Category Archives: Journeys by Land

Squid History

What do you do after a circumnavigation? Go around again?

Our 1990 Ford van, the Squid Wagon, half-circumnavigated the USA — from Florida to Newfoundland (via Columbus, Ohio) and across to Seattle in one trip. At the time, we were traveling with our cat, who was the reason we bought a big ol’ van instead of camping with a tent and small car.

The cat passed away in 2005, and Squidley died in 2006. The cat was given a decent burial under a lovely tree. The van sat in front of our apartment for about a year, and our next-door neighbor complained every time he saw us. “I can’t see to back out of my driveway,” he whined.

Finally, I had the van towed to a garage, and they told me it was B.E.R.: Beyond Economic Repair. When I argued with them, they stopped returning my calls and dumped the three and a half ton, non-functional vehicle back on my doorstep with a bill for $250. Grrrrrr.

And then Barry stuck his head under the hood and tinkered. A miracle occurred. The van was resurrected with a loud, distinctive roar.

I was certain it would die again any moment. Not Barry. He was so confident, he began packing for the next trip. So we loaded up with with tools and books and art supplies and sailing gear and headed south through California. When we reached San Diego, we turned east, to North Carolina, where our new sailboat awaited us.

On that trip, we had a strange box-like item tied to the top of the van. At rest areas and gas stations, men chewing on toothpicks would come over and peer up at it. “What’s that?” they’d ask Barry. “It’s a boat,” he’d say. They’d look at him skeptically. “My wife built it.” He said it earnestly and seriously, but every time, it was like the punchline to a joke. “Your wife? Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Now the Squid Wagon — and we — were veterans of a circumnavigation, and we could all relax. But we didn’t.

That summer, we decided to drive to Black Rock City, Nevada. This load was more interesting than usual — outrageous costumes, inflatable space aliens, a deconstructed port-a-pottie, and one of the sails from the boat to provide much-needed shade. Burning Man was calling us; we had to participate in the amazing week-long festival in the desert a second time.

The trip out (via Columbus, Ohio) was fun, but the trip back was challenging. Squidley had “issues,” and we limped back, making repairs in Oregon, Wyoming, and Kentucky. There was another miracle, when we broke down on a backroad in Iowa — on a Sunday afternoon — and were rescued by a passing diesel mechanic named Tim. It made for good stories, but a lot of stress.

After that, I was ready to put the Squid Wagon out to pasture, since we won’t need a car once we launch our sailboat. But Barry still has confidence in our 20-year-old van, and he convinced me to drive it back to Seattle and Burning Man (via Columbus, Ohio, of course).

Like the elderly person he is, Squidley has some issues catching his breath. He runs rough at times, and his digestive system is very sensitive to bad gas. Going over the Appalachians, he coughed and wheezed. “Breathe, Squidley, breathe!” I sang out. He made it, over the hills to Columbus, Ohio.

We’re in Nebraska now, almost to the Wyoming border, and he’s chugging along well. There’s a new air filter ready to install, and a new fuel filter, and Barry changed the oil filter and oil … you guessed it, in Columbus, Ohio.

This afternoon, we’re taking Squidley to Carhenge, which is one of those mystical places that all American cars should visit in their lives. It’s a full-scale model of Stonehenge, made out of American cars welded together. We’d stopped there in 2003, on the final voyage of the Peepcar, and now we find ourselves inexorably drawn back.

Beyond Economic Repair, indeed. The Squid Wagon can’t wait to see Carhenge.

Shy Samaritan

I was replete, after dinner at the Hong Kong Buffet with my too-thin brother, Stevie. We said our farewells, and I took the wheel and headed west and north from Durham, North Carolina.
When I took the first corner, though, there was a loud THUNK from the rear of the van. “What was that?” I asked Barry, alarmed. “That’s the ladder,” he said, “or maybe the campstools. Or both.” “OK,” I said, and continued driving.

A sharpish corner brought another THUNK from the rear. I didn’t think about it until the next one, THUNK, which was the turn onto the interstate on-ramp.

