Survive a Breakdown with a Smile on Your Face

By J.R. Switchgrass

Breakdowns happen, but they don’t have to ruin your road trip! If you come prepared with these five essentials and one mindset change, you just might find that a breakdown is the beginning of an adventure bigger than what you planned.

1. Before you hit the road, wrap yourself a “Breakdown Birthday Present.”

Before you head out on the road, make a breakdown supply box and wrap it in birthday-present-themed wrapping paper. Pack it with a set of useful tools and practical gadgets, as well as a supply of treats and comforts that will brighten the tough moment. Then, if the worst happens and you do, indeed, end up on the side of the road, you can unwrap your gift to yourself. It will be a reminder that this challenging moment is a special one-time occurrence—and one you can survive.

Inside the box will be practical, not so exciting, but oh-so-necessary tools such as roadside flashers, a headlamp, notebook and pen, and a tire iron and bottle jack. However, because you thought ahead, you’ll also have little niceties and treats that make it feel like your birthday, like your favorite candy bar, clean t-shirts and underwear, sports drinks or fizzy water, and a sealed envelope with a letter inside that says “Your mission, if you choose to accept it is: survive this breakdown with a smile on your face.” Life’s given you a box of lemons, and you’ve packed the juicer. Will you accept the mission and make some lemonade?

2. Pretend that your current scenario is the plot of a buddy cop movie.

When breaking down, some important safety precautions need to be taken immediately. Finding a safe space off the roadway for you and your vehicle is one of them. But, once you are confident you’re secure, try to make light of where you are. After all, if Will Smith in Men in Black can find something to laugh about while in a tight spot, you can too. Try taking the situation less seriously and laugh at yourself. Keep anger and frustration at bay with a continuous stream of witty banter.

Is this going to solve the problem? No! But it will be more effective than stomping your feet and filling your head with curse words. Set your mind at ease by pretending you are Chris Tucker in Rush Hour or Kevin Hart in Ride Along. The mood will be lightened, and because you’re relaxed, you’ll be in a position to make better decisions under pressure. You’re already in a mess—don’t create a bigger one!

3. Treat yourself—and ward off the hangries.

What is a road trip without the snacks and beverages, without the special stop-overs in diners and dives? Nothing, we’d argue—and we’d say the same about breakdowns. When they occur, allow the road snacks to take the main stage. While stranded on the side of the road, your normal eating routine will go right out the window. Lunch might not happen. Dinner might become unavailable. So treat yourself to the candy bar in your breakdown box.

Before you get your hands dirty inspecting or fixing the problem, take a moment. Sit down, take a breath, and indulge in a bag of potato chips. While you’re munching on your salty snack, visualize the job in front of you. Tell yourself that today’s meal plan is flexible, and you can have a second bag whenever you need it. Then, when it takes longer than expected to resolve the problem, you will be sated and calm, your belly full and happy. Definitely a better strategy than being so hangry you can’t think straight.

4. Appoint a scribe.

Documentation brings clarity, and clarity delivers the answers to your problems. Before you start ruling out possibilities or diagnosing problems, take a moment to write a list of the events leading to the moment of your breakdown. You should have a notebook and pencil in your Breakdown Birthday Box, because you’re prepared, aren’t you? When was the last time you got gas? Write the answer. Was there a weird noise before the engine gave out? Scribble down any memories or aha’s. How far away from the nearest towns are you? Write their names. What was the last song playing on the radio before the smoke? Into the notebook it goes!

Methodically scribing each of the day’s actions will slow you down and help you focus on the relevant details at hand. Read through what you’ve written as you consider your predicament. You will either stumble upon a repair you can make yourself or will be able to relate your story to a competent mechanic, saving hours of diagnostic work. You will also have better answers for tow companies, hotel concierges when booking a room, and your significant other, who wants a plan that will work. Double bonus: when you get to the end of your breakdown saga, you will have all the juicy details recorded, so you can recount an excellent story to your friends and family.

5. Don’t be a hero.

Everybody wants to be a hero. Everyone thinks their will and determination will save the day. But it’s important to remember machines don’t work on will and determination. Instead, they operate according to precise choreography. Each part plays a role in this mechanical dance, and if it doesn’t, well, the show cannot go on. Lucky for us laypeople, there is a network of qualified professionals who know exactly how those machines should twirl, torque, and spin, and they’re able to get them back out on the stage. These are mechanics, and we rely on them to keep us road tripping.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do! In the midst of a breakdown, if you are safely parked to do so, pop the hood of your car or crouch down next to the tire. Take a look at the problem; it could be super simple and obvious. Don’t do anything if you are not confident in your abilities, but it’s amazing what a difference a small observation or simple repair can make in your day. If you see a sad tire in need of air and have the tools and know-how, give it a change—in a safe space over off the side of the road, of course. If your engine is overheated, however, it’s probably time to call for a tow and find a mechanic.

Even though you may be far from home, trust that the same type of kind, competent mechanic you rely on in your hometown also works in shops all across the country. You can be in good hands, even if you cannot complete a repair on your own. Don’t be too proud to call for help! Knowing when to wave the white flag and call for help will make you the greatest hero of them all.

Make a mental switch.

As you follow the breakdown tips listed above, you might discover a subtle shift in your perception of a dreaded breakdown. You may find that, however trite the saying, the journey truly is the destination. When you allow yourself to enjoy your trip, even when your car is out of service, your world opens up. You may find that, instead of feeling stuck, you are able to perceive endless possibilities and solutions to your roadblocks. Perhaps you are towed to a town you’ve never heard of, only to discover a point of historical or natural interest to explore that was better than your original destination. Or, maybe you find that sitting by the hotel pool and connecting with your loved ones is actually all you needed out of a relaxing vacation. Small towns often have unique bars and restaurants you would have otherwise skipped over. Enjoy. Relax. Make the most of your situation.

If you are waiting for a repair from a garage, don’t muscle the shop into finishing it early. Don’t rush at all. Instead, embrace the fact that now you have nothing to do and nowhere to be. Your schedule is wide open, and you can see the world around you in a new light. Just think, before your breakdown, there was a whole world of adventure whizzing past your windows that now is ripe for the finding. I hope that now you have the ability to break down with grace while embracing the journey as the destination.