What happens when you're moving and a car breaks down?
September 1, 2010 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm stuck in Adair, Iowa (pop 800) with a probably unfixable car which was towing a trailer hauling all my possessions. OMG help.

I'm moving from Michigan to Davis, CA to attend grad school at UC Davis. The most economical option for moving was to buy a trailer and pull it with my '97 Lincoln Continental, so I did. Except said car dumped all the fluids in my vehicle on the ground in Iowa. The repair guy is going to take a look at it in the morning, but with a resale value of 2500, it's not looking good.

The original plan was to sell the car and trailer once I got to Davis for much needed funds to live on until my fellowship kicks in in November. How on Earth can I salvage this situation and avoid starving?
posted by zug to Travel & Transportation around Adair, IA (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Credit card?

Are you eligible for student loans? (At my UC many fellowships prohibit loans.)
posted by k8t at 8:42 PM on September 1, 2010

1. Do not panic.

2. I see that you have two problems: getting to Davis with your stuff and surviving once there until you start getting fellowship funds in November. Re: getting there: You'll know more once the mechanic has looked at your car and you know whether it's repairable and how much it will cost. You can consider whether you are better off fixing it or renting a truck. Perhaps you have friends or family who can chip in to cover a rental, if needed?

Re: surviving until November: your school may have a short-term loan program for students in exactly your situation. Look: they do! Loans do have to be paid back, which is too bad, but probably not the end of the world.

3. Do you have any communities back home that might have ties in the area? When I was once stranded out-of-state for almost three weeks, I ended up with free housing in people's homes because someone from my Quaker meeting back home called Quaker meetings near where I was and asked if anybody could help out. You might find that connecting with someone local even just for moral support or local transport (between the motel and the car place, or whatever) can be very affirming and helpful.
posted by not that girl at 8:48 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Call your graduate program coordinator. See if they have any one-time loans for grad students, or if they can help you out at all with logistics in some other way.

Then be really, really nice to them when you get there.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:49 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: So far, I'm looking at not fixing the car (no matter the cost, I clearly cannot safely tow the trailer I have with the car I have) and renting a uhaul or similar with a tow dolly and ditching the trailer or selling it for whatever pittance I can get on such short notice. I can then fix it in Davis.

Any better ideas?
posted by zug at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody for the loan ideas. I will look into those as well.
posted by zug at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2010

I'd only add, be as creative and bold as you need to be. One option, if you have very little cash on hand and no credit card, might be to dump or sell off almost all your stuff and take the greyhound, scavenge for what you need to furnish a room etc once you get there.
posted by not that girl at 9:01 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Do not panic.


You have two issues. One is to get from where you are to Davis, and I can promise you that even if you have to leave your furniture behind and take the bus, you will get there.

Don't be shy about asking for help. Family, church (as ntg says), friends, etc, all may be in a position to provide some help. Look into the school loan program. If the Lincoln will cost too much to fix or the repairs will take too long, ask the mechanic if he'd be willing to exchange it for some old beater parked behind the shop. Keep asking people, and someone will have a great suggestion or be in a position to help in a creative way.

Then -- and only then -- do you need to worry about what happens when you get to Davis. Plenty of grad students show up broke; you will not the be first or the last. You will not starve, though it might be a colossal pain in the ass, undignified, and embarrassing.
posted by Forktine at 9:08 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can use Des Moines Craigslist to sell the trailer if you decide to. You are not to far from Omaha Craigs also. Good luck.
posted by lee at 9:15 PM on September 1, 2010

Wow, ouch. Sympathies.

If you can't think of anyone else to ask (or those you ask, can't), hit up your graduate supervisor. They signed up to carry you for 2-3/4-6 years; having you simply not show up is pretty embarrassing. Start with asking if you could get an advance; tenured profs (well, unless they're in the humanities in a small college... or have a bad gambling/prostitution habit) can spare to loan a $k to one of their students in a major bind. Kinda-sorta surprised you hadn't negotiated a moving stipend, unless you got accepted into a department instead of being accepted by a prof.

