Our story begins with some friends, their dog, and our rig, Jax. Jax is our silver 2005 Nissan Xterra, which you will get to know later on in the story. Anyway, the plan was to go to Southern Vermont to an abandoned ski hill where we would camp out overnight on the summit.
Our friends, Corey, Diana, and their dog Cash, set out on the weekend of adventure in their lifted Jeep Wrangler Unlimited on Friday, a day ahead of us. Corey planned the trip and received directions to the ski hill from fellow overlanders. Sadly, we weren’t going to head out until Saturday morning.
Saturday morning rolls around and so do we, a little hung over from the night before. Despite a mild hangover, we aren’t morning people what-so-ever so getting out the door took a little longer than anticipated. We set out with our stomachs growling.
After about an hour on the road, we realized we needed to stop for food or we wouldn’t survive the drive. We pulled off an exit to see what we could find. (Side note: Speaking of pull off, ask an English person what an emergency pull off means to them.) Ended up finding a little bagel place with GREAT vegetarian breakfast sandwiches/wraps. Score! (Yeah, we’re vegetarian, no need to be a dick about it.)
We get back on the road and drive most of the way on scenic byways of western Massachusetts and Vermont. The drive was full of beautiful, windy roads with great views and great weather!
Entering Vermont we saw the familiar covered bridges, historic signs and the GPS telling us we were getting closer. While we still had cell service we decided to give Corey and Diana an ETA because we didn’t know when we would have service again. They tell us that the service at the bottom of the old ski hill is bad/non-existent but that the service at the top of the hill was pretty good so we should text them when we were close.
Side note... Some background on the ski hill: We learned of the camping spot because Corey had heard of fellow overlanders taking trails up to the top to camp while on weekend trips. We didn’t know the specific condition of the trail except for some pictures showing some Land Rover Discos making the trek. Let’s just say the trail looked a little sketchy for a stock Xterra with stock tires... Steep, butt pucker side slope/articulation sections through mud and some high center risks. The stock side steps would have definitely been torn off. Corey’s Jeep, on the other hand, is lifted with beefy Cooper tires, rock rails and skid plates. Looking at Google Earth we saw a “safer route” that was longer, but looked doable for Jax...
Back to the adventure. While service continues to get really spotty, we venture towards the backside of the hill to find the trail entrance. We found a nice level spot on a quiet dirt road where we decided to stop to air down tires. (Lauren won’t admit it but she is becoming a pro at the stealth side of the road pee, with both passenger side doors open creating a barrier to passing eyes.)
Bouncing between two to three different map/gps apps to try to see if we were going in the right direction, the dirt road turned choppy and we were desparately searching for the entrance to the trail. Finally, there, at the end of the road was a tiny opening between two trees and long grass that appeared to be what vaguely looked like a trail. Wooo! We enter with thoughts of excitement and worry. Jax is by no means a built overland vehicle… yet. We don’t even have a winch and the tires are close to the top of Mr. Lincoln’s head. We are probably more worried than excited, but we keep the tires pointed down the trail.
For all the worry, the trail is actually really fun. Some small rocks to avoid, articulation and a very small creek to cross. So far so good. However, the trail is narrow with rocks and trees lining both sides, creating what looks like a bobsled track. There is no turning around now...
Straight out of a Jason movie, we see a few abandoned vehicles off to the right in what looks like an old driveway that have been lost to time, rusted with no hope of ever returning to the paved road. We start to wonder how they got stuck, why no one tried to get them out, and imagined the stories of the people who drove them.
Farther down the trail it starts getting rockier. Lauren flashes back to our previous overland trip in Vermont where we almost lost our side steps (no rock sliders yet). Also worried we would either break a step off or tear our gas tank open (no under armor) we stopped to check out the trail ahead on foot.
It was raining the previous day, making the trail muddy and full of puddles. Dodging the puddles and mud we came across a doe standing in the middle of the trail. Headed upwind the deer didn’t catch our scent, which allowed us to get a great up-close look of one of nature’s wild animals. After a few minutes I whistled and she ran off.
Walking on, there were sections of the trail we would rather not try with no winch, stock tires, and no service to call our friends for help. Nope, not today.
