Trans-Canada Road Trip – Trials & Tribulations

23 – 26 November 2010

Its over four thousand kilometers from Montreal to Banff via Toronto. An iconic journey through long stretches of nothing which should probably be spread over a couple of weeks, we were aiming to cover the distance in just four days. Roughly eleven hours of driving a day; it was going to be hellish, one hell of an adventure that is!

We slept in a carpark, we drove right through the night, we broke down in the middle of nowhere in temperatures 25 degrees below freezing; Ali, Obi and myself – we did it all on this ball-buster of a journey.

[Day One] We didn’t leave Montreal as early as we’d planned, we left damn late in fact and didn’t hit Toronto until 6.30pm. Here we enjoyed our first and last shower of the journey, re-packed the car in a more organised manner and Obi stored four car tyres on the roof which he was being paid to deliver to Calgary; with the bikes on top of the tires on top of the roof we were off.

Spirits were high in anticipation of the adventure to come; Obi was driving, Ali was in the co-pilots seat in charge of navigation and music, and I had the mattress in the back. The back seats had been folded down flat, a plywood fake floor had been installed under which we stored stuff and on top was the mattress where I now found myself stretched lazily across.

We didn’t really have a plan other than to drive as much as possible every day until we hit our destination. We drove into the night, when Obi got tired Ali took over and I hopped into the co-pilots seat, when Ali got tired I took over. Sometimes we would do an even rotation but at other times the driver and co-pilot would simply swap and let the person with the mattress in the back have more sleep. In the early hours of the morning I found myself driving, we’d made it to the small town of Sault St. Marie (Ontario). I pulled over and roused Obi from his co-pilots resting spot “Obi mate, I’m bloody tired, struggling to keep my eyes open, do you want to take over?”
“Yeah, sure man” Obi responded; Ali had woken up and took the co-pilots seat and I crawled into the back to sleep. Barely five minutes later I hear “Shit, I can’t do this, I’m so fucking tired, we’re going to need to stop somewhere.”
We’d made a valiant effort on day one but we were now all shot, we found a quiet parking lot at a service station and stopped for the remainder of the night. Obi and I ‘top & tailed’ on the mattress and Ali somehow curled up on the front seats, it was rough but it got us a little sleep.

[Day Two] took us to Thunder Bay where regrettably Obi’s beautiful purring Volvo started hiccuping and coughing out the occasional backfire. When we checked the oil it was below low and when we moved off in search of a gas station it appeared as if the problem was getting worse by the minute, had we burnt out the engine in the middle of Canada? We decided to do an oil and filter change but was it too little too late? We found a Canadian Tire and somewhat dubiously sourced a wrench along with oil, a new filter and some engine cleaning product. It was late at night (dark) and freezing cold, numbing ones hands after only moments of exposure. Obi got the catching pan under the car, managed to drain the old oil and we filled up with the new. With fresh oil, a new filter and some engine cleaning product in the fuel we set off for Winnipeg. It seemed the engine had settled down but was it only our wishful imaginations? I had the mattress in the back and Ali and Obi were driving, they didn’t get far out of town before the hiccuping was back and worse, our poor Volvo was really struggling with continuous spluttering, coughing and backfiring. We were kidding ourselves if we thought we could drive thousands of kilometers with the engine running as it was.

Obi pulled over to check the oil level, it was full but the car didn’t start afterward – it appeared the battery had conked out on us, we were up shit creek without a a working engine. What the hell were we supposed to do? In the middle of nowhere with no cell coverage, middle of the night, snow all around with an engine that won’t start and temperatures exceeding twenty-five below zero.

We decided to bunk down for the night. We all put on all our clothes and got inside our sleeping bags but the cold soon stared to creep in.
“Man, I can’t feel my toes” Obi complained.
I’d bought a few emergency supplies before hitchhiking from Halifax so after getting Ali and Obi’s hopes up I retrieved my hand warmers from my bag. They didn’t work, cheap shit. Obi got out his gas cooker which we attempted to light while hunched over inside the cramped car space, we couldn’t get it to work either – seemed we were out of gas! In our last ditch effort I retrieved my silver survival blanket and Ali lit tea-light candles where ever she could find a safe flat spot inside the car. So with Obi and I sharing a survival blanket and Ali enshrined in tea-light candles we tried to get some sleep.