The THUNKs subsided, because there were no more sharp turns. But I started worrying, worrying, worrying. What was that ladder bumping into? Could it be the van’s window? Would the next THUNK be accompanied by breaking glass?

I finally voiced my worries, along with the statement that “we” should do something about that. (By “we,” I meant Barry.)

“OK, next rest area,” he said. Now he was the one thinking. (Small smoke puffs were coming out his ears.)

Around dusk, I found a scenic overlook near Pilot Mountain, and Barry had decided what to do. We’d flatten the ladder (12 feet long), tie the sail and conduit to that (10 feet long), and strap the conglomerated sausage to the roof rack. Since Squidley is 17 feet long, it wouldn’t even stick out.

Barry lifted the folded ladder out of the back, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The window wasn’t cracked. Then he passed it to me, saying “Make it flat,” and my relief went away.

The ladder in question is a Versaladder, one with four segments and three sets of hinges that can be converted from stepladder to scaffold or tall ladder. But I always pinch my fingers in the stiff hinges. This time, I was worrying so much about my fingers that one section of the gangly thing got away from me. Fwing! It flopped onto the pavement, nearly putting a dent in the van, and Barry, in the process.

A stocky man with sandy hair and a moustache was standing nearby, and he couldn’t help but laugh at my antics. Then he looked at me, sheepishly, and I started laughing, too.

Curiosity got the best of him, and he walked over. “Is that a ladder?”

“Yes, and the sail from a 33-foot sailboat,” I said, explaining Barry’s plan to move the load on top of the 7-1/2 foot tall van. The man looked skeptical. I was skeptical, too. “How do we get the ladder on top without the ladder?” I asked Barry.

“We put one end up and then walk it up,” he said. As the sandy-haired man watched, we each went to one end of the ladder to test the weight. It was a grunt, but I could lift one end.
Barry started tying things to the ladder, and the man hung around and chatted with me. He seemed too shy to be talking freely to a stranger, but I found out that he lived nearby and worked at the battery plant in Winston-Salem. He’d just come from a car show, and his hobby was fixing up old cars. “Sound more like a passion than a hobby,” I commented. He almost blushed.

Then Barry handed me a rope and said, “marl that end around the sail and the rungs.” The sandy-haired man looked impressed with Barry’s fancy word, but I rolled my eyes. “Showoff,” I muttered.

When I joined the tying process, our curious friend walked back to his car. I thought he’d left for good.

But when it was all tied on the ladder, and we started carrying it out behind the van, he reappeared. Suddenly, the load was much lighter as a third set of hands joined in the lifting. In about 20 seconds, the tough part of the job was done.

“That was so easy!” I exclaimed to the man. “You must have had all the weight.”

“No, I thought you did,” he said.

“It wasn’t me,” said Barry. All three of us grinned at each other.

We shook his hand in thanks, and then he wished us safe travels and went away, for good this time.

Now I understood why he’d hung around and chatted, even though he was very shy. He was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to get the ladder on the roof by ourselves. He’d hung around the overlook for an extra 15 minutes, just to help us lift it.

It was dark as Barry clambered like a monkey to tie the ladder to the roof rack. Then we continued on our way, grateful for the man who stayed so he could help when he was most needed.

The usual unusual stuff

I can’t believe I’m here again. I’m in Columbus, Ohio, AGAIN, visiting with family, having driven here from coastal North Carolina. We’re headed cross-country, to spend a month in Seattle before our fourth-annual week in the desert at Burning Man.

Our 1990 Ford Club Wagon van, the Squid Wagon, is parked in the driveway. It’s packed with the usual unusual stuff — quinoa and seaweed, glowsticks, LEDs, and calligraphy pens. There’s a whole set of electrical wiring tools and supplies and a large, innocuous-looking beige bin.

