It was a last minute deal. I booked the car rental deal while sitting in the airport at noon just before our Friday flight. The car was waiting for us when we landed and the daily rate was fantastic. The rental would hit our wallet for less than $100 over the long weekend. A bargain! But sometimes even careful planning can be scuttled by fate or the fact that certain new cars do not come with spare tires.

While Enterprise Rental did their best to up-sell us at every turn (I get it – they are a business), we simply claimed our own car insurance, waived theirs, and walked out to the lot for a final inspection. One minor scratch on the bumper, check. All else seemed in order, however, we’d rented a Hyandai Elantra which, as it turns out, only has a repair kit in the wheel well – no jack, no spare tire. We weren’t informed of the fact and and, blissfully ignorant, were soon on our way.

The drive north from Oakland to Fort Bragg is long but beautiful most any time of the year. We were blessed with sunshine, punctuated with enough sprinkles to keep it interesting and the road was blissfully light on traffic. Crossing the Richmond Bridge is always special. I was born on the western side in the Marin hamlet of San Rafael and have lived in the area off and on over the decades. Mt. Tam loomed above the bay, seagulls swerved past the bridge pylons and before long we were on Highway 101 north.

Richmond Bridge, spare tire, trip wellness

Winter in the wine country is a subtle palette of tawny greys, tans, and dark greens. Alongside the road, spotted cows stood out in cartoon relief as the road looped on. We choose the Hwy. 20 route to the coast as it’s a somewhat more direct route than Hwy. 128. After stopping in Ukiah for a brief lunch, we continued on as the skies turned from sprinkles to sunshine and back again. Around one bend a small, dark object sat in the road too close to avoid. Sadly, it wasn’t a pine cone but a rock that bit our front, right tire and sent us limping to a pullout around the next bend.

We sat there for the next four hours. Only after pulling over did we discover the spare wheel well held only a tangled set of accessories for a compression pump; no tire and no jack. With no jack to lift the flat tire, the compressor was useless.

Spare Tire Plan 2:

Cell phone service was nonexistent on that section of mountain road. Traffic was light but one good Samaritan eventually pulled over to take my partner, Dave, to call the car company and the Automobile Club (Tip – Best to do it in that order.) I sat and waited. Sitting alone in a broken down car with no cell phone service on a remote mountain pass sounds like the scenario for a TV crime show but no, the time passed pleasantly enough – it wasn’t cold or dark, I had time to read and nap before Dave returned, and no one bothered me. In a little over an hour he opened the car door, reporting that a tow truck was on its way, and we sat for another two hours. No one came to rescue us.  With less than an hour to sunset, Dave decided to get out and walk uphill to find the Call Box he’d passed earlier.

Sheriff Matt McCroskey, spare tire, trip wellness

Nearly another hour passed until I looked up to see a police cars lights flashing in the rear view mirror. My heart leaped with relief as Dave stepped out. The young Sheriff, Matt Croskey, works in Willits and patrols this stretch of highway. He’d rescued Dave near the Call Box, which was not working, and waited with us until a Tow Truck finally emerged from the forest road.

TnT Towing, spare tire, trip wellness

Victor, from TnT Towing, has been patrolling this road for over two years and it was just part of the day’s ‘comedy of errors’ that he’d missed us earlier. His company is busiest when there’s a rain and it rains here often. Over the years he’s pulled cars from ravines, nearly fallen over an overgrown cliff, waited for emergency vehicles to liberate trapped passengers, and is never at a loss for work. It can be grisly, but our encounter wasn’t.

As the car lifted and we rolled onto the highway, a pale SUV suddenly swerved around us and sped into the night. About 15 minutes along the way, a flare illuminated the road. Another flashed red as we completed the turn and saw ‘our’ Sheriff standing on the road surveying the white SUV (The same one that passed us earlier) that had leaped into the forest and was suspended in the trees. Victor shook his head. He knew he had a long night ahead of him.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Finally, about nine hours after leaving San Rafael on a trip that normally takes about 3, we arrived in Fort Bragg. We left the car at the closed, Enterprise office, and were dropped off at the wedding reception we’d been looking forward to. The pork, steak and lingua tacos were most welcome after the day’s slim pickings. Finally, the night looked promising and we were thankful to forget the day’s adventures.

Since the Enterprise office in Fort Bragg is closed on Sunday we were without a car until late morning on Monday. Luckily, friends in town were able to shuttle us about. The return trip was uneventful, thankfully, and I have to hand it to Enterprise – they took care of the bill. Don’t count on that (see the article below,) just make sure that whatever new car you rent has a spare and if you’re going to be outside of cell phone range should you get a flat.

Happy car rental ending:

When we finally got to the airport to go home, it may have been that I was taking pictures like crazy and told the desk clerk that I was a travel writer, but our expenses were refunded. Enterprise gave us a private ride to our gate and offered several free upgrade coupons for next time we rent from them. We made it home safely with a story to tell and no worse for the wear. I’ll be much more careful about the next car rental deal I come across, but risk is a part of any trip.

As car travel is so popular across the US now, I highly recommend a ride into the desert east of San Diego. Each spring it bursts into flower and here are tips to make the most of the drive.

Here’s another take about car rental without a spare tire:

Chris Elliot Blog – Towing charges with no spare tire? Read more.