Joshua Keel

I Got Stranded in Roanoke Rapids—and Learned a Valuable Life Lesson

January 12, 2020

I was on my way home to Northern Virginia, just outside DC. Or at least, I had been last night. Now, I was stranded off Interstate 95 at exit 173—a little town called Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, close to the Virginia border.

The rain the night before had been intense, and I was in a mood—brooding, distracted—as I raced down the slickened freeway in my Chevy Impala. I pressed the accelerator and edged up over the speed limit to pass a semi in the right lane.

Just as I neared its front axle, I saw the jet of water, a constant stream ejected from underneath the truck’s body. The heavy rain, the truck’s disturbance of the surrounding air, and the jet stream were the universe’s perfect combo move—and immediately caused me to hydroplane.

My vehicle spun out of control, off the freeway. I screamed, cursing, fearing these were my last moments of life. With no help from me, my Impala did a 360 in the grassy median, finally coming to a standstill.

The truck driver never stopped. Didn’t even slow down.

Thankfully, I was fine, although badly shaken. My car, however, was not fine. It was drivable, but the left front wheel was bent, and the tire had been deflated.

Driving slowly, I was able to climb up out of the median and limp back to the last exit, which happened to be civilization, after a kind. There were hotels, restaurants, and luckily, a car repair shop.

It was late in the evening, so I wearily checked in to the Hampton Inn. Worried about what tomorrow would bring, but grateful to be alive, I went to sleep.

Checking my bank account the next day, in the auto repair shop, I discovered that I had only a few hundred dollars left. I had no credit cards, so if the money wasn’t in my checking account, it wasn’t going to be spent.

The repairs would be over $500, which almost wiped me out entirely. Somehow I had to not only pay for a place to sleep, but also meals for at least the next day. My car wouldn’t be ready until the following morning.

I was scared. I wasn’t sure how I could afford these unexpected expenses. I sure as hell couldn’t spent another $80 on a luxurious night at the Hampton Inn. Why the fuck did I get a room there in the first place? I checked into a Motel 6, picked up some sandwich bread from Walmart, and tried to figure out a game plan.

Being stuck in this stupid little town was enraging. I was walking everywhere—to Walmart, for a cheap lunch, to the hotel, back to the garage—and let me tell you, the fine folks of Roanoke Rapids don’t give a flying fuck about pedestrians. You’re not a 2nd-class citizen; you’re space dust.

I was incredibly angry with myself, the town, and the insanity of the mess I had gotten myself in. I was broke, stuck, rotting in small-town North Carolina for days with nothing to do, and I had only my own stupidity to blame.

I seethed, and raged, and waited around. I was totally helpless. I had no choice at all but to patiently wait for my car to be fixed, cross my fingers I had enough money to pay for the repairs (well, and eat), and accept my lot.

This was very good for me.

As it turns out, my weekend in Roanoke Rapids was the wake-up call I needed. Facing the fact that it was my own gross negligence and mismanagement that caused this situation helped me get my affairs in order.

I had been wasting money—eating out three times a day, overdrafting my checking account every few months (and paying the resulting fines), and just hoping that my debit card would have money on it when I swiped.

After Roanoke Rapids, I started to get a handle on myself.

I got a budgeting app called YNAB (You Need a Budget), and used it religiously. Budgeting helped me understand where my money was going. I knew I spent like there was no tomorrow (mostly on food and entertainment), but I had never held myself accountable.

When I finally started to realize that my problems were of my own making, and that I had to be the one to change, things started to turn for the better. There’s no love lost between me and Roanoke Rapids, NC, but I will be forever grateful for the lessons I learned from the time I spent there.

As you might have guessed, I didn’t starve, and I was able to (barely) pay for the car repairs. My parents happened to be passing through the area one night, and took me out for dinner, lightening my mood.

My checking account was empty, but at least I was in one piece, with a paycheck coming in the next few days. I had managed to escape catastrophe this time, but vowed to never put myself in that situation again.

Life called me out on my bullshit, and I heard the call.