Around three in the morning we were roused by the sound and glaring lights of a snow plough, the guy stopped and after we explained our situation he said he had to call ‘it in’. Within an hour we had two police cars and a tow truck, with flashing lights and glaring headlights. Obi naturally didn’t want to pay for towing, the tow truck driver was very understanding and offered to try jump starting our Volvo but he seemed to know it wasn’t going to work. With it all hooked up Obi started cranking over the engine, nothing happened. The towie came to the window, “It’s not going to start lad, it needs work”. Obi cranked it over again. “If it hasn’t started yet, its not going to start; but give it one last go if you want”. Obi tried again, nothing. As the driver was walking back to his truck Obi tried again, he put his heart into that last twist of the key but it was to no avail, the old girl was not going to start, not tonight.

We were towed back to the nearest town. Throughout the whole ordeal the people who helped us were really nice; the police polite and helpful as well as the tow truck driver who owned the local mechanics shop. When the motel was closed (which we didn’t want to spend money at anyway) our tow truck driver set us up outside his workshop with a couple of those high powered clip on lights for heat which mechanics use. It was awfully bright but thankfully warmer than before. In the morning the tow truck driver had a look at our car, within a few minutes he’d determined that our problems were probably not oil related but caused by a faulty set of ignition points, the distributor cap and rotor were also starting to crack. But with a little grease in the right place the points were able to be manually spaced apart again and the engine fired up beautifully. We were on our way, but without the parts to replace the cracked distributor cap we didn’t know for how long.

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[Day Three] Nearing Winnipeg we hit our worst weather, we’d hit a bloody snow blizzard. We certainly had a few hairy moments on white roads, with white roadsides and white stuff (snow) swirling through the air while being passed by huge rigs. When a big truck is passing you you naturally want to keep to the right, but with the poor visibility and everything being white I’d find myself wandering too far to the right and the right side wheels would slow down in the deeper snow off the side of the road spiralling the car into a small fishtail next to the large truck and generally freaking everybody out.

At some point we caught up to a vehicle in front of us, odd because we were normally being overtaken. We were barely able to see two meters in front of the bonnet with all the swirling snow and our mud flecked windscreen but we eventually determined that the vehicle was a school bus. It was dark, it was snowing up a storm, we were barely able to keep track of the road from the snow drifts and here in the middle of bloody nowhere was a school bus. It became even more bizarre when the yellow school bus stopped, the passing bar came down, the red lights flashed and a small kid got off the thing and ran across the road! It was only then that we noticed the parked SUV, barely discernible through the snow storm. The whole incident reminded me of my favourite chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows; where Mole trips over a door-scraper hidden in the snow drifts while lost in the wild woods with Rat. They too were seemingly in the middle of nowhere in a huge snowstorm and came across something unexpectedly out of place. It was just unfortunate that our yellow school bus did not lead to a welcoming Mr. Badger with his roaring fire, tea and cookies.

We eventually made it into Winnipeg safe and sound. We took a break in a donut shop and tried to figure out our next move, we were behind schedule and it was going to be very difficult to make Vancouver by Friday. Ali was thinking of bailing and taking the Greyhound coach the following morning to keep her schedule, while Obi wanted to push on through the night and still try make Vancouver by Friday. Ali and I were both apprehensive about carrying on through in the dark considering how bad the weather had been coming in. I checked the weather reports and they were not actually so bad, we just had to be ready for very cold weather around Ragina area. We decided to push on.

Shortly after heading on the weather did start to clear up a bit and I concluded that we’d make the right decision, the driving even became quite enjoyable; straight roads, well groomed, with just the occasional icy section which I actually found sparkled rather pleasantly in the black night. We drove on through the night.

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[Day Four] When the night turned to day we kept driving, we were in prairie lands with nothing but flat snow as far as the eye could see. It was uneventful but we weren’t complaining, the car was running well and we were making good time.We reached Calgary in the evening where we got lost briefly before hitting Banff that night.

Adventure complete. I said goodbye to my travel companions and wished them well for the last leg to Vancouver.

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