Road Trip: Into America (Part 1)

Paper maps. Navigation. Breakdowns. And Cars.

Dear Adventurous Reader,

Today we crossed a border by a car and it still blows my mind. We changed countries inside a vehicle; one country to another. First Canada, and with the engine burbling away from the Customs building, we were in the United States. We have never been able to change countries in a car, so this was a new experience.

One of the difficulties of crossing borders is getting internet access that isn't expensive. We have been using Bell as a phone carrier in Canada (and paying a over CAD$200 a month for it), and there was no way we wanted to use that account in a different country.

To save organising new mobile phone numbers so soon, we have made plans to travel like it is 1990 and use maps. Paper maps. Glorious, and wonderful Paper Maps.

Those Paper Maps

Not Google maps. Not Apple maps. We are talking about those classic, paper maps. The kind that you have to pull over on the side of the road and open up on the hood of the car to be able to read.

We received a stack of maps as a gift from Gramps. A wonderful gift to help us on the road. They show us all the potential adventures we could take on our journey from Canada down southward. The gift that keeps on giving: the roads endless in this big wide world and there are so many places that we want to go.

Where to next?

Oh, and they are used, too. Lovingly used. With bent corners and tiny holes where the folds didn’t crease the same way.

Thanks Gramps, they are magnificent.

Break Down

We drive through Buffalo, with the run down streets and the greasy feeling on the city walls. The outskirts of Buffalo feel different to Canada, more “lived in”, more run down, not as polite. Not so much “the mean streets”, but there was some ineffable feeling of changing countries.

We drive through Pennsylvania. The miles passing below the wheels of our truck. Children looking out the window, or yelling at each other - space is at a minimum in a vehicle. The hills roll away from the interstate, lush and green, and free from snow.

Cars pass us by as we drive on a toll road, and we have to pay coins at a toll booth - the old way. No need to remember a web address to pay $15, or being sent a fine for forgetting to make a payment. We pull in at the toll booth, say “Hello” to the cashier, pay our $3 toll, and move onward.

We drive into West Virginia. Nothing had changed on the Interstate, the same three lanes on our concrete runway. The scenery stops rolling, and starts moving in long drags. Up, through trees that were now closer to the road, and down again. The road is a thin ribbon, weaving through a majestic landscape.

Our car stutters. It temporarily gives out, and engages again. I curse. The speedometer drops, and rises, and drops. A problem. Maybe it is just electrical, we could keep moving, but this car hasn’t given me much comfort in the past few months. Jacqui wakes from a small nap.

“I’d like to find a mechanic…”

Backwater West Virginia

It was 4:45pm when we pull up to the first mechanic we could find. Closing time.

Guns. Guns. Guns. Guns

A second mechanic, further down the road, is just about to close. He greets us with a bent eyebrow, a truckers cap, and a strong accent. Having being in our truck as we drove through states without stopping, I had forgotten where we were. We were in the South, and the South caught me by surprise.

After a test drive, and a quick inspection, he says “It looks fine. Mechanically she is fine. If I was you, I’d keep goin’ to North Carolina.”

“But, it is jolting, and not accelerating.” I say. Pleading for some better answers.

“Yeah, but if you stop here it’ll take me three days to find your problem.”

I tell him how much I appreciate his time, and advice, and we head back down the Interstate. The car struggling a little, but driving alright. The sky darkens, night surrounds us, and the trucks speed past.

We decide to stay the night in our car.

Everything Will be Better in the Morning

The day dawns. A lazy, haze of yellow light warms the sky. There are no clouds, only a bright blue canvas that stretches over us, hindered by the trees and the mountains. My neck hurts, and my eyes are heavy.

Outside, the air is fresh. Cold, but not freezing. It is the kind of morning that sings, with a light lilt, “It is going to be a beautiful day.” It is hard to be mad at a broken car, when the morning is like this.

Life awakens within the car. Without much fuss we shuffle about and get back onto the Interstate. The car accelerates, we merge, and start down the wide road until there is a jolt. Like a switch has been hit, the revs shoot up as the transmission selects second gear. I curse. The car starts to roll, it won’t move above 40 miles an hour.

Popeyes. Food.

“We’re going to need to stop.” The next exit is right where we need it, at the crest of a short hill. Jane Lew, West Virginia. We have done 10 miles this morning. It is 7am. The sun is still shining, the sky is still blue, and our truck doesn’t want to continue.

The day is ending and the battle has not even started. There is a mechanic, but they won’t open for another hour, so we sit in the cold breeze of a new day dawning, and wait.

Due to fortuitous events we have broken down in a small town with an excellent play area. The children play at the park, for the entire morning, while the mechanic tells us there was nothing wrong with the car. Again.

A broken car with nothing mechanically wrong. “There is a dealership down the road.” He says. “‘Bout 20 miles back north.”

The Blue Roads

The winding, old highways of America are a wonder. Beautiful trees, delighting in the sunlight as they forget the cold chill of winter. Narrow roads, that wind through groves, across rivers, or trickling creeks. Not a single car or truck pass us by, as we crawl past farm houses that sit upon green hills.

We come into Clarksberg, and find a gas station so we can get directions to the dealership. With no internet we have to engage with an actual person to find our destination. And, with some creative interpretation of the directions, scrawled upon a scrap of paper, we find the dealership.

Yellow Arches all the way across America

The mechanic looks at me with a crooked eye. “What do you mean the ‘Check Engine’ light is always on?” He asks, drawling words through a cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth.

“Well.” I say. “We drive the car and it comes on. Always.

One thing fixed and another surfaces. It is a loosing battle with this car, American Engineering is renowned around the world. If it doesn’t kill or destroy, then it will be killed or destroyed. As it is, the Check Engine light was always on.

He shrugs and plugs in the monitoring device. Lights flash, and it beeps. A few clicks on the black box and he vanishes into the shop to find a part. Under the car. Two minutes and pops out. “Drive back out to the road, and up the hill. Follow it around till you get to the first right. Come back here. I’ll have a dart while I wait.”

The car shifted out of second gear, and up the hill. It was working. The children in the back all cheered. We report back to the mechanic who shakes my hand, wishes us well, and sent us on our way.

The car was fixed and we were back on the road. 20 miles behind where we started, but with car that was working.

Sort of.

As the Soggy Bottom Boys sing, I am a Man of Constant Sorrow.

Navigation, but not Adventure Planning

Navigation is so involved in a journey, and yet apart from it. While we can look at a map, and see the roads we will drive, it cannot predict what shall befall us while following those lines.

Trucks driving on the Interstate

When I looked at the maps this morning, I was not to know that Jane Lew would become a part of our trip. I was not to know that we would follow the blue road north, doubling back from where we started. I was not to know that Clarksberg McDonalds didn’t have WiFi, or that we would see different places in the South than we had planned.

That misadventure is the wonderful thing about a map. It can show us where to go, but cannot tell us what will happen.


You can read part 2 of our Road Trip into America.