Next option (or maybe first option) - hit up the your grad secretary. One worth their salt can/will dig into *some* emergency fund or other or at the very least hook you up with deferred payments/relief housing once you do eventually arrive.
posted by porpoise at 9:22 PM on September 1, 2010

If you're just hanging out, go to a local bar/restaurant/cafe and talk to people there about what to do. You could easily find someone willing to drive you to Des Moines to rent a vehicle.
posted by thirteenkiller at 9:25 PM on September 1, 2010

FYI, I don't mean to possibly add to your stress, but when you're figuring out the price of getting the car fixed, you might want to make sure that the car is going to pass CA's smog inspection when you get here. I don't know how the test compares to MI, but CA emissions requirements are stronger than a lot of other states and the seller is required to show proof of passing when transferring the title. Hopefully this isn't an issue for you, but I felt I should mention it, because, if you weren't already prepared for it, it would be a real drag to pay to get the car fixed and then not be able to actually sell it. I know when I moved here, I ended up leaving my car behind for this very reason. DMV
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:45 PM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you are super short on cash, I would post an ad on CraigsList and sell everything out of the back of the trailer then sell the trailer and car, keep the essential stuff that you need in a couple of suitcases, then hop on a plane/train/bus and get to your destination. You really don't need much to survive and this may give you a little cash to get settled. It may also get you a heck of an article in the local paper!
posted by MsKim at 9:48 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

How soon do you need to get to CA? If I were you and I had a week or two, I would look on the Chicago and St. Louis rideshare boards on Craigslist for people who want their car driven to CA. I have done this twice before coast-to-coast, and I've definitely seen ads where people say it's okay if you want to tow something with their car. (It is actually kind of shocking how free some people are with their cars.) Then I'd take a bus there to pick up the car, and come back for the trailer.

If that doesn't pan out quickly enough, I would also check all the East Coast cities for people driving out to CA themselves in their own cars/trucks this week, who are seeking co-drivers and people to share gas. Many of them will be okay with towing your trailer too.

Also, as for where to sleep till then, and once you get to CA, I strongly recommend couchsurfing.org. I've found tons of people offering couches even in the middle of nowhere; I think there will probably be a bunch within a decent range of you.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:56 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

(For example, this looks promising, if you can wait 4 days. If I were you I'd call the guy and see what he thinks about towing my trailer.)
posted by Ashley801 at 10:01 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

(Last peep from me, I am sorry -- searchtempest.com is really helpful if you are interested in doing a rideshare. I'd do this search a bunch over the next few days.)
posted by Ashley801 at 10:11 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

sell off almost all your stuff and take the greyhound

Did exactly that back in the day when my cross-county car threw a timing belt. costing more than the value of the car to repair. Goodbye car, goodbye extra stuff, hello Greyhound.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:43 PM on September 1, 2010

Don't forget to let the mechanic know that a short term fix which lasts you x000 miles (with the trailer) might be more valuable to you right now than a long term fix.

You didn't mention which fluids, but depending on what happened (radiator hose - good, transmission - bad) there might be a quick fix which gets you moving. If this does work out, be careful going over the mountains to CA - lots of places to overheat when pulling a trailer.

I would not start the conversation with the mechanic about selling anything yet. Let him know you are broke and just need to get to school - then hope he has a good heart and the ability to get it running to the "good enough" stage.

One last suggestion, think about storage facilities. You might be able to rent (some place close) some storage space. Once you get settled in at school, you can go back and recover your belongings...if you find the right place, you might be able to store car+trailer+belongings.
posted by NoDef at 10:52 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem is NOT the car or the trailer, it is all the stuff that makes those necessary. Get rid of it. Why on earth do you need a trailer full of stuff to go to grad school? I went to grad school with a duffel bag of clothes, a laptop and a few books (all of which turned out to be available in the library).

Sell it all--car, trailer, contents--and grab a bus to the coast. Welcome to freedom.
posted by LarryC at 10:56 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what failure mode would result in a car "dumping all of its fluids" at the same time. More likely, your car is dumping coolant and this could be nothing more than a damaged hose.