When you’re traveling the backroads, you just never know when you’ll need the stuff in the bin. Flashy-blinkie fur-trimmed pink bunny ears with sequins. Death-bunny pajama pants. Belly dance pants. A purple furry hat wired with Christmas lights. My infamous orange evening gown, which should have gotten me a free steak dinner in South Dakota. (There was a man who dared me to wear it into a honky-tonk bar, and I did. I posed for photos on the bar and the pool table, but he reneged on his part of the deal.)

With only nine days, this will be one of the quickest cross-country trips we’ve ever made. Still, I hope to stay off the interstates as much as possible. It’s on the two-lane roads that we find the magic moments. I’m always looking for that smile, conversation, or moment of connection with the people along the way. That’s what the two-lane life is all about.

And if I don’t find the magic moments, I’ll make ‘em. That’s what the beige bin is all about.

Looking for pot pie nirvana

The biggest hazard to my style of travel is inertia. When I’m going, it’s hard to stop and interact with people and places. When I’m stopped, it’s hard to get going again.

It’s also hard to know which way to go when I start again.

In Columbus, after my backwards-loop with Hank, I was hanging out at his little apartment, spending time with old friends, and having a great time. Finally, I had to just yank myself out of there. “Where are you going?” asked Hank, that Tuesday morning. “Over to Dave’s. After that, I don’t know,” I replied. “OK,” said Hank. “When are you going to call me?” “Next week.”

Dave and I drove his little sports car to the Chillicothe Indian Mounds in a light drizzle. We had the ancient mounds to ourselves, no other people walking around. But we weren’t alone. There was someone — or something — else there.

Dave with a shoulder cat
Dave with a shoulder cat
Dave and the fun little car we took to Chillicothe.
Dave and the fun little car we took to Chillicothe.

In the afternoon, back in Columbus, it was really time for me to leave. “Where are you going?” Dave and Maggie asked. “I don’t know,” I said. This time, I didn’t even know which way I would turn the wheel when I got into the car.

Dave looked very concerned as I got into my car to back out of his driveway. Then I realized it wasn’t my lack of destination, but the fact that I had a burnt-out headlight. I had a few hours of daylight to rectify that problem.

At the first stoplight, a car honked at me, because I didn’t get moving right away. I just didn’t know if I should go south, or east. My brother-in-law, Cody, told me he and a friend once went on a road trip where they flipped a coin at crossroads to determine their direction. Columbus traffic was too heavy for me to dig out a quarter and start flipping coins on the passenger seat.

I compromised and headed out of Columbus on US 33, into southeast Ohio’s hill (pronounced “heel”) country.

I’d spent nine days with Hank, and now this silence and freedom felt strange. It was like starting the trip over again.

In Logan, at dusk, I bought a headlight bulb. Feeling sorry for myself, I spent 15 minutes trying to get the old one out of the fixture. Then the clerks from the auto parts store took pity on me and got it out in 15 seconds. Just in time — it was dark, and I needed that headlight. I also needed a place to stay.

I had turned my nose up at the chain motels on the highway. Surely there was something better in town. I drove down the main street, but I didn’t see one. Should I go back to the highway? Whoops, missed the on-ramp! Time for a loop around the block — oh! I’m facing the Inn Towner Motel’s front door. Serendipity again.

It was in Logan that I got my traveling stride back again. The white-haired desk clerk entertained me with stories about life in Cuba during Castro’s takeover. In the morning, I laughed out loud when I ran through noisy piles of dry, crunchy fall leaves along the sidewalks. I joked with a policeman in the donut shop, where the donuts were handmade and not perfectly-shaped. He always bought a dozen for his buddies, but the guys at the station never saw more than eleven donuts. His special apple fritter never made it that far.

My favorite Halloween display
My favorite Halloween display

For some reason, I was being pulled east more than south. I picked a twisty 2-lane road that would take me toward the Ohio River and West Virginia. A couple of hours later, at a pit-toilet rest area, a cold fall rain started. Summer was over.

Now what?

I was pushing too hard. I’d sent some emails the previous week, looking for a retreat house where I could spend some contemplative time. The places I’d written to were south, but only one had answered my inquiry. They had a room available, but not for weeks.

