Calistoga, CA: How we spent our 6th anniversary. And I do mean “spent.”

Commemorating our mutual reticence to belly-flop back into the dating pool, my wife and I spent our 6th wedding anniversary at a quaint, NorCal B&B for a few days of well-deserved R&R. Instead, we got the motivation to get back to work and make enough money to pay off the whole damn adventure.

Located in the sun-bleached Collayomi Valley north of Calistoga, the Backyard Garden Oasis promised three newly constructed cottages with king-sized beds, skylights, a hot tub and an organic country breakfast among other perks (like having a vacancy for Labor Day weekend). But what really cinched the deal for me was their inability to accommodate either children OR pets, as nothing kills a relaxing hot-tub buzz quite like squealing crumb-grabbers or a yapping terrier.

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Backyard Garden Oasis

The 2-hour drive into the wilds of Northern California was uneventful, marred only by a 6-car pile-up ahead of us on the winding, single-lane Highway 29 through Mount St. Helena a mere 15 minutes shy of our destination. Traffic in both directions was stopped dead for miles while emergency tow trucks drivers hitched up the wrecks and mentally planned their own early retirement.

We arrived later than expected, but our hostess was still awake and showed us to our room.

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A local.

Eschewing traditional French Country aesthetics, the Backyard Garden Oasis went with more of a southwestern feel, which fit in nicely with the blistering, near-100 degree temperatures. The rural property consisted of a main house (where we had breakfast) and three smaller 1-bedroom cottages running back along a large garden. The garden, which provided foodstuffs for our daily meals, was wholly untouched by chemicals, pesticides (or anything else that would ensure the food was safe to eat).

For some inexplicable reason, a cadre of ducks noisily waddled the grounds as pets, or possibly — in a pinch — Wild Duck L’Orange.

We slept in more than we’d planned the next day and got a late start going to Robert Louis Stevenson Park in the mountains. Our charming hostess, a former restaurant chef, whipped up an impressive pancake breakfast for ourselves and a young Russian couple from Berkeley who were staying there as well. After some disquieting conversation about their full-body massage fetish, we gave our Do-Svidaniya’s and backed away slowly to our car.

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A very big rock.

While our Berkeley comrades received lurid, unwholesome rubdowns in their cottage, we drove to approximately the same spot where the accident had occurred the night before. There, a hiking trail zig-zagged 5-miles up the side of Mount St. Helena. We left our car at the entrance, started up the mountainside and, in no time, were sucking wind. Specifically, the really thin, disorienting sort of wind that you find at high altitudes.

Using what was left of our oxygen-deprived brain cells, we did the math and realized it would be dark by the time we reached the summit. The fact that we wouldn’t be able to see the view at the top was compounded by the thought of having to feel our way down the treacherous forest trail in the dark as well. Abandoning our lofty goal, we decided hot-tubbing was the better part of stupidity and turned back.

On Sunday, we still felt physically ambitious (i.e., the pain hadn’t yet set in) and drove 30 miles north to Lakeport, a tourist town on Clear Lake. This 68-mile diameter lake has the distinction of being the state’s largest lake (Tahoe doesn’t count, as only half of it is technically in California). Regrettably, it isn’t anywhere near as nice as Lake Tahoe. Clear Lake is the textbook definition of a misnomer. A bit smelly with lots of algae, aquatic plant life and empty beer bottles, Clear Lake is more of a redneck boating/jetski lake than Tahoe.

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Clearlake, CA

Despite the lake’s enormity, our optimism, or possibly heat exhaustion, prompted us to attempt biking around its perimeter. We ran out of carbs after only ten miles, however, and coasted to a stop outside a restaurant in Nice, a small, lake-side town so far undiscovered by Starbucks or KFC.

The only restaurant we found was closed, so we took a seat at the bar, which was open. While guzzling water and juice, we watched the regulars perform “A day in the life of Small Town America” out our peripheral vision. At 2:00pm on a Sunday, the bar was already populated by a cluster of chummy, out-of-shape, middle-aged divorcees tipping back cocktails and flirting embarrassingly while half-watching a NASCAR race on the big screen TV.

The arrival of our second wind, and the bar patron’s increasing blood alcohol level, finally spurred our exit from the land that Alcoholics Anonymous forgot, and we were soon back at the car, packing up to leave.

About fifteen miles away from the B&B, our car’s “coolant temperature” light went on.

