Last week has been by far the worst week in all of my travels. All the bad stuff got together to slap me in the face: wind and rain during the day; subzero temperatures during the night; empty/closed campsites; and to finish in style my first mayor van breakdown. This week was tough… I was close to calling the trip finished… I even looked into how to get me and the van back to Europe as cheap as possible…
Last story ended with me really needing a day off after days of rain and driving all day. Luckily the weather was nice (got a bit of an accidental tan/slight lobster tone). I sat around all morning watching everyone pack up their stuff. It was Sunday now, when I arrived yesterday the campsite was pretty full. Sunday at noon only 3 other sites were taken. I thought it was also time for some exercise: the campsite had an indoor pool and with all the other guests gone I could swim some laps. The amount of chlorine in the pool water seems to scale with the amount of chlorine in the tap water. After the first few minutes my eyes were redder than my sunburn. Still had a good swim.
I knew the next bit of my trip (Minneapolis to Winnipeg to Calgary) was going to be interesting. It is flat prairie land with straight roads and fields all the way to the horizon. I don’t want to drive to much per day, but when all travel books/websites agree that there is not much to see, maybe you should just drive.
First, time for some good American stuff: the Mall of America. It’s the second largest mall in the US and the third largest in North America (the Canadians have the largestest, probably just to piss off some Americans). I normally hate malls/shopping but I really needed some shorts and that should be cheap here (no sales tax). I would get there on a Monday morning so it shouldn’t be too busy. Plus a mall with a build-in theme park (including multiple roller coasters) sounded like something I had to check out. It was big, it was weird, I got my clothes, they weren’t that cheap. My aim for the day was heading up to Fargo, North Dakota. The drive would take me along some of the 10.000 Minnesotan lakes. The weather did not agree. It rained and it rained a lot. The lakes did look very pretty but I did not stop. So I drove further than planned. Which means time for some campsite problems: campsite 1: in a provincial park, weather was very stormy, very muddy and way more expensive than advertised (but I did spot a living beaver!); campsite 2 was more of a parking lot next to/on the highway (no office, just a pay box; no services; no trees or fence between the sites and the highway); campsite 3: no office, 1 other family (looked like permanent residents) but looked ok and was further from busy roads.
Mall of America with indoor theme park
Next day: more rain. In my desperate search for a campsite yesterday evening I already drove by Fargo (but it’s raining again, so wouldn’t have stopped anyway). Plan was again to stop in some nice parks in North Dakota for some short hikes but it just rained some more. So the only attraction of the day was the border crossing to Canada. The lady at the window was nice and didn’t have too many questions, so I was surprised when she send me into the office for further questioning. This didn’t take too long but they did check me with Interpol (apparently I’m not listed as dangerous or wanted). After the border it was only a short drive to Winnipeg. I arrived at a campsite (AKA a mud field under construction behind a fuel station) at 3. Time to do some laundry and try to figure out how to make the trip fun again.
If nature doesn’t cooperate it is time to visit a city (It was actually dry, grey and cloudy, but dry). Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada highway) goes straight into Winnipeg with about 13238 traffic lights. Winnipeg itself wasn’t very busy but it had some cool buildings like the National Museum of Human Rights. The most interesting part of the day was when I saw two geese walk in the middle of the road. A bit further down the road was a blind man. He stopped and listend trying to figure out what it was. He asked me if it was a goose. I told him there were actually two of them in the middle of the road. The blind man asked me if I could take a picture of the geese with his phone for his Instagram account. He controlled the phone with the touch screen, but the screen was black, it would tell him what function it was on. I took some pictures for him for which he was very grateful. I forgot to ask him for his account details. I wandered around town sone more, but couldn’t really find anything interesting. When it started raining again I decided it was enough and it was time to start crossing the prairies.
