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Ever wonder what would happen if you put nine guys in a ten year old Senate mini-bus with a bunch of instruments and a million bags of clothing and books? So did we. And we thought maybe we could promote our new album at the same time.
On The Road With Jimmy George

Leaving On "The Green Hog"

We left on Monday, October 16. We met at 10 a.m. at the Duke of Somerset, and, as usual, didn't end up leaving until about two hours later after everyone finally straggled in and we got all the equipment loaded into the bus. At this point the "bus" should be explained: anyone who lives in Ottawa has probably seen the little green school buses used to shuttle senators around on Parliament Hill. The ones with the full-width metal school bus body, but made as short as possible. Thus making it look somewhat like a stout pig. Thus ours was dubbed "the green hog".

False Start

We hit the road and, somewhere around Antrim, Mike realized he hadn't seen his guitar amplifier get loaded onto the bus. Nor had anyone else. We all got out of the bus at the Antrim Truck Stop and had lunch while Mike drove back to Ottawa, picked up his amp, and came back and met us. Then we were REALLY on the road.

The Lakehead

The first show was in Thunder Bay, roughly 1600 kilometres from Ottawa. Since our bus goes about 380 km on a tank of gas (a 120 litre tank no less), and everyone gets out and goes to the bathroom or buys a hoagie sandwich every time we stop, we average about 80 or 90 km an hour. We stopped in Wawa, home of the huge goose, at about 1 a.m. and stayed at the Wawa Motor Inn. At this point, 12 hours into the trip, we were already running a $350 deficit due to gas and motel costs.

We arrived in Thunder Bay, played our usual poorly-attended show (it was a Tuesday, after all), and hit the road at 2 a.m., immediately after the show, because our next show was in Regina (1460 km away) and there was no way we would make it in time if we slept at all the next day. We drove without incident until 7:30 a.m., when we were virtually out of gas. We stopped at a closed gas station in beautiful West Hawk Lake, Manitoba (near the Ontario border) and waited for it to open at 8:00 am. Someone finally showed up, we filled the tank, and we hit the highway again with Josh at the wheel.

First "Incident"

Roughly five minutes into the drive, the engine started vibrating, the whole van started shaking, and a sound like someone smashing a metal garbage can with a crow bar started coming from under the hood. We pulled over immediately to find a huge pool of oil under the van, and various pieces of metal that had smashed their way through the oil pan on the bottom of the engine.

We were smart enough to have a cellular phone with us this tour, so we called the CAA who promptly sent us a tow-truck, despite the fact that CAA membership does not cover vehicles as big as ours or vehicles with double rear wheels. But if you only tell them that it's a van, and don't offer any additional information, they don't actually ask. And the tow-truck drivers don't care, so it all works out.

The owner of the tow truck was kind enough to rent us his minivan for $120, since the our bus had to be towed 140 km to Steinbach, Manitoba (just outside Winnipeg) where the nearest garage was to be found. Thankfully, CAA Plus membership covers tows that far, so we didn't have to pay anything extra for the tow.

High and Dry in Steinbach

Steinbach, Manitoba is called "Automobile City". We even bought a bumper sticker that says so. It is a Mennonite Community, dry (no alcohol), and consists mostly of car dealerships and garages. The tow truck driver suspected we had blown the transmission, so we were towed to a transmission specialist. He said no, we had blown the engine. Since our engine was still under warranty (we had a new GMC engine put in about six months earlier), we had the van towed to the GMC dealer in town. They looked at it and said that we had broken the crank shaft, and the piston rods had smashed through the oil pan. We needed a new engine. After much verification, they said it WAS covered by our warranty. But the nearest engine was in Edmonton and it would take three days to get it.

We settled in to our new homes at the lovely Frantz Motor Inn, which is conveniently built just outside of city limits so that they can have a bar on the premises. And what a classy bar it was: their special on Thursday was "60 cent draught beer until someone pees or leaves. After that, 90 cents."

The following day, we looked at our options: we could stay in lovely Steinbach for three days, miss three or four shows (including the one in Regina we had already missed the previous night) and lose around $1500, or rent a van, go to the shows, and leave Josh (our trusty driver/merchandise seller) behind to meet up with us later. Coincidentally, renting a van would cost roughly $1500: $1000 for the rental and mileage, and a $500 drop-off charge because we would be renting the van in Winnipeg and dropping it off in Calgary. The rental company justifies this charge because they fly someone from Winnipeg to Calgary to drive the van back.

