THE FIRST CAR I EVER OWNED WAS a used Volvo station wagon with 188,500 miles on it. The seller assured me that the Swedish brand was famous for its durability. He said he’d seen the odometer tip 300,000 on more than one Volvo. I, being young and foolish, wrote him a check.
In fact, the vehicle probably would’ve run forever—if I’d had enough cash to keep it operating. When it wasn’t languishing outside the mechanic’s shop (even minor repairs seemed to require special-ordering parts from Gothenburg), the wagon was stalled on the street outside my apartment. In winter, I spent more hours behind the wheel praying the starter would ignite in the subzero chill than I actually spent driving the car. I sold it shortly after a crash with another vehicle one winter morning: The other car was totaled. The Volvo lost a taillight. Now that’s durability.
The second car I bought, a pre-owned Mazda 626 sedan, was blessedly more reliable. But it, too, came with a wintry curse: The locks often froze in cold weather, the seller told me. The solution, she said, was to keep the seatbacks that separated the car’s interior from the trunk space unlatched. When the locks wouldn’t budge, you could climb in through the trunk and pop the doors from the inside. I, being young and foolish and happy to be rid of the Volvo, wrote her a check.
The trick worked—until one winter night when thick snow was followed by rain and plunging temperatures. Worried that my car, parked on the street, wouldn’t start in the morning, I went out after the 10 o’clock news to rev the engine. Not only were the locks frozen, the entire car was glazed with ice.
Putting Plan B into action, I popped the trunk and crawled inside, only to hear a sharp thunk as I reached the back seat. The heavy ice had overpowered the springs that kept the trunk hatch open. I realized this was what some people called a Teachable Moment.
I tried the doors without success. Still, I refused to panic. Perhaps if I could thaw things…. Miraculously, the engine started. Three minutes later, I threw myself against the passenger-side door and—victory!—it opened six inches before jamming into a snowbank. This wasn’t a Teachable Moment. This was The End.
But then, in the stillness, I heard a sound. Cherubim? Wolves? No, shoveling. Someone was afoot. “Yoohoo!” I shouted. “Over here in the car!”
The scraping was replaced by silence. I shut off the engine. Had my Good Samaritan gone back inside to catch the last of Letterman? Time stopped until at last a flannel-clad figure appeared on the other side of the snow bank. “Excuse me,” I hollered, thrusting the car key through the six-inch gap. “Would you mind opening the trunk?”
I tell this story not because it altered my life, led me to renounce car ownership, or even proved a Teachable Moment. No, I offer it as a cautionary tale to go with our cover story, “Great Weekend Getaways,” see page 42, spotlighting winter-travel destinations in the Twin Cities, greater Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Our picks vary widely, from spas to ski hills to water parks—but all are within driving distance for Minnesota residents. Hit the road, and you’ll be there in hours.
I’ll refrain from offering any winter-driving tips, of course, but do promise me one thing: If you happen to see a hand waving from a Mazda, please pull over.
Joel Hoekstra, Editor