Sound like a club I should become a member of (Winnipeg)
Guess what the weather was like the next day: correct.. rain… rain and loads of wind. In this great weather I drove to Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. There is a nice park with loads and loads of geese and gooselings (or geeselings). But the freezing wind made it a short visit. Time for another campsite. This one looked suspiciously a lot like a parking lot for the local baseball field.
The last few days I had been noticing that the van was acting up. I had very little power when accelerating. Every hill I would drive up, I had to shift back to keep some speed. Main roads in the prairie have a speed limit of 11o km/h, but they have intersections on them without traffic lights. Those were terrifying since it would take me 10 seconds or so to get to 60… On top of that, the already high oil consumption skyrocketed. One day I would fill up the oil to nicely between min and max. A day and only 500 km later I would be way below min and would need 2 liters of oil to get it back. These are two mayor problems that I shouldn’t ignore. But because of the freezing cold, the rain and the wind I had been ignoring them (who wants to go lay under a van with weather like that). Now I had realised something was really wrong and it needed attention. I looked up a mechanic specialized in older Volkswagen vans who happened to be only 20 minutes away from my campsite.That night was terrible: I was extremely tired from the last few days driving but I only slept for 2 hours because the temperatures both outside and inside the van had dropped below zero and I was extremely worried about what the van problems might end up being. I woke up at 5, hoping it was almost 8 so I could go to the mechanic who would open shop at 8:30.
The workshop had loads of Volkswagen vans lined up and the owner had a few himself too (good signs!). But the shop was swamped in work and would for sure not have time until Monday (it was Friday) to do some detailed diagnostics. But since the owner really wants to help travellers to keep travelling he did want to have a quick look for a first guess. The conclusion wasn’t good,. I should not drive any further and it would probably take a few weeks to get fixed (it was would be a mayor replacement and spare parts are hard to get here) and it would probably cost a couple of thousand dollars. He recommended me to also check with the Volkswagen dealer on the edge of town. They didn’t have any time to have a look until next Friday (when the fun of fixing would only start) but they did recommend not to drive any further.
Defeated and tired I found a campsite on the other side of the street and parked my van. All experiences from the last week (wind, rain, freezing cold, no people, only driving, broken van) became too much for me. I was done. I could not continue the trip anymore. I didn’t have weeks to wait for the repair, my visa would run out before I could get out of the country. I started looking into flights to fly to Europe from here while the van would be repaired (not cheap). I looked what the closed by harbour would be where I could try to drive the van to to ship it back to Europe, sell it and find a job. If the van would break on the way to the harbour I would have to scrap it. I called with some friends and family in Europe to get my story out. They tried to talk sense into me and forbid me to stop my trip. But I saw no good way out anymore. Eventually my dad convinced me to at least wait until Monday for the car checkup. Maybe it wasn’t that bad after all. After the calls I just sat in my van and stared ahead… Three more days to sit here and wait…. And after that it would be done…
After a while I realized it was only early afternoon. Surely there must be some other mechanic in town that is still open. Maybe they’re not the experts for this van but at least I could get someone to have a look at it. I found a mechanic specialized in European cars. Turns out the owner was Dutch (emigrated in the 70s). He said they could put the car up on the bridge and have a look right away. Immediately it was clear that one of the gaskets was leaking a lot. This might not be the only leak but it was a big one. The mechanics said they would replace it but didn’t expect to be able to get the part in before Monday. While looking up the delivery time they were surprised to find out they actually had one in stock. This gasket might explain the oil loss but it would not cause the power loss. First suspect: the fuel filter. A quick check showed that it clearly could use a replacement. Three hours and a few hundert dollars later the car is doing much better again. The power seems to be back. The oil leak will need some driving to get to a conclusion. So tomorrow I’ll start to continue my trip. If all is OK, all is OK, if not I will return to the now infamous Regina, Saskatchewan.
The Van at the mechanic
This post deserves a huge thanks to my family and friends for not allowing me to give up and talk some sense into me. And of course a thanks to all the mechanics for all their advice, checks and work.