It was some time in late May, as I recall and, in a roundabout way, the whole experience was entirely my fault. You see, if I hadn't come along, my parents would have just flown to Omaha, and the entire fiasco would never have happened. However, my thirteen year old niece who inexplicably thinks I'm cool swore upon her life that she would throw an apocalyptic teenage temper tantrum if I was not allowed to tag along with my parents to come visit, and so we packed up our trusty Toyota Camry and set off on our adventure across the plains.
The drive was uneventful for most of the day. The midwest is flat. There are cows. A lot of them.
With the mountains far behind us, I began to worry that we were in danger of being sucked out into the emptiness to float back and forth across the plains in an eternal vacuum of pointlessness, however, most of the trip passed without drama. At least until about 6 PM that evening.
The first indicator that this was not going to be a normal trip was when a man in a car with a very large dog pulled level with us and started shouting incomprehensibly and gesticulating wildly at us. We hadn't cut him off or anything, and we weren't doing anything illegal, so we were not really sure as to why this man was so very angry with us. He looked absolutely livid, and my mild mannered little family could do nothing but shrink in terror and confusion until he passed.
The stop lasted longer than expected, because I swear to you, there was only one functional air pump in the entire town and until we found it, we drove around in the dead center of nowhere feeling hopelessly lost. I do distinctly remember the one thing of interest in that entire town was a sign outside a diner that said "Buy any drink and get a free straw." Of course, Dad would not stop, and so I did not get a straw.
Admittedly I am very easily swayed to the influence of lighted signs.
Barreling down the highway at about 85 miles an hour, the car gave a sudden, violent swerve as Dad attempted to avoid the biggest raccoon in the known universe as it chose that moment to traipse out in front of us. Didn't swerve fast enough though, and we hit the raccoon head on with a gigantic THUNK, sending it flying back into the brush at the side of the road, and jerking us all out of our sense of calm security. Everything was alright though, for the moment. We were rattled, but the car remained in control and we continued along our way for about ten minutes more.
It was at that point when the engine started making some really funny noises, getting louder and jumpier until Dad noticed that the temperature dial on the dashboard going crazy as the engine overheated. He turned off the highway where the car promptly died, leaving us stranded on the side of the road.
It was a few minutes until a shirtless man pulled up alongside of us to help. He hopped out of his truck and swore at our engine for a good ten minutes before declaring that the raccoon had cracked our radiator completely. It was around that time that it became readily apparent that we were not going to reach our destination that night. It was also around that time when the police officer pulled off the side of the road to help.
Now I was already giggling about the whole situation. Over the years I've had extensive training in finding everything hilarious, especially stupid car related situations, so the fact that the raccoon had busted our radiator was incredibly funny to me. My parents didn't seem to quite see the humor in it all, though and I tried to help them out as best I could.
Eventually, after making a few calls, the police officer offered to drive Mom and I down the hill to check into a hotel while Dad waited for the tow guy. Now, a police car has only two available seats for people who are not being arrested, which meant that, with Mom in the front seat, I got to ride in the back where the criminals go. I was explosively excited; this evening just kept right on getting better. The officer seemed to think I might be a bit odd for being so excited about riding in the back, but I'm sure that if Mom had explained to him that me getting to ride there was the rough equivalent of allowing a five year old boy to do the same, I'm sure he'd have understood.
In the end, it was one of those experiences that you look back on and laugh. And in my case it was one that you laugh during as well. But one element of it has continued to be a source of curiosity for me: The raccoon. How did that raccoon manage to crack our radiator? My parents and I went through many an option of how the raccoon might have managed to damage our car as much as we damaged the raccoon, but the only conclusion we could reach was that the 'coon wasn't damaged at all by the impact, and that instead it stood up from the scene of the crash immediately after and flew away to go do whatever it is immortal raccoons do.
The lesson to be taken from this is that raccoons are jerks.
Be wary, travelers.