The Continental Pt. 5: Bleeding Green
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
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Back on the road again, we had been cruising through the Carolinas when we pulled in to get gas a few miles from my cousin’s house in Myrtle Beach. I paid at the pump and began fueling only to see something inching toward me out of the corner of my eye—a green blob oozing toward my flip flops.
Back with a vengeance, coolant was spreading out from under the car like a gunshot wound to her heart, the circle widening with what looked like alien blood. It was the most massive spillage to date.
Niklas was so frustrated he looked like he was going to cry—or punch something. Being technically minded, he was getting more and more involved with the engine at this point, speaking with and watching the mechanics, reading the original car manual, and Googling everything each step of the way. He discovered a visible leak in the expansion tank and was furious that all three Pep Boys shops had either missed it or ignored it, always seeming to focus on other issues. So the following day, we took it to my cousin’s mechanic, number four, and had the tank replaced.
Even with the car issue, we had a great time at the beach with family and friends. Feeling revived and upbeat, we headed for our next destination: Miami, Florida.
Due to the lack of AC, I don’t know who drank more water, me or the radiator, but now we were both always at the boiling point. Niklas and I—usually patient people—began to snap at each other and argue over directions. His head hurt, and my vision went blurry. We decided reluctantly to bite the bullet and get a new compressor and upgrade the whole AC system in Miami. En route, we made an appointment for the expensive procedure.
We checked into our hotel on Ocean Avenue in Miami Beach, located in the heart of the Art Deco District. The music was pumping, the street was bustling, and people strolled by the open air bars while others sipped giant mojitos. A man with an iguana stopped and chatted us up about the car.
Instead of joining the party and sitting with a cocktail, we headed for the air conditioning specialist: mechanic number five.
After a pricey cab ride back to the Strip, we caught the tail end of happy hour, and yet I wasn’t feeling so happy. I began to do the math. Our bleeding radiator was bleeding our wallets like an open wound. I felt anxious, my heart pounded, and I thought I might be having heatstroke.
We’d already overpaid on a pre-trip tune-up, which just didn’t add up. It seems that mechanic missed a few things, things we were discovering mile by mile, dollar by dollar. We knew The Cream Dream would be a gas guzzler, but we were pouring money into her tank two or three times a day, while we were skipping meals and living on sandwiches.
My temples throbbed as I realized that not a week into the trip, we had spent almost a third of our vacation budget.
And the underlying fear and impending disappointment, more than the money, of course, was not being able to finish the trip at all, a trip we’d been looking forward to for three years. “If our car dies, our trip dies,” I mumbled into my beer.
Niklas pretended he didn’t hear it, but we both knew that we were both thinking this unspeakable truth. We decided, with just a look, to put that unthinkable thought out of our minds and enjoy the moment. We ended up having a beautiful night, enjoying a nice meal and walking the moonlit streets.
The following morning, we relaxed at the beach and meandered along the tropically-landscaped pathways. When we picked up our car, the new air conditioner was so cool and comfortable that we didn’t mind the rush hour traffic. Inching through town in the beating heat confirmed that we’d made the right decision.
No more than thirty minutes later, our car lurched forward spastically and sputtered. Then the engine died altogether. Niklas tried again and again to restart the car while traffic piled up behind us on the wide residential boulevard in southwest Miami.
Two hours later we found ourselves on a tow truck, headed to another auto shop. Mechanic number six was located in an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of town. The driver informed us the shop was closed for the night, and suggested we call a cab to a hotel.
I felt absolutely defeated. Totally despondent. I plopped myself down on a curb, staring into space. Then something occurred to me.
Why call a hotel when you have an 130-cubic-foot interior, cushy leather seats, an 8-track player, and a huge trunk filled with blankets, camping gear, board games and a guitar? Why go to a hotel when there’s a Burger King just down the road? Why go to a hotel when you can get a six-pack of Stella Artois for far less than even one drink at a hotel bar?
Things were suddenly getting interesting. Excitement was in the air. As we walked back from the Burger King, a tropical storm rolled in. We cracked open a cold one and saw dark purple clouds roll in from all sides, converging above our sunroof. The electrical storm that followed provided the evening’s free entertainment. When the rain passed, Niklas took out his guitar and we sang the blues into the empty night sky.
“Oh, I’ve got the blues, ’cause my baby’s bleeding green,” We found the chorus very clever; clearly the alcohol was taking effect.
We awoke bright and early, and our car was first in line. “How’s the neighborhood?” one of the managers joked as he unlocked the shop. The mechanics often fought over who got to work on our classic car, but here the whole team gave her special attention, gathering around with the intensity of surgeons about to perform a serious operation.
Yes, there were more fixes and more expenses. But these guys knew what they were doing. They troubleshot, flushed the radiator, replaced the battery, replaced rusted clamps, and tightened loose hoses.
Our car was released and we were free to go at 4:30 that afternoon. We only had a two hour drive to Key Largo, with a stop at Walmart to pick up camping supplies, which is where we had been headed when the car had died 24 hours before, which made simply arriving at that superstore a minor victory. When the car made it to Key Largo in time for us to set up our tent, we were thrilled. The following day, she was running so well that we took turns driving down the narrow strip of highway surrounded by the sea, and we were mesmerized. When we finally reached the southernmost point in Key West, we were exhilarated.
We learned that if our car dies, our trip doesn’t necessarily die along with it, but that the experiences become more intensified instead.
Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Ducts, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.