With a bone-jarring jolt, Juanita and Leon Smith's Volkswagen Beetle bottomed out rounding a corner on a potholed two-lane road that seemed more appropriate for a horse-drawn wagon than their car.
Oil poured out of the punctured oil pan, the engine froze up and the car sputtered to a halt in Lincolnville, a small town near the coast. Their insurance company wrote the car off as a total loss.
Potholes are an annual rite of spring in New England, but this monster winter of record snowfall amounts — nearly 200 inches in places — has turned roads into monster problems.
"The road had cracks and holes and heaves all over it," said Juanita Smith, recounting the mid-March incident. "It looked like an earthquake had opened up the road."
New Englanders know all too well what spring can bring as roads swell up and break apart when water seeps into pavement cracks and freezes and thaws while the road is being pounded under the heavy weight of vehicles.
Maine's state Department of Transportation faces record pothole repair bills. Through March, it had spent $3.1 million, just shy of the record $3.2 million spent in the winter of 2005-2006.
"We've had a dozen calls from different regions of the state all proclaiming their road as the worst," said spokesman Mark Latti. "The worst road is generally the one you drive on a regular basis. The reality is it's been a record-breaking year — both for snowfall and also for potholes."
The potholes are the worst that Martin Krauter, the acting town manager in the western Maine town of Fryeburg, has seen in his 25 years in municipal government across Maine.
Drivers have to slow down to a crawl and swerve this way and that to avoid the holes — or risk knocking their vehicles out of alignment or losing mufflers.
A few weeks ago, Krauter said, four cars blew out tires within minutes of each other on one particularly bad pothole.
One night in Jericho, Vt., employees at a country store counted a dozen cars limping into the parking lot with popped tires — some had two blown tires — caused by a pothole described as 3 feet wide and a foot deep.
Vermont Transportation Agency workers are reporting terrible conditions statewide.
"From the top of the state to the bottom of the state, this is the worst winter they've seen, if not ever at least in the last 10 or 20 years," said spokesman John Zicconi.
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas recently announced a $3 million repair program dubbed "Operation Smooth Ride."
Season started earlier
In Massachusetts, problems started showing up earlier than usual, said state Highway Department spokesman Adam Hurtubise.
"The earlier temperature extremes this year got pothole season started earlier this year," he said. "Earlier tends to mean a little bit more."
All this comes at a time when municipal and state budgets already are stretched by tight revenues in the slowing economy and the high cost of removing all that snow from roads.
Plus, the cost of pothole patching has gone up with the rising price of petroleum-based tar.
Roads got so bad this winter in Lincolnville, where the Smiths' VW died, that residents submitted a petition asking selectmen to not submit money owed to the state until the Department of Transportation fixed the problems.
At Century Tire in Portland, assistant manager Ricky Chambers said bent wheels and blown tires are part of the price of living in New England.
"But I'd rather deal with the potholes than with the hurricanes," he said.