Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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The Love of The Road

The open road is full of surprises
so prepare your car before
you make that weekend getaway

I love driving. There's just something about the call of the open road, be it chasing the sunset to prolong the last rays on the horizon, or meeting new and interesting people along the way. I grew up in the '50s, so I credit TV shows like Route 66 and Cannonball: the plots were always the same, but each episode featured an adventure round every bend.

During a vacation driving is my favourite means of transportation. Not only does my luggage stay with me, but I'm in control of where and when I want to stop. If I choose to take a side-trip, so be it. I've travelled across North America on nothing but side-roads --totally ignoring interstate highways -- and I've done the opposite, racking up 16,000 kilometres in 10 days. The people I met and the places I saw will forever be etched in my mind, each one an experience I might have never known about had I chosen another route. Yes, getting there is half the fun. But you need to be prepared, since every bend in the road can either reveal adventure or a deadly pothole.

The usual rituals include tune-ups and oil changes. However, not only does your motor oil need checking, you should consult the owner's manual to see if you're due for a change of transmission oil, particularly if you're towing a trailer. Verify all fluids, too, like brake, power-steering and coolant. Then make sure all your tires, brakes and mechanicals are in perfect working order before heading out. Have a friend test-drive your car, because you might not notice the fading brake pedal, how your car pulls slightly to one side or the barely audible rumble coming from the exhaust. If your cooling system or air-conditioner has been acting up, this is the time to get it checked, not in the middle of BC's Osoyoos desert. If your trip exceeds 5000 kilometres, an oil and filter change will be necessary along the way.

The last thing you need on your trip is a search for an open service station in the middle of the night after a blow out. Learn to change your tire: read the owner's manual and practice several times with both the front and back tires. A successful change should only take about five minutes. There are two reasons for practicing: first, it's better to learn now than in the middle of a downpour; second, it's good to know right away if the kid at the garage over-tightened your lug nuts rather than in the middle of nowhere.

Make sure your spare tire is in good shape and properly inflated. And if you're using a small space-saving spare tire, get rid of it; most cars can hold a normal-size tire in the spare's cavity without surrendering any trunk space. If it doesn't you won't miss the few centimetres that get taken up by the bulge of a full-size spare.

Don't let the high cost of gasoline fool you, there's an abundance of bad fuel out there. You'll inevitably purchase poor-quality gas just as you're about to climb, or rather, sputter your way up Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies. If properly administered, fuel injector cleaner will work wonders and get rid of the malady. (You can pick up some cleaner at your local gas station before leaving.)

This is also a good time to clean out and reorganize your trunk and glove compartment. It's amazing how much junk drivers can accumulate. That old bent golf club in the trunk will inevitably get in the way every time you need something, and the empty cassette boxes in the glove compartment will fall out when you reach for maps.

Pack extras. Wiper blades have an extraordinary affiliation with Murphy's Law and will give out or fly off when you need them most. Don't expect the "Last Chance Gas Bar" to stock every form of fan belt and spark plug, so add them to your shopping list of extras. Pack extra motor oil and, if you have the room, some anti-freeze or at least a litre of water, it could save your motor from total destruction.

If you don't already have them, pick up an emergency road kit and a first-aid kit. Flares, thermal blankets and bandages should be in your car at all times. Bring along some bungee or elastic cords, too. They're handy for tying gear down onto the roof rack. Bailing wire will keep your exhaust system from dragging, and duct tape is great for emergency patching of pinholes in your radiator hoses.

We all carry sunglasses for sunny days, but in heavy rain, with visibility reduced to near zero, driving can be life-threatening; even pulling off the highway into a safe area to wait out the deluge can mean several minutes of near-blind driving. I've found that shooting glasses drastically improve your vision in dark rainy days. They're tinted yellow, and for whatever reason, they work. Your local army-surplus store probably carries them.

While you're there, pick up a camper's light (the kind that straps to your head), some waterproof matches and a highly visible rain suit. The camper's light leaves both hands free to work, while the matches can be used to light road flares and start a campfire; put on the rain suit for changing flats in a storm. I also recommend carrying a pair of work gloves for those cold, wet nights.

Whether you visit the in-laws a few provinces away or head to the zoo with the kids, there's nothing more frustrating, causes more arguments or leads to divorce faster than not being able to read a map. Before you set out, take a few hours with your co-pilot and study as many maps as you can. Most of all, be patient; pull off the road to double-check your coordinates, and don't be shy to ask for directions.

If you or your navigator can't tell the difference between north or east on a map, fear not. Here are a few basic steps that I've shared with my friends who, at one time, couldn't get out of Dodge if their life depended on it. First, 90 percent of maps are printed to be read facing north; that's to say that if you take out a map of Canada and face north, Toronto will be to your left (west) if you're in Lancaster, ON. This of course is right, er, correct.

Now, if you were to face south while reading the map, Toronto would still be to your left on the map, but would be in fact to your right. Toronto hasn't moved, but you just might make the mistake of turning left on the 401. This time, however, if you were to leave Lancaster, you just may end up in Montreal. It sounds ridiculous, but that's exactly how people get lost.

 

You don't have to buy a compass and get out of your car and face due north each and every time you read a map, just remember that this is how all maps are laid out. Road signs will tell you the direction that the road is leading to, but it's in times of panic that we often forget to check or even look. Thus, it's always best to tell the driver "213 west" or "100 north," rather than "take a left at 213" or "right on 100." In Quebec, all even-numbered highways go east/west and all odd-numbered highways go north/south; unfortunately, this isn't true everywhere.

Maps also illustrate mileage figures between highways, so if you're really stuck you may want to carry a pad and reset your odometer each time you know you've passed a correct turn. (Many of today's cars have two odometers.) Get a new map because the old 1954 edition will be missing new roads, show roads that have long since vanished and feature Imperial distance figures. If you're travelling to the US, you may want to pick up a metric-converter calculator to help decipher the figures.

Highlight your planned route with a marker. Not only will it save you the headache of looking for route 17 every time you open the map, but it'll also give you a good record of where you were; besides, years from now you may want to return to that special spot you discovered. Use a different coloured highlighter to show your progress or any detours you decide to make along the way.

A CB radio is indispensable when travelling on long road trips. Unlike cell phones, you're never out of touch with anyone. It can also provide instant reports on traffic jams, speed traps or foul weather. And if you get lost or need a gas station, there's usually someone on the other end who can lend a hand.

Another good idea is to gas up at dusk, even if you have over half a tank left; there's no telling where the next gas station is or if it'll be open when you get there. Major problems are rare on most road trips, but you must be prepared for the inevitable -- I could easily write a 12-volume series on the pitfalls I've encountered. That said, I wouldn't trade the experiences for anything. One last tip: keep your shiny side up and happy trails.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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