my brush with death in the swamps of jersey

a good story deserves to be told, and this is a good story. so grab a snack and settle in.

i was originally to have done two gigs on the 18th – one at 6pm and one at 10pm. the 6pm show was in lambertville, nj…it’s called the heartlands hayride, and it’s a two hour radio broadcast, performed live in front of an audience and sent out over the air, grand ole opry style.

now, my logic was that – since i’d be leaving at a little after 8pm – i’d have plenty of time to make the 1 hour and 27 minute trek across the state to long branch, nj and would be able to set up and make a go of it with these guys that we all met at the cape may singer/songwriter’s conference the month before, at the 10pm gig in long branch – because, as we all know, i’m incapable of saying no. 🙂 (actually, i was looking forward to the evening gig…i like playing with new people and they seem like good folks, and had picked some cool stuff for the show. call me nuts if you must.)

we were to arrive for the hayride show at 4:30, so we’d have time to acquaint ourselves with the house band and run through the songs JD was to do on the show that night. i dutifully loaded the car with the necessary gear for both shows and headed out into a beautiful day with my iPhone and my earbuds. i was driving with the windows down, with the music bouncing around inside my head, and feeling incredibly good about life in general…which is usually a pretty good indicator that something is gonna go off the tracks somewhere.

so i got to the venue at a decent hour, unloaded a handful of gear into the staging area, and returned to the truck to move it into a parking space…but when i turned the key in the ignition, i heard nothing but a clicking sound.

“well…i don’t have time to deal with this right now…”, i thought, as i braced my shoulder against the door frame and pushed the trooper into a parking spot…i figured i’d do one of two things – i’d either try to find someone inside who had jumper cables after the show, or i’d get on the AAA website and try to renew my two-months’-expired membership so i could call them for help afterward, if need be. i wasn’t really able to give it a lot of thought out of the gate, as i had a show to play…and a certain amount of faith that everything would work out afterward – somehow.

the show itself was something else – it’s apparently a long-running affair…some of the folks in the house band gave me a bit of background on the show, and some of them have been doing this gig for almost a decade. there were over a hundred people there the night jd and i did the show, and a woman who was working concessions told me that it was a really light crowd – i replied that some venues would kill to get a hundred people through the doors on a regular basis, but i don’t think it was anything she didn’t know.

anyway, jd and i did two songs in each of the two hours of the show…and while it was certainly different from a typical JD gig, it was fun nonetheless. afterward, we packed up and made our way out to the parking lot with the husband of the woman i mentioned earlier (and father of the two kids that i turned into mandolin junkies in the space of a very short period of time during the show) with jumper cables in tow, ready to breathe life back into the trooper (which, i should point out, is now a member of the 200K club…on its way to 205K, actually).

we put the cables on and, sure enough, it roared to life again, ready to carry me across the state to long branch to my next gig, beginning in just under two hours.

jd and i stood there, listening to the engine run while i punched the coordinates into my iPhone and prepared for the drive.

“you sure you wanna do this, man? you should just head home, don’t you think?”

“well…i mean…the guy left his cables with me, so the worst case scenario would be that if i needed another jump, i’d just have to find someone else to jump me, right?”

“ok, man…but if anything happens, call me.”

boy, would he regret making that statement.

now, according to the directions that google maps had pulled down from cyberspace, i was supposed to cross over the road that i’d taken to get to the first gig and follow hunter road for three miles or so, and take a left onto an intersecting road and then on to the garden state parkway and to long branch. i said goodnight to JD, plugged my dying cellphone into the car charger, and took a look across the street…there was hunter road, all right, but it was emblazoned with a “no outlet” sign.

well, that can’t be…can it? i mean, google maps tells me that there’s a road that intersects with it just a few miles down the road, here….and why would they lie about something like that?

well, just to be safe, i used the little thumb-scrolling iPhone trick to follow the purple line that was my route on the map…and – yeah. there it was. sure enough, on the map, the road intersects right there on the map.

“what the hell”, i thought. “it’s only a few miles. and if there’s something goofy about this, i can always turn around and come back.”

so…off i go. right past the “no outlet” sign and off into the unknown.

let’s just say that, first of all, the absolute absence of mailboxes from almost the first one hundred yards should have been cause for concern. then, a mile down the road, i come upon a sign that says “pavement ends”…and then, well…the pavement ended. it went to gravel from asphalt.

i had my map on the screen, in my hand, and was following myself along on the map, and according to the map, i was on the right track – right on the purple line. so, yeah. i kept going.

as i went further and further down this road, i encountered a proliferation of sleepy-hollowesque trees, with bare branches hanging out over the road like a canopy over this gravel road, riddled with puddles and standing water…and i followed this road for about two miles or so…

…until i came upon a barricade placarded with a huge sign, proclaiming “bridge out”.

so i applied the brakes and reveled in my “a-ha” moment…for about seven seconds, at which time the engine shut off and the car went dark.



clutch. turn. click. turn. click. turn. click. click….click.

ok, let’s review.

