Waylaid in La Crosse

This post should not have happened. La Crosse was not on our list of destinations. As it happens—and quite fortunately for us—La Crosse is a small town with its fair share of charm. A small town with charm is not a bad place to be stranded for an indefinite period of time.

I have been religiously checking the temperature gauge on truck for this whole journey, as I always do and have done for years. I have been checking the oil and coolant levels, too. The reason I am often so concerned about the temperature gauge is that I have blown head gaskets on this truck more times than I’d care to remember. Most people may encounter a blown head gasket once, or maybe twice if unlucky, during their vehicle owning lifetimes. Me and truck have shared at least 4 of them by now, including the one which made itself known last week.

I noticed I was losing some coolant back in the south somewhere, so bought more to top up with, as it was only a small amount at first. Then in Madison, I checked the radiator before heading out and it was down a quart. Losing coolant with no obvious sign of leakage is not a good sign, but could still be attributed to a variety of less sinister issues, so I figured I’d carry on and be cautious. We took a scenic route from Madison which would have taken us over to the Mississippi and then up to Stockholm, a small community where Melissa had friends we were going to stay with. We stopped for gas in a small town called Viroqua, and I checked my temperature gauge before stopping. It was fine. Once we got back in truck, it had risen up well over the usual amount. I figured it had lost too much coolant and once the fan stopped with the engine, it started to overheat. At this point I knew I had to get it to a shop to be checked out, although I was still hoping for a minor radiator issue or some cheap and easy fix. I had been looking for the white smoke of doom from the tail pipe and hadn’t seen it yet, so hoped it wouldn’t be the head gasket.

We stayed overnight in Viroqua as it was a Sunday and then on Monday called AAA to get a tow to La Crosse, the nearest town with a mechanic who had a few decent reviews online. While we were waiting, I turned truck on and the idle felt totally off. I pushed down on the gas pedal a few times and my heart dropped as white smoke shot out from the tailpipe. At this point I was sure it was another blown head gasket and later the mechanic confirmed it.

A head gasket is not an expensive part, but the labor to get the head off of a 22r Toyota engine, have the head machined at a different shop and put all back together, is both expensive and time consuming. What takes even more time and money is when you find out the head is too corroded and can’t be reused. Which is what happened. I ordered another head from http://www.engnbldr.com/ in Oregon, who are reputed to be one of the best and reasonably priced shops in the country, and it should be in La Crosse toward the middle to end of this coming week. We seriously considered parting ways with truck at this point and getting home by other means. At some point I’ve got to stop throwing money at him. Although renting a car and driving back would have been quite a bit cheaper, it wouldn’t have solved the issue of then being vehicle-less when getting back to California. California is not a good place to be without a vehicle of some sort. So we decided to get truck back on the road. It may not have been the most sensible decision, but at this point, truck is like a member of the family and it didn’t feel right to part ways out here. Melissa has claimed him once he gives up for good for use as a flower bed (see Marfa post) so we kind of need to get him back to Cali for that to ever happen.

We booked our first night in La Crosse through Airbnb before the mechanics had confirmed the diagnosis for truck. It turned out that the friends we were going to stay with in Stockholm deliver the bread they make on their farm to La Crosse every Thursday and would be able to pick us up then, so we extended our stay in La Crosse to 3 nights. Our host in La Crosse was a youngish chap (late 20s, I think) called Rob who was an enthusiast of a number of things including craft beer, bikes and the town of La Crosse. Rob had even run for Mayor a few years back. That’s how much he loves his adopted town. Rob was a fantastic host and we enjoyed hanging out with him. The major advantage of Airbnb—you might expect the price point to be, but it often isn’t—is getting to meet and hang out with a local. Sometimes it’s just for a few minutes to exchange information and get some tips for things to see and do, and sometimes it’s more like spending time with a friend for a whole evening, sharing food and drinks.

Downtown La Crosse. The Bodega bar is a good bet if you like beer.
Riding a fixed-gear bike with kale poking out of my bag. Oh god. Am I a hipster? I'd better notify my wardrobe...

Rob lent us a couple of his bikes to ride around the city with. One night, we cycled over to Pettibone park which is situated on one of the small islands in the Mississippi river on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. We rented a tandem kayak for the ridiculously low price of $7. As we paddled down stream, we encountered a myriad of wildlife. First, we passed under a small bridge, the underside of which was covered with swallow nests, from which a number of swallows darted out as we passed by. We then came to a more swampy-looking section and our attention was drawn by a splash in the water. We looked over and there were a series of turtles lined up on a log, some of which were opting for the defensive mechanism of plopping into the water as we neared. Others stretched out their surprisingly long rear legs and soaked up the last sunlight of the day. The next creature to catch our attention was an otter, swimming by with a mouthful of freshly cut greens. We saw her swim back and forth, and we paddled right alongside her, separated only by about a foot of water—not sure if she appreciated such close scrutiny, but she didn’t appear distressed by our presence—as she returned to her den. The most surprising creature was one that we saw again the next day: a muskrat. I’ve never seen or heard of a muskrat before, but it’s somewhere between an otter and a beaver appearance-wise, and spends time on both land and in the water. The rat part of the name seems to be somewhat of a misnomer on the visual level at least.

At the top of Grandaddy Bluff, from which you can see Wisonsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
We biked around a series of marshes which function as a wildlife preserve for birds and mammals, including more otters and muskrats.

Having enjoyed La Crosse for a few days, we then caught a ride with Ted up to A to Z Produce and Bakery (the aforementioned farm), our new home for as long as truck is in the shop.



Jim is the proud owner and driver-in-chief of the small red truck (affectionately named "truck") that will make it all 11,000 - 12,000 miles of the trip around the States with nothing more than a couple of oil changes and tire rotations. When not indulging in delusional thoughts about the abilities of his 21 year old truck with almost 300k miles on it, Jim likes making websites and taking photos and gets paid by people for doing these very things at Apple Canyon Designs.