What's in the Woods?
April 2, 2009 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Fiction help, quick. Woman in a car on an empty mountain road. Car breaks down. Lots of things could be wrong with the car, right? But specifically, what could go wrong with the car ... where something you CAN find in a typical forest setting can plausibly help you fix it?

Example: The car is overheating. Find a small stream and replenish the radiator.
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing, she just thinks that she'll get cell reception if she walks around the curve of the mountain, just through those scary woods.
posted by orthogonality at 4:32 PM on April 2, 2009

If instead of the car breaking down, it got stuck in snow/ice or maybe mud, by collecting and laying down branches under the tires she could gain enough traction to get un-stuck.
posted by xo at 4:35 PM on April 2, 2009

Tire has a leak, she could patch it with tree sap! Possibly! I like how this AskMe has a time limit!
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:37 PM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: Flat tire. The side of the road is soft dirt / mud. The jack just sinks into it rather than lifting the car. She goes looking for a flat rock to put under the jack.
posted by dersins at 4:39 PM on April 2, 2009

Well, technically not part of the forest setting, but if her fan belt breaks, she can replace it with her stockings.
posted by suedehead at 4:39 PM on April 2, 2009

bird's egg, cracked into radiator to patch the hole that a rock made in it while she was driving down that logging road. Water from the nearby creek to replace the missing coolant.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:41 PM on April 2, 2009

Her fan belt breaks and she uses strong vines to make a temporary fan belt to last long enough to get back out to civilization.
posted by amyms at 4:44 PM on April 2, 2009

A fuse blows, shorting out all power and stopping the engine. Oh no!
She's able to diagnose a fuse fault because there are no indicator lights on the dashboard alit, even with the key in the ignition. She opens the fusebox just above her knee, under the steering wheel, and finds the blown fuse. There's no spare! What will she do?
Luckily, a landowner has fenced their allotment of forest nearby with heavy wire. She's able to cut a piece of fencing wire—a spare untensioned bit on the end of the fence, not one of the tensioned lengths that might snap back dangerously and take an eye out—with pliers, turn the power off to the car, bridge the fuse gap temporarily with a centimetre of wire or so, and start the car again.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:44 PM on April 2, 2009

Vines to temporarily tie up a fallen muffler.

Seriously stretching plausibility but you could scavenge for an egg to crack into the radiator and seal the hole.

That's all I got off the top of my head but this is a seriously interesting question and I'm curious to see what others come up with.
posted by Bango Skank at 4:45 PM on April 2, 2009

A rock cracks her windshield, badly enough to render the safety glass almost totally opaque with cracks. In the woods, she finds a stout branch to bash out the safety glass completely so she can see where she's going.
posted by dersins at 4:45 PM on April 2, 2009

Clarification: can she find, say, an old tin can or something in the woods, or should it be strictly natural items?
posted by box at 5:02 PM on April 2, 2009

Response by poster: Clarification: can she find, say, an old tin can or something in the woods, or should it be strictly natural items?

Yes on items like tin cans. Just has to be plausible to discover in the woods. A tin can is plausible. A complete socket wrench set is not.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:04 PM on April 2, 2009

Battery dies. She pushes car up the mountain and opens the hood before the next lightning storm gives her a jumpstart.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:15 PM on April 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

The egg in the radiator is both satisfyingly MacGyverish and gives an excuse to get her scrounging deep in the woods, if that matters.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:19 PM on April 2, 2009

Response by poster: I had honestly never heard of the egg-in-the-radiator trick, and Google shows it was Confirmed in Mythbusters.

