August 28, 2017
For many years I’ve watched Top Gear and now The Grand Tour as an avid car enthusiast, my favorite episodes being the epic road trip adventures that Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May experience. In each of these special episodes, the trio is given a challenge to drive a particular type of car across country in some remote location, and inevitably they run into countless problems along the way: mechanical breakdowns, troubles with local government, language & culture, and some issues purely of their own creation. I’ve found myself envious of these adventures, and have often imagined what it would be like to go on such a journey.
Recently I had the opportunity to experience just such an epic cross country road trip challenge adventure, accompanied by a team consisting of my brother in law, father in law, two good friends, and two dogs. In true Top Gear/Grand Tour fashion, we experienced a whirlwind of unexpected obstacles and situations that truly made the trip worthy of an episode on one of these shows. Thrills, chills, and spills.
The one component we were missing was a camera crew to properly document our misadventures as we snaked our way across the United States of America in a caravan consisting of a VW Mk4 R32, Corrado VR6, and Toyota Sienna minivan towing a classic Fiat Spider on a flatbed trailer. Our point of origin was South Bend, Indiana (home of Notre Dame), and our destination was San Diego, CA, and our trip would take us through Chicago Illinois, Branson Missouri, Hurricane Harvey, Oklahoma, Amarillo Texas, White Sands New Mexico, and Tuscon Arizona, among other places. What could possibly go wrong?
The following is the complete unabridged journal of our adventure.
Day 0: Sunday, August 27
Prep & Pack Day
As the 44 year old Fiat Spider that had belonged to my father was not likely to make the cross country trip under its own power, I had purchased a flatbed trailer to tow it behind our beloved mommyvan of awesomeness. However, we discovered during attempted loading that my Trailer would not fit the Fiat, so we had to cut the railings off of it and modify the trailer fenders. With millimeters to spare, the old roadster made it onto the trailer, we wedged the trailer fenders wider so they wouldn’t rub on the Fiat, and we strapped it down securely. Theoretically it was ready to hit the road.
Also that afternoon, the Corrado’s air conditioning suddenly stopped working for no apparent reason. I’m guessing the #13 AC relay died, a common occurrence on this generation of VW. I do happen to have many spares. However, they are all packed deeply within the moving truck. :/ So driving the Corrado through desert will not be fun if it's daytime when we hit it... (hint: that’s foreshadowing)
Left South Bend for my second round trip to Chicago in three days to retrieve Tom, one of our drivers. Price, one of our other drivers whom had arrived the day prior, accompanied me for the excursion, and we got there a bit early so we set up shop in a Dunkin Donuts to enjoy sugar and caffeine while we awaited Tom. Upon arriving at Midway, or rather about an hour after he had deplaned, Tom discovered the airline had lost his bag. This delayed us a bit while they tried unsuccessfully to track it down. Eventually we picked him up and headed back to South Bend, to resume packing.
When we got back to the house, we found that there was still a great deal to be accomplished in terms of packing out the house and getting the trailer loaded. My wife was overwhelmed, and frankly so was I... it had been an exhausting week, with three solid days spent loading the truck already. Now with a deadline looming, we had to kick it into high gear. As Susie and the kids were not traveling the whole way across country with us (they lucked out and were flying straight to San Diego), they had to be dropped off at the airport first thing in the morning. The plan had been for the caravan to roll out together, deposit them at Midway in Chicago, retrieve Tom’s missing bag (the airline found it late in the evening) and then turn south along historic Route 66 to begin our cross country journey in earnest.
Loading the moving trailer and packing up the house took way longer than expected. Several of our drivers crashed out “early” at about 2am, but I managed to squeeze in one hour of sleep before our departure at 5am. We never got a chance to clean the house nicely. :/ I felt pretty badly about that, as I wanted to leave the home “move-in ready” for our landlord’s next tenants, but at 5am on departure day, there was nothing more I could do about it.
Day 1: Monday, August 28
Underway at 5am
I must apologize to those accompanying me on the trip for my language in those moments, especially to my children. My son later remarked, “I didn’t know Daddy even knew how to use the F-word.” Yes, son. I’m sorry. It’s not a habit, and I’m not proud of it, but yes – I had my northern Indiana Christmas Story roadside emotional breakdown moment. “Oh fudge!!!”
(Only I didn’t say fudge.)