So, depending on what the mechanic says, you might not need to be so quick to give up on the car. In general, a 1997 Lincoln Continental is a pretty solid vehicle. Its basic mechanical components are much the same as those of many taxicabs and police cars which see constant heavy duty use. If your trailer hookup on the car includes trailer brakes, you should be able to safely pull a load of up to 1500 lbs. So you might want to at least talk with the mechanic before giving up on it.
posted by dacoit at 10:59 PM on September 1, 2010

Wow, that is awful I once restarted my life with just one small box of possessions. It can be done. If you can't get money any other way, sell your stuff and do as others say, get on a bus and continue on with our life.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 11:00 PM on September 1, 2010

So far, I'm looking at not fixing the car (no matter the cost, I clearly cannot safely tow the trailer I have with the car I have) and renting a uhaul or similar with a tow dolly and ditching the trailer or selling it for whatever pittance I can get on such short notice. I can then fix it in Davis.

You're already panicking, and you need to stop. You say it dumped "all the fluids", but obviously that didn't happen; perhaps the radiator overheated and blew up, or a radiator hose went bad, and with a new hose and fresh coolant (along with a reasonable pace once you're back on the road) you'll be fine. Or perhaps it threw a rod through the crankcase and dumped all the oil out, and it's a total loss. Until the mechanic looks, you have no way of knowing, and given that you didn't mention a huge explosion or overheating, odds are (from here) good that you just dropped a radiator hose.

Also, "I clearly cannot safely tow the trailer I have with the car I have" isn't a valid statement, as you were towing it safely before, and your mechanical failure may not be directly related to it. You might just as well say "I have a flat tire, therefore this car is unsafe and I must ditch it." Find out how bad it is, instead of inventing worst-case scenarios.

Now, suppose it does come back as painfully expensive and you elect to ditch the car. Make sure you haven't suggested this option to the mechanic, so that they are less likely to lie to you in hopes you'll sell them the car for nothing (then they'll turn it around with a cheap fix and a tidy profit.) If the car's a goner, yes, rent a UHaul pickup truck with a hitch and get to your destination.

If the choice is a car repair or UHaul (and it is), why not call UHaul now so you know that cost, then you can quickly compare to the estimated repair cost of the car? At this stage, concerns about whether the car will pass smog in CA and such are premature -- it's really "get to CA via UHaul, via this car, or via bus without my stuff and buy replacements there" and you shouldn't feel bad about choosing the cheapest option.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 11:01 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

You know, people in Iowa are pretty nice and often very interested in people from out of state. We don't get a lot of tourists. Also, yards are big and cheap. You can probably stash the trailer in the back lot of a sympathetic person in Adair and just leave with essentials. Make a road trip some time next spring for the rest. Make sure you mothball any furniture so the mice don't move in during harvest.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:54 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best way to hitchike is to approach people at rest stops and gas stations in a non-threatening way. At gas stations, they may not be going far. At big truck stop gas stations, you can ask the truckers. The truckers are likely to be going far, but they are often odder than other rides you might find.
posted by salvia at 1:08 AM on September 2, 2010

In case you're new here and didn't notice, I sent you MeMail.
posted by obliquicity at 1:13 AM on September 2, 2010

when you're figuring out the price of getting the car fixed, you might want to make sure that the car is going to pass CA's smog inspection when you get here. I don't know how the test compares to MI, but CA emissions requirements are stronger than a lot of other states and the seller is required to show proof of passing when transferring the title.

Michigan doesn't have a smog inspection. Or any vehicle inspection, actually. We have some pretty choice vehicles on our roads. (end digression)
posted by shiny blue object at 4:50 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really like not that girl's advice. You're in a terrible situation, but fortunately you're in Iowa, which is full of very nice people.

Contrary to something someone said above, do not contact your advisor. Go through the grad secretary and director of graduate studies. This is not something your advisor should deal with, whichever field you're in. For one thing, you probably don't know your advisor all that well yet. I am a professor and personally I would be uncomfortable if a student, new or old, asked me for a loan, even if I were in a position to help. That is very unusual to say the least. The department not should be the one to step up, and is in a position to do so.

