Hopefully it’s not too apparent that every trip featured so far on BlythBros. has been conceived and attempted by engineers. And, hopefully, the traits commonly associated with engineers – being logical, rational, analytical, and concrete – haven’t surfaced too often in the pages of the blog. Really, it doesn’t take an engineering degree to be able to drain the pleasure from activities, road trips included. Our goal for this trip was simply to drive to Canada.
Realizing that my big trip for the year would have to wait until later in the summer, I mentioned the idea of doing a quick loop of Quebec to Taylor. I was enjoying a stint of voluntary funemployment, so the most important element of my daily routine was walking the Dachshunds with my mom. After days of discussion and planning, we decided that my mom would walk the Dachsunds by herself – 2 to the human, that is. I was good to go. As for Taylor? He codes tools for numerical analysis of various nuclear processes, or something like that. Sounds independent enough, as far as work goes, so I’m assuming that he set up a Bueller-style snoring figure in his grad school office to take Friday off. I didn’t ask. Either way, we were staring down the barrel of a hair-triggered 3-day weekend, and we were hungry for the Great White North.
Before I get any further, I owe the reader a quick background on the etymology of Canada. Back before the time of Mounties, Poutine, and even hockey, two great Canadian pioneers sought to name the vast tract of land that would later insulation to the United States as America’s hat. From a real hat, likely furry and extravagant, the pioneers blindly chose 3 letters. “C, eh? N, eh? D, eh?” Later Americanized, the land became known as “Canada”.
So, how do two engineers plan a trip to Canada? Poorly, to start. At the eastern BlythBros. hub we had access to the MK5 GTI, the Fiesta ST, the Alfa 164Q, and the 2.3-16.
The GTI was easy to rule out, since we didn’t want to patronize the Canadians with the plaid seat fabric. After a few hours of discussing plaid, things with the laid-back country folk might get too chummy to make any sort of decent progress through the kilometers of the classic Canadian hat trick: snow, ice, and moose.
The Fiesta ST, or FiST in forum parlance, didn’t make the cut due to its green engine, which we didn’t want to subject to long distances at constant speed and load for break-in considerations. Easy enough.
On paper, the Alfa seemed like a better choice than the 2.3-16. A 230hp V6, Scandinavian DNA, remarkably accommodating leather seats, and ample trunk space make a strong case for road tripping. But, the car had recently undergone a water pump and timing belt change at the hands of the Blyth brothers. People seem to think that Italian cars have a propensity for igniting, which is not true. That is, unless they are slowly leaking coolant onto hot things, as the 164Q was. We didn’t have time to order the correct o-ring in time for the trip, so, while we weren’t treated to hours and hours of Busso V6 booming, we also didn’t experience automotive immolation. Some good, some bad.
Unsurprisingly, we selected the Mercedes. Despite its homely lack of clearcoat, it’s in great mechanical shape, with issues limited to some mildly ineffective valve stem seals and the accompanying mild oil consumption under vacuum. It’s even been upgraded to an arguably sportier spec, with its Dunlop Direzza Z2 tires on 16” Evo 1 wheels, H&R Sport springs, and Bilstein shocks.
We packed the baby Benz with extra fluids and all of Taylor’s tools, and I contributed two special bags of tools that I reserve for situations where mistakes were made. You know, like stripping out the M10 threads on the aluminum block of an Alfa.
Taylor was supposed to grab maps at AAA, but got caught up on the Frisbee golf course, leaving us without a proper set of maps or even an atlas. Fortunately, it’s easy to get to Canada from State College, PA, so we just consulted the map on his apartment wall and some Google Maps to understand our first 8 or so hours of driving. It was 8PM by then, and, daunted by zealous trip ahead of us, we were briefly tempted by Detroit, and the allure of the Henry Ford Museum.
We decided to stay the course. 9PM in downtown State College in a car with needlessly-illuminated yellow foglamps is entertaining. Something about the yellow wavelength galvanized school after school of young women in stilletos to cross the road in front of us and bid us well on our trip.