Trying to make things happen was like pushing a piece of string. I had to let go of that particular string and look for another one. One that would pull me, if I just grab onto it.

Shivering in the car, I thought of my friends, Donna and Mike, in Pennsylvania. For me, Mike was one of the best things about our 2008 trip to Burning Man. He was our next-door neighbor, and it was his first Burn. Watching him experiencing the art and the creativity and the magic was like being first-timers again ourselves.

In 2009, he brought his wife and son down to Beaufort for a visit, and Donna and I really hit it off. We were all sitting at dinner, talking about food, and they started telling me about Donna’s mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch Pot Pie. It’s a 2-day affair to make it, and they just about went into rapture describing it.

“Can I get a recipe?” I asked. Not really, they said. Donna’s Mom hadn’t ever written one down. “You just have to come up and learn it from her some weekend,” they told me.

Sitting in the car in that cold drizzly rest area, I called Mike. “Can I come learn how to make pot pie this weekend?” I asked. “Sure!” he said.

In my imagination, I pictured a warm, bright kitchen, big bowls and cutting boards and bubbling pots on the stove. I imagined feeling like part of a family, getting messy and sharing the work. Laughing together, eating together. Could it really be that good? Could there be pot pie nirvana in southeastern Pennsylvania?

I grabbed the string and let the universe pull me across rainy West Virginia and Maryland. I was going to find out.

Power plant on the Ohio River
Power plant on the Ohio River
Crossing the Ohio River
Crossing the Ohio River
I had to stitch two photos to get 25 of the scarecrows and effigies -- and there were three more on the left!
I stitched 2 photos of 1 yard to get 25 of their scarecrows -- & there were 3 more I didn't get!
They even had dead scarecrows by the side of the road
They even had dead scarecrows by the side of the road
Some of the 28 scarecrows in one yard in West Virginia
Some of the 28 scarecrows in one yard in West Virginia

Duck amuck

Up ahead was a big yellow truck
That had come to a stop for a duck,
So I stopped my car, too,
And then out of the blue
Came a WHACK! Duck hit me, just my luck.

The web-footed goof flew right into my front towbar. There was a loud thud, and the car shook with the impact. But when I backed up a few feet, expecting to see a duck carcass, he picked himself up and wobbled away. He was quacking, and I was quaking.

Smiling so much, you need a new toothbrush

Smile for the camera!
Smile for the camera!

When I arrived at Hank’s apartment in Ohio, ready for our vacation together, he gave me a present. “Here,” he said, handing me a toothbrush. “I got one from my dentist last week, and he said to give you one, too!”

I’ve never met Hank’s dentist, so why would he send me a toothbrush?

The answer is my brother’s infectious enthusiasm. He’d been living in anticipation of our road trip for months, talking about it with everyone he met. It’s no surprise that his dentist would send me a bon voyage present.

Or maybe he just knew that traveling with Hank, people would see my teeth, because I’d be smiling a lot.

Hank in the Tracker
Hank in the Tracker

In the meantime, I’d been feeling apprehensive about the trip. I’d just spent three weeks not having to answer to anybody, even my husband. Now I was taking responsibility for someone who seems healthy and strong, but is actually a little fragile. Hank told me he’d recently had an epileptic seizure at night and woken on the bathroom floor in the morning. That terrified me.

Then there was the pressure from people who looked at me like I was some kind of saint. When I explained to my new friends in Summit that I couldn’t stay for the Fog Festival because I’d promised a road trip to my disabled brother, Mike said, “It takes a special person to do something like that.”

The truth is, I’m not a saint or a special person. I’m a hedonist, and I expected this trip to be fun. Some fun just takes more effort than other fun.

Finally, after all of Hank’s anticipation and my apprehension, we set out on the road.

At Canadian Customs, the traffic director in the orange vest leaned on the window for a chat.

From the passenger seat, Hank told him, “My sister is taking me to Canada because I’ve never been there.” That’s when the man realized that Hank was special, and he looked at me like I’d suddenly sprouted a halo.

