Emergency advice needed

I just drove 1200 miles into Canada in my super-faithful '98 Escort (with 209k on the clock, still runs perfect, no oil leaks or anything). Before leaving, I did all of the maintenance I could think of, and everything was good; wasn't low on any fluids or anything.

Well, I arrived at my in-laws at 2am this morning. About 2 miles from my destination, I came to a stop at a stoplight, and when the light turned green, I found that I wasn't able to shift into first. Panicked, I tried, but found I couldn't shift into any gear — it was like there was a wall in the transmission preventing it. I shut off the engine and was able to shift into any gear I wanted, so I shifted into first, then started the car while in gear. I was able to take off and drive normally, but noticed a new 'rattle' I hadn't heard before. A mile later, it became hard to shift again, and eventually I couldn't get it into any gear other than third. I limped the rest of the way to my destination in third, happy that there weren't any more red lights along my path.

Now, I'm a backyard mechanic that has replaced clutches and trannys before, so I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I'm also not eager to get into a repair that might take my whole vacation and make me late getting back home. I also don't want to do a temporary fix that only gets me halfway home. There are a lot of desolate stretches of highway between here and home.I think (from my own knowledge) that I've probably run out of tranny fluid. Does that sound like the problem? If it's a gradual leak that's taken years, I can just top it up and drive home, but I'm afraid it may have been a lot more sudden than that. Has anyone else had to deal with a sudden tranny fluid loss on one of these? Is there a seal I would need to replace, or am I looking at something more serious? If it's probably just a seal, how hard would that be? I'm guessing I would need to take the tranny out to replace it, is it hard? (I've done it multiple times on a Civic, but not an Escort)I haven't yet gotten a chance to look at the car, because we abandoned it at 2am at my in-law's house, and were given a ride to our hotel. I'll be able to look at it tonight or tomorrow.


Thanks for reading my sob story and any advice you can give! Have an awesome Escort (not mine, I wish! Owned/raced by Andrew Mackintosh, and stolen from the Ford Escort Owners Assoc. Facebook group) for your troubles.

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