Let’s go back and meet our friends at the base to try their way up. We jog up hill back to the car, parked in the desolate woods. I get in the driver seat while Lauren spots me up the slight inclined hill we just drove down. It’s a little more difficult driving uphill in reverse dodging trees, spiked rocks, in a manual truck.
Now is a good point in the story to tell you Jax had his clutch replaced just 2 weeks prior. There is nothing like the smell of fresh clutch in the morning.
Checking our phones, there was still no service. Lauren guides me into a grassy patch to turn the rig around. This grassy patch just happened to be near the abandoned vehicles we mentioned earlier. We now notice an old engine just sitting amongst the brush. (Hmm…) While maneuvering Jax, finally turning the car around to get out, the clutch starts to feel funny... It sticks to the floor.
Uh oh. I turn Jax off hoping it is all a dream. Hoping that by turning the ignition Jax would fix himself and we’d be on our way. Nope. Clutch is still stuck to the floor and I can’t get it in gear. Panic ensues. Shit, the one time we try going down a trail by ourselves we break down like all these other abandoned cars around us. This can’t be happening. It’s going to be a fortune to have a tow truck get us out of here. Better yet, what tow truck in his right mind would come down this trail? None, that’s who. Not only that, but we have no service to call for help anyway! This can’t be happening.
We sit for a couple of minutes and take a few much needed deep breaths. I turn Jax on again and try to put him in gear. No luck. I hop out and start to pump the clutch with my hands like there is no tomorrow. I hop back in and Jax magically finds first gear.
“Lauren, get in the car. We have to go, NOW.”
We go back up the trail, dodging the rocks, branches, and mud. When we finally reach the opening of the trail, we exhale. It felt as though we were underwater and the trailhead was the surface, allowing us to breathe.
Not able to shift into another gear we stayed in first until we reached the downhill section of the dirt road we had just taken up to the trailhead. We thought it best that we coast in neutral all the way down to the bottom of the hill where there just so happened to be a public parking lot by a scenic river. What are the chances?
We pause for a moment to thank the higher power for not leaving us stranded on the trail, then hop out to take a look under the car. The newly replaced clutch had fluid dripping out…
Panicking, still with no service, Lauren decides to wave down the first car she sees.
Luckily they pull over. The driver is a burly Vermont woman with all but one of her front teeth. We tell her we just broke down, have no service, and ask if there is a mechanic or garage nearby. She mentions there is a garage about ¼ mile up the road (later on we learn it is more like 5 miles). We contemplate walking and then she offers to give us a ride. Lauren says sure, forgetting everything her parents ever told her about taking rides from strangers. I say no, thinking “stranger danger”. We don’t know this woman. Thinking of the movie The Hills Have Eyes, we don’t take the nice woman up on her offer.
Before she leaves, she tells us that the building across the street is a convenient store that might be able to help us out. We say thank you, send her on her way, and go across the street into the store.
There is a customer at the counter. A slender man with the presence of a Texas cowboy, wearing a white t-shirt, had worn jeans with paint/grease stains, ordering a ham & cheese sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda. Finally the nice ladies at the counter offer us to use the phone to call the mechanic down the street to come tow us. Just as we were about to call, the phone rings. It is the woman we had just waved down. She told the ladies that she had just called the mechanic for us and that he will be there shortly. Where are we? We think to ourselves. These people are so nice.
We walk out across the street back to Jax, sitting in the parking lot like an old Star Wars action figure your friend’s older brother had in the unopened box that no one was allowed to play with.
The “cowboy” from the convenient store pulls up in his pickup and says he heard we were having car trouble and would be happy to take a look. He crawls under the car, poking around, looking for possible issues. After about 30 seconds he says “Ah. Looks like a seal is cracked by the looks of it.” Wishes us the best of luck, tells us what a great mechanic the guy is that is coming to tow us, then he goes on his way back to roofing a house in town.
Minutes later, the tow guy comes…
We think we are saved until we realize the vehicle isn’t a tow truck. Instead it is a huge lifted diesel pickup with bald tires, dual down pipes protruding from the truck bed, and no towing capabilities.
