that new Synthetic shit), or after about 3 months, your oil needs a-changin'. Doing this yourself will cost about $25, and you'll need oil, an oil filter, a wrench, and a tolerance for getting under smelly and dirty fluids (aka if you're an, ahem, active adult, you probably already do something much like this). Sound scary? Wait for those nearby mechanic chains to send out "Oil Change" coupons - usually you can get it done for ~$20, and sometimes they'll even throw in a top-off on wiper fluid and coolant. Um also... CHECK YOUR OIL EVERY TIME YOU GET GAS!!! Especially if you have a car older than 4-6 years. It takes 60 seconds, and it will save you from scary nights on LA freeways.
- transmission fluid - This is very simple to check and fill if you have a reservoir under the car hood, but some older car models don't. You need new fluid roughly every 40k-50k miles. If your car feels like it jolts when it shifts, or if you your level is low, it might be time to have a mechanic check it out.
A reminder: depending on your comfort level and confidence, you can find out how to do pretty much anything on the internet. Search Youtube for your make and model and what you want to do, and a whole host of step-by-step videos will pop up for these fixes.
Also, Amazon also has a feature where you can add your car details to your account, so when your search for a particular part, Amazon Garage will tell you if it actually fits your car.... um.... WHAT?!? Yeah, Amazon is that awesome.