I can’t believe it’s been a week since we left home! I just calculated that we’ve already driven over 2600 km (1600 miles) which means that we’re almost halfway to our final destination of Olympia, Washington! Most of the driving we’ve done has been at night so we haven’t seen much yet, but we’re looking forward to some spectacular scenery as we drive through the Rockies this coming weekend.
We’ve had a ton of adventures so far (some good, some not so good) and we want to share what we’ve learned in case it’s helpful and/or entertaining. Here are 7 lessons we learned on the road from Ottawa to Iowa:
1) Be prepared for border crossings.
We thought that crossing the border from Canada into the US by car would be a breeze compared to flying. We were SO wrong. After three hours of questioning, a van search and being fingerprinted, we were denied entry into the country because the border agents were concerned that we wouldn’t return home after our 6 month visit. We were completely unprepared for this setback but luckily we were sent home with a list of documents to bring back on our next try. Our friends and family helped us the next day by scanning and emailing documents so that we were able to successfully cross the border on our second attempt two days later (after another two hours of questioning!).
While we did get through eventually, we’ll forever have a record of having been denied entry and will potentially be questioned every time we cross the border from now on. To avoid having this happen to you, do your research and bring printed copies of any and all documents that will back up your living situation and travel plans (proof that you pay taxes, proof that you’re employed, proof that you have sufficient funds for the trip and perhaps most importantly, proof of your departure date).
2) Michigan has a lot of deer.
We’ve never seen so much roadkill as we did during our first hour in Michigan – we counted at least 30 deer and dozens of other smaller animals :( It was really sad and disturbing, but also an important reminder that driving at night can be extra dangerous for you and the local wildlife. Try to avoid driving at dusk and dawn when animals are more likely to be on the move.
3) When in doubt, ask a truck driver.
After sitting in a traffic jam near the border for over an hour, Mat got out of the van and walked over to a transport truck to ask the driver what was going on. The driver told us there was an abnormally large number of trucks trying to cross the border and that it would likely take 5 hours for them all to go through customs. Since the problem was with the trucks (who have different customs lanes than cars), he suggested that we turn off the highway and drive past the next handful of exits to get past the trucks. We didn’t think it would work, but it did! There were only 2 cars ahead of us when we got to the border and without this helpful tip, we would have wasted 5 hours of driving time.
4) Keep change for toll roads.
This is for the Canadian road trippers out there! Some highways in the US are toll roads and you need to have cash/change on hand to drive on them. We thought we’d be fine with a couple of dollars in our pocket, but in just one day we spent over $12 in tolls! When we ran out of cash, we found out that the attendants have unpaid toll tickets that let you pay the toll online within 7 days which is nice, but it’s much easier to pay up front and not have to wait for the attendant to write up a ticket for you!
5) Rush hour in Chicago is a nightmare.
We arrived in Chicago during rush hour last week and almost suffered simultaneous panic attacks. I think it’s important to note that I’m not easily flustered behind the wheel, but the fast-moving highway going into Chicago with simultaneous exits on the left and right that are spaced so close together that you literally only have time to read one in three signs is overwhelming to say the least. I shouldn’t forget to mention that they have flashing signs with stats on the latest number of car accident related deaths in the state of Illinois the entire way. My advice? Check your maps in advance, plan to avoid rush hour and be very careful about checking your blind spots before changing lanes.
6) Pay attention to the weather.
Mat is a bit of a worrywart and I thought he was going overboard checking the weather forecast every time we had wifi, but it turns out that we’re lucky he did. We found out that we were driving into a “polar vortex” a couple of days ago, which was a storm with 2 inches of snow and a sudden 10°C drop in temperature. This majorly impacted our ability to drive (we didn’t have winter tires) and sleep in the van (we don’t think we’d be comfortable sleeping in the van in temperatures lower than -10°C/14°F). Because of the bad weather we’ve had to camp out at a hotel for a week while we wait for new tires and warmer weather.
7) Iowa is windy as muck.
Driving a cargo van feels a bit like walking around with a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood in your hands – you get pushed around by the slightest gust of wind. When we drove into Iowa, we had to grip the steering wheel with both hands just to stay in our lane. At a rest stop in Southwest Iowa, we found out why. It turns out that Iowa’s unique landscape produces strong winds and more than a quarter of the state’s energy comes from their own wind farms. This is great news for the environment so I can’t complain about the difficult driving!
Well, those are all the lessons we have to share for now – stay tuned for part 2 in a couple of weeks! In the meantime, here are some pics from the road: