Great American Road Trip: Part 1

Full of optimism and with beautiful blue skies (and finally some cooler temperatures after weeks of humid heat), I woke up this morning as the sun was rising about 5:45am. I figured that if all went well, I should be able to make it to about Toledo, Ohio after a long and solid first day of driving. The plan for the day included about 500 miles of highway, crossing through the Appalachians, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and settling at a small primitive campsite outside Toledo. However, all my plans changed about 50 miles after crossing the Pennsylvania border…

Map of actual route I took on day 1.

Just after refueling at the Pennsylvania Turnpike rest area, I noticed that Bob was starting to shake quite a bit. This isn’t too abnormal, as the 1987 4 cylinder engine is rather loud and doesn’t always respond so well to hills, but this was a lot different kind of shaking. Like, I thought maybe my wheel was going to come off kind of shaking.

Carrying on slowly at this point, I see that the next rest area was about 20 miles away… probably too far to carry on with the shaking vechicle. So I thought “Hey.. they have these little emergency pull off sections. I’ll just pull over at the next one and see what’s going on. They’ve been every mile or so since the rest area.” But, before I could get to the next pull off…. BOOM!! I hear a really loud sound, and the front end of my van starts pulling hard toward the shoulder. I quickly pulled off the road and came to a stop. I half expected to see my wheel rolling down the highway like a runaway bundle of tumbleweed at 50 mph.

But my wheel didn’t come off, the tire exploded…

The carnage from the explosion.

Now, I don’t know if this is a sign, or if life is just full of all sorts coincidences… but I broke down in the town of Berlin just after passing through the town of New Baltimore (I just moved from Berlin, Germany and grew up close to Baltimore, MD). What are the chances of that???

Anyway, I was able to get a tow to the next town of Somerset, PA, where they took me to the only open tire center at the Walmart (also a convenient place to stay in a camper van overnight). Unfortunately, Walmart didn’t have any tires in stock that could fit my van without being under entirely too much pressure from the weight. And thus begun the Saga of Somerset

The Saga of Somerset

Somerset, PA is a quaint little town in the Western Appalachians. It has a lovely courthouse on top of a hill and a small little downtown that looks like most towns in Western Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania. What it doesn’t have is any open stores (except Walmart) on Sundays… really stretching for that comparison to Berlin. This made it really difficult to find any place to get the right size tire for my truck, and as a result, I was stuck staying in Somerset until Monday morning until I could go to the top tire store in town and see what the deal was about getting some strong tires for a small European wheel that seemingly nobody could match the tire size for.

What that did mean was… I got to go explore the Western Appalachians on Sunday! I’m really glad I brought my bike (her name is Betty Drogon) with me, as I set out to ride 14 miles to Laurel Hill State Park to swim in the lake on what was a beautiful warm and sunny day.

View from the lake at Laurel Hill State Park

Of course, those 14 miles to the park turned out to be about 18 miles, with 1500 ft elevation gain… But at least I got to cool down in the lake and relax for a couple of hours before making my way back in town.

After about 40 hours in Somerset, it was finally Monday morning and the shops and tire distributors were all open. I worked with the local Tire shop to see about calling about 6 different distributors about finding tires my size that could handle the weight. All we could find were trailer tires (which after all my research I’ve found are not made for the same level of torque and turning as regular automobile tires). I also found that the tires I had on there (Firestone CVW3000) are not even a tire that is recognized by Firestone in the US!

Back to the start

So, after near defeat in the hands of Somerset tire experts, I headed back to Walmart and convinced the tire guys to just throw some trailer tires on the rear end of Bob, move the rear tires to the front (this way I was turning with proper automotive tires), and decided to head back to my parents’ place in Annapolis, MD to regroup and do some more research on what options I had. It was only about 3 hours from where I was, and offered the opportunity to have free fast Wifi and access to another car if I needed.

Before going straight back to my parents’ house, I stopped off at Mercedes-Benz of Annapolis. It turned out to be a great option, because the team of super stoked Service guys quickly got on the phone to all their contacts to find out what I could do. They even called the co-host of the Discovery Channel show Garage Rehab (who is from MD and apparently owns an old MB van)! Eventually they found out a place that has rigged out several old VW Westfalias with new tires, and were able to get me hooked up. I should have the wheels by Wednesday and I can start this whole thing all over again! But this time with a bit more comfort (and traction) under me :).

Data scientist, musician, and adventurer with a passion for the environment and outdoors. Recently left Berlin to travel through North America in a fire truck.