“We might be in trouble” are not words you want to hear when it’s -12 degrees outside and you have 125 miles of desolate highway between you and home. It was New Year’s Eve, and we were finally on the other side of back-to-back road trips to celebrate Christmas with both of our families—road trips that included subzero temperatures, snowy conditions, tight quarters, and crowds aplenty for this introvert. After nine days of general upheaval (and a bout with a stomach bug, a gift from road trip #1), the thought of a quiet New Year’s Eve at home was almost enough to make us giddy.
Nearly two hours into our drive, we were approaching the rest area at the halfway point, a stop we usually make—that is, unless Zuzu, our very energetic puppy, is sleeping (“let sleeping dogs lie…”). A few minutes earlier, I had asked Rick if we needed to stop so he could stretch and wake up. Zuzu was sleeping, but it was also about the time we’d normally be taking Sunday afternoon naps. And we were both exhausted. “Maybe,” he had answered.
As it happened, we wouldn’t come near that rest area until two hours later.
Rick’s “we might be in trouble” turned out to be accurate: the combination of the weather, the diesel truck, and less than top quality gas was causing the fuel to gel. Rick has driven this truck in cold before and had even encountered this type of problem—and had troubleshot through it, so he was pretty confident we’d be all right. But as we lost speed and he nursed the truck along, I prayed aloud, “Dear Jesus, please help us make it to the next gas station,” and hoped that there weren’t too many miles of highway before that.
We chugged into Casey’s General Store and gas station in Butterfield, MN (home of the Butterfield Threshing Bee and 586 people). Rick worked on the truck and I used the restroom. We drove around Butterfield and went back to Casey’s to wait for the diesel supplement to work its magic. On my second trip into the store, I bought a pack of gum. We drove around Butterfield again (and I kept my eye out for where we might stay in Butterfield, should the magic not work. Answer? Casey’s General Store.) On my third trip into Casey’s, I expected someone to say, “You’re still here?”
Between Butterfield rounds, I texted a good friend back home (you know, 125 miles away). I said we were having truck trouble; please pray for good solutions and a way home tonight. I texted my sister across state lines. I texted another good friend back home (still, 125 miles away) and asked her to forward the message to our small group from church. And when I prayed for us while Rick googled for solutions, I asked for an angel to help, if necessary.
An hour and a half later, Rick thought the truck could chug far enough to get us to a place with better overnight options than Casey’s General Store. So, we left the safety of Butterfield, such as it was. The truck exceeded his expectations, and we were back to cruising with occasional chugs. We bypassed the aforementioned rest stop (we’d had plenty of “rest” at Casey’s), and left successive small town exits in the rearview mirror (though I kept a mental note of each exit and farmhouse we passed…just in case): we hoped to get to the big city of Mankato.
Before we got to Mankato, our small group friend had responded, “Say the word and we’ll come get you.” Her words were a lifetime as the sun was setting and the temperatures dropped even lower. One way or another, we were going to get home.
When we got to Mankato, things were going well (all things considered), but we decided to add another round of diesel magic to the fuel—hoping to avoid more gelling since we still had a long way to go. We ventured back to the highway, but the magic didn’t work this time: we couldn’t get over forty-five and the chugging became a little scary. We counted every one of the dozen miles to St. Peter and were thankful to make it back to civilization. By this time, our top speed was fifteen miles an hour. We pulled into the AmericInn parking lot and talked about our options. We were still an hour and fifteen minutes from home (with a healthy truck, that is)—and most of that was country driving. It was still dark, and it was still dangerously cold. It was time to give up and call our lifeline.
While Ruthanne rearranged her evening (with the help of other small groupers), Rick made one last attempt to keep the truck chugging toward home. We had passed an auto parts store in St. Peter, so we circled back and picked up a bottle of Diesel 9-1-1. We drove around St. Peter, waiting to see if the truck would respond. It did, so we hit the road again, hazards flashing, as we chugged toward the next rest area. Things grew grim going up the last hill before the rest area, and I prayed, “Dear Jesus, please help us make it up this hill.” We managed to crest the hill and regain enough momentum to get into the rest area parking lot, where we drove in circles and talked through our options again. The truck was still running (more or less). We had help coming. If we kept going and the truck quit before we made it home, Ruthanne would be coming behind us. If the truck made it home, we would all give thanks and wish each other the happiest of new years with warm, hearty hugs. Liking either of these options better than abandoning the truck an hour from home, we set out again. Rick nursed the gas pedal while I called Ruthanne with the update.
By 7:30—seven hours after we had begun—we had reached the final leg of our route, which starts at a poorly marked turn that’s hard to see when you know where you’re going. We were sure it would be impossible for Ruthanne to find in the dark. She was only ten or fifteen minutes behind us by this point, so we pulled over to wait. We’d drive (or chug, as the case may be) the final fifteen miles with her right behind us.
When Ruthanne arrived, we pulled back onto the road. It didn’t take us long to realize our mistake: sitting in the cold (even with the truck running) had given the fuel a chance to gel again. The truck was barely moving. Rick coaxed a few more painful miles out of it before admitting we just weren’t going to be able to park in the garage that night. We pulled off the road, let the truck die, and then hustled our belongings, our pup, and ourselves to Ruthanne’s car.
Weeks earlier, when we had realized what two long weekends of holiday travel with Zuzu might look like, we found ourselves dreading the ordeal. She is not always the easiest of travelers. When we had told our small group our holiday plans, one member prayed that our puppy would travel well, a request we didn’t specifically make; in the grand scheme of life, it hadn’t seemed particularly prayer-worthy. Silly us. God’s answer to our friend’s prayer was obvious on our New Year’s Eve marathon drive home: during most of the trip—Zuzu’s longest yet—she had slept or lazily chewed a toy in the backseat. We were so thankful our friend had been prompted to pray for something we might not have.
Half an hour after our mad dash between vehicles, we were home, and our friend was headed back to the party she had left to come to our aid. It was not the trip we had planned, and it was definitely not the quiet New Year’s Eve at home that we had anticipated. But it was nonetheless a fitting way to end a year—so very mindful of God’s steady blessings, so very aware of His tender care. Sometimes we forget—or we forget to notice—how many ways He answers our prayers (or the prayers of our friends). We made it to the next gas station. We made it to the “big city.” We made it up the hill. Zuzu traveled like a champ. God sent an angel to help us. We made it home.
We spent the better part of New Year’s Eve, literally, utterly aware of our dependence on God, our need for friendship, and the great blessings of both. Happy New Year? I think so.