A group of cars stopped on a highway in a traffic jam


We don’t rent a car very often; we have only done it twice over the last, oh, half-dozen years.  The most recent one is still fresh in my mind, though, not only because it took place in May of this year (2024), but also because… well, let me tell you what happened.

Our oldest granddaughter got married last summer, and two months later she and her new hubby were off to Idaho.  This was not a surprise — he works at the sporting goods store Scheels, as an assistant manager, and for a while he knew that the chain was planning on opening a new location in Meridian, Idaho (just outside of Boise), and that he would be tapped to go there as one of the people responsible for getting the place up and running.  Which is just what happened.

I have set foot (at the very least) in 46 states, and Idaho was one of the four I needed to fill in my dance card.  So a trip there became a no-brainer.  My wife and I then added to it by including a trip to Arches National Park (Utah) and Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho) to our itinerary, which meant flying in and out of Salt Lake City.  Thus, the necessity for a rental car.

We have been driving a Toyota Corolla since September of 2006 (looking forward to reaching 200,000 miles sometime this year!), so picking one up in the airport was kind of like welcoming an old friend.  Of course, we understand there is a big difference between automobiles manufactured now and ones that came out during the (younger) Bush Administration.  And in general, we applaud the many features that have been added to make driving a little safer.  We just have very little experience with them; look, we still marvel at cruise control.

There were no difficulties driving to Arches, and let me state right here that if you want an amazing visual experience, then please put this national park on your bucket list.  It is both gorgeous and bizarre, a truly fabulous encounter that we loved and appreciated.  With very limited resources, the National Park Service does a magnificent job.

The best way to get to Idaho from Arches was to drive back to Salt Lake and just keep going, which is what we did.  And somewhere north of the city – maybe we had crossed into Idaho, maybe we hadn’t, I can’t recall – a message appeared on our dashboard informing us that maintenance was required.  What?  On a brand-new car?  Well, it is a machine, after all, and already had about 6,000 miles on it, but what were we supposed to do?  Call the rental car company, that’s what.  We told them that nothing seemed to be amiss, there was no smoke billowing out from anywhere, driving quality had not diminished, we just had this unwelcome message.  After consulting with others, our contact person said it probably just needed an oil change, even though one was not officially due until the car had been driven 10,000 miles.  “You should be good,” she said.  “Enjoy the rest of your trip.”

“Should be” – now there’s a pretty ambiguous phrase, yes?  And that dashboard message was still there, staring us in the face.  After some conversation, my wife and I decided to call again.  This time we got an exceptionally outstanding customer service person, whose name was Maria, based in the Lubbock, Texas office.  (She only told me this when I said, towards the end of our long conversation, that I would be sending a letter to the rental car company, praising her efforts, which I did after we got home.)  Like her colleague on the earlier call, she conferred with other people, who verified the earlier “diagnosis.”  She also informed us that:

  • They did not have a location at the Boise airport (we had wondered about swapping this vehicle for another); 
  • They did have a location in Twin Falls, which was actually not far away, but the desk was currently closed, not to re-open for about four hours, and anyway, their computer records showed no cars were presently available in Twin Falls;
  • If we chose to go to a Toyota dealer in Boise, we were free to do so, but it would be at our expense.

(I am serious, though, when I tell you that Maria was terrific.  She worked hard, consulting with her colleagues, examining the pros and cons of all of our options, and in general commiserating with our plight, which included the fact that it was raining.  If all customer service people were as industrious, painstaking and heartfelt as she, the world would be a much better place.)

My wife and I talked over all of our alternatives, and decided that we wanted to have a dealer give the car a look, which meant forgoing Craters of the Moon so we could go directly to our granddaughter’s place a day early.  (Hopefully, we will someday be able to add it to our list of visited national parks and monuments.)  On the bright side, driving to our hotel in Bellevue, Idaho, we got to see the magnificence of the Sawtooth Mountains ahead of us, clearly visible in the shimmering sky because the rain had, by then, subsided.  Also a plus was that the Toyota dealership in Boise confirmed that the vehicle only needed an oil change, which they did for free.

Our visit with the newlyweds was wonderful (Scheels has a Ferris wheel right inside the store!), and after a few days we headed back to Salt Lake City.  As we got close to town, an accident in the left lane reduced traffic to a crawl as two lanes merged into one.  And now we get to the OMG part of the story.

Driving this 2024 Corolla had been an educational experience for a couple of people used to cars from a previous generation.  I liked that it told us how many miles we had until the last drop of fuel had been spent, and I even appreciated the red-light warning that I had gone over the posted speed limit (a frequent occurrence, I must admit).  But I don’t know about the “force field” the car threw up if you got too close (in its opinion) to the vehicle ahead of you.  Yes, I understand the reasoning behind it, but if I wanted to feel like I was bucking a head-wind, I’d move back to Amarillo.  This is one feature that I think can be eliminated or, at the very least, modified, because it caused my wife and I several minutes of absolute fear.

So there we were, going south on Interstate 15, and stuck in a traffic jam.  You’ve all experienced it, no doubt (well, maybe not on I-15!) and know how frustrating it is.  We didn’t have to be anywhere at any special time, thankfully, but I have always found the lack of movement to be maddening.  Except that we slowly realized that we were, indeed, moving – backward!  My wife sensed it first, and I poo-pooed her, but then I felt it, too, and now I could see it.  Even though we were not on a hill, our vehicle was slowly going in reverse.  

I slammed on the brake but nothing happened, so I quickly shifted into drive.  The car lurched forward, and I hit the brake again and we stopped.  For only a few seconds, though, as we began to slowly roll backwards again.  Another attempt at braking was similarly unsuccessful, so we went forward before stopping.  We found it necessary to repeat this back-and-forth routine several times before – mercifully! – all of us finally crept around the accident in the left lane and traffic was then able to open up and proceed normally.  My heartbeat finally began to slowly return to a more acceptable rhythm.

At this point let me thank the truck driver who was behind us the whole time.  I believe he recognized what was happening in front of him and, just as uneager as us to be involved in a fender-bender, gave us plenty of room every time he saw us rolling towards him.  Thank you, sir, for being so astute.

We were very careful driving throughout the rest of the trip.  In talking it over, we came to the conclusion that because we were so close to the car in front of us during the traffic jam, the “force field” was responsible for pushing us away.  Being unfamiliar with these modern features, neither of us knew if we could do something to temporarily disable it, or perhaps even “inform” the vehicle that we were in a tie-up and please don’t do anything to scare the pants off us!  For our future reference, if anyone out there has any knowledge about something like this, please let me know.  I can then pass that information on to the rental car company, because when I reported what had happened to us, they seemed to be as dumfounded as we had been.

We are talking about visiting friends of ours in Arizona in January or February, which means we would be in need of a rental car at that time.  I think we might just see if someone will rent us an old El Camino, or Dodge Dart, or Chevy Nova.

Photo by LiPhoto by luigi alvarez: https://www.pexels.com/photo/traffic-jam-on-highway-4212617/e Of Pix