More, more, more, please!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:21 PM on April 2, 2009

"The egg in the radiator is both satisfyingly MacGyverish"

Not just MacGyverish, but a trick for which an episode of MacGyver was written for. (Bushmaster)

If the problem is battery related, she could bust open one of those solar-powered cell towers or repeater boxes that you see dotted around the landscape way out in the middle of nowhere where there is no grid power available, then use the lead-acid batteries in those to start the car. Whether she just swipes a battery or just uses it to get the car started before returning it is up to you, but it's unlikely the battery would be the right shape to fit in the car, so it's more realistic to only use it to get the car started.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:42 PM on April 2, 2009

She swerves to avoid something ( perhaps a bunny?? LOL)and her car spins around into an embankment, back end first. The tailpipe gets clogged with dirt/mud and the engine stalls.....a clogged exhaust pipe will stall a vehicle. The car then rolls forward a bit and comes to a stop. She gets out and after some inspection sees the clogged tailpipe. She uses a stick or something to unclog it and she drives off.
posted by Taurid at 5:44 PM on April 2, 2009

Here's a story from my grandmother. I'm not sure if cars get "petrol blockages" any more but if they did it would be relevant. It's still a great story.

How to become a mechanic (Originally published in October 1959 
in New Zealand Free Lance)

She is only a woman motorist, one of those who manages as long as everything in and on her car works properly. But when she found herself several miles from anywhere with a car that wouldn’t go she learned that it cost £2 to get a mechanic at dinner-time on a Sunday to fix a petrol blockage.

A few months later, with her husband at the wheel, she sat speechless, while the car, its engine having stopped with another petrol blockage, slowly but surely ran backward down a slope and stopped neatly in front of a garage. Out strode a mechanic, opened the bonnet, tapped the petrol pump with a spanner and, hey presto, the trouble was fixed. No charge, no further trouble.

She pondered this and decided should petrol blockages impede her progress in future she would try the tapping process before her pocket was tapped again. And sure enough one day the car had another blockage way out on a country road. There wasn’t a mechanic for miles, but there also wasn’t a spanner in sight either. So she picked up a stone from the road and, peering into the motor, tapped everything within reach. Back into the car she got, tried things and, ‘joy-bells,’ the thing went. She felt an almost qualified mechanic.
posted by slightlybewildered at 5:47 PM on April 2, 2009

The car is overheating. Find a small stream and replenish the radiator.

This was nearly me two weeks ago. We'd had the car serviced before I drove it down country and they didn't put the radiator cap back on properly. Fortunately instead of crapping out on the country road the water lasted until I was nearly at my destination. It started slowly overheating twenty minutes out of town so I would have been looking for that stream if I didn't remember the shortcut.

It's the obvious scenario and realistic because it happens (e.g. my sister did run out of water and have to top up on a long trip once), so why not go with that one?
posted by shelleycat at 5:54 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

If she's got all day to kill, then she could use a nail-file or other abrasive to make thermite out of a piece of rusty iron and something made of aluminium (soda cans).

Then she can "weld" shattered or cracked pieces of metal back together.

To light it requires a very high temperature. To acheive this, she would need a $3 metal pencil-sharperner. These are made of magnesium, and if she takes the nail-file to that, she can get the following process working:

Sparks from the flint of Bic cigarette lighter ignites magnesium powder.
Magnesium powder ignites magnesium flakes
Magnesium flakes ignite bigger chunks of magnesium and the thermite.

Thermite burns hot enough to melt iron, and more to the point, it produces molten iron, so like mercury, it will run downhill as it can, before cooling into solid metal.

But this is more the sort of thing you'd expect from prison inmates who are overloaded with time and almost completely bereft of resources. It's a very time-intensive process where a lot can go wrong and result in having to start all over. Regular people wouldn't bother - there are almost always going to be more effective ways to achieve their end.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:03 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the car is an old wreck, enough of the spark-plugs may have corroded sufficiently that when one more goes out (on the mountain road), there are not enough cylinders firing to keep the engine running. Mountain-road solution would be to take out sparkplugs and inspect them. Some of the non-functioning ones will only be that way because the spark-gap has eroded to where it is too wide to spark across. Quick&dirty solution: tap or push the head against a rock to bend the remaining electrode closer to the base, reducing the spark gap.

Replace the sparkplugs, and you'll have enough cylinders firing to keep the motor turning.

