Juárez or Bust, Part III: AL to LA

Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.

The stop to see W took us off the interstate and along a state highway, but added less than 10 miles overall to the trip distance. The driving through rural Alabama and Mississippi was some of my favorite of the entire trip. Butterflies and dragonflies flitted en masse along the roadside, and as V was the lead car, I had the distinct pleasure of watching a buzzard dive-bomb the Toyota and V swerve to miss a bunny in the road, all within the same five minutes.

Big, beautiful sky over Alabama state highway 16

What the Alabama-Mississippi state line looks like via the back roads…

We had a chance to see W’s home and garden, and grab some lunch in a local shop. I felt kind of ashamed that we’d never seen him since our wedding, and couldn’t spend more time together on this trip, but just being able to see each other during the pandemic at all felt fortunate.

We sat four little tables apart, and only came into close proximity to take a picture – masked, to protect all of us. I will definitely take this new normal over nothing. Hearing about what he has been up and how he has been spending his time meant a lot to me. V has known W for more than 20 years, but I first met him in late 2006 or early 2007 when we all worked at the Voice of America (VOA) together.

Literally less than five minutes after leaving W’s town, I looked down and saw the engine light had come on in the Volkswagen. Cue massive stomach-dropping flashbacks to our steel gray-colored Nissan Murano we nicknamed “Oscar the Grouch,” which had the most notorious engine light on the Australian continent.

I called V, trucking along behind me in the Toyota, and advised him we would unfortunately need to swing by the nearest Volkswagen service center in Jackson, MS – – 90 minutes away. It was mostly on the way, so only a slight derailment of the route to Shreveport, but I was worried we wouldn’t get there before the 19:00 closing time.

I drove as fast as I dared, the engine light glowing an accusatory orange the whole way. Disappointingly, when we arrived, even though there were still almost 40 minutes remaining until closing time, all the automotive technicians had left for the day. The lady in the office was really nice, checked around to see if anyone could help, let us use the bathrooms, and offered to let me come in first thing the next morning before regular appointments.

With Shreveport three hours and 20 minutes away, we faced a decision: pay the cancellation fee for the Shreveport hotel and find somewhere to stay in Jackson so we could come into the VW shop first thing in the morning, or push on for Shreveport. I checked Google Maps and saw there was another VW service center five minutes from our Shreveport hotel. I imagined myself on the side of the interstate with the Volkswagen in flames kicking myself for not staying in Jackson. I imagined myself changing all my plans to stay in Jackson only to find out later the light was an electrical problem.

I did what I usually do when I have a methodical problem to solve: I called my dad, who is an engineer and very automotively inclined. He had us pop the hood and check the oil and water. It seemed stable, as did the temperature gauge, so we decided to make a run for Shreveport. Hoping I wouldn’t regret my decision, I thanked the lady in Jackson and got back behind the wheel.

I could tell that the thing I had wanted most not to happen was going to happen – we would make the last couple of hours of Tuesday’s trip in the dark. We hurried for the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, delineated by a small green marker on the Vicksburg Bridge, standing proud over the mighty Mississippi River. I slowed down to snap it, and also managed to get the prettier sign on the other side before it got dark and we broke for dinner.

Mississippi-Louisiana state line at the Vicksburg Bridge


After dinner, one of the most intense rainstorms I’ve seen came pouring down on us like a biblical warning. I patted the dashboard of my Volkswagen as I turned on the hazard lights and slowed from 70 to 25 mph. “C’mon Hilde, good girl, let’s get to Shreveport.”

I strained my eyes in the dark, my night vision not being what it used to be. Eventually to our relief we rolled into a near-empty Shreveport and checked into our hotel around 23:00. The night clerk was awesome and, saying he didn’t have any king rooms left, upgraded us to the two-room executive suite with two full bathrooms! It was just the break we needed as we futzed with luggage carts and garage parking on the adjacent block.

After far too little sleep, on Wednesday morning I headed bright and early to the VW shop in nearby Bossier City, LA and prevailed upon their staff to have a technician check out my engine light situation. The bad news was I had two sensor failures having to do with wheel speed and oil separation in the engine that would cost nearly $800 in parts and labor to replace. The good news was they had both parts in stock and could squeeze me in.

By the afternoon all was well again with Hilde, and I had called ahead to the hotel in Abilene, TX where we were expected that night (about 370 miles away) to say we would be 24 hours late. That was a difficult calculation for me because it meant postponing our arrival to Juárez by a day, which affected V’s telework schedule and our social sponsors’ plans, but making a break for eastern Texas that late in the day and on so little sleep just seemed like asking for trouble. Instead I parked Hilde, and I parked myself.

The Abilene hotel clerk was so kind in pushing back our reservation with no fee when I explained we were still coming but dealing with car trouble, and the hotel in Shreveport was also able to let us extend our stay in the executive suite another night. We really lucked out with the kindness and assistance of everyone we ran into during this car hassle, and it made all the difference in a stressful and unexpected situation.

I was grateful to catch up on sleep Wednesday instead of hauling more ass to Texas. The only thing is that I was disappointed we could not have explored the boomtown casino scene of Shreveport and tested our luck on a little video poker before departing. Given the pandemic, it was just not in the cards. (See what I did there.) Instead, we had Chinese food and I nodded off to Forensic Files reruns. Boring, but safe, and ready for a fresh start Thursday.

  6 comments for “Juárez or Bust, Part III: AL to LA

  1. Hopeful consular FSO
    August 2, 2020 at 11:34

    I hope you arrived safely and had no more unexpected car problems! Thank you for sharing your trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 2, 2020 at 16:25

      We arrived safely, and cars did great! I will write about the leg of our trip across Texas very soon.


  2. trs
    August 3, 2020 at 16:37

    Pennypostcard, thanks for the updates on your drive. I made a similar drive to Juarez from DC 9 years ago and wish I had had my blog then to record the trip. What an adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 3, 2020 at 22:52

      I remember reading the post of your departure with great interest (and sadness, because it marked the end of your time in Juárez and if I am not mistaken, you had started your blog not long before the end of your time there. I wanted MOAR! Ha ha! But in all seriousness, thanks for writing all you did so I could live vicariously through you while waiting for my turn.


  3. August 10, 2020 at 01:42

    One comment to supplement this post – I forgot to mention that on this PCS trip, we were required to drive a minimum of 350 miles per day to qualify for lodging and per diem. The second night we stayed in Charlotte to see D and the second night we stayed in Shreveport due to car trouble were not likely reimbursable (or at least the former wasn’t; I’ll see about the latter when my voucher is processed), but that’s OK because it was the right thing to do. Were it not for the pandemic, I probably would have been closer to 350 miles per day than the 450 or so we were pulling, but we just really wanted to get through areas with high rates of infection and get to Post as quickly as we could. Live and learn.


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Sarah W Gaer

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