The truck comes to a growling stop next to Jax. The driver hops out. He’s a hefty bald man with a beard that would rival a wizard's. He introduces himself and continues to tell us his mechanic has left for the day….. it is only 11:30 am on a Saturday….. He gets down on the ground and tries to scoot underneath the truck to see what’s going on. He mentions that he is too fat to see anything under the car and spent less time under Jax than the “cowboy,” a passerby. He ends up telling us that if he were in this situation, he would buy DOT3 fluid from the convenient store, force it into gear and drive until we could get cell service. Then once we have service, call our insurance, get a tow truck, and figure out where to get it fixed because he didn’t want to charge us for a tow when he wouldn’t’ t be able to do anything until Monday anyways, which was actually very nice of him to do.
So that’s what we did. Bought DOT3 brake fluid from the convenient store, topped off the fluid and ended up finally somehow getting Jax in gear. Luckily there were no cars or cops at the stop sign because we weren’t stopping! Took the left turn and we were on our way.
Luckily I was able to float shift Jax into third to somewhat keep up with traffic. To be safe we had our flashers on and slowed to let cars pass. A few miles down the road we passed the tow company, which is when we realized it wasn’t a ¼ mile down the road. It was more like 5 miles (Good thing we didn’t walk).
Reaching the base of the ski hill we pull over and park in the gravel parking lot that must have been full of life years before. As if the director of our life movie queued them in at the perfect time, our friends came barreling down the road in their Jeep, honking and waving their arms out the window. Boy, were we glad to see them. They had just driven down the hill to get water/gas and to look for us.
We called for a tow and had to wait an hour and a half. Being the middle of nowhere in Vermont, that seemed reasonable. While we were waiting was saw this little guy drive by.
Jax was going to be towed 45 minutes away to the nearest Nissan dealer. We said goodbye to Jax and piled our gear and ourselves into the Jeep.
Before this trip Corey took out his back seats and built a plywood platform for his gear. So the girls and the dog were in the back, us guys were in the front. Up we went. This trail was no easy trail. Bouncing back and forth, tilting sideways through the butt puckering sections I mentioned earlier. Alas, we make it to the top and damn, is the view gorgeous!
One of the few relaxing moments of the day, we made food and crack a few brews. A couple of beers deep I got a call from the dealer. Jax wouldn’t be able to be worked on until Monday… Great. Now we had to find a hotel and our cell phones were beginning to die. The only charger we had was for the car. There was nothing to do but turn our phones off and enjoy the night with friends and thank the universe and Corey for getting us up this hill in one piece. The perfect sunset was a great reminder to be thankful for every day and to not sweat the small stuff.
When we woke up we barely realized where we were and almost entirely forgot about what happened the day before. The rain pattering on the roof of the tent reminded us of where we were. The rain was here and here to stay. Peering out the front of the tent, the clouds were covering the tops of the hills across the valley. A sight not seen since our honeymoon in Costa Rica.
With the phones off (worried about having enough juice to find a hotel) we had no idea what time it was, but we were up. Our minds were racing, wondering with what we were in for so we went for a walk in the rain to figure out our game plan. Curious to inspect the crazy trail we went up the day before, we decided to check it out. Jax definitely would not have been able to make it up, especially with the stock tires.
Eventually Corey, Diana, and Cash awoke. We put the tent away in the rain and began packing up the car with our stuff. Corey drove us back down the hill with all gear and drove 45 minutes to the town Jax was being fixed in. On the way we plugged in our phones to get as much juice as possible before we were dropped off on our own.
Luckily there was a Hampton Inn in town with rooms available. The ice machine down the hall was our best friend, keeping our food fresh in our cooler. The most important thing was that the Hannaford right next door sold alcohol. A much-needed source of relaxation after the bad (or good) luck we had out on the trail. The pool at the hotel wasn’t too bad either. It was luxury after being in the cold, mud, and rain the night before.
As soon as we got into the room, we passed out and slept for a good 3 hrs. We awoke with a giant sigh of relief, so thankful for our friends for being there for us and having such a good time the night before, cooking and sharing stories/ marshmallows. We didn’t really leave the hotel that night. "Game of Thrones" was on, enough said.