20 percent charge on cell phone. dead battery. abandoned gravel road with no mailboxes on it. swamps of jersey. jd on his way home. 10pm gig imminent.

i fished in the blackness for the cable leading from my car charger to my phone, opened up the display so i could see around myself, and got out of the car to have a look around. pitch black, dead quiet…i could faintly hear the water that was rushing underneath the empty space where, once many years ago, a bridge stood. i turned around to look behind me and, over my shoulder on the side of a hill on the right side of the road, i could see the outline of a house…without a single light on inside the place. that is, until i cast my eyes on it, and a light magically came on in an upstairs room facing the road.

“so. this is how it ends”, i thought. “this is my payback for all those years of making fun of horror movies, laughing at these idiots who willfully wander down hallways where certain death awaits them…people who squat in abandoned cabins in the woods without letting anyone know where they are, all that…”

alright, so honestly…i wasn’t so much scared as pissed at myself, and bummed that – at this point – the second gig of the night was all but assured of being out of reach.

so i made the call…i pulled up jd’s number and called him and said that, yes, you were right…i should have just headed for home, but as we both know, i didn’t…and if he hadn’t gotten too far away, would it be possible to come back towards the gig, except when you get to the left, turn right instead and just keep driving until you see my car?

sure, he said…so that was half the battle.

since jd was on his way to try and locate me in my current predicament, i couldn’t very well turn my phone off to conserve battery power, as he might have to call me to clarify where he was supposed to be looking for me…so i left it on for the time being. i knew, though, that i’d have to get this thing plugged in at some point to get it back into the green…but i’d worry about that after jd got there.

realistically, it probably only took jd about fifteen minutes or so to get to me. i saw his headlights in my rear view mirror and was relatively confident that it was him, lest there was some kind of vast google-maps-conspiracy to lure foolish travellers to this point in order to “disappear” them for whatever sinister motives they might’ve had. far fetched? sure…but these are the kinds of things that occur to stranded motorists who find themselves unexpectedly stranded in jason’s woods for no logical reason.

anyway, jd pulls up, the window comes down, and he’s past the point of trying to conceal his obvious amusement…and hell, who can blame him? he circles the car around and backs into a vantage point where the front of the two vehicles are close enough for the jumper cables to reach their respective batteries. we get everything connected, and i go around and get in the car to start the engine so i can get back on the road and put this whole embarrasing episode behind me.

clutch. turn. click. turn. click. click…..turn…click.

this isn’t really happening. this ISN’T really HAPPENING.

well….yeah. it is.

we let it sit for a few more minutes, thinking that maybe it just needs a few extra minutes of juice or something, but – you guessed it. no dice. it simply wasn’t gonna start, jump or no jump.

in our combined expert opinions, we decided that it had to be the battery itself that was the problem, since it started right up the previous time…and obviously, it wasn’t holding a charge. so – the solution, as best as we could figure, was to find a 24 hour wal-mart and go buy a battery. i plugged my car charger into jd’s outlet and pulled up the web browser on my iPhone and went to the wal-mart website and did a search for the closest wal-mart to the lambertville, nj zip code that was open 24 hours. our match turned out to be willow grove…a half hour away.

any pipe dream of making the long branch gig died on the spot when that search result popped up on my screen.

so i grabbed my car charger, we locked down the trooper, and i left a brief note underneath the windshield wiper for whatever unfortunate soul might happen upon its carcass while we were seeking a battery in parts unknown. while we were navigating our way back out to the main road, i googled the lambertville police number and called them to let them know that, if anyone called about an apparently abandoned izusu trooper, that it wasn’t really abandoned and that we were on our way to get a battery for it and we’d have it outta there by no later than 11pm, tops…the dispatcher seemed a little befuddled about why i’d call her if we had the situation under control, and i had to explain to her that, yes – we have the situation under control, but if someone calls about it, i didn’t want it to end up impounded somewhere where i couldn’t get at it until monday or anything goofy like that, and that basically i was calling to convey to her that there was a rescue action underway and please don’t make my car vanish.

when jd and i came out into lambertville just before crossing the bridge, there was a service station on the right hand side of the road with garage bays open, and on a lark, we pulled in to ask the guy working there if there might actually be an auto zone or something like that in the area where we could get a battery.