Then, we drove. The first gas tank took us along two-laned highways, now pock-marked by the steady stream of fracking trucks that have become a fixture of all of the most scenic areas of Pennsylvania. Our second tank of gas propelled us up the divided highways and interstate to northern New York, where we made contact first with dawn, and then with an intense sunrise over the mountains to the east. At least that’s what Taylor told me. Apparently he couldn’t wake me up.
The issue of sleep came up, but we were alternating naps and driving to good effect, so we gave it the ol’ Canadian try and stuck it out to the border. At 7AM, lines at the checkpoint were nonexistent. But, we hit Montreal in time for the late commuters, meaning we were swarmed by hellaflush VWs and the constant thrum of super-cambered studded tires on the road surface.
Taylor needed to make a quick one hour conference call around noon, so instead of stopping in Montreal, we traveled up the east side of the water toward Quebec City, timing our 12 O’clock conference call stop to coincide with some fresh, local Tim Horton’s. I believe it’s a Canadian social convention to first purchase a single coffee drink in the Tim Horton’s before sketchily consuming bandwidth from the comfort of an 80s sports sedan. That’s what we did, at least.
Now, why do people visit places like Quebec City – for the history? The culture maybe? Surely the food? We missed out on all of those, but we did appreciate the strong suspicion that we had tunneled to continental Europe. For a few hours, we were surrounded by interesting architecture, classic views, and casual exchanges of French vocabulary. Then we got Poutine at McDonalds, because it felt like the right thing to do.
We traveled south to Montreal and took a similar, impersonal tour of the city. By then, we had located a street map, and Taylor navigated me up to the top of Mount Royal with aplomb. The Mercedes was perfect on the stretches of highway, as one would expect, but it was the city driving at which the little 16-valver excelled. Keeping up with after-work traffic was a rewarding process of maintaining a responsive position in the powerband, rowing the dog-leg shifter as needed, and squeezing into the correct lane as we weaved our way through the city. Peripheral vision became increasingly important as I spotted my intended position in the next lane over while keeping a look out for street signs.
The tortuous path up Mount Royal hosts a sizeable band of cyclist, and a smaller, more gallant set of joggers. Were it not for their decidedly more wholesome route to the top, the ascent would have been thrilling third gear rip to the top. Local youths get their thrills at the top through simpler means: pot and bumping rap songs. Fortunately, the haze wasn’t substantial enough to obscure the view, and they played some decent songs.
With dusk on its way, we had to consider the reality of getting some real sleep. Suddenly, the 2 hour drive down to Burlington, VT started to make sense. We’d be able to drive back into US data-space and use Taylor’s smart phone to find a motel. Plus, Burlington would be a much less intimidating gastronomical landscape to navigate. We found some Vermont classics – hamburgers – at a cool spot with a beer garden on the side of the building. We were even fortunate enough to charm a young couple into giving us their uneaten french fries. Teams of brothers just work that way. We mingled with the locals long enough to start complaining about the US border guards, then headed east to our hotel in Montpelier.
The final tour through Vermont yielded some of the best driving – first to visit the Ben and Jerry’s facility, and then to visit the Cabot Creamery. The rock formations and green landscapes allowed our imaginations to soar as we considered what would be if the Stonehenge guys had completed an entire city. It would very likely appear similar to Vermont. Eventually, we met up with friends in Central Massachusetts, before returning back to PA.
The 2.3-16 really exceeded my expectations, mechanically speaking. It didn’t use much oil, never overheated, and it never broke down. In terms of vehicle selection, it was perfect. The induction noise of the Cosworth head is worth it just for the satisfaction that accompanies opening the throttle for each pass on the highway. The mileage is respectable, as is the size of the trunk and passenger compartment. Best of all, the driving position, especially with the sport springs, places the driver close to the road, with a satisfying view of the long hood.
If we had allotted more time for the trip, some planning might have been beneficial. But, given the amount of land we covered, we were content with our experience and our ability to belie our engineering backgrounds. Honestly, an atlas would have been nice to have.