It was a gorgeous morning. Decided to kill some time before we pick up the car. We checked out and have the front desk hold our belongings, a whole cart full of bags because it is everything from Jax (tent, sleeping bags, luggage, cooler, etc.). But what to do without a truck? The front desk told us that there is a taxi service in town but that it hasn’t been reliable lately. People the day before waited at least an hour for it to arrive. So we decided to walk 2.5 miles into town one way. 2.5 miles was nothing because we were training for a 15k run, but it was so hot that day, making any distance unbearable. Our Destination? A brewery, of course.
On our walk, we got a call from the dealer. They needed to order a part that wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow. WTF!!! (Meanwhile we had walked past by about 5 different auto part shops, which we’re sure one of them must have had the part!)
Well, looks like we should find a rental car and go home. We could always pick up Jax the following weekend once fixed. We continued on our walk, turned down this residential street along the river and enjoyed the sunshine. At the end of the street in the distance we could vaguely see an “Enterprise” sign.
Absolutely ecstatic, we hugged and kissed celebrating our find. We debated for a split second whether we actually wanted to try and get a rental car. We thought, being stuck isn’t that bad! Nah, we had to go in to check.
“Can we help you?” said the enterprise worker.
We responded, “I sure hope so! We’ve had quite the weekend and we need a rental car to get home.”
“Today? Do you have a reservation?”
“No, we just walked here and just found you guys. …. Our car broke down and we need to get back to Boston”
“Oh, well Monday is our busy day and we don’t have any cars.” (How busy could you be in this small town, we thought )
“Ok…. Is there anywhere else near by that has cars?”
“Oh no, the nearest is 45 min drive away from here.”
Well, there goes our one shot to get home.
We walk out the door, and all we could do is laugh. Is this real life? We really cannot get out of this town! There's only one thing to do now. Onward to the brewery! We need a beer, or 5. On our way to town we saw this Cherokee. (Funny thing is, before we bought Jax our friend wanted to sell us his mint condition Cherokee for $1k. Kicking ourselves for not buying it, this thing was awesome!)
Once in town we realize we need to buy a wall charger for our phones because we literally had 5% battery each. Found a Verizon store, bought the charger and continued on. Entered the brewery and got a seat next to the wall that had an outlet! Score! We can plug into the world again!
While we wait for our giant beers to arrive at our table, we notice the parents of our friend from high school were sitting at the table next to us! (Yes, we’ve been dating since high school. A rare occurrence these days, but it still happens.) What are the chances!!?? We tell them our story and they can’t believe they ran into us. They wish us luck and we say our goodbyes.
Buzzed, we ventured back to our hotel. Stopping to dip our feet into the crystal clear Vermont river and enjoying the countryside. Arriving back to the hotel, we had to check back in and then make a Hannaford stop for dinner. Time for some more free HBO.
Lets try this again. Instead of walking into town, we decide to walk to see the nearby covered bridges. We discovered there were 5 around town! If you haven’t heard of or seen a covered bridge, they are very cool. We were just bummed we didn’t have JAX to capture some shots of him going through.
By 1pm we were starting to get worried that we wouldn’t be able to get out of this town again for ANOTHER day. We decided to try the rental car company again. Maybe, just MAYBE they would have a car…. Nope! Not today! “We don’t have any cars available. Try the town 45 min away.” So we wait…
Finally, we get the call from the dealer. Jax is fixed. We’re getting the F$#@% out of here! The dealership was nice enough to pick us up from the hotel. While we were signing the papers and reviewing the work, they say “Couldn’t help but notice that you have a lot of little scratches and a couple of small dents. I don’t mean to pick your car apart but I just wanted you to know.” We explain to the guy that the scratches are pinstripes we earned while out on the trail, along with the small dents. He didn’t understand. Not many people do.
On our way out of town we grab the Vermont famous "maple creemee", to celebrate our escape from the small town we were stuck in for the past 2 days. Although we were stuck, it was great to not have to go into work.
From this trip we learned to enjoy the unexpected turns in life. Life’s an adventure, always guiding you to discover your true north. You never know where your trail will lead you.