Again, I’m sorry. For those who think a pastor or parent shouldn’t use such language, you’re certainly right, and I promise it’s not a usual part of my vocabulary. But I have to be honest, it happened.
We got back on the road.
After a brief team huddle, we sent the two drivable cars ahead to deliver Susie and the kids to the airport on time in Chicago (and to retrieve Tom's bag). Their secondary mission was to locate and procure a spare wheel & tire for the trailer, and return to us with those essential supplies so we could get back on the road.
We called for the tow at about 6am, and were initially told that the towing service would arrive at 8am (still not sure which time zone they were referring to, as we were on the border of Eastern Standard Time and Central Standard Time). As I had only recently added the trailer to our insurance policy and apparently had not specified that it needed towing coverage, I had to pay my insurance company over the phone out of pocket for the tow before service would be provided. Yes, another thing to put me in a great mood. After doing so, I spent time with the customer service representative to ensure that any further encounters with the trailer would indeed be fully covered. The towing company was given our exact location via GPS coordinates, mile marker position on the freeway, and direction of travel, and we began to wait.
A Indiana State Trooper showed up & kept us safe for a few hours, putting on his “move over” hazard lights and keeping watch. :) That was welcome and appreciated.
8am came and went. I got an automated call updating us with information that the tow would arrive shortly after 9am. We got a call shortly after from a human at the towing company verifying our location and letting us know the driver was en route.
9am came and went. 10am came and went. I called the tow service multiple times to ask for updates, being told the driver was “out there looking for us”.
Finally after asking some very specific questions, we determined that the tow company thought we were in a different state than we actually were located in – they were looking for us in Illinois, and we were in Indiana – and from that point it took 2 hours for them to arrive.
Tom & Price did make it back to us before the tow company arrived, mission successfully accomplished: family dropped off at airport in plenty of time to make their flight, Tom’s missing bag recovered, two spare wheels & tires acquired. We were instructed by the tow company to unload the Fiat from the trailer so the tow truck could pull the trailer safely off the freeway, and we accomplished that feat well before the truck arrived.
The driver got us off the freeway, but instead of taking us to the repair shop that our insurance company had recommended and specified to the tow company, he took us to a parking lot behind a KFC in Hammond, Indiana. Jeremy Clarkson yelling “HAMMOND!!!!!” kept running through my head the whole time we were there.
And though I’d already paid my insurance company out of pocket for the tow for the ailing trailer, and even though they’d not actually taken us to the place we’d asked to be taken to, the tow was apparently “not covered by my insurance” for some reason, according to the towing company rep that called me, and I had to pay the tow driver another $250 out-of-pocket before he would release my trailer to me. (Note to humanity: do NOT use Airline Towing in Northwest Indiana/Northeast Illinois, unless you like being taken advantage of and gouged.)
Ugh. But despite the unscrupulous treatment of the tow company’s management, the driver himself did help us swap out the wheels once we were safely off the freeway. Of course, he found that his truck was not properly equipped with a jack or with a 4-way tire iron to be able to remove our wheel lugs (you know, the basic tools a tow truck should have), so once again we had to send a team out with a car to find an auto parts store and purchase the tools required to effect the spare tire swap. We bought the driver lunch from KFC, walked and emptied the dogs, and Price found a large insect for which he rescued a derelict princess castle toy from the trash to set up as bug palace.
The adventure continued: we found that the replacement wheels and tires procured for the trailer had the wrong backspacing & off-set. We had to mount them reverse face in order for them to clear the suspension of the trailer. Excess load from this wheel mounting position probably caused our next trailer problem (hint: that’s more foreshadowing).
Finally, we were able to load the Fiat back onto the trailer and strap it down, and the caravan got underway after a 7 hour delay. And yes, Cat from #travelswithcat was accompanying us, making sure we stayed alert and awake.
So that was completely my fault that I’d neglected to tell all the drivers not to roll that window down, and of course: one driver didn't know not to roll it down did, and of course, he did – and it would not roll back up. And that was of course, right as we were driving through southern Illinois, into the arms of Hurricane Harvey. Not wanting anyone else to take the brunt of that torment, I took that passenger seat and tried to cover myself to be able to sleep & rest a bit. Didn’t happen. We drove for four hours with that window down, through pouring torrential rain and hail coming in on me. Brrr is an understatement.