Some kind of spanner or leatherman or something will be needed to unscrew the sparkplugs. For bonus points, she uses something-from-her-handbag to help unseize a plug rusted into place?

Speaking of handbag resources, nail-polish remover is scented acetone. Acetone dissolves plastics (polystyrene, polycarbonate, some polypropylenes, etc), and the goo can then be spread and pasted to where needed, then give it time for the acetone to evaporate, and the goo reverts to a solid piece of plastic in the new shape. Radiators might get too hot to use plastic as a patch, but the trick might be useful for some other repair.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:16 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Linkage gets separated from the transmission -- perhaps she recently had the car worked on and the mechanic forgot to put the cotter pin back in -- you can fix that with a paperclip or safety pin or maybe even the right size twig...
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:21 PM on April 2, 2009

I don't think tree sap would plug a hole in a tire successfully, and even if it did, how would one re-inflate the tire without a pump?

What you COULD use tree sap for is to fix a leaky vacuum line or fuel line (if the hole is relatively small).
posted by barc0001 at 6:32 PM on April 2, 2009

The car stops and won't restart - clicks, but won't turn over. Bash the starter motor with a rock, starter motor now turns over and the car starts (but is likely to get worse and worse over time).
posted by plinth at 7:17 PM on April 2, 2009

If she's got all day to kill, then she could use a nail-file or other abrasive to make thermite out of a piece of rusty iron...

And then she could make a bazooka to blow away that pesky Gorn.

Seriously, the egg is gonna be the winner here. It's perfect, really.
posted by rokusan at 8:25 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

For bonus points, she uses something-from-her-handbag to help unseize a plug rusted into place?

Diet Coke and a mascara wand.

Does it have to be a car problem? Maybe she just has to pee, and uses a convenient leaf for cleanup duty. Just make sure it's not a poison oak/ivy/sumac leaf, or your plot takes an unexpected turn.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:54 PM on April 2, 2009

Song bird eggs are pretty tiny. Unless she happens across a feral chicken colony I don't' think she's going to be plugging much of a hole in the radiator with a wild egg.
posted by fshgrl at 9:05 PM on April 2, 2009

Back when I was in starving student mode, I used to have an old station wagon that used to idle so low or the choke would stick and therefore would occasionally die out on me (and at the most inopportune times). The only way to get it going was to "breathe some new life into it"...

I would have to unscrew the air filter cover, remove the filter and stick something down the carboretor to get it "breathing again" enough to restart the engine. I ended up using an old ball-point pen (that I ended keeping away in my sunvisor) for these situations.

I could see something similar happening to her where she could go looking for a appropriate size twig or small tree branch to do something similar...
posted by Jade Dragon at 9:49 PM on April 2, 2009

Blown head gasket. Replace with tightly packed grass.

Land Rover folklore is that old Rover manuals recommended using tightly packed savannah grass as a field patch for a blown head gasket.
posted by zippy at 10:06 PM on April 2, 2009

Woman locks her keys and cell phone in the car. She scavenges the mountainside for rocks to shatter the passenger-side window and let herself in.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:12 PM on April 2, 2009

I seem to remember the guys in Bush Mechanics replacing a broken tailshaft with a tree branch, along with many other crazy ad-hoc repairs.
posted by onya at 11:21 PM on April 2, 2009

If it could be arranged so that the engine was stopped at some point, then wouldn't start again: she could find a bottle of Coke in her car or in the woods to clean her corroded battery cable connectors. A baking soda-based product could also work--toothpaste, maybe--and I wonder if there might be alkaline plants that would do the job.
posted by littlegreenlights at 11:33 PM on April 2, 2009

Oh, also she might run over a stump or rock or otherwise dislodge the drain plug from her car's oil pan. She could then use tree sap or any number of other gummy substances to temporarily mend the oil pan. The problem with that scenario is that in order for the car to break down, most of the oil would have to drain out and cause an overheating-related failure, in which case plugging the leak would only fix part of the problem. The Oil Faeries would be responsible for the rest.
posted by littlegreenlights at 11:45 PM on April 2, 2009

Brake cable breaks. She replaces it with some wire from a fence, and runs it through the hole in the floor, and uses it twisted around a twig/sturdy stick, so it's not so hard on her hand.

