Adventures in a Kombi

“Everyone just pretend to be normal.” Little Miss Sunshine


You know that film Little Miss Sunshine? The one with the dysfunctional family travelling across the countryside in a Kombi Van to get to a beauty pageant in time! That film made me cry with laughter because it reminded me of my travels in a Kombi Van with my brother Ross, 30 years earlier. He picked me up from JFK Airport in New York (after I’d been travelling for three months in Europe) and we headed north. Our goal was to travel for a few weeks in eastern Canada, after which he’d drop me in Wisconsin – so I could spend a couple of weeks visiting a friend – and he’d continue on to Vancouver. We visited Halifax, Peggy’s Cove, Cape Breton Island, Quebec City, Montreal, Niagara Falls, Chicago and Madison; but it wasn’t so much the places, as the experiences along the way, that made this trip so damn memorable.

Oh what a beautiful morning

On the third day of our trip, we woke up to find that we’d parked alongside a beautiful lake. The night before we’d crossed the border into Canada and at the first opportunity had turned off the highway to find somewhere to suitable to park. It was pitch black, so we had no idea we’d picked such a picturesque place to sleep. We cooked breakfast on Kombi’s trusty stove and spent a long time admiring the view. This was my first full day in Canada, a country that I’ve come to love as much as I love my home country. My spirits were high. This was my idea of freedom!



Halloween in Halifax

We wandered along the main street of Halifax with a boisterous crowd of revellers. This was my first (and only) Halloween and I was delighted by the goblins and ghouls, witches and warlocks, pixies and pirates. I laughed when I saw a clothesline – which was strung up between two people – as the laundry hanging on the line caused a bit of chaos in the crowd. I held my breath, when the crowd parted to reveal a gruesome blood-splattered man. He was dragging a headless body by a chain and carrying the head on a platter. As he limped slowly towards us, we noticed steam rising from a jagged wound on the body. It was terrifying – but one hell of an awesome cosplay/science project!

Peggy’s Cove and Cape Breton Island

The wild beauty of the east coast of Canada is something I’ll never forget. Peggy’s Cove is an adorable fishing village about an hour south of Halifax, where the cottages and shops are perched along a narrow inlet. We spent several hours here, exploring the town and watching the waves from the Atlantic Ocean crash onto the rocks near Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. It remains one of my favourite places in the world.

About a week later, we headed north to Cape Breton Island to visit friends in Sydney and then drive the Cabot Trail – one of the most scenic drives in the world. The weather had turned cold and there was now a dusting of snow on the mountains.

Hitchhiking in a blizzard

On route to Quebec City, it continued to snow. At first it was just a light – and delightful – smattering of the white stuff. But then, it turned into something more like a blizzard. We took pity on an almost-frozen hitchhiker, who was travelling 20 km to see his girlfriend. Now that’s what I call dedication. By then, it was getting a bit too dangerous for Ross to keep driving. The windscreen wipers weren’t working effectively and we were freezing because we couldn’t use the heater. We also didn’t fancy sleeping in the van for fear of being buried by snow. Instead, we stayed at the ‘Yes Sir Restaurant/Motel’ in the small town of St Anne.


Everything looks wonderful covered in snow

I’m sure Quebec City’s ‘old town’ is beautiful in all weather, but covered in snow it looked like something out of a fairy-tale. We had a couple of hours here before heading to Montreal. It was here our car troubles began. One day, Kombi wouldn’t start so Ross called the Canadian Automobile Association, only to have it start immediately when they arrived.

Then, on the day we left Montreal, Kombi broke down after a couple of hours of driving. We hitch-hiked to the nearest town and arranged for a tow-truck, before the mechanics found a disconnected wire and we were on our way again.

We spent a few days in Trenton, south of Toronto, visiting friends, and then headed to Niagara Falls. We now had two German women – Silvia and Sonya – travelling with us, as they needed a ride to Vancouver and Ross wanted company after dropping me in Wisconsin. It was cold and wet day at Niagara and visibility of the falls was low. But it was still impressive to hear the thunderous rapids plunging into the chasm and see the billowing mist overhead.

Interlude in Chicago

From Niagara Falls we made tracks to Chicago, but we only made it as far as Windsor (Detroit’s twin city on the US/Canadian border) before Kombi’s generator started playing up. We stopped at a garage and the mechanic said it would be okay but, just out of Chicago, the generator light came back on.

