From Vermont our next destination was Holland, Michigan; where we would meet our friend Allison and spend several days exploring the area with her. To get from Burlington to Holland we had to decide which route to take, the long way around through Ohio, or straight across through Ontario? After our recent border issues we were skeptical about doing another one, but decided we wanted to give it a try. We wanted to see if we would have trouble again, or breeze right through like many other travelers we have talked to.
After we spent the first part of the day exploring Burlington, we loaded up and headed across the bridge into New York. Our goal for the evening was Saranac Lake, where we planned to meet another couple with a bus project and park at their place for the night. Driving through the Adirondack Mountains was an amazing experience, even though it can be a chore to weave the bus through some of the small towns and winding mountain roads. There were so many beautiful rivers and overlooks, it would have been fun to spend an entire week camping and exploring the area. On the way to our destination, we passed through Lake Placid and got some views of the old winter Olympics structures. The Olympic training center is still used today, and tourists are welcome at some of the points of interest, such as the towering ski jumps. As scary as those things look on TV, they are even more intimidating in real life! The Lake Placid high school even makes use of the speed skating rink, which serves as their track. Arriving in Saranac Lake we found Shelby and Dave’s apartment and got the bus situated for the night. We met them through Instagram after they started commenting on our pictures, and when they learned of our route they offered up a place to park and a tour of their own bus project. We couldn’t say no! It was a lot of fun to compare buses, theirs is still in the middle of the construction phase but it is coming along nicely. It is going to be a more complete home than ours is, which will be a lot of fun for them. Next on the agenda for the evening was a drive over to Lake Placid, where we were going to have dinner and beers at Lake Placid Craft Brewing, home of the famous “Ubu Ale”, a strong, dark English style ale. We really enjoyed the food and beers, as well as having some fun people to hang out with. We stayed out late into the night telling travel stories and playing the beanbag toss game in the brewery yard.
The next morning we relaxed in the bus while we tried to figure out which direction to head and where to stop for the night. After studying maps for a couple hours and looking up various camping options we just couldn’t find anything that fit our plans, so we waved goodbye to Dave and decided to head towards Niagara Falls, to see how far we could get before we called it a night. Our camping spot ended up being a Wal-Mart parking lot in Albion, NY. This was the first time we had parked at a Wal-Mart (wallydocking) and we weren’t too thrilled, but it was a free place to stay for the night and we could get a few groceries inside. It turned out to be better than expected, we had a quiet corner of the lot and no one bothered us. We even met another traveler parked there in his converted van, it was interesting to share stories with him and learn about his recent trips around New England. Lindsey made us an amazing dinner, homemade potato chowder and even a strawberry rhubarb cobbler, baked in the tiny oven. This was the first real use of the oven, and we weren’t sure how well it would work, but it did great! We sat at the table looking out the window at the beautiful sunset, happy to be out exploring the world even if we were in a parking lot.
After cooking some breakfast the next morning we got everything put away and ready to get back out on the road, this was the big day! The Canadian border was only an hour away and we were ready for it. As we waited in line to go through the checkpoint we relaxed and prepared ourselves for another invasive search. Finally our turn came at the window where the officer checked over our passports, asked a few questions, and waved us on our way. This was impossible. How could it be so easy? We rejoiced as we paid our toll and headed toward Niagara Falls. Circling the area for half an hour we finally found a place to park the bus so we could visit the falls. It was a rainy cloudy day, so the view wasn’t as clear as it could have been but it was a powerful experience to stand out on the point only a few feet from where the river plunged down over the edge. It was more impressive than I ever imagined it would be, I am very thankful we decided to stop there along the way. Lindsey and I watched the waterfall for a while before we walked back to our bus just in time to miss the heavy downpour that started.
Heading back out onto the highway we slogged west though the rainstorm hoping to reach Holland before midnight. Somewhere along the way I noticed a strange squeaking sound coming from the front of the engine, I just chalked it up to a belt making noise from being wet and didn’t think much of it. The rest of the drive through Ontario was uneventful; we were noticing how much the terrain was changing, long gone were the mountains of New York. We finally reached the Michigan border, where we got our first glimpse of the great lakes. The highway leading to the US border went up over a beautiful bridge where we could see Lake Huron off to the right side, never before had we seen such a vast expanse of water that wasn’t an ocean. We were so excited to be here. The real fun started when we pulled up to the US Customs window, where the officer asked me to shut down the bus so we could talk without yelling. I of course said sure thing and reached for the key, as I was about to turn it a little voice in the back of the mind said “don’t do it” but I shrugged it off thinking it was silly, the bus hasn’t had any issues so far, why should it start now. After completing the passport check and declaration paperwork he motioned us over to a side area to wait for our “random” inspection (yea right) but as I turned the key and hit the start button all I got in return was a loud click. I tried again with no luck. Great, now we are stuck in the lane at the US Customs with a dead battery. That’s when I realized that the strange squealing I had heard earlier in the day was the alternator in its death throes, possibly killed by the heavy rainstorm. I had been driving along all day with all the headlights and running lights on, as well as the fan so the starting batteries were too weak to crank the giant diesel engine. There we were in our crazy old bus, broken down in the middle of the border crossing with a line of people behind us. This is one of those moments where you just laugh and can’t believe it is happening. I explain to the border officer what the problem is and he radios for the Michigan DOT to send a truck over, so a few minutes later a pickup pulls up to the bus, we hook up some jump leads, let it sit for a couple minutes and then she fired right up. Fortunately these old diesel’s don’t require any electricity to run, so as long as we could leave it running and not shut it off we would be ok to make it to our stop for the night. After going through some of the typical US bureaucratic nonsense we were finally free to continue into Michigan. We still had a few hours to go until we reached Holland, and we weren’t sure if we were going to make it.
As we rumbled along watching the sun go down I was a little nervous, as our headlights would barely turn on without our batteries charged up. By the time nine o’clock rolled around we were running down the highway without any lights, and still had a couple hours to go. The setting sun was still lighting up the horizon so we pushed on, but kept an eye out for a place to park. After another 45 minutes on the road it was too dark to be on the roads with our dim candles for headlights, so we pulled off into a rest stop to wait until daylight so we could see. I parked the bus in a spot and shut it off, praying that I would be able to get it going again in the morning. Luckily I was able to hook up our little generator to my battery charger and jump-start it again in the morning. Driving along in the bright morning sun we were just happy to be so close to a friends house, where we would be parking for the next several days. I could figure out what to do with the alternator while we relaxed with Allison and her family. We pulled into their house and got the bus situated on the driveway before shutting it down one last time. After saying hello to Allison’s parents we set off into Holland on the motorcycle, ready to see all that Michigan has to offer.