While finally stopped at a truck stop I could take no more, and we took apart the door so we could get the window back up. We succeeded in getting it mostly all the way up, at least to the point that it would not allow rain in the car. And we continued on our way.
Not too much farther down the road, at about 8pm, outside of Springfield, Illinois, once again we got the radio call to pull the mommyvan over IMMEDIATELY. We had just started to notice an odd shimmy in the handling of the trailer, and were in the process of slowing down to pull over anyway, so it was not that surprising when we got that radio call. What was surprising was that we were once again actually able to pull over safely at all, given what we saw when we got out and looked at the carnage. We had lost an axle bearing on the passenger side of the trailer. Smoke poured out of it, and the wheel sat at a crooked angle.
Daniel, our professional mechanic on the trip, was convinced that he could repair the axle using the tools we’d brought along with us, if we could get the trailer to a safe place to work on it.
We once again unloaded the Fiat from the trailer, and decided we’d drag the ailing trailer slowly along the side of the road until we hit the next exit, rather than push it into the ditch, as I’d suggested.
We successfully limped the trailer to the next exit, which blessedly had a Love’s truck stop with a professional truck & trailer repair shop. Though the manager there declined to do the repair on our trailer, he was kind enough to let us keep it there overnight and let us work on it to repair it there ourselves. So we left it there, and I drove the Fiat in rain for the first time in 20 years. Headlights not working (high beams only), windshield wipers sort of worked... it had been so long since I had the roadster out in rain that I’d forgotten there was an intermittent timing knob on the dash, and later discovered it was at its slowest setting. So it would CLICK and then sweep about 2/3rd of the way, stop for a couple of seconds, CLICK and then sweep another little bit then stop again. Not terribly effective, but worked just enough to let me get down the road, nestled in between the Corrado and the R32 to keep an eye on me.
Tom found us a hotel about 20 minutes away and the caravan made its way there, where we got our first good night sleep. SO GOOD TO SLEEP.
Day 2: Tuesday August 29
Then the van’s check engine light came on… We guessed that it was voltage related, perhaps a sensor not getting the signal it needed. When we unhooked the battery and then reattached it, the check engine light didn't come back on, so we were probably right about that. And we once again took the mommyvan’s door apart to get the window rolled all the way up; there had been a slight gap that made a lot of wind noise from our hasty repair in the rain. This time after getting the window in place, we disconnected the motor so it couldn’t be rolled down accidentally.
Back on the road in the early afternoon, we made it past St Louis (saw the Arch at a distance) & continued en route to Springfield MO then Oklahoma City. We drove til 10pm-ish, and then sheer exhaustion once again compelled us to stop for the night. We found respite in Branson MO, where the "youth group mom" from when I was in a San Diego high school church youth group lives currently. She took us in for the night after a rather last minute text exchange. Tom & Price decided to go grab a hotel room for the night, and the Daniels, dogs and I stayed with Naomi.
Day 3: Wednesday August 30
Thankfully, an auto parts store just 2 miles away had one of those radiator caps in stock, so we opted to try it out before abandoning hope for the van. Got new pressure cap, a new battery (the old one was so corroded that it was still not holding a charge even after cleaning) and we got on the road as soon as we verified the radiator was no longer boiling over.
So far we had racked up about $1200 in unplanned vehicle repair costs. But considering the potential catastrophic damage, physical injury or loss of life we could have experienced at several points of mechanical failure on the freeway, I was feeling grateful that we were at least still intact & mobile.
We made it an uneventful 250 miles down the road & then Lily the dog escaped from her leash (inside the mommyvan) so we had to pull over & re-secure her, then emptied both dogs again. Back on the road westward bound.
We were getting concerned with our timeline, as several members of the team had hard deadlines to meet. We had to be back in San Diego or folks were going to miss their outbound flights from there. Tom was able to change his flight from Thursday to Saturday, so we didn't absolutely have to drive all night to get him in San Diego by the next day. But we still tried to drive as long as possible, and discussed sleeping by day and driving at night, to get through desert when it's cooler, which would be much better for the vehicles cooling systems, transmissions, and for the drivers in the Corrado, which had no working AC.
