Atop Hurricane Ridge

I never gave a second thought to what car to rent while traveling, or who to rent from. This past week’s trip to Portland, the Olympic National Park, and Seattle was no exception. We merely went on a price hunter website, found the lowest price for 7 days from a company we’d actually heard of before, and that was that. As usual, it was marketed as “Toyota Corolla or similar” – every rental company always seems to use the Corolla as their example. “Who hasn’t heard of a Corolla?” seems to be the unwritten assumption.

Of course, it’s very rarely a Corolla you’re actually given, particularly if your rental pickup is at an airport. It’s usually something cheaper – a Kia or Hyundai for instance. And Portland airport’s “Thrifty” car rental lived up to its name, handing me the keys to a 2021 Hyundai Sonata when we arrived at 12:30 in the morning this past Saturday. I thought nothing of it. I’d driven dozens of rental Hyundais, and despite sometimes feeling (and sounding) a bit like a riding lawn while climbing steep hills, they’d always been perfectly serviceable vehicles.

We picked up some tasty late-night Mexican on the way, got to our homestay by 2am, gobbled down our mole and burritos, and immediately passed out on the four-poster bed, excited to see Christine’s cousin and her family and begin our week of adventures in just a few short hours. Awaking at 8, I made coffee for the two of us and headed out to the car to warm up the engine (and cool down the air conditioning), which per the homestay host’s instructions, I’d parked on the quiet street in the quiet nondescript neighborhood, filled with large, somewhat dry trees (the Pacific Northwest is having a bit of a drought this year) and little ranch-style homes.

That’s odd, I thought to myself as I clicked the unlock button several times on the fob, walking toward the car. Maybe this one doesn’t beep or flash its lights when you unlock it. I got into the car, noticing a chunk of black plastic about the size of a quarter on the seat. I picked up, frowning at it. It looked like it had broken off something, and had the word “Kia” written on it – I had never bothered to look it up, but you’re probably not surprised to hear these two South Korean car companies, while independently operated, are both owned by Hyundai.

I was just starting to reach my hand out to put the key into the ignition when I realized that I could hear the outside traffic on the main Avenue, about 200 feet away, much more loudly than I should. That’s odd, I thought to myself yet again – did I leave the window open a crack last night? Poor, naive Zach. I finally turned around.

You’re probably not surprised to hear that I was greeted by the sight of safety glass covering the rear seat, with a sad, ragged hole of spider-webby chunks dangling loosely around the edge. I said a few words with enough vibration force that a few of said chunks tinkled onto the pavement. Then I noticed the plastic housing under the steering wheel had been ripped off, tossed into the passenger side feet area, and all of the wiring around the ignition had been spread out into a mangled tangle. Ah. So, an attempted hotwiring. Got it.

While on the phone with Thrifty to report the damages, I messaged a younger friend of mine who had moved to Madison from Portland a decade ago, showing him some pictures of the hotwiring mess. Oh yeah, he said – this is all over TikTok these days. It’s a Kia or Hyundai right? They call it the Kia Challenge.

Apparently the ignition slot is exactly the right size for a USB flash drive, which is what most of the thieves used on cars without immobilizers

I looked it up. Yep, that must have been it. I noted the dates of the cars that were affected by this – only cheap Kias and Hyundais before 2021. This car was a 2021 – which is probably the reason why we still found a car on the street at all.

Meanwhile, Christine was on hold with the Portland Police. As it turned out, non-emergency crimes in Portland on a Sunday don’t warrant anyone being on call so she sat there with saccharine hold music blaring on the speakerphone for 20 minutes, before checking the internet and determining that no one was going to answer. Great work, Portland PD! We ended up filing a digital case online, as Thrifty demanded a police case number as part of the incident report.

Thrifty also told me that they would charge us for a tow truck, so they recommended we drive the Hyundai to the closest rental agency for our free replacement car. Thrifty indeed. Thankfully, Christine has AAA and brought her card with her. Joe from Crown Towing arrived promptly 30 minutes later and got to work. That non-working unlock fob? Merely a symptom of the drained electrical system. “These cheap cars,” Joe grunted. “You can’t even put them into neutral without a charge. Great design.” He had certainly heard of the Kia Challenge before. He managed to get enough power into the battery, though, and was able to put the car into neutral and winch it slowly onto his truck. “Much better to do it this way; I don’t want the rental company saying I trashed the transmission by dragging it while in park.”

Joe was amenable to taking us to the Portland airport, back to the rental car center, to drop off our ruined Sonata. We had plenty of time to chat with Joe on the drive. A transplant from the deep South, he had moved to Portland 17 years ago, got a wife, some kids – and wasn’t a big fan of Portland. While we avoided jumping directly into politics, he seemed mostly into country, rather than city living – although he did also mention that the previous Portland mayor had “defunded the police, and look where it got us, and your car.”

Eventually though, we made it to PDX airport. We drove around in circles a few times, since the rental car center involved driving into a parking structure that had a height requirement that we were exceeding by several feet. I ended up sprinting up the garage ramp, leaving Christine with Joe and the car, looking for a customer service center in the structure. Every Hertz/Thrifty combined service center was dark, locked and unmanned. Apparently it’s hard to find employees these days, and Thrifty… is thrifty.