“I have a special needs daughter,” he said. “I hope someday her brother and sister will take her on vacation…”

I smiled and said, “You know, it just depends on the example their parents set.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “God only gives you what you can handle.”

Two days into the trip, I realized that this sister had taken on more than she could handle. It was the most exhausting travel I’ve ever done. How could someone so slow make me run so fast?

I found myself crawling on my hands and knees, looking for a tiny dropped pill. I listened through the bathroom door for 10 minutes as he argued — out loud — with the shower curtain, trying to get it to stay inside the tub, then, exasperated, his voice now several octaves higher, he called me in to help. I unloaded our luggage, carried it to our room, and in the morning, carried it out again. Back on my hands and knees, I checked for lost items under the beds. “Is this your toothpaste?” I asked, finding it there.

As we drove across Canada and the midwest, I gave Hank a running description of the scenery he couldn’t see. To my surprise, he didn’t respond to many of the things I pointed out. I’d be describing a cute Halloween display or reading a funny sign, and he’d interrupt me and start talking about a frozen dinner he’d eaten last week.

Our worlds were out of synch — why was he always talking about the past or the future? Why couldn’t he live in the present moment with me? He was happy, but would he have been just as happy at home?

It wasn’t until after the trip was over that I understood. Hank’s brain works differently — he gathers life’s experiences, stores them up, then processes them at his own speed. He simply can’t process them on the fly.

He actually told me at one point, “I think better when I’m sleeping.”

Hank with his Odouls at Hooters
Hank with his "beer" at Hooters

A day or two after each event, he’d begin to relive it with greater and greater relish. One example of this was in Detroit. I asked him, “Hey, Hank, have you ever been to a Hooters?”

“No, but I’ll buy you dinner!” Obviously, he knew something about Hooters.

Once inside — neither of us had ever been in a Hooter’s — Hank was a lot more interested in the baseball game on the big-screen TV than in the waitresses. He ate his chicken and drank his non-alcoholic beer, and when we were done, I got a picture of him with six sexy smiling waitresses.

He did notice that their shorts were kinda short. “What do you call those again?” he asked me. “Hot pants,” I told him.

A couple of days later, he was on the phone with his friend, Juanita. “The waitresses were wearing these, um, orange, um, hot pants,” he told her. “And I got a picture with all of them!”

Hank with six new friends
Hank with six new friends

Watching him interact with people, I could see why we had to do this. Taking Hank on a road trip was like giving the gift of a smile to many people. He’s so bubbly, he makes people happy. That sort of happiness needs to go on a road trip and be spread around. Even if it wears out his driver.

When we got back to his home, Hank had finished his processing. The trip was a huge success, and he couldn’t wait to call his friends. I heard him telling them about the big storm on Lake Huron, the Ford plant, the museum, the restaurants, and the nursing home where we’d visited our aunts. He couldn’t wait to get his pictures developed, and he couldn’t decided which of his new t-shirts to wear first. He had presents to deliver, too.

A couple of days later, we got together with Steve and Carol to eat pizza and catch up on news. Carol and I went upstairs for girl talk, and Steve and Hank sat outside making guy jokes and drinking non-alcoholic beer. Eventually, the guys came bounding up the stairs with some big news.

“We’re planning a trip to Niagara Falls next year!” they told us. “We’re going to rent a minivan, so we can all go together!”

I was flabbergasted. I looked closely at Steve, who was rattling off the details of the trip they had planned. Was that a faint halo over his head?

Before I left Columbus, Hank asked me, “Am I still fun to take on vacation?”

“Absolutely!” I said, with enthusiasm. I’d caught up on my sleep (while he was at work), and now I was anticipating the future eagerly. Steve and Carol and Barry and I may all need new toothbrushes — we’ll be smiling a lot, at Niagara Falls next year.