“we got batteries…” he says.

oh, yeah? how much?

“i dunno. nobody ever asks me for anything like that.”

deep breaths. deep breaths.

“is there anyone you can call to find out?”

“well…my boss is coming in to close up in a few minutes. you can ask him.”

why is this man smiling?  seriously, why?
why is this man smiling? seriously, why?

so jd and i waited there for another ten minutes or so for the owner to come in, and i availed myself of the idle time to make the dreaded call to the guys who, by now, were getting ready to start their first set without the dude they’d booked to back them up for the evening. i got him on the phone and told him what was going on, readers’ digest condensed version style…he was disappointed, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it at this point…but before too many more words were exchanged, the owner pulled up in a pickup truck with the name of the service station emblazoned on the door.

we re-explained our predicament to him…he looked me up in his book, picked out the right battery for me, and i gave him NINETY FIVE BUCKS for it. he also loaned us a couple of tools to use for dislodging the terminals and installing it, since…after all…we’d have to come through that way on the way home, anyway, we could just drop them through the slot in the door when we came through.

he also brought up the unpleasant notion that there was a very real outside chance that it could be the alternator that was draining the battery, but after describing the situation to him in a little more detail, we figured that was a remote possibility at best. still, if it were, the battery would probably be drained by the time we got it from where it was back to the service station…and if we got it there, shut it off and it wouldn’t turn back on, he’d track an alternator down for me and install it on monday. if the voltage meter wasn’t fluctuating in any radical fashion, though, it would probably be fine.

so on the way back to the trooper, we decided that we’d take just that course of action – we’ll get the battery in, get it started and drive it back to the service station, park it, shut it off…and if it starts again, we’ll keep going.

we got back to the spot where the trooper was parked, after laughing most of the way back down that spooky-assed road that someone in the cybersphere decided would be my best route to long branch from lambertville…jd did a three point turn and backed around the trooper so that the headlights would be facing the hood that we’d be installing the battery under (i had also stopped at CVS to buy a flashlight and batteries, to help with the visibility issue.).

we got the battery out, set it on the ground in front of the car, and proceeded to remove the bracket holding the dead battery in place. we promptly decided that it’d make for a better story if we managed to drop (and lose) one of the screws that held the battery bracket in place, so that’s exactly what we did. we twisted it until it was loose, and then heard it drop down into the pitch black nether regions of the bowels of the engine cavity, never to be seen again.

wow. just….wow.

well, while i worked on the transplant, jd went rummaging through his car, looking for something that might bear some resemblance to the missing screw…and, amazingly, came up with one by stealing it from one of his speaker stands.

so…after all this, at around 10:30, we secured the battery in place, and i got my keys out of my pocket to make that fateful walk around the corner of the fender and into the drivers’ seat to find out, once and for all, whether i was truly screwed, or whether i was standing at the point in the tunnel where the light became visible.

thankfully, when i opened the door, the cabin light came on…and when i put the key in the ignition and turned it, the engine started.

i really don’t know if the thin thread that suspended my sanity above the murky lunacy below would have held up if it hadn’t. i might have just wandered off into the woods and waited for the Dude With The Hockey Mask to come for me.

thankfully, though, we were back on our way. i grabbed the tools, the old battery, and threw them into the back of the trooper and jd got in his truck and we got ready to head back out of jasons’ woods and back to the service station for part one of our test…would it start once we got it there and shut it off?

i kept an eye on the voltage meter the whole way back out to the main road, and it was dead in the middle the whole way, which was certainly encouraging…and sure enough, when we got to the service station, i pulled it into the spot in front of the end bay, shut it off, returned the tools to the specified slot, and got back in to start it…and it fired right up.

so jd and i decided on a route back, and figured we’d stay together up until the point that jd would be getting off 422 to go home…and we took off again. i called him on his cell when we got into doylestown to let him know that i was going to stop for gas, and he picked a wawa right on 611 and i pulled in to the pump and shut her off…started the gas flowing and went inside to wash up a bit and grabbed something to drink. when i came out, the tank was full and again, it started right up.

we parted ways at the valley forge exit off the turnpike, and i got home without incident…it’s started just fine every day since. i watched what would have been a $300 weekend turn into a break-even situation, but – i have to concede – it could have been worse. i can point to other situations in my automotive history where, in fact, it has been worse. MUCH worse.

as i said to wendy when i called her on the way home….”i’m not dead. no one else is dead. and there are no police involved.”

considering my history with cars, anytime you can say that, you’ve come out of it smelling like a rose.

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