Faced with the prospect of breaking even while sitting in Steinbach for three more days vs. breaking even while making it to all our shows, we wisely chose the latter. Everything went smoothly at the shows in Edmonton, Calgary and Banff, and Josh met up with us in Banff five days later, after having three more breakdowns on the way. It seems that after installing the new engine, the garage kept forgetting a few bolts and Josh had to keep going back. Then when everything was fine, the van over-heated on two occasions and he couldn't drive above 80 km/h the whole trip because the thermostat was defective. But he picked up a few crazy hitch-hikers to pass the time.

The shows on the way out were fairly quiet, save the three we played with Kingston's The Mahones, a band similar in sound to us but a bit more Celtic. The shows we played with them went very well, with packed houses in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. We also played our own show in Vancouver a week later, which was also well attended. Our stay in BC lasted over a week, and managed to go without incident since most of the drives were fairly short: Vancouver-Whistler, Vancouver-Victoria, Vancouver-Kelowna.

Coming Home

The voyage back east started with the Kelowna-Canmore stretch, a lovely section of the Trans-Canada highway that climbs straight up the rockies for hours and hours, goes through Rogers Pass and Kicking Horse pass and then plummets towards Banff. We always manage to hit this highway in the best of conditions: at night, during a heavy snow storm. Driving roads that are carved out of cliff sides under these conditions is the ultimate test of nerves. I would be surprised if anyone has ever fallen asleep while driving on this highway, as it keeps your adrenaline pumping so fast.

We had to stop once while they cleared a couple of tractor-trailers off the highway after they had jack-knifed on the ice, but we managed to make it to Canmore (just past Banff) in a respectable amount of time: 440 km in about nine hours. The Canmore show was one of those funny shows that sounds stupid to anyone who is not in a band: we played, but did not get paid. We did, however, get meals, beer, and hotel rooms, which makes the stop worthwhile if it's roughly halfway between two other shows.

The staff and the three customers at the bar liked us too. The next show was in Calgary, then we were off to Thunder Bay for an encore performance. Calgary to Thunder Bay: 2340 km. We had two days to drive, but even two days of sunlight does not allow us to drive that far, so we left Calgary at 10:00 am and just kept driving. Through three time zones (Mountain, Central, Eastern) and four provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario) we drove, arriving in Thunder Bay at 5 p.m. the following day. That is far too many hours with nine people in a small bus, especially when seven of them are smokers. The one incident that did keep us going, however, was the time Josh drove off the highway at full speed in the middle of the night, somewhere in Saskatchewan.

Second "Incident"

It seems a large eighteen wheeler passed him, pulling with it a cloud of snow so big and so dense that Josh could not see the road at all. By the time he found his bearings, we were traveling at roughly a forty-five degree angle to the lines on the road, causing us to plow through the snow bank, down an embankment into a drainage ditch filled with foot-deep snow. It is important to note at this point that it is merely coincidence that Josh was driving during both of our near-disasters.

Push It Baby

The one time having nine people in a vehicle is actually a blessing is the time you have to push same-said 4500kg vehicle out of a ditch. After much rolling back and forth and pauses to let more eighteen wheelers scream by on the highway (luckily no one stopped to help!) we did manage to get the bus back onto the highway. Out of breath and nauseated from the strain, we continued on our way to Thunder Bay. We played two nights in Thunder Bay and decided to leave right after the second show (2 a.m. again) to head back to Ottawa. It's roughly a 20 hour drive for us, and within five hours of Ottawa (Sudbury to be exact) we heard a knocking sound coming from the left-rear wheel.

I get out to check, and lo and behold, all the nuts on the wheel are loose. We had this incident in the past where one of the rear rims was warped and it managed to vibrate so much that it sheared off three of the wheel lugs and loosened the other three to the point where a few more minutes of driving would have been catastrophic. We had both of those rims replaced, and the new rims were fine, until now. Apparently there was still some other unresolved problem, as the new rims were now trying to shake themselves off as well.

We managed to track down someone who would meet us at his garage for $65 minimum, it being 5 p.m. on a Sunday. He rotated the rims, tightened the lugs and said, "Good luck." Anything further would have necessitated us staying overnight, the last thing we wanted to do within five hours of home after a month-long trip.

The wheels shook a bit and made a funny rumbling sound every now and then, but repeated checks showed they were staying tight. We managed to get to Ottawa by 11:00 p.m., Sunday, November 12, twenty-one hours after we left Thunder Bay. It will be a few more days before our bodies stop shaking, but at least we heard that MuchMusic played our new video four times while we were away...

Stephen K. Donnelly (TuneVault.com Staff) Email WWW

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