Good luck.
posted by vincele at 5:37 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the car is beyond repair, you may be able to ditch your stuff in a storage unit temporarily, junk the car, and get a bus ticket to Davis. You'd presumably be able to grab a duffle bag or two of clothes and take them with you, and pick up your other stuff later, when you were a bit more solvent.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:46 AM on September 2, 2010

Also, just in case by some amazing coincidence you are actually the young woman I met on Sunday at worship in Lansing, MI, who was leaving for grad school at UC-Davis on Tuesday, don't forget the Lesbian Connection contact dykes list. If you don't have access to the magazine itself, you can call the office and someone there will look at the list for you. These are lesbians who have agreed to be contacted by women traveling through their area, and may also be a source of help figuring things out. Disregard if not a lesbian.
posted by not that girl at 7:22 AM on September 2, 2010

Try Couchsurf. There are lots of CSers in Des Moines and you'll be able to get help from someone.
posted by WizKid at 8:25 AM on September 2, 2010

Sell the car for parts, rent a truck and haul your stuff. Don't panic! This is what credit cards ate for and, as noted above, the car is likely un-registerable in CA anyway. There is a U haul return place in Davis and several in Sac.
posted by fshgrl at 10:26 AM on September 2, 2010

Enterprise Rentals will rent you a cargo van for about $70/day with unlimited mileage. There's one in Des Moines. MeFiMail me if you need contact/address information for the correct location in Des Moines that has the vans. That would get you and your stuff to Davis. Another option would be to take AmTrak from Omaha to Davis. Looks like a one-way ticket would be about $202. You wouldn't be able to take all your stuff, but you could probably mail quite a bit via USPS and then take a fair amount on the train (more than you could on a plane). If you need any information re. Des Moines or western Iowa, MeFiMail me and I'll do what I can.
posted by webhund at 10:59 AM on September 2, 2010

Grew up in that area of Iowa. Go to any diner or bar and ask around for help. Someone will.
posted by ducktape at 12:37 PM on September 2, 2010

I've been waiting for an update before offering any help. Has anyone heard anything?

I put my cell number in my profile. If I get a call in the next hour and 45 minutes I can get this individual from Adair to Des Moines.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:18 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm on tenterhooks! Please, let us know what happened.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 8:19 PM on September 2, 2010

Response by poster: Hello everybody,

After a long stressful day, I finally have internet access again and wanted to read over the messages and update you all on the situation.

The people in Adair were, without exception, fantastic. The hotel people let me keep the cats. One of the cats was refusing to eat or drink so the local vet showed me how to give her IV fluids and refused to charge me for the visit.

As for the car, the large quantity of fluid on the ground was transmission fluid (which was so black I thought it oil). They refilled the fluid and everything seems to be ok. The mechanic strongly suggested I no longer pull a trailer with it, so we decided to purchase a truck as a better (i.e. more economical) alternative to renting one. So we hooked the trailer back up and limped into Omaha, where we spent the day.

After looking at about 12 trucks, I finally found an F150 in my price and quality range and put a down payment on it (via my credit card which I also forgot in my panic last night). We're going tomorrow to pick it up and are going to deal with all the registration details and try to get back on the road around noon.

We're pretty sure we're going to leave the car behind. There's a storage area that rents parking spots for $25/month in an enclosed area which will do in the short term. We're going to attempt to find a local here in Omaha willing to sell it for us. I can pay a couple hundred dollars out of the proceeds to reimburse for the time and hassle of doing so.

Not sure what we're going to do with the truck once we hit CA. If it won't pass emissions, we may drive it to Reno and sell it there, maybe, or drive home for Christmas and sell it in MI.

Thanks everybody for the words of kindness and good ideas. If anybody has an ideas about the vehicles, I'm happy to hear them, but the immediate crisis seems to be over and I'll probably make it to Davis in time for my orientation.
posted by zug at 8:50 PM on September 2, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, not that girl, that was totally me! LC didn't even occur to me, that might be a good option if we have to head back up here to deal with the car.

I spoke to several people on Sunday, which were you?
posted by zug at 8:52 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

F150 = good choice. I am so happy all of it worked out so well.
good luck in school!
posted by flowerofhighrank at 1:16 PM on September 3, 2010

So glad you're going to make school on time. When you are settled in, you should write a thank you note to Adair's newspaper thanking the people who helped you. I probably sound like your mother but it encourages people to be nice like that again.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:19 PM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

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