After we got back on the road and once again drove until the point of exhaustion, we found we’d achieved 14 hours of unbroken travel today!! We stopped occasionally for fuel & to empty the dogs, otherwise smooth sailing! PRAISE GOD!! I was sharing our continuing adventures on social media when I wasn’t behind the wheel, very grateful for everyone lifting prayers on our behalf, and asking them to keep up the effort!
We encountered the Uranus Fudge Factory (“Fudge made right in Uranus”) as well as the Uranus Cemetery (“We bury ‘em deep down in Uranus")... you cannot make this stuff up.
Our caravan was passed by a large horse trailer which was completely loaded with donkeys, going about 90mph. The radios crackled with unbridled laughter as the comment was made, “They’re really hauling ass!”
About an hour later, we saw smoke on the horizon, and as we got closer we saw emergency vehicles on scene, gathered around that trailer that was previously filled with donkeys. The truck that had been towing the trailer was completely engulfed in flames. Fortunately, all the donkeys had been safely unloaded and a temporary corral had been hastily set up on the side of the road, and nobody appeared hurt. The truck was a complete loss to the fire, however.
And once again, our radios crackled with commentary: “I guess that’s what happens when you haul too much ass!!!” And we all completely lost it for several minutes.
Day 4: Thursday August 31
We stopped in Tucson Arizona to eat at the first In N Out Burgers we came across. Glorious! Rather than pound food down and jump back in the cars immediately, we made it more of an extended rest stop so we could collect ourselves for the final stretch, which we intended to complete that night.
Somewhere outside of Gila Bend we discovered that the strapping holding the Fiat onto the trailer was tearing. One strap had torn completely away. We sourced some replacement straps at a truck stop, re-secured the car once more, and got back on our way. We were all perplexed at how some of the straps appeared to be chafing on nothing and coming apart for no reason, with all the signs of having rubbed raw on sharp edges. A person experienced with towing let us know that the straps would resonate in the wind and literally tear themselves apart, so the simple solution was to twist them, removing the flat edges that would resonate at speed. Lesson learned, we continued on, wiser and warier.
After the 30 minute adrenaline rush of wondering whether we would make it up the hill, Daniel was exhausted from driving, so I took over for the last shift in the mommyvan, and at about 1:30 in the morning we pulled in to Alpine. We unloaded the Fiat in a junior high school parking lot close by to the church, conveniently enough discovering that its weakened-by-age master cylinder had given up the ghost, when the pedal went to the floor as I pulled off the trailer. Good thing for e-brakes! We drove the vehicles into the church parking lot from there and deposited them safely. Mission completed. Except for getting us all into beds for the night.
Price and Grampa Daniel took the R32 to to Coronado, and I dropped Daniel off at his mom’s house in La Mesa, then Tom and the dogs and I got a hotel room in Mission Valley for the night. I think we finally managed to get to bed sometime around 3 AM.
Day 5: September 1
We had envisioned having a Top Gear/Grand Tour style end to our adventure, with the five of us sitting around a table enjoying a stiff drink while overlooking beautiful scenery and reminiscing on all the experiences we’d shared. Didn’t quite work out that way, with several of our road warriors needing to catch flights to their next commitments, so we decided to take a rain check on that moment and enjoy it together at a later date.
While on the way there, we realized that the stench coming from the back of the mommyvan was quite strong, so when we got there, we stripped everything out, to find that there had been water and dogfood spilled and mixed back there with the dog blankets and floor mats, baking & fermenting for the past several days. Tom & I spent a good hour with a shop vac cleaning it out, & we hosed down the floor mats & let them dry. The interior smell vastly improved.
The dogs met the HH Ranch dogs and got along famously, finding their place in the pack, and ran all around until they were worn out. They discovered a kiddie pool and enjoyed themselves in that as well, silly wet dog grins on their faces the whole time.
After awhile Susie & the hobbits arrived to reunite with us and we settled in, then later Susie & Tom & I headed out to drop Daniel at the airport and enjoy another reunion: with carne asada fries. OMNOMNOMNOM!!! Finally we went to Coronado to see my family & process a load at the laundromat. An anticlimactic end to the road trip, perhaps, but in contrast to the previous week’s trials and tribulations, a welcome one.
All in all, nobody was injured, all the vehicles survived, and we made it across the country without killing ourselves or anybody else. A pretty good outcome to an arduous excursion.
And on that bombshell, it’s time to end this extremely lengthy blog post. Good night, everyone.