Pulling off the road, I popped the hood to let the engine cool—no small task in the blazing valley heat. Thankfully, the American cars I drove in my youth gave me lots of experience with roadside emergencies and I smugly deduced the problem to be a leaky radiator which just needed coolant.

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Us in the backyard.

I immediately executed Plan A: having just passed a gas station, I hitched a ride from one of the many helpful passersby, then schlepped coolant back to the car (Coolant: $10).

Checking the no-longer-scalding-hot radiator, I found it still full of coolant, suggesting that I wasn’t as smart as I thought.

This prompted lots of loud, unpleasant cursing and Plan B: a call to AAA. The AAA “professional” I spoke with put to rest any doubts I had that this event would be a major ordeal. It most certainly would.

After explaining our predicament, our operator immediately took it upon herself to make it worse. “You don’t have AAA-Plus? Gee, that’s too bad…” It seems AAA-Plus coverage offers free towing within 100 miles (Our mechanic in SF was only 70 miles away), while our anemic Basic coverage only allowed free towing within five miles.

Before we could pop two Zolofts, she added salt to our wound by informing us that a truck would be an hour at least, and she didn’t know any place that could work on a foreign car.

Dusting off a hastily conceived Plan C, we decided the next reasonable course of action was to nurse the car back to the B&B where we already had a room and the Yellow Pages. So we drove a half mile (or until the warning light came on, whichever came first), pulled over, waited until the engine cooled and then drove another half-mile. It took us five hours to travel the remaining fifteen miles. In retrospect, we could’ve pushed the car faster.

Labor Day morning, we confirmed our suspicions that AAA had begun hiring rabid chimpanzees by easily locating a BMW dealer in Santa Rosa. The sales office cheerfully answered our call and told us to drop the car off at 7am Tuesday morning. We next arranged for a flatbed truck to tow us the thirty miles to the dealer. “You don’t have AAA-Plus? That’s too bad…”

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Not actual vehicle.

The noise woke us when the tow truck arrived 90-minutes late, but the affable driver got us loaded up and on the road in no time. From the cozy three-abreast cabin of the truck, we called the dealer to tell them that we’d be late. The service people were nonplussed by this news, saying we could take our time since they couldn’t even touch the car for at least a week.

With Plan-C suddenly flat-lining, we improvised Plan-D, an even more shoddy, grasping-at-straws affair: our trusty driver offered the name of a Calistoga mechanic he knew and, having little other choice, we had him take us there (Towing: $65).

The young mechanic was surprisingly knowledgeable about automotive computer systems for a small town mechanic. That made us infinitely more comfortable as he poked around our engine bay with sharp metal objects. Ultimately concurring with my arm-chair diagnosis that it was probably a bad thermostat, he replaced the component in a few hours (Parts & Labor: $100).

However, upon testing, we were both proven wrong. Time for Plan-E.

Since he couldn’t get a new radiator until the next day (if then), and he wasn’t even sure the radiator was the problem, we thanked the young man for his effort, swallowed hard, bent over and called the local towing company to tow us to SF. (“You don’t have AAA-Plus? That’s too bad…”)

The dispatcher assured us the driver would be there by 2:00, leaving us plenty of time to drop the car off before our mechanic closed at 5:30pm. To the towing company’s credit, he arrived on schedule. But due to another traffic emergency, he had to immediately leave again to clear the road before taking us back to SF.

We plopped down on the waiting room couch and — having read all the outdated car magazines scattered around — chatted with the mechanic to kill time. We told him of our nightmare up to that point and he expressed empathy for our “bad day.” Without intending to make us feel like pathetic, spoiled whiners, he explained that his wife of two years had just left him and taken their kid. To make matters worse, she was already living with a (now-former) friend of his across town. By the time he mentioned that she had recently taken up Wicca (Celtic pagan witchcraft), we were already dialing 411 getting the number for the Jerry Springer show. (“Have you recently divorced your husband, stole his child, shacked up with his friend all because of witchcraft? Do you want to be on my show? Call us!”)

We wished him the best o’ luck as the tow truck driver, a quiet man who spoke little English, showed back up around 4:00. He loaded up the car for the second time and we headed off on the long trip back to SF in awkward silence (Towing: $350).

Arriving in SF just before our mechanic closed, we dropped off the car and Amy hopped a cab home with our bags while I walked the two bikes to my office and rode one home.

EPILOGUE: Auto Analyst’s had the car’s shattered water pump fixed the next day by noon: ($400).

MORAL: Get AAA-Plus now. It’s not that much more, but boy, is it worth the difference.

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $925 (ouch)