Back at the main service desk where I’d rented the Sonata less than 10 hours ago, the employee asked if I’d sprung for Thrifty’s rental insurance. I said I hadn’t; our credit card primary coverage would take care of that – but I was sure it would be a hassle. “Yeah,” she said. “It will be.” She told me that the drop-off point was the Service Center, about a half mile back up the road, which I quickly relayed back to Christine.

As I handed her my credit card and glanced down into my wallet, my heart froze. My driver’s license was missing. Suddenly, the events of the previous night replayed in my brain: driving toward the exit of the ramp, showing the checkout agent the rental agreement… and handing her my driver’s license. Me, tossing it casually into a cupholder in my rush to get going. Had I remembered to take it, when unloading the car? Was it back at the homestay? Was it still in the car? …was it in a TikTok-using loser teenager’s pocket, ready to be used as a fake ID?

I called Christine – had her and Joe search the car quickly where she was waiting at the service center for me to drive back in our new car and pick her up. No sign of it. No time to speculate on the worse case scenario – Joe drove her back to the airport, one last time, to meet me, and put her license down as a second authorized driver for our new car.

What was our new car to be? I asked the service agent casually. “I’d really rather not have another Kia or Hyundai, and end up back here again tomorrow.” She consulted her records, and told me the only car she had left that was a “Toyota Corolla or equivalent” was, I’m sorry, another Kia. “Now would really be a good time to offer me a free upgrade, don’t you think?” I replied. She gazed back levelly at me, and handed me the new rental agreement. I opened it, and saw that we’d be driving a Ford Edge, a small SUV-crossover. A fine upgrade.

Christine drove us back to the homestay without incident, and confirmed that yes – my driver’s license was nowhere to be found. It must have indeed been left in the Sonata, and was part of the the would-be thief’s haul. So sorry the poor little rugrat wasn’t able to get a #KiaChallenge video to put on his TikTok. May my ID serve him well.

One final note in this long-winded saga which I found amusing – a couple days later, as Christine and I were strolling near Reed College, we saw an older Hyundai on the road. I had to laugh when I saw a lock bar stretched across its steering wheel. If only Thrifty had the foresight to either stop renting its low-end Kias and Hyundais altogether… or at least include a lock bar in the rental, similar to what the Korean car companies did in the original theft city of Milwaukee.

With the exception of those first 4 (daylight) hours in Portland, the rest of the trip was quite nice. Great to see Christine’s cousin, husband, and kids, of course (thanks to the pandemic, we hadn’t seen the two adults since their wedding in 2019 – and we’d never met their two children). We also visited the International Rose Test Garden, the Zoo, and several great restaurants (my compliments particularly to Grand Central Bakery and Tusk, two very different kinds of dining establishments, but each extremely tasty in their own way).

Testing the Roses – yep, it’s a Rose! Smells good. Looks good. Put a UPC barcode on it and ship it, Jim.

Continuing on to Olympic National Park, we dropped our bags off at our next homestay, a beautiful “Glass House” in the woods near the town of Shelton. The owners had done a wonderful job making it cute but functional, complete with plumbing in the form of a sink, toilet and a claw-foot bathtub, and electricity. The fourth wall was wooden and had the kitchenette on it, with enough amperage to run a hotplate, toaster oven, and coffee maker simultaneously. Not bad!

When they said 3 of the 4 walls were glass, they meant it! However, we didn’t spy another soul in the two nights at the Glass House. Maybe they spied us. Hope they liked the show!

We only had a couple days in the National Park, so we spent it in two very different areas – first the Staircase Trail area, a lower lakeside area among massive cedars and Douglas firs, some more than 10 feet in diameter.

On the second day, our Ford Edge wheeled its way up the Hurricane Ridge road to Hurricane Hill, high up in the mountains with views in all directions. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center at the top of the mountain had burnt down about a month ago, cause unknown. We saw investigators moving around, sifting through things behind opaque metal fences as the crowds milled through the parking lot (the place was packed with people; the Park Service was limiting visitors to 345 cars per day, since without a visitor’s center, bathroom capacity was limited to what few “Honeybucket” outhouses they had parked on the asphalt.

There’s a small tourist-town just north of Olympic National Park, the closest large community to the main visitor’s center for the park. Port Angeles – plenty of hotels and gas stations. As we were leaving the latter, I noticed a cop car pulling a big truck off onto a side street. Then another, a block further. I should have been more careful but despite driving at exactly the same speed as all the other cars around me… there were the lights in my own rearview mirror. The cop told me that I was doing 65 in a 45 which seemed unlikely, but on the other hand, I didn’t have any means to disprove him. As we drove off eastward toward Seattle, ticket in hand, I saw several other cars being pulled over too. Seems like there was a hunt going on. How else do these dinky little town cop shops pad their coffers otherwise.

Christine had been to both Seattle and Portland before, but I had not – so of course I had to do the typical first-time-in-Seattle things, like go up the Space Needle and visit the Public Market. Both were very nice, very touristy things to do. There was a line stretching back 30 feet, about 100 people, waiting to simply get in the door of The Original Starbucks next to the Public Market. I briefly poked my head in and asked the staff person at the door, “it’s…just a Starbucks right? Same menu and everything?” – she nodded, rolled her eyes ever so slightly skyward and laughed. Tourists gotta tourist, I guess.