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The Road Warrior, Breakdown and Twister

"Well, if it isn't the Road Warrior."

That was the phrase my brother-in-law uttered as I stepped out of our long-term Honda Pilot and onto his driveway in Cooperstown, N.Y. His tone hinted at a combination of disbelief and pity for my family and me; not an unjust reaction when you consider that Cooperstown is just over 2,800 miles from our home base in Santa Monica, Calif.

During the first three weeks of May 2003, my family put over 6,000 miles on that Honda, and that's despite a seven-day period when the Pilot wasn't driven at all due to a combination of mechanical problems and a planned stopover in Denver to visit my folks. Yes, I said a mechanical problem with a Honda product that kept it from running for several days. If you find the concept hard to believe, just think how I felt as I coasted to the side of Interstate 70 between Salina and Green River, Utah (a 110-mile stretch of barren southwest desert), with my wife and children in tow.

Repeated attempts to start the engine proved fruitless, and my wife's Sprint cell phone was only getting an occasional signal (my own Motorola cell phone, with Nextel service, was utterly useless outside major metropolitan areas). It was only after several dropped calls (first to the local Green River information operator and then to Interstate America Road Service) that I was able to secure a flatbed truck to transport the Pilot to the nearest Honda dealership. Over an hour later, the truck arrived to cart my family — and the dead Honda — to Grand Junction, Colo. Thankfully, it was a double-cab truck with a full backseat that offered plenty of room for two child safety seats. The total cost for the 150-mile tow was $458, and by the time we got to Grand Junction (about 9 p.m.), the dealership was closed.

The next morning, after being picked up by my dad, who had driven the 250 miles from Denver to Grand Junction, we stopped by the dealership to confirm a rumor we'd heard through Honda's PR department about a Pilot recall. Apparently, a flaw in the water pump casting causes "interference" with the timing belt on Pilots built around August 2002, and our long-term car was part of the recall. But, we never got a notice about this recall, and the dealership that had performed a 7,500-mile service on our Pilot five months earlier had missed it entirely. The result was a busted timing belt and, possibly, a severely damaged engine.

As I drove with my family from Grand Junction to Denver in my parents' 1996 Explorer, I wondered how we would continue on our voyage. The one-week stop in Denver was planned, but the major engine work on the Honda Pilot wasn't. I seriously doubted the vehicle would be ready in time for us to leave Denver on schedule, and even if it was I was also questioning my desire to drive across America.

Anyone who has ever been stranded by a vehicle knows what a joy it can be. Even under the best of circumstances (a minor mechanical problem that is quickly repaired), the experience can be stressful and time-consuming. Under the worst of circumstances (say, the middle of nowhere with dubious cell phone coverage and two children who are depending on you for their safety), the whole thing feels like a nightmare. The upside is that cars are more reliable than ever, meaning fewer drivers are getting stranded every year. If you've never found yourself on the side of the road due to an automotive meltdown, consider yourself lucky.

Unbelievably, the Pilot's engine suffered no (apparent) damage despite losing a timing belt at 80 mph. American Honda paid to have it transported to Denver after the new timing belt was installed and, one week after it left us shouting into a cell phone on the side of the road, we found ourselves once again heading east on I-70 in the Pilot. While the weather had been essentially perfect during our Utah breakdown, we left Denver amid a spring storm that dumped six inches of heavy, wet snow. The white stuff was still coming down as we drove away from the mile-high city, but after 100 miles the snow turned to rain as we dropped down into the central plains of eastern Colorado.

This slow-moving system created snow in the Rockies and rain in the plains, and it managed to stay with us as we traveled the next four days through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. By the time we hit upstate New York, my wife had dubbed it "The Brauer Storm" and I had to console myself with the fact that it would be impossible for the same thing to happen as we drove from New York back to California. On the evening before we departed Cooperstown, the sky turned blue and it seemed the worst was behind us.

My assertion that no system could shadow us as we traveled west proved correct, but that didn't stop us from slamming headfirst into a group of storm cells just outside Little Rock, Ark. This time the weather changed abruptly from sunny and hot to gloomy and cold. So abruptly, in fact, that we spotted several large funnel clouds — including one that tore through the western outskirts of Little Rock about five minutes ahead of us. The aftermath included uprooted trees and shredded highway signs, not to mention a gaggle of residents wandering through the wreckage with cell phones in hand. My wife, a Southern California native, was not amused by that display of Mother Nature's force, nor did she appreciate the subsequent heavy rain and rapid-fire lightning that lit up the fields of western Arkansas as night fell. As a Denver native, I simply found it all nostalgic.

But despite what may sound like a screenplay for the next Vacation movie, the Brauer Family Trip of 2003 was an unmitigated success. The real goal was quality time spent with the most important people in my life. It didn't matter whether we were driving in a Honda Pilot, riding in the back of a tow truck or dodging F5 twisters. What really mattered was the shared experiences that brought us closer together while giving us stories we can reminisce about for years to come.

Like I said, an unmitigated success!

Karl's Top 10 Lessons Learned During His Family Vacation:
10. If you get the same Happy Meal toy three times in a row, simply ask the nice McDonald's employee behind the counter if you can trade for another one.
9. Four words: Nextel's cell coverage s***s.
8. When your two-year old daughter says she needs to be changed for the fourth time, LISTEN TO HER!
7. It's not the heat, it's the heat and the cold air and the pocket of unstable barometric pressure….
6. Radar detectors are good!
5. Forgetting to turn on your radar detector is bad!
4. Getting a mobile DVD player installed in the Pilot was a stroke of genius.
3. Monsters, Inc. is still funny after the sixth viewing…in 24 hours.
2. It's not funny on the seventh viewing.
1. When a company claims to have the "Ultimate Family Adventure Vehicle" make sure you understand what said company's definition of "adventure" is.

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