It wasn’t a big hole, but it was deep, very round and too close to avoid after I saw it — a black space in the white line beside the road. My front right tire took the hole squarely with a thud and the warning light on the dash glowed immediately.
My decision to take Route 11 south from Fort Kent was spontaneous. It was only 1:30 p.m. and I had finished delivering the new edition of Echoes magazine to stores from New Sweden to St. Agatha, and from Madawaska to Fort Kent and St. Francis.
If I made a loop back to Caribou via Route 11, I could hit stores in Patten, maybe Sherman, then Island Falls, Oakfield, Houlton and Mars Hill before dark.
I might even see a moose. After seeing two gigantic animals stretched out on the beds of trailers, it would be nice to see one still on its feet.
I had just passed the sign for Hedgehog Mountain when the roar that says you are about to roll on the rim told me to pull off. The rim and center of the wheel were intact, but the tire lay underneath like a wet dishcloth.
OK I should be able to do this, I told myself. My friend Francine wouldn’t think of calling for help, and she’s a tiny little thing.
I dig out the owner’s manual and turn to the section titled “Steps to take in an emergency: If you have a flat tire.” I move three cartons of magazines from the rear compartment to the back seat and locate the jack and spare tire under the box containing the crank and other jack-related tools.
I lean the compact spare tire with the distinctive yellow paint job against the front bumper, in clear view of anyone traveling north on Route 11, just in case a traveler might be inclined to lend a hand.
“Chock the tires,” says the manual. I find some hunks of sod, probably dug up by the snowplow, and cram them under the left rear tire.
“Slightly loosen the wheel nuts (one turn).” Right. I try one, then another. They won’t budge. I fiddle with the jack while deciding I will probably have to call AAA.
“Where are you?” asks the AAA lady, after confirming I am not injured and am safely off the roadway. Grateful to hear a voice since no bars appeared on my cellphone, I tell her I am just south of Winterville Plantation, near Hedgehog Mountain. Asked for specifics, I add north of Patten, south of Eagle Lake.
She calls back in a few minutes: “Are you in Masardis? My supervisor says you gave your location with a range of 75 miles.” So I did. I was so focused on Patten, I forgot to mention the towns in between.
“No,” I assure her. “I am way north of Masardis. North of Ashland. North of Portage Lake.”
“Then can I say you are in Winterville?” I say yes, even though I had passed the “Au Revoir” sign, a few miles back. “The closest town is Winterville.”
In a few minutes I receive a call from a service station in Fort Kent. Help is on the way. I work on the lug nuts a couple more times, then decide to leave the work to someone else, just wait and read the car owner’s manual.
Knowing Aroostook County, I was not surprised when a pickup passed me going north, stopped and turned around at the first opportunity.
“Not sure I can do much, but I could not just pass without stopping to see if you were OK,” says a jovial man from Allagash. I assure him I’m all set, and we chat as I name a few people I have known with his last name. “Yep, we’re related,” he affirms. I give him a new magazine as a thank-you for stopping and he is on his way.
When a full-length empty logging truck heading north stops and starts to back up, I think, “Oh, no, what if a car comes whipping over the hill?” Not to worry, he angles the double-bed trailer neatly across the road and onto the southbound shoulder perfectly aligned with the rear of my car.
I run up to the cab and thank him profusely for all the trouble he took to reach me, declaring, “I’m all set. Someone is coming from Fort Kent.”
“Just to change a tire?” He shakes his head, smiling. “I could have done that.”
By now, I am truly sorry I had called for help.
The logger has just disappeared when a young man in a sedan slows down in the northbound lane. “Do you need some help here?” he calls out. “All set,” I respond with thanks. “I have talked to a service station in Fort Kent.”
AAA calls to see if the driver has arrived. I look at the time on my cellphone. “How could it be 3:30?” I wonder, until I realize the phone is suddenly picking up a signal from Canada. Still, the predicted wait time has elapsed and I have dismissed three potential helpers.
Then two cars arrive from opposite directions. A pickup going north turns around and pulls up behind me. A sedan traveling south pulls off the road ahead of my car. The two men don’t even listen to my story about someone coming from Fort Kent. One handles the jack while the other loosens the wheel nuts.
“Are you together?” I ask. “Nope,” one says. “I’m on my way to work, but can take care of this right quick.” Within minutes, the tire is changed and the damaged one stowed in the back of my car along with the tools. Neither man will accept cash, as they sprint to their vehicles. I run after one then the other offering each a magazine as a thank you.
Now what if the driver ordered by AAA arrives and I’m not to be found? I call the service station and am told he should be there any minute. I wait.
Then AAA calls and offers to notify the station to disregard the call for service. I want to thank the service station helper, but decide to let AAA cancel the request. Still, I wait a few minutes. I want to tell the driver that no sooner had I called for help than five people stopped to offer assistance, all within a half hour. If I had only known.
Well, I should have.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.