Here is the next installment of our road trip adventures. If you’re keeping score, there are two more posts after this on our adventure. This post starts on Thursday of the week-long trip after a sleepless night at “the-hotel-which-shall-not-be-named.”
By 5:00 am the antics of the people in the next room finally drove us to get up, pack, and leave. On my way out I stopped at the front desk to yell at the night manager. I got a weak, “we’re sorry,” and look of fear that I might jump over the counter to explain things more personally. Instead, I left the key cards on the counter and slammed as many doors as I could on my way out.
Well, the only door between me and the car was an automatic one, so the whole slam the door thing wasn’t as childishly satisfying as it could have been.
We didn’t eat at the hotel and decided that we’d just get something at the Starbucks across the street. After a bit to eat and gassing up the car it was time to turn west again as the day’s destination was Monument Valley and The View Hotel.
Seriously, the hotel is called, “The View Hotel,” because of its great view of Monument Valley…
I had also arranged with a local guide company to get a jeep tour of the valley with a Navajo guide on Friday. This would the be the highlight of the trip and what I was really looking forward to.
On our way, we decided to stop at Canyon de Chelly. My mother had taken me there and I wanted to show Heather the spectacular sights there. Unless you’ve been there, you’ve likely just mispronounced the name. It’s one of those fancy French words and is really pronounced, “de Shay.” I think it’s spelled and pronounced like this as a way to tell who’s been there and who hasn’t.
We left I-40 at Gallup New Mexico and headed into the Navajo Nation and onto roads more reminiscent of Route 66 back when mother and I traveled here. We arrived at the visitor center just at lunch time and had picnic lunch before heading up the road around the canyon rim.
It was at the first overlook where the trouble started – the battery light on dash-board came on, but the car didn’t stall or show any signs of a problem. We continued our journey to other overlooks, thinking that likely it might be a false warning, or something easily fixed. The views of the canyon were amazing and I told Heather all about the day my mother brought me here.
The canyon, is owned by the Navajo Nation, and also listed as a National Monument. The National Park Service and the Navajo Tribal Trust jointly manage the monument. Visitors can hike and drive the rim roads, but access to the canyon is restricted. Tours of the canyon are available from private Navajo-owned companies. My mother and I did one of those tours back in ’72 and it was great. I don’t remember too many details of that tour other than I loved it.
By the time Heather and I got back to the visitor center I was getting worried that the battery light might be a real problem so we stopped and asked if there was car repair shop in the area. Turns out there was one in Chinle, the town at the entrance to the Monument, and after stopping once more for directions, we found it.
It was at this point that I discovered that in this part of the world, most folks drive Ford or GMC trucks and SUVs and I likely had the only Honda Element in the whole state. Well, at least within say 150 miles. I found out later that the only Honda dealer was in Flag Staff, some 170 miles away.
The man there was sympathetic, but very clear that he didn’t stock Honda parts or service them regularly and best he could do is a little testing and suggest I go back to Gallup. After doing a few basic tests he said I had a bad battery and if I could find one that should fix the problem. Since it was a battery problem, the theory was that as long as I didn’t turn off the engine again, I could get anywhere. This made sense to me as the battery was five years old and I had taken the car in for a full service check the week before.
So, being fully armed with cell phones and google maps, Heather and I started searching and calling. It didn’t take long and I found an auto parts store in Gallup that had battery for my car in stock and had a person on duty who could replace it. It was then 91 miles back the way we came and into the parking lot of the parts store.
It didn’t take them long to replace, and after braving a meal at the local Taco Bell, we were on our way back to The View Hotel and our Friday tour.
Just as dusk hit we’d were just outside of Chinle again and I decided to turn on the headlights A few minutes later the battery light came back on. Then a few minutes later, the instrument panel went nuts, just before the engine started miss firing and the headlights dimmed. Lucky for us this happened right near to a gas station and I was able to glide the car into a parking place.
It’s was then that I realized that it likely wasn’t the battery, but the alternator and I had just driven the last 91 miles on the charge in the battery. It was also at this moment that I knew that we’d just blown our hotel reservations and we weren’t going to get our Monument Valley tour.
I was a bit shattered at that moment, but Heather knew that we were done and suggested we see if there was a motel nearby. A few clicks on the cell phone and Heather found one. It was just a couple of miles away and I turned the key to see if there was any chance of driving that far. To my surprise, the car started and the battery light stay off. Not sure what happened, but the car managed just enough battery to get us to the Best Western.
It was in the motel room when I cried for the loss of the tour and my failure with the car. Looking back at the day’s events, I should have taken the car to a service center in Gallup and had someone test the charging system. Sigh, well, it could have been worse – at least we were safe in a clean motel.
In the morning we set about the task of getting the car fixed. I had my laptop computer with me so I got on that and started some searches. First I called the Honda dealer in Flagstaff. The service tech confirmed that the most likely problem was a bad alternator. Turns out that on the Honda Element the battery warning light means the battery isn’t being charge. The car would need to be towed in.
The next call was to AAA to arrange for towing. I was hoping to get to Flagstaff so the dealer could fix it. AAA proved to be a major disappointment. I finally got an operator on-line for Arizona, and was informed that my plan would only cover the first five miles and after that it would be $8.00 per mile, or to get to Flagstaff the price of a used car. I was then told that if were a member of the Arizona AAA, they’d let me upgrade to unlimited miles and wave the normal 48 hour waiting period and tow me right then. Cool I thought and as the Arizona operator repeatedly reminded me, I’ve been a member for 26 years, they’ll take care of me.
Next problem was that I am a member of the California AAA, not Arizona, so they have to call California and ask if they’d do that for me. After being on hold for a very long time, I was told that only a supervisor could do that, and I’d have to hold for one. After 30 minutes of waiting, the line went dead as they cut me off.
While I was on hold, Heather mentioned that she thought we had a towing plan with our car insurance from State Farm. She got on her phone and confirmed this with our agent back home and got the phone number to call for service. The only problem was that they’d only tow the nearest service center, which the State Farm lady informed me was in Gallup, not Flagstaff.
After a fifteen minute phone call, State Farm was sending a tow truck to get us to Gallup and all fully covered under our insurance plan. Over breakfast Heather and I repeatedly asked why we had AAA. In al the 26 years I’ve had it, I’ve gotten a few maps, had a battery replaced, and once got a jump-start. Then, in the mist of my real need they hang up on me and basically were unable or unwilling to help.
AAA lost my business in Chinle, on a Friday morning in the desert.
Till next week and the tale of the Hopi tow truck.