Hank and Margaret with Sisters Mary Pat and Mary Julia
Hank and Margaret with Sisters Mary Pat and Mary Julia
Watch out! The blind guy is driving!
Watch out! The blind guy is driving!
A big bowl of strawberry ice cream - yum!
A big bowl of strawberry ice cream - yum!
Another smiling waitress
Another smiling waitress

A special trip with my Special brother – video link

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a 12-minute video worth?

This one is priceless. It documents the road trip I took with my special needs brother, Hank, and his thoughts on the experience. His happiness and joy are infectious — you are guaranteed to laugh!

A special trip with my Special brother from Margaret Meps Schulte on Vimeo.

Canada is like a box of chocolates

Our first evening in Canada
Our first evening in Canada

Once upon a time, there were two children, a brother and a sister, who lived together in a big house. They swam in the backyard pool, watched “The Waltons” and “All in the Family,” and played games like “Sorry” and “Uno.”

The girl was small, and the boy was big. For as long as she could remember, he was over six feet tall, a gentle giant.

The little girl grew up fast, and she was astonished when her big brother did not. He was a child when she was a child, and he was a child when she was an adult.

He’s still a big kid, and he’s here with me. I’m talking about my special brother, Hank, who is traveling with me for a week. He’s now 59-going-on-10.

Sometimes, I think I must be crazy to do this. It’s like taking Forrest Gump on the cross-country trip from Rain Man. I am on call 24/7, making sure that his needs are taken care of. I want his vacation to be perfect, but I’m finding that’s at the expense of my own wishes.

For months, I looked forward to Hank’s reaction to Canada, because he’d never been to a foreign country overnight. I wondered how he would handle my impetuous way of traveling without making plans, going where the wind takes me. I wanted to give him the chance to make decisions, but how would I handle his choices?

Meanwhile, he was savoring the anticipation of the trip. Every time I talked to him on the phone, he brought it up. Where would we go? What would he pack? The day before we left, he said, “The closer it gets, the exciteder I get!”

I started him out with two choices: An eastward loop to Canada and Niagara Falls (which he’d never seen); or a drive straight north to Canada, and then south and west to Indiana to see our two aging aunts. He chose the aunts,  “Because I don’t know whether I’ll get to see them again.” Niagara Falls can wait “until the next time.” He’s already excited about “the next time.”

I realized this trip was going to be challenging when I got lost just leaving his house. The worst kind of passenger is one who can’t help you navigate but who goes “uh-oh” every time you make a u-turn. We’d only been on the road five minutes when he was going “uh-oh” and I was searching my vocabulary for words like “sheesh” and “dang,” instead of my usual choices.

He can’t fault me for my lack of direction. I suggested one morning that he go to the motel lobby for coffee. He went about 10 feet to the left. Then he came back and said, “Which way is it again?” The next time I made a u-turn, he laughed and said, “That’s OK. I get lost trying to get a cup of coffee.”

At some point, I realized that the subtleties I relish while traveling would be lost on my companion.

My first inkling was his exclamation on I-75 — in order to make the most of Hank’s vacation, I was driving on interstates instead of my favorite 2-lane roads. “Look at that!” he exclaimed. “A Wal-Mart truck!” Waving his hand at the semi I was passing, he said, proudly, “I know a Wal-Mart truck. I know a Fed Ex truck. And I know a Kroger truck.”

He may not be subtle. But he’s doing the same thing I do while traveling: Looking for similarities and differences from his own home and routine. We’re always searching for patterns.

“I’ve never seen a beach in Canada before!” he said, when we walk over the sand dunes to Lake Huron. He was comparing it to the beaches he knows in Florida. “Wait ’til I tell Joy I saw a green golf cart!” he said. Joy is the one person he knows who owns a golf cart.

He started tracking our motel room numbers. The first night, we had room 5. The second night, we had room 105. On our third night, the streak was broken with 119. So on the fourth night, as we went into the lobby, he said, “I wonder what our room number will be tonight — 5, 105 — that was so funny! Maybe we’ll get 119!”

