Travel Tuesdays: Keeping cool with car trouble

Ian Carroll

In the Coquihalla mountains of British Columbia, the speed limits are ridiculously high. If you and your car are from one of the wide-open parts of the world you’d be used to it. Speeds of 100 mph are entirely legal and going up to 120 is not uncommon. What’s different about the Coquihallas is that the highway winds through high mountain passes with strong cross winds and variable weather conditions.

My girlfriend and I had spent the summer living a nomadic life in the cherry orchards of the Okanogan Valley in southern BC. We spent our days picking from before sunrise until the heat peaked around noon. Afternoons were typically spent in a river or on the lake.

We lived in my Toyota Sienna, which is a great van for living on the road. Even though it’s not nearly as popular as an Astro or Westy, Toyota makes solid workhorses that can run forever with little to no maintenance. At age 22, that was a critical feature as I wasn’t yet educated about taking proper care of a car, or the possible pitfalls of improper upkeep. Yes, foreshadowing.

It really was a dream. Maybe for next Travel Tuesday, I’ll fill you in on how you can also become a fruit picker and travel the world living a carefree life. However, all good things must come to an end, and we found ourselves once again staring down the barrel of the Coquihallas. A long day of driving and many miles of highway lay between us and our hometown. But we passed the time blissfully, listening to mix CD’s and talking about all the crazy things we’d done that summer.

That was my first mistake

As we got higher and higher, it started to snow.
As we got higher and higher, it started to snow.

Never let your guard down in the Coquihallas, or any mountain pass for that matter. Even when it’s sunny and you don’t have a care in the world, crossing a big mountain pass can have all kinds of pitfalls and problems which arise quickly and quietly. My problem was I set the cruise control and forgot about it. At my young and naive age, I didn’t realize the problems this would present as we started to climb. With the music at a high blast and our conversation buzzing along merrily, I didn’t hear when the car started to struggle. It should have been obvious, we were going about 110 mph on cruise control, and the pitch was increasing.

Second lesson, always be kind to your car and watch your gauges

I did neither. We were about an hour into the mountains when the van made a crunching sound and started to lurch. I lost power on the gas pedal, and we started to slow. Immediately I knew I had done something terribly wrong. The temperature gauge was way out of control, and the car was making noises you never want to hear. Noises I had never heard before.

I pulled over onto the shoulder covered in a light dusting of snow. Even though it was only early fall, the elevation had pulled precipitation the previous night, and it was cold. I didn’t realize until I got out to open my hood just how cold it was. My engine was smoking and steaming, and my breath was frosting up in front of my face. Naive as I was, I thought to check the oil. That clearly was not the problem.

road trip engine oil
It was way too late to check my oil.

I wishfully hoped that waiting a minute would solve the problem. But as soon as I pulled back onto the highway, it was clear that it hadn’t. I was maxing out at about 45 mph as though my car was working on half power. Little did I know that it was. I had blown two cylinders of my engine and was worsening the problem with every second. I pulled off again.

By now, both I and my girlfriend were kind of freaking out. We were young and inexperienced, but both keenly aware that it was getting dark and it was starting to snow harder. Not the kind of place you want to get trapped with car trouble.

Lesson number three, always have AAA

I called my mom, I called triple A. Help was about an hour away. Had we not had roadside assistance paid for, we would have been in for a really bad time. Even so, things weren’t looking good.

road trip tow truck
You never know when you’ll need a tow.

By the time the tow truck finally pulled up and started loading my dead van onto the bed, it was getting dark. The snow was intensifying. We paid the extra money to have him take us all the way over the mountain pass to the aptly named town of Hope, BC. Neither of us wanted to go back down the way we had come. By then, my girlfriend was definitely the only one with any hope left, bless her. I spent the ride going over how much money I was about to owe my parents and how stupid I was. If I had just paid more attention to the car!

But hey, mistakes are how we learn. And this was certainly a lesson I would never forget. It was late before we finally pulled into Hope, despair heavy in my mind. The road had been treacherous and the driver wise enough to go slowly. My brother met us there, having driven four hours in the middle of the night on a moment’s notice.

Always be nice to your siblings

It was obvious that the car wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and we weren’t about to spend the night in Hope. That sounded like adding insult to injury. So, we drove four hours back to our home, we crawled into bed and tried not to think about how much money had just been burnt on that highway.

In the end, the car was toast. We were looking at about twice the price of the car to repair the engine, plus all the extra fees involved in getting it across the pass in the middle of the night. We decided to cut our losses and let it go to scrap. We’d emptied it out when we got in my brother’s car. I think deep down we knew.

road trip
Take care of your car.

It took me years to pay it all off and longer to get over the shame of making such a stupid mistake. However, the lessons I learned have gotten me through countless road trips and mountain passes since. Don’t use cruise control in the mountains, and always have AAA. Now, I keep my fluids full, I keep an eye on my gauges and my mind on my car’s journey, not just my own.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival