Please Advise! My Great American Road Trip Has Gone Awry

A travellin' Steve Burgess explains how to make the best of a sputter-filled vacation.

By Steve Burgess 23 Jul 2014 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he usually dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible. But in the spirit of the sunshine season, today he shares wisdoms and warnings for all would-be summer road-trippers.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

Vacation time is here and I'm looking for inspiration. Any ideas for a summer jaunt?

-- Travelling Mood

Dear Trav,

When planning a vacation, the key is to pick the right song. I chose badly. Inspired by the 1980 Diesel hit "Sausalito Summer Nights", I decided to take a long driving excursion through the U.S. southwest -- Portland, San Francisco, southern California, over to Arizona, Utah, and up to Yellowstone Park on a circuitous route to a week-long stay in Manitoba.

A great plan. The problem was the song. The first line of Diesel's one and only hit record goes: We left for 'Frisco in your Rambler; The radiator running dry. Well, I wasn't worried. My 1991 BMW 318 is no Rambler. The fact that it is old enough to vote was of little concern -- it's never needed a major repair. I stuffed my bike in the back, some cereal in the trunk, and set off. First stop: Portland.

It was the bike that needed repairs first. While wedging it into the back seat I messed up the brakes somehow, so on arrival in Portland I searched for a late-night bike shop. Found one in the Hollywood district, a place called Velo Cult. At least it seemed like a bike shop -- it was also a bar, a cafe, and a social centre. Before leaving Portland I would attend a bluegrass jam there and watch a World Cup match in their basement theatre. Quick question: Is there some reason all bike shops can't be like Velo Cult? Or all cities as cool as Portland?

Back on the road I was promptly discovering America, which meant among other things being threatened by a pickup truck full of angry rednecks and listening to talk radio hosts express mystification about the lack of a giant, death-dealing fence along the full length of the Mexican border. But it also meant many friendly people and the revelation that some parts of the United States are largely unpeopled. Highway 395 in northern California offers arid landscapes, sweeping vistas, and, on one stretch, no gas stations for 72 miles. (Note to the California highways department: Shouldn't you put the "No Services Next 72 Miles" sign before the last available services? I made it to Alturas, California on fumes.)

Stuck in Truckee

Truckee, California is close to the Donner Pass, where the ill-fated Donner party resorted to cannibalism during a brutal winter. Many expired. My battery joined them. Being close to town at the time, it was not necessary to gnaw on my own arm. But I did make some new American friends. Their names were Manny, Moe and Jack -- the Pep Boys.

582px version of lonely highway 395
California's lovely and lonely Highway 395. Photo: Steve Burgess.

The Pep Boys is an automotive chain. The titular boys started a shop in Pennsylvania in 1921. They're not on shift anymore, but there are plenty of other folks waiting to help as I would soon discover. Only two days after acquiring my new Pep Boys battery, I was on the Oakland freeway when my engine light fired up. I looked down to see the temperature gauge straining to bust out of the glass. Waiting at the next exit: more Pep Boys.

They're a friendly bunch, or their surrogates are at least. Kat, who caught my case at the service desk, was curious about Canada. "I've been in Iraq and Kuwait," she told me, "but never in Canada." Considering how the ex-soldier got to Iraq and Kuwait, I suppose we should be glad of that. Another employee, Carlos, enquired about the state of automotive service in Canada and listened in wonder as I spoke of Canadian Tire. "You guys have that place that sells coffee and doughnuts -- what's that called again?" If it wasn't for Tim's and Canada Dry, we wouldn't even be on the map.

Tune up

Just as Diesel had predicted, my radiator had run dry. It was kaput. The song never did mention the price, but I imagine it's gone up since 1980 -- $700 after using a handy Pep Boys coupon. Pleasant and helpful though they were, I expressed my wish that I would not be meeting any more Pep Boys soon. They understood.

It's remarkable what happens to the mind when you lose faith in your ride. Rolling down the highway, you think of all the parts in a car and all the many ways those parts can fail. The battery; the radiator; the tires; the valves; the ignition coil; the idler arm; the camshaft locking plate; the hood latch; the windshield wiper motor; the flux capacitor. Those always fail at the worst times.

So to your question, Travelling Mood: Pick the right song. "Sailing," "On the Road Again," "Ramblin' Man," "Fly Me to the Moon" -- something like that. As for me, I have left my heart and several car parts in the San Francisco area. Not sure whether the next song up will be "Homeward Bound" or "Help Me". Wish me luck. I think I hear my crankshaft oil seal starting to go.  [Tyee]

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