Hank shows off some Canadian bills
Hank shows off some Canadian bills

When we bought our first meal in Canada and broke a $20, I asked him to carry the Canadian money. I handed him the change, which included several loonies and a toonie. “Where are the ones?” he asked. I pointed to the loonie. “That’s it; they don’t have dollar bills.” “That’s weird,” he said, frowning.

Later, out of the blue, he said, “You know what would be weird? It would be weird if I lived in Canada.”

I asked what his favorite thing was about Canada. “When I couldn’t get the car door open!” We’d gone to the marina in Grand Bend, but there was a storm, and the wind was blowing over 60 kph. Hank tried to get out, but he couldn’t fight his car door open against the wind. So he handed his camera to me, and I took it out to the beach for pictures. Meanwhile, as the wind buffeted the tiny Tracker, he sat inside the car, warm and toasty.

Watching the storm from the car
Watching the storm from the car

Finally, after three days in Canada, we drove back across the soaring bridge at Sarnia to Michigan. That’s when I discovered that border crossings are amazingly easy with Hank in the car. He’s so genuine, he makes the Homeland Security guys laugh out loud.

“What did you buy in Canada?” the uniformed man asked, holding our passports and peering in the driver’s window. From the passenger’s seat, Hank said, “I bought a t-shirt!” I laughed out loud and admitted that we’d also bought 10 bags of potato chips. I thought that would surely cause suspicion and a car search. But no, the man laughed. “Any alcohol or tobacco?” he asked. I chuckled at that, too. Traveling with Hank, there’s no need for alcohol or tobacco. He’s always happy.

Then we were back in Michigan, and Hank turned to me and said, “Well, I had two nights in Canada. I guess I’ve seen all that’s different about Canada.”

I can’t wait to hear his comments on Michigan and Indiana.

Meps and Hank in the indoor pool
Meps and Hank in the indoor pool
Canadian indoor pools are just like the ones in the US
Hank says Canadian indoor pools are just like the ones in the US
The big storm at Grand Bend
The big storm at Grand Bend
Seriously, we bought 10 bags of these chips!
We really did buy 10 bags of these!

It takes three

Many people have expressed concern or fear about the idea of sailing a boat out on the open water when I mention our dreams and plans to launch Flutterby and sail, mentioning places like the Mediterranean as a possible destination.

I have a stock explanation that I offer up as some form of reassurance to them:  Before there is a real disaster where lives or our floating home are at stake, it takes three bad things working together against us.  They could be bad luck, or they could be just poor judgement and preparation on our part.  This theory came from thinking about all the disaster sea stories I’ve heard, and I was always able to identify at least three things that went obviously wrong.  Almost always, one of them is just bad luck, but usually at least two of them are simply poor judgement.  Like taking inexperienced crew across the Tasman Sea, and then accidentally letting a halyard go during a storm.  Actually that was just two, and it only resulted in a great story and two crew members who will probably never sail across an ocean again–no real harm happened that time.

The reassuring part is that you have the ability to not do many stupid things.  I expect to be able to keep my stupidity list down to one at a time while sailing, requiring double bad luck to get me in real trouble.  (We’ll see how this works)

On the other hand, when driving the Squid Wagon cross country, I feel like the stakes are lower–it would probably take more to make a really dangerous situation….but let me start counting:

Squidley is an old vehicle, and some things have degraded a bit, but I just put up with them.  Like two out of four door locks that can be made to work, but don’t always work when you want them to, and in the way you want them to.  Or door seals that let some rain in once in a while.

Stupid idea #1: The fuel gauge reads correctly when the rear tank is in use, but not when the front tank is in use.  This happened a couple months ago and I figured it was easier to work around it than to fix it.

Stupid idea #2:  The batteries died once or twice overnight for no reason I could understand.  Rather than spend time and/or money chasing an (apparently) intermittent fault, we just disconnect the batteries when not using the vehicle overnight.  With battery switches it is particularly easy.  [I still don’t know if this plays into the story or not]

Bad luck #3:  Something went wrong in the alternator or voltage regulator–and the alternator was putting out enough juice to really cook one of the batteries.  Err…was this all just luck?  I drove from La Fayette, Georgia to Spartanburg, South Carolina before I had really decided I had a problem and actually tried to deal with it.