We were happy to make it safely to our hotel and then decided to forget Kombi’s woes for a night on the town. Ross had heard about a great little ‘Blues Bar’, so, at 9 pm, we headed out. Little did we know that it would take us 90 minutes to walk there (in minus-three degrees temperature, with a wind-chill factor of minus-30) – and that the only food we would find on route was McDonalds. This was my definition of Hell, lol.

When we did finally arrive I almost passed out in the smoky, crowded and noisy bar. It was so hot in there!! But once acclimatised, we had a terrific* time and spent a couple of hours enjoying the music of the ‘Jimmy Johnson Blues Band’. Needless to say we caught a taxi back to our accommodation.

How long does it take to drive to Madison?

Do you recall that scene in Little Miss Sunshine where they are all pushing the van and jumping in, one-by-one? That was us as we push-started Kombi on the streets of Chicago. Just prior to that, we asked a passer-by “How long does it take to drive to Madison?” He replied, “About three hours.”

It took us three days.

We made it halfway to Madison before Kombi’s engine began to splutter and we pulled into a rest spot. I had to keep the engine running while Ross talked to a truckie. They decided it probably wasn’t the generator (since we weren’t using the heater or headlights), but rather the gas was freezing in the tank. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit (aka minus-six degrees Celsius). Sonya, Silvia and I had rugged up in sleeping bags but Ross had to drive, so he only had a blanket draped across his knees.


At the next gas station – after crawling along at 20 miles per hour – we picked up some anti-freeze. But it was too late. We had stalled and, no matter what we did, Kombi wouldn’t start again. We were in Newville, Wisconsin, and we spent the next few hours dawdling in a restaurant, trying to decide what to do.

It turned out that Sylvia and Sonya were members of an organisation that welcomed travellers to stay with locals; I believe it was called ‘servis’, but I can’t find any reference to it now. This was well before the days of the Internet, so they pulled out a little book that had addresses and phone numbers of members all around the world. Miraculously, we found a couple who lived in Milton, five miles from where we’d broken down – aka in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin.

Roy and Mirabel were lovely. They agreed to accommodate us, even though Ross and I were not members. They picked us up from the restaurant, gave us a meal, and spent the next several hours chatting to us. Afterwards, I slept very well in a comfortable toasty bed.

In the morning, while Kombi was being repaired, we helped Mirabel steam-clean her carpet. Then Roy invited us to lunch. He was a member of the organisation ‘Kiwanis’ and we had lunch with its members – the ‘Kiwanians’. We sang songs (including a Thanksgiving song), ate lunch and then introduced ourselves. Roy told us that the Kiwanis began through the United Methodist Church. They organised charitable events to raise money for their community. The only downfall was, as Roy said to Silvia, Sonya and I, that the organisation didn’t allow female members – which makes me wonder if they do now. It was a very interesting afternoon.

Meantime, a mechanic was working on Kombi. He reconditioned the generator so we were good to go after dinner. We thanked Roy and Mirabel for their hospitality and set off for Madison.


An hour later, the generator light back came on.

We had to go back to Milton so Ross could see the same mechanic, and the next two hours were unbelievable. We couldn’t use the heater or, more importantly, the headlights. So we drove very slowly, tucked in behind a truck that would hopefully protect us from oncoming traffic that might not see us. It was frightening, especially as we saw a couple of abandoned cars that had come to grief on the icy roads.

In a case of Groundhog Day, we didn’t make it to Milton. Instead, we broke down in the exact same spot as the day before – in Newville. And, as we pulled into the car park, we hit some invisible black ice and Kombi slid treacherously close to an embankment. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we looked over the edge. Several inches more and we would’ve been goners.

We phoned Roy and Mirabel, who, once again, welcomed us ‘home’. The following day, Kombi was given a brand new generator and we finally made it to Madison. Ross, Silvia and Sonya continued their journey to Vancouver – and I joined them for Christmas a few weeks later. While in Wisconsin, I found the perfect gift for Ross – a sweater that had a picture of a shivering guy trying to fix his car. It said, “I love Wisconsin.”


*I also discovered through re-reading my journal from this trip that my favourite word was ‘terrific’ so I had to use the word at least once in this blog. These days I overuse the word ‘awesome’. But that’s because it’s an awesome word 😉


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