Day 14: Knoxville, unexpectedly

Dear God,

I’m not sure I believe in you, at least not in the standard Judeo-Christian monotheistic single spiritual entity sort of way, but I think you generally hold a lot of sway over these parts, and now that I’m writing to you I have but one niggling little question:

God, why couldn’t you have put a more reliable catalytic converter in your 2006 Passats?

view from Hotel Indigo Nashville

We set out from Nashville on our penultimate road trip day with high hopes. We would drive to Gatlinburg, then on through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stopping along the way to hike and look at things yet still arriving in time for dinner in Asheville, North Carolina. But God and His catalytic converters had other plans.

So now we are in Knoxville, awaiting a new catalytic converter — not from God, from the Harper VW dealership in Knoxville — sorry, I just like saying catalytic converter.

The drive from Nashville was beautiful, if marred by the lunacy of the state’s brave car owners. Everyone here is a NASCAR driver, I was warned. True enough. Still, we enjoyed the scenery.

Drive through eastern Tennessee

Passing through the foothills of the Appalachians I was reminded of the relative age of mountains — these being some of the oldest, and therefore whittled down to short nubs over the eons — and I enjoyed the green forest as far as the eye cold see. We stopped in the town of Kingston on the Clinch River, not far from Oak Ridge nuclear plant, whose smokestacks you could see over the hills.

Coincidentally took a photo of the exit before the car broke down

After a fast food lunch and a stop for gas, we got back on the highway. That’s when the trouble began. Every time I touched the accelerator pedal, the engine revved, and did not return an equivalent amount of power. It was a wheezing sound, with little asthmatic huffing and choking undertones. Coincidentally, we took a photo of the upcoming exit where we’d be pulling off: we took the photo before the trouble really started, so we must’ve just been amused by the name “Buttermilk Road.”

There was nothing on this lone mountain road but a ramshackle quickie-mart. I looked under the hood, checked the oil, nothing. The idle now sounded like a grandfatherly motorcycle: had the muffler gone out? A leak in a vacuum hose? We were in a bit of a pickle. It was nearly a hundred degrees and humid on a mountain pass where there was scarcely one bar of cell phone reception. The number on our extended warranty packet was for claims only; for repairs it just advised us to visit the nearest garage or VW dealership.

With my one bar of reception I tried locating and calling a couple of nearby auto shops. One guy sounded like he didn’t speak a lick of English, but he was just a hillbilly who said “I don’ do that kinda car.” Another call to another garage got a dropped signal. Finally I located a VW dealership in Knoxville. I just wanted to know: given the description of the problem, did it seem safe to drive the sixteen miles into town? Or would we have to get a tow? The fellow I spoke to was reluctant to recommend driving in. Of course: it wasn’t his money or time on the line.

I called the 800 number for VW Roadside Assistance, even though the warranty was up and we wouldn’t qualify for free service. The dispatcher we spoke to said she’d get us a tow for $50 plus $3 a mile. I asked if she thought we could drive the distance, given that we could still get acceleration, it was just loud.

In the end, we tried driving a short distance, and decided I could get enough power that it was worth it to go slow and drive ourselves into town. Any mile we could shave off would save us on towing anyway. If we were fucked, we were fucked: so be it. I didn’t want to wait around in that heat for a tow truck that would cost us a hundred bucks.

Well, slow and steady won the race: we made it through the miles of rolling hills into the affluent suburbs of west Knoxville, and putt-putted into the VW dealership. They took prompt care of us. They said they wouldn’t be able to look at it until tomorrow morning, but that they understood we were traveling and would give us a bump in priority. One of the mechanics was also from Washington, so he thought that might get us in sooner too. Without looking at it, the guy (his name is Levi) said, “I’m ninety-nine, maybe ninety-nine-point-one percent sure it’s your catalytic converter.” Apparently this is a common issue with this year and model. Who knew.While he was at it, he mentioned a couple of other parts — one crucial, one minor — that were on the VW recall list, so they’d just take care of all of that at once.

Oh: and the catalytic converter had a manufacturer’s warranty up to 80,000 miles, and we were only at 60,000. The parts and labor would all be covered.

They gave us a sweet new Passat loaner, and suggestions for hotel and dinner. Angie checked us into a nearby La Quinta Inn (though not without mishap; apparently we booked ourselves into the La Quinta across town, rather than the one near the dealership. And the one near the dealership was twenty bucks less. But since the booking was made through Kayak.com and since it was made the same day as the reservation, it could not be refunded. At least not easily; it was looking now like we’d have to pay for two rooms at two La Quintas simultaneously, in addition to the nonrefundable room at Hotel Indigo we had reserved in Asheville that night.

We checked into the closer and cheaper of the two rooms and got to work calling the various hotels and reservation call centers, trying to make things right. We were hot, sweaty, tired, and cranky. It took all our energy not to bite each other’s heads off. We focused on getting our money back from La Quinta and begging mercy from Hotel Indigo.

Both wishes were granted. We were able to postpone our reservation in Asheville for another day, and Angie was able to get a refund from the La Quinta across town. Our car was in good hands and — knock on wood — was looking like an easy and cost-free fix. We’d still get to see the Smokies, with even more time to spend, and the only downside was that we’d be on the road another day.

Calhoun's Tennessee Barbecue, Knoxville

So after a quick nap and cooling off, we went out in our new loaner to Calhoun’s, a local BBQ institution that served us up tasty plates of pulled pork and Hickory-smoked baby back ribs. We tried corn puddin’ for the first time: it was awesome. We had a couple Jack-and-Cokes and by the time we were donw we were full and relaxed and cooled off and smiling. So far, Tennessee has treated us very well.

And God, if you’re reading this — if you exist — thanks for that sweet manufacturer’s warranty on catalytic converters.

Sunset over La Quinta West Knoxville