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How Not to Go Off the Grid


Marissa Battle and two friends marched out of the woods after a strenuous 5-mile hike near Olympic National Park, excited for the rest of their “Twilight” getaway weekend in Forks, Wash., the rural setting for the popular vampire romance saga.

Then they got a jolt: They were locked out of the car. The trio had rented a technology-reliant Hyundai Elantra from Zipcar Inc., which had given the vehicle the fun name of “Monroe.” The car-sharing service owned by

Avis Budget Group Inc.

operates rental cars equipped with radio-frequency identification, known as RFID, and Bluetooth technology. “Monroe” is locked and unlocked through an app on a cellphone.

Despite being on a first-name basis with their car, the three friends couldn’t get inside. Because the trailhead was so remote, there was no cell service. They figured that without a signal, Monroe couldn’t hear them.

Another thing you can’t do without cell service is easily summon help. At the trailhead, with the late-afternoon sun sinking, they debated whether to scrounge for a ride. “We were kind of making a gamble of like, ‘OK, do we want to get in a car with these strangers?’ ” says Ms. Battle, who is now 25.

Eventually they hitched a ride with a passing husband and wife (not vampires, whew) who were camping nearby.

Haley Shoebotham, Kateri Gajadhar-Smith and Marissa Battle took a road trip in Washington.


Haley Shoebotham

The friends aren’t the only ones having road-trip dramas: Others say they have been waylaid after driving cellular-reliant transportation off the grid. (An Olympic National Park ranger station has even posted a sign warning this can happen.) Technology is making it trickier to get away from it all, because our new tech insists on tagging along.

Such cases of being stranded after going too far off the grid—by being locked out or the car not starting—“are extremely rare,” says Justin Holmes, vice president of marketing and public policy at Zipcar. “When they do, the root cause of them, it’s often not the technology, it’s something else,” he says, including phone settings or expired reservations.

Mr. Holmes said Zipcar can’t comment on specific incidents.

Zipcar’s website recommends drivers locked out of cars first make sure they have cellular data, Bluetooth and location data switched on.

Cindy Groshong, who owns Mountain Loop General Store in Washington’s Cascade foothills, about 3 miles from a reliable signal, says she and her employees regularly see people walk in seeking the store’s landline phone. The castaways, she says, are typically locked out of a digitized rental car or dealing with one that won’t start.

“You’re not the first person,” Lynn Sellick-Lane, a store clerk says she assures the stranded. “They’re always a little alarmed and surprised their car will lock them out.”

Haley Shoebotham, Kateri Gajadhar-Smith and Marissa Battle on their way to Rattlesnake Lake in a Zipcar.


Haley Shoebotham

While waiting for help, wayward travelers play with the store’s resident black cat, Mondo, or maybe grab a beer: “One gal just sat at the bar,” says Ms. Sellick-Lane.

University of Washington student Matthew Mitnick tries to defeat the cars himself. An ultramarathoner, he joined Zipcar to venture beyond where public transportation allows to run the Pacific Northwest trails. Half a dozen times, Mr. Mitnick says he emerged from long runs to a Zipcar that wouldn’t unlock via the app because the signal on his phone was too weak.

He says he works around the issue by walking around to find a strong enough signal to call Zipcar customer service to unlock the car remotely.

Sometimes, everyone is stumped.

Late one April night, Odhran McCarthy and his wife Maria Rettori—who both work for the United Nations—and their 2-year-old, traveled via Zipcar from their home in New York City to the Getaway Cabins in the Catskills.

Odhran McCarthy, Maria Rettori and their toddler on their trip to the Catskills.


Odhran McCarthy,

“Get away, disconnect, detach from everything,” says Mr. McCarthy, who is 36, of the goal.

Turns out, they were too detached. The next morning, the family tried to leave for sightseeing, but Mr. McCarthy couldn’t unlock the car with his app or RFID card.

“We’ll find a solution,” Mr. McCarthy told himself initially before thinking, “Holy s—.”

He used a landline phone at the cabin office to call Zipcar, and the company arranged for a mechanic to come—who managed to get into the car, but couldn’t start it, Mr. McCarthy says. (Zipcar arranged for a tow, which claimed the car several days later.)

Meanwhile, the family took a $365 cab back to Manhattan, while managing a toddler and symptoms of food poisoning from food they had brought along since they couldn’t drive to a market or restaurant.

“A perfect planned weekend went to hell,” Ms. Rettori recalls.

Odhran McCarthy and Maria Rettori’s locked Zipcar during a getaway to the Catskills.


Odhran McCarthy

Zipcar later reimbursed them for the cab and property locked in the vehicle.

The three stranded friends who were off the grid for a Twilight-themed weekend hitched a ride to a lodge—but one far from where they planned to stay.

Unable to find help or a ride anywhere that night, by 1 a.m., the trio shelled out a few hundred dollars for the last room available. Their luggage was back in the car, Monroe.

“The three of us get in bed, in our sweaty, disgusting hiking clothes,” says Kateri Gajadhar-Smith, who is 25, and was part of the group.

The next morning they were optimistic. “It’s a fresh day,” Ms. Battle thought. “We can still make it to Edward and Bella’s first date.” (She meant reservations at a restaurant frequented by Twilight’s fictional couple.)

Haley Shoebotham , Kateri Gajadhar-Smith and Marissa Battle behind the front desk at a lodge where they called for assistance.


Haley Shoebotham

After a 45-minute drive back to the trailhead, a mechanic they summoned from a local towing service unlocked Monroe, using an air-pump wedge to jimmy the front door. But when friend Haley Shoebotham turned the key: Nothing. The trio say they think Zipcar’s antitheft tech kicked in, preventing the car from starting if opened without Zipcar’s technology.

They loaded everything from Monroe into the mechanic’s truck. They drove a stake through the second half of their Twilight weekend, and lunched with their mechanic at a Mexican restaurant. He then shuttled them to a friend, who brought them back to Seattle.

Write to Sarah Donaldson at [email protected]

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