Bad luck #3, part two:  Found an auto electrical/alternator shop in Spartanburg (un-named to protect the guilty), which was at least pretty incompetent, and possibly did nothing at all.  At I’m only out $80 or so.  OK, they said they fixed the field wire shorted to ground, but the problem didn’t change.  Then they said the put in a voltage regulator, and perhaps they did.  Or maybe they just opened the field wire, so that the alternator wouldn’t overcharge my batteries.  (I’ll figure out more when I really get this fixed)

I didn’t really figure out that the fix was bad until I made it from Spartanburg to Columbia and had a fantastic lunch with a friend.  By then I was sure that the alternator wasn’t charging anything, and my batteries were slowly going down.  But I figured I could keep driving quite a while like this.

Bad judgement #4:  I’m ready to be back on the boat. I’ll try and push it and get back before I have to use my headlights (which would drain the (already low) batteries faster), and then address the problem in the boatyard with access to tools, guys to stare under my hood with me, auto parts stores, a loaner car and auto part stores.

Remember that fuel gauge that didn’t read what was in the front tank?  I looked in the manual and figured that it was a 16 gallon tank.  I figured I could probably get at least 15 out of it.  So I tried driving 173 miles on that tank.  It took 11 gallons at the next fill up.  I used the non-reading tank first so whenever I got nervous I could switch to the one that told me when it was getting low.  The next time I went 200 miles on it.  11.6 gallons.  Then 235 miles. 14.3 gallons.  By now I was getting pretty confident.

Bad judgement #5:  (Meps, I know that if you were here, you would have told me so!)  I decided to drive 250 miles on that tank.  I dunno…maybe I was getting worse mileage because I was on a high speed limit interstate and driving fast to get home before dark (See #4).  Well, now I know that the tank can get 15.9 gallons put back into it when it is completely empty.

So Squidley started slowing down, and I decided (too late) to switch tanks.  I even tried to turn the engine over while rolling forward in neutral on the shoulder.  (Yes, Meps, I really know you would have told me so now!)

For those of you lucky enough to have never run one fuel tank empty on Squidley, the process is now to crank the starting motor for a long time, to re-prime the diesel engine.  Running the starter for over 30 seconds could overheat it, so stop at that point.  I’ve found I usually have to crank the engine for 30 seconds about three times to get it started.  After switching to the non-empty tank.

See Bad luck #3, #3 part two, and Bad judgement #4.  The batteries barely had enough juice to turn the engine over once.

At this time, I hadn’t done a count, but I was reflecting on the fact that the margin for error on a road trip is greater than when crossing a large ocean in a small boat.  I was pretty sure I had hit three by then. But this was driving, not sailing, and the result is a good story, not a disaster.

At this point, I changed into dirty jeans, got out my jumper cables and hung them on the mirror (Good judgement #1), and then started looking under the hood to identify my alternator, and wondering if the shop in Spartanburg had really put anything on there.

A truck driver heading home in his personal vehicle stopped and pulled around to me, and offered assistance after a little bit.  (Good luck #2)  It took quite a while but he finally managed to get enough juice into my batteries and starter to do the required cranking.  Once I got started, we disconnected the jumper cables and I thanked him very much and headed off down the road.  He later told me that he stopped and turned around because he saw the jumper cables hanging from my mirror.

Finally I decided to stop at a truck stop in Greensboro, and fill up that empty tank.  The sun was just down, but there was still plenty of golden light.  It would be another 40 miles to Kinston, the next likely truck stop.

I’m going to stay the night here, and leave in the morning.  I may or may not need another jump start then, but if I do, it will only take 2 minutes instead of half an hour, since the fuel tanks are full and the fuel line is primed.  Sitting here and writing this rather than pushing on makes good judgement #3.  And I think the balance will make for a safe departure in the morning.