The Breakdowns Part Two: "Stagg Chili is an Acceptable Substitute for Thanksgiving Dinner."
We got through Winnipeg… And we were back on 3 cylinders of raw, unbridled VW power. Our beloved 1981 VW Westfalia, “Clementine”, was running alright at this point. We say ‘alright’ because she wasn’t moving very fast, but she was moving with more power than she had been prior to entering Smedt’s Auto Restore. (See our last blog post here.)
We stayed in Dryden, Ontario at a trailer park, and drove for another day to stay in a hotel just past Wawa, Ontario. We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning with a sprinkle of frost on the ground. We were just outside of Lake Superior Provincial Park, one of my favourite parks in Canada, and I was excited to drive through it in the day. It was perfect out.
As per usual, Clementine didn’t give us any idea of what was going to happen over the next four days. We had made it through the park’s beautiful rolling vistas and beachfronts, and stopped once to have a walk and soak up some sunshine.
Our deadline was clear - make it to Ottawa to see my parents for Thanksgiving. It was Thanksgiving Friday, and we figured we could make it to North Bay, then North Bay to Ottawa on the Saturday. This is when we lost all of our momentum… Literally.
Clementine was climbing Mile Hill, just North of Sault Ste. Marie, listening to The Sheepdogs on the local radio station. We were almost up the hill when we lost everything - all throttle power, the radio, and the speedometer. Everything in the van had died, and we rolled to a stop - almost up the hill. Cars were flying past us up the hill, and we had no idea what was wrong. Our first thought was the battery, or the alternator - there was no power when we inserted the key, but our battery meter read that it had lots of juice in it. It was a conundrum.
Kasey called CAA, and we waited for an hour for the truck to come, he loaded the van up and took us to the Canadian Tire in Sault Ste. Marie. He dropped off the van inside the shop, and given my spotty history with Canadian Tire Auto Repairs, we promptly rolled the van back out.
Canadian Tire is great for things like getting tires changed, alignments, and simple stuff on simple vehicles. Anything more complicated than changing brake pads on a Honda Civic, and it becomes a labour cost catastrophe. I was not going to let them spend away our money scratching their heads while they figured out how our VW worked. Kasey and I were convinced it must be a simple fix. In my personal (and relatively experienced) opinion, Canadian Tire is not where you take your most cherished vehicle to be repaired, especially if it’s your home, and it’s a Volkswagen.
We rolled the van into place in the parking lot, and wandered off to find a beer. We needed one - stat. It was Kasey’s first Labatt 50 experience, and we got into about 4 of them each before we hit that crossroads - either stop now, or go full steam. It probably wouldn’t be very responsible to get hammered in Sault Ste. Marie on Thanksgiving Friday with a broken down van when we had work to do.
It was over the next 3 days we were scanning the internet for answers. Tons of answers came up on our Facebook page and The Samba. Several of the answers were possibilities we could figure out and fix ourselves. We spent the days investigating issues like improper grounds and wiring problems, tracing wires from front to back, and back to front again. I was under the van most days changing the grounds and cleaning up all of the contacts, checking spark plugs, cleaning the distributor cap… The other answers we were reading online weren’t such easy fixes - the most popular fix for our problem was “New Alternator”, or “Re-furbished Alternator” - Not something we could do ourselves.
We knew the issue had to be between the battery and the rest of the vehicle… Our Volt Meter was reading the battery had more than enough charge to start the vehicle, but the power wasn’t getting out to the van.
In the downtime between diagnosing the problem, we spent breakfast, lunch and dinner at A&W, eating greasy cheeseburgers and using the WiFi to scramble for more answers online. It was only a short walk away, but it wasn’t long before we started to feel like the guy from Supersize Me.
We made it to Thanksgiving Sunday, and Kasey and I were still racking our brains to figure out what was going on. It was almost dinner - the time when we both agreed to give up and book an appointment with a mechanic to diagnose and fix the problem. I was working through the fusebox to see if I could wiggle some wires and get it to work, when I saw the culprit. The one issue that was causing all of our problems was a tiny Female Disconnector piece - probably about 50 cents at Canadian Tire. It was the one link connecting the battery to everything on the fusebox. The piece had melted the plastic cuff around it, and had been ruined. I readjusted the piece, applied some e-tape, reconnected the battery, turned the ignition and voila… Clementine, our little tin-can van started… Then promptly died again after.
We needed a new disconnector. The problem was that it was Thanksgiving Sunday, and the only place open at 6pm was Wal-Mart. We bundled up, locked up the van, and walked down the road to Wal-Mart. They didn’t have the piece we needed, but they did have cans of Stagg Chili, Reddi-Whip, and a $2 Pumpkin Pie.
We had Thanksgiving Dinner together in the van - we didn’t want to run our Coleman Campstove simply because we were staying in a Canadian Tire Parking Lot, probably illegally, and we didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention to us. So it was cold Stagg Chili by the flashlight, and we were asleep again, waiting for Thanksgiving Monday, when we hoped Canadian Tire would be open so we could get the piece and be on our way.
Canadian Tire was closed Thanksgiving Monday. So we hung out in Sault Ste. Marie, we puttered around and went to swim in the YMCA pool. It was pretty good to feel human again, and it was nice to interact with people who weren’t employed at A&W. We were playing the waiting game - waiting for Tuesday to come so we could get the part from Canadian Tire, or waiting for a guy like Kevin.
Kevin drove up, and was the first person to offer assistance to us in Sault Ste. Marie - three days later. I showed him the part we needed, and he said he had a ton of them in his garage. With that, he was off to his place to get us a disconnector. When he came back, he came back with a little box of about 30 - 40 disconnectors. I quickly got to work, and after putting the piece on, Clementine started like a dream. We packed up the van, and we were on our way to Ottawa.
Thanks again Kevin!
We had a great thanksgiving, and though we missed Thanksgiving with my folks, we had a good couple of months to catch up and see all of my family. In fact, we spent two and a half months there!
Next Issue: What’s up, Ottawa?