Yesterday, 4:20pm

Vern Libke is banging on my windshield wiper with a wrench the size of my arm. Libke’s Auto Service sits here at the corner of Highway 47 and County J, just south of Woodruff, Wisconsin, in the same garage that has stood here since 1967, yet I don’t remember it from a single on of my summer’s spent here as a wee one, not even from the year or so I lived here before the kids started arriving on scene. Even in the past few years when we’ve been coming back to camp Up North again with the whole crew, I can’t say as I remember noticing this particular shop.

I am noticing it now.

Twenty minutes ago, Vern pulled up behind us with a jumper pack and the words ‘Git ‘r to me fast’ on his lips. He hooked us up to his magic machine, started our dead-in-the-water van back up, and tied the hood down right on top of that jumper pack. Not so much as another word spoken and he swung a U-ey and disappeared down the road, confident that we would find him, and equally confident that we wouldn’t take off with his battery pack acting as an inverted joke of a hood ornament. A man of faith.

Three of us rose at 3am this morning to make the trip to Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin. Four hours give or take, depending on your sense of direction and the limits of your collective tanks—yours and your vehicles. The middle child had a prospective student visit scheduled at Conserve School, a fully-endowed semester boarding school, environmental in every way.

As we pulled in past the gatehouse (they really do have one), the thermometer read four degrees and the first twinklings of sunshine were flickering through the forest, blinding us like a torturous strobe light. The battery light had come on in the van then and the interior lights had gone through a minor freak-out dance I hadn’t seen in a while. The strobe effects inside seemed to correlate pretty well with the strobe effects out, so we convinced ourselves that the automatic lights were temporarily stunned by the confusion, unsure of whether it was day or night. The battery light was not so easily explained.

Grateful to have made the parking lot and in some delightful and sunshine-induced for of denial, we made a mental note to drop into a shop on the way out to have them hook up their fancy little scanner to our computer to see what’s causing the epilepsy of the engine. We shrugged our shoulders, drew in deep breaths of north country morning air, and sauntered, smiling like blissful ignoramouses, over the bridge to make our 8am appointment with the headmaster and staff.

Conserve, I have to say, is a pretty amazing place. Twelve hundred acres along the south edge of the eighteeen-thousand acre Sylvania Wilderness Area. Pretentiously named Lowenwood, the estate is named after Conserve’s founder and benefactor, James Lowenstien. Sixty high school juniors are accepted to Conserve each and every semester to partake in a rigorous academic education and an incredible wilderness experience. They spend as much time outside as in, camping, hiking, canoeing, skiing, and snowshoeing all through the property, learning about the world around them as well as learning back country skills and wilderness first aid. Their five core courses are all designed to create responsible citizens of the planet, committed to preserving what we have and making a difference. Stewardship is a word always found in caps here. And did I mention they are fully endowed?

At 2pm, upon completion of our many sessions and tours, we crossed back out into the gorgeous forty-degree day to our van, ready to visit some snow-covered haunts that we usually only see through swim goggles, and then head back home. The battery light lit up once again, but retreated back into the engine where it belonged after a mile or so on the road. A little sunshine apparently did it good as well. (Denial is strong with us.)

We made it to within a few miles of Minocqua, the town we may or may not have been planning to scour for the aforementioned shop with a scanner. An hour down the road from Conserve, driving through Clear Lake National Forest Campground, one of our favorite Northwoods camping spots just shy of Minocqua, the battery light returned, and brought with it every dashboard warning light imaginable. I didn’t know the message center had so many options. They had to take turns.

Rather abruptly, we lost the gas gauge and tacometer.

The snarky little ‘low gas’ light quickly followed with it’s accompanying ding of death.

A familiar sense of dread began to set in as the sun fell behind the trees and the temperatures began to drop to more seasonable temperatures. Winter in the Northwoods is a bit of its own wilderness experience, and this $900 van was about to run us through our paces.

Scott punched the accelerator from the boat landing to climb the small hill out of the snowpacked campground, and the transmission issued its own arguments. Another country heard from. In perfect cyclical cadence, the engine revved rather than grab like we were—not so unreasonably—asking it to do. I closed my eyes and reached for calming breaths.

At this point, our hard-won denial is shattering all around us. The almost-fifteen-year-old in the back seat is silent, but we know that she is rolling her eyes at the backs of our heads. It’s the adults in our family that refuse to see and deal with impending doom. I’m running the usual worst-case scenario programs, thinking we’ll be spending the night in our favorite campsite along the beach. The frozen beach. The deeply buried campsite. Without a tent. Or anything beyond the sausage and oranges in our cooler we’d planned on having for dinner. I’m not so sure that’s going to be enough calories.

Until the mysterious tranny slippage, I’d thought we were dealing with an alternator with an attitude, but I’d never known an alternator to play that particular trick. Suddenly we’re thinking more sinister electrical problems, the kind not so easily diagnosable.

Come to think of it, maybe this is how the last tranny I replaced manifested, just a couple of short years ago, when the truck died puttering into the parking lot of the lizard’s veterinarian. Yes, if my burgeoning memory serves, this is exactly how it acted before its own death. I am a slow learner.

No matter what, we were realizing that we should have found that shop back in St. Germaine, Eagle River, maybe even the bustling metropolis of Land O’ Lakes where we started. Ever the optimists. Never the smartest.

Instead, we found ourselves tearing out of our summer haven, memories of my youth swirling in our wake, down the pothole-riddled road along the dormant fish hatchery, praying things might hold together until we hit civilization. (The transmission, deciding the scare was sufficient and it had gotten out attention, returned to its job with nary a quiver. The dashboard lights continued their show, but at least we were still moving.)

We drove right by Libke’s on our way into town. Still didn’t notice him there. About a mile past him, we lost all power and sidled into a conveniently-placed widening of the shoulder—thank you errant snow plow driver—where Vern Libke would soon ride up on his silver steed to rescue us from our own stubborn optimism and short memories.

Which brings us to the present. I just walked out to the shop to retrieve my laptop. This is where I found Vern swinging full-armed with his wrench. I cannot say that the sight bolstered my confidence, but in the choice department, we are flat broke. I return to the Dr. Phil-filled reception area, plunk my laptop down next to the kiddo with her book trying desperately not to listen to the good doctor coax hidden feelings out of the poor kidnapping victim he is harassing on national TV today, and turn for the bathroom.

The biggest surprise in the clean and homey restroom—especially by automotive shop standards—is that there is a crock pot simmering away between the loo and the sink, right there on the counter. The ladle, abandoned by the last lunch-grabber, is resting in the sink, mystery liquid pooling in its bowl. I am not sure what to make of the arrangement, and I don’t have the courage to lift the lid and take a whiff, but I do wonder about who’s scooping soup (?) with this germ collector. I lay it aside on the other side of the sink and wash my hands with what the mirror reveals as a look of mighty concern wrinkling my brow. My sausage and orange are sounding pretty good right now, and free of lysteria.

When I emerge, Vern’s daughter Lesley—having returned to the shop just in time to rescue her father from the completely illogical demands of his computer system—is on the hunt for an alternator in the vicinity that might fit our van. Lesley, it seems, had to run out to save a friend’s dogs who had run off, but thankfully, she is a quick wrangler, and she is back here to do her job so that her father can go back to doing his. The banging continues. She orders up the nearest alternator and returns to her gel pens and mandala coloring book. Dr. Phil pries on, the ambient music growing more and more intense with each question.

Alternator. Indeed, it is the alternator, as we should have known through nothing more than a quick consultation of our history. It could certainly be worse.

I am not certain yet what it would cost to have our guy back home replace the alternator, but it appears that car parts run at a premium up here in the hinterlands in the off-season. I’m hoping that we’re not dealing with a virulent case of ‘out-of-towner discount,’ but again, not many offerings on the choice shelf.

untitledVern is our knight in shining armor tonight either way. He has saved us from the ravages of a wrecker, and has gotten the job done with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew, almost before closing time. One hour and ten minutes from the time he landed with his jumper pack, we are back on the road and Vern is headed for his recliner and a cocktail. If a few premium charges found there way onto our bill, we’ll forgive him. For never has there been such a hustle to get wayward travelers back home safely.

I’m still not sure what part our windshield wiper played in the failing of the alternator, but it appears to have been beaten into submission.

Thank you Libke’s,

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