A long time ago, I went for a very long drive with a fella who did that. I can't remember whether it was a manual or automatic car, though it seems to me, that if it was a manual, he would have run out of hands in operating it. However, he was the type of guy who wouldn't have driven an automatic from preference.
posted by b33j at 12:52 AM on April 3, 2009

Radiator hose leak big enough to disable the car is adequately repaired by some soft, flexible bark, maybe aided by a soda can that's found, cut down the side with a car key or some such and fit around the hose in the leaking area.
posted by ambient2 at 1:36 AM on April 3, 2009

Ideas regarding sealing oil/petrol leak using sap would not work I am afraid. The sap would not stick to anything oily/petrolly and I doubt your heroine has a decent degreaser. Having said that, a strong perfume might just work. The only known seal for a petrol leak is chewing gum. Seriously; if you have a petrol leak, stick some gum over it. It'll last till you get home.

Seconding the egg into coolant idea.

The problem is that cars are generally made to tight tolerances using high strength materials. Certainly compared to your average forest, which is generally made to pretty wide tolerances using a wide range of imprecise materials. Unless your heroine is able to, even roughly, make something from wood or stone then you are stuck with a very very vague repair.

One idea would be if her throttle cable had broken or the choke had stuck on; then simply jamming the appropriate sized bit of wood in there would be a fix. The stuck choke is less believable; generally chokes will spring shut, rather than springing open. The broken throttle is more plausible; she would have to jam the throttle open (engine revs it's nads off) then jump in and drive using the clutch very carefully. (Unless your car is an automatic, in which case you are doomed). The drive would then have the added tension of the hapless heroine trying to drive and out of control car...

I once sat and listened to a story of how someone's head gasket went on a bike out in the wild. They had a toolkit with them so were able to strip it down and construct a replacement gasket from bark.
The story went on for a long time, but, by the time he'd got to the point where he was just about to start the engine, I was absolutely rapt.
"So I pressed the starter and the engine turned over. It fired and that was that!" He said. "You got home?!", I asked. "No, you berk, the engine exploded! You cannt fix a gasket with bark!"
I felt such an idiot.
posted by BadMiker at 5:25 AM on April 3, 2009

The battery cable bolt sheared off of my battery in the car I had as a teenager. I used a chunk of cinder block to wedge the cable against the battery so the connection was maintained. She could use a rock to do the same.
posted by hought20 at 6:09 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not that the egg isn't a cool idea, but I don't think it would be *that* easy to find an egg in the woods.
posted by glider at 6:27 AM on April 3, 2009

Alternator bracket breaks, tree branch/miscellaneous pieces of wood are used as a lever to move it back into position and wedge it into place.
posted by electroboy at 6:38 AM on April 3, 2009

Have you ever walked in the woods? Finding an egg is just a little more likely than finding that socket set. They can be found by chance, but you aren't going to find one when you need one.

In the woods, useful things you might find are trash (cans, jars, plastic bags, and big crap like tires and old furniture that people didn't want to pay to have carted off) and branches and leaves and pine needles and rocks and maybe some water.

Her radiator freezes (the car is overheating but she opens the cap of the radiator and sees ice) because she forgot to put antifreeze in it, so she builds a small fire under it and almost sets the car on fire, but it does the job and she is able to go on. I don't know if that's plausible, but maybe. She also blocks the grill with old cardboard she finds so it doesn't freeze back up.

Coat hangers can be used to open doors (she stops to pee and locks herself out!) or tie up hanging mufflers. A rock can break the window if she's desperate.

But this is an old question and it's too late. I'm just typing.
posted by pracowity at 12:30 PM on January 25, 2010

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