Lessons Learned: Road Tripping from Ottawa to Iowa

Lessons Learned Road Tripping from Ottawa to IowaI 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:

Driving into Toronto at night in the rain - Exploring Alternatives

Driving into Toronto at night in the rain - Exploring Alternatives

Crossing the bridge towards the Canadian/American border at Port Huron - Exploring Alternatives

Mat relaxing on the bed in the campervan during a traffic jam - Exploring Alternatives

Traffic jam on our road trip across Canada/America - Exploring Alternatives

Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge at night - Exploring Alternatives

Campervan interior while driving - Exploring Alternatives

Passender duty - navigating with an iPod, map and triptik - Exploring Alternatives

Driving into the polar vortex in Iowa - Exploring Alternatives

Desperately in need of snow tires - we could barely handle 1 inch of snow in Iowa - Exploring Alternatives

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5 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: Road Tripping from Ottawa to Iowa

  1. Graeme

    Great post! My wife and I are on a one year countdown to a similar kind of life, and we can’t wait! I was curious about your needs at the border, it’s something that has crossed my mind (we’re Canadian as well). We’ll be travelling with a camper and our 7 companion animals going from farm animal sanctuary to wwoofing opportunity around North America. I’ve wondered what kind of documentation I would need at the boarder. Our vet has the critters sorted out for us, but what were some of the things you needed to make it across? Would you be willing to share some more details about that?

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures!

    1. Danielle Post author

      Hi Graeme – sorry it took me so long to write back! I didn’t see your comment until today!

      It sounds like you guys are going to have an awesome trip next year! WWOOFing is one of my favourite ways to travel and Farm Sanctuary will be so nice, too!

      The reason we had trouble at the border is because we didn’t have any ties to Canada (no land/property, no apartment, our jobs are location independent, we have no children or other responsibilities). They were also suspicious that we were house sitting and considered that to be working even though we weren’t being paid.

      When we crossed the border the second time, we brought:

      – Proof that we were earning an income and had enough money to pay for the trip (bank statements, T4’s, income tax assessments, pay stubs, etc)

      – Paperwork/contract with the homeowners showing that we were not being paid to house sit

      – A copy of our most recent apartment lease (if you own a property you could bring proof of ownership)

      – A copy of our car insurance and other recent bills to show that we had ongoing ties to Ontario

      – A letter from my parents saying that we were coming back to help them build a cottage next Summer

      – A letter from an art gallery saying that Mat had to return by a specific date to pick up his artwork

      Basically we brought as much documentation as possible to show that we had no intention of earning an income in the US or of staying in the US.

      There’s a list of documents you should have with you to prove your ties to Canada here:

      I hope this helps! Good luck!

  2. Edgardo

    Great journey.

    It gives me an idea.

    I’m still a stranger in my home country. I must travel and visit beautiful places in my native land.

  3. dave & diane

    we plan to drive to boston, new York and phily in sept in 1999 dodge ram conversion van did it in 2003 there was a noreaster storm when we got phily n the way back home to Berkeley,ca we could see the kritna storm down south ,I said I would never drive across the US again but here we go again …dave& diane

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Wow – seeing Katrina must have been terrifying. I hope you enjoy this new trip across the US and that you everything goes smoothly for you both!

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