Here is the tale of Ron Pratt's incredible journey across and all over the country to take delivery of his '89 Virage and to meet up with some new and old friends!
North to Alaska by Ron Pratt
This whole idea of driving across country in a rag top Jeep CJ-7 came to me after Firewater 2000. While attending Firewater 2000 in August, I got the pleasure of meeting Mark Soliman and Helmut Freitag from New York (Along with many other super folks) and spending quite a bit of time riding in their Virage Turbo's. With so many boats running on the "Chain of lakes" in Antioch, Ill, the water became quite rough. The Virages just blew through it!. With 2.5 260's hanging on the back of both boats, they were exceptionally fast for weighing so much. (2000 lbs
fully loaded w/ driver).
Living in southeast Alaska, my boating takes me out into the open ocean at times to get to some of the favorite hot spots. My Viking just wasn't
cut out for these kind of seas and spent most it's time in the garage. The Virage seemed to have the perfect blend of performance, styling,
and rough water capabilities (plus it's still a HydroStream). I decided to attempt to sell the Viking up here and start the "needle in the hay
stack" search for a pristine Virage. As luck would have it, JW (Jim Wheaton) let me know that he would be willing to let his Virage go as he
didn't get the rough waters in his favorite lakes. Jim gave me a price ($7500.00) which is what he paid a few months earlier. Since I hadn't sold the Viking, I had to really tap out my savings to get the money together. One problem was IF I was to actually get this boat, how was I going to get it from Michigan to Alaska on a very tight budget. (Trucking it would cost over $4000.00.) Well, as more luck would have it, My brother announced that he was moving to Seattle from Virginia. He was in a bind because he would have to drive a U-Haul and tow his
wife's car. This would leave his Jeep with no way to Seattle. (His wife was already in Seattle working). I told him that if he would pay 1/2 gas and all repairs, I would drive the Jeep cross country but ONLY if I could get a boat in Michigan. (If I only knew what I was getting into).
He agreed and I started the planning stage.
Three weeks later (Sunday Oct. 8th) I flew into Baltimore ($200.00 cheaper than Richmond). I left Sitka at 6 am and arrived in Baltimore
at midnight. After getting my bag, my brother drove me back to Richmond (three hour drive) and promptly went to bed. The next day we went up in
one of the many planes my brother flight instructs in and did some lazy 8's, stalls, and spins while the Jeep was getting finished up in the shop (new steering box) Once home we got to work on figuring out the non working gas and temp gauge, (bad gauges) and get it loaded for the
trip. That night we got to bed at midnight, but I couldn't sleep till 2:00 am.
Day 1: Tuesday
Tuesday. Left my brothers house at 5 am with all of my Hampton Inn directions and Atlas piled up on the passenger seat. The freeway was pretty empty this early and gave me time to get used to the Jeeps unruly steering habits. The Jeep was purchased with a Grant 13" steering wheel ( it came standard with a 18" I think) and was quite "squirrelly". I had talked to Bob (Dock Boy) Eck the night before and was going to stop in at his place for a cup of coffee while going through Baltimore. Bob gave me directions that even a retard could understand. Simply stated" go through Baltimore then go west on 295, etc..." Well what Bob didn't realize was that I grew up in a town with 14 miles of road. The traffic got very heavy near Baltimore. With all of the headlights shining through the murky vinyl windows of the rag top along with fighting the steering wheel to keep from wandering into other lanes, I took the "West 295" exit. Well, after an hour on the 295, and not seeing the exit (which was supposed to be five minutes) I realized that I didn't go through Baltimore first. I had entered the 295 from the south end. (OOPS #1) I pulled off and refueled then started out again. Well, 30 minutes later I realized that I got on the freeway (295) going back the way I had just come. (OOPS #2). Once turned around AGAIN, I decided enough was enough and decided to head for N.Y. before I ended up in Kentucky.
The Jeep, having such a short wheelbase coupled with a stiff suspension, rode like a bucking bronco. Coupling this with the small steering wheel, It was exhausting to drive. It was virtually impossible to enjoy the sites as you had to concentrate on the road. I swore I was in the "fifth ring of hell" during this leg of the trip. Could it get any worse?? And to think,...I still had 60+ hours to look forward to.
I arrived at Bob Garone's (MODVPEFI) house around 1:30 and found him working on his boat in the driveway. I got a tour of his place and got to look through his maze of motors, lower units, gauges, bezels, etc. he has stored in the garage. It truly was like going into a boyz toy shop!! We took a drive to where his new shop will be. The "basket lady", (as she has become named) still hadn't moved out. There were several 40' containers parked out front and one guy was slowly putting boxes of baskets into them.
During my tour of Babylon, I told Bob about the Jeeps steering problems due to the small steering wheel. Bob said that he had a stock steering wheel for a Jeep that I could have. Once back at his place, we swapped them out. What a difference that made!! Later that evening me, Bob, and his girlfriends father (Rudy) met up with Greg (Virus), Ronnie Holzmacher, Mark Soliman, Helmut Freitag, along with their wife's and girlfriends at the Olive Garden for dinner. We had a great time visiting and chatting about Firewater, Scream and Fly, and who would be the new "Flying machine of the year". Greg isn't too fond of getting his picture taken, but I had orders to get some...one way or another. After dinner I said my good bye's and went over to Mark Soliman's place. We stayed up a while looking at his project Laser (disassembled) and I got to see some of his internal mods that he's done.( very cool!!) I got to bed at midnight (and to sleep at 2 am (nerves)).
Day 2 Wednesday
Left Mark Soliman's place at 5 am (very tired) and anxious to get out of N.Y. before rush hour. Mark gave me easy directions to follow to get out of Long Island. All was going well the first half hour until.................road construction and detours. I followed the semi's through the side roads till we hit the freeway again. I thought I passed up my off ramp and freaked out. Before I could get lost any further, I pulled over at a gas station and called Mark. To make a long story short, he got me back on track and off I went. I got out of New York fine, then through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and finally Michigan. The roads along this leg of the trip were very nice and with the new steering wheel I actually had a little time to look at the countryside. Since the fuel gauge was ka-put, I stopped every 150 miles and topped off the tank. This gave me time to stretch my legs and shake my spleen back into it's place. I made good time into Kalamazoo (where the boat was) and was feeling pretty anxious. As luck would have it something had the whole freeway stopped dead six exits before the one I had to get off on. I was so close to JW's place, but stuck between off ramps. The traffic jam inched foreword very slowly and idling in first gear wasn't slow enough. I worked the clutch in and out till my leg started to cramp, then I would just wait till the line got several feet ahead and idled till I caught up then stopped again. After an hour, I took the next off ramp and tried to parallel the freeway. Of course NO side road parallels the freeway and I knew I was not going the right way. Having lost all my pride back in Baltimore, I decided to call JW and have him come and get me. Jim started to give me directions and said I was only a few miles away. I told Jim that I had gotten lost three times with so called "easy" directions and had five hours sleep in the last three days. I think he got the hint and came down to retrieve me. He showed up a few minutes later towing the Virage and I followed him home. I checked out the boat and it was exactly as described. One of Jim's friends was there (Tom Wright) who races outboards and had a Summerfield tunnel with a new paint job with him. We talked till it got dark then called it a night.
Day 3 Thursday
Got off to a lazy start this day (7:30). The cold I had brought with me from Alaska had really taken it's toll on my poor tired body. I had less energy each day and the lack of sleep wasn't helping much. I decided to skip Baker Marine and head straight for (AQUAholic) Randy Reinke's place in Sheboygan WI. The Jeep felt the added weight of the boat on the back, but seemed to be holding it's own. I arrived at Randy and Ann's house at 1:30 pm WITHOUT getting lost. I knew things must be looking up for me now!!! It was a beautiful warm day so I organized some of my things and decided to try out the sleeping pad in the front of the Virage. I was amazed at the room!! I had my sleeping bag and pillow fully laid out and took a three hour nap. Soon after I got up Ann came home and let me in the house. I got to meet their two huge talking birds that looked like small chickens. Bubba is a Green Wing Macaw, and Kookabarrel is a African Grey Congo. Shortly after Randy came home and we decided it was time for a BEER!!!! Later that evening, after Ann made sure I got some vitamins and sine aid. We went out for dinner, picked up their new mini van (Randy looks real cute in this rig), and Wal-mart to get a CD player, speakers, amp, and a CD with "Low rider" on it. (ode to Mark Soliman at Firewater) for the boat.
Day 4 Friday
Randy and Ann took the day off to play with me on lake Winnebago. With
8+ hours of sleep, I was almost back to normal. That morning we put
in the CD player, and two of the speakers and hit the water to play. We
launched in Lake Winnebago and ran up (or was it down) to Fremont. The
rivers were "nuts"!!!! What few "no wake" signs were
still up were only for the weekends. Being this was a Friday, we blasted
through them. Some of the turns were pretty sharp and I was going
"balls to the wall" (64 mph w/ me and Randy) Ann was way out in front
in their Vegas XT / 200 Merc. and we were trying to play catch up. (Randy
actually loved me being there as he could finally beat someone.) On a
couple of the tight 180* corners, we ended up staring right at some fishermen in
their 12' Jon boats. We had no problem zipping right around them, but I'm
sure a couple of these guys had messy underwear. (Sorry guys, I don't think we
gained any hot boat support that day) On our way back we decided to take
some pictures of each others boats running at speed. We were having fun until
some "dink" deliberately turned from the center of the river up
ahead and headed straight for us. We both had to get off the throttle and
make hard turns to avoid a collision. Turns out that this guy was a
volunteer water patrol. This was how he wanted to get our attention to
tell us we were on the "wrong side of the river". Ann suddenly
turned into a truck driver and let him have it (verbally). At this time I
wished I brought my badge with me. (I am a REAL harbor enforcement officer) This
guy was nuts!! After all the excitement, we stopped into a riverside tavern and
had cocktails and h'orderves. That evening we met up with Mike and Grace Hurst
for dinner. Mike has two 'Streams so there was plenty to talk about.
Day 5 Saturday
This was the day I was originally going to head out, but decided to get one more day of fun and relaxation in. Mike Hurst was interested in how the Virage rode so we took it down to the BIG lake. Yep, Lake Michigan. Yea, it was a little rough. It reminded me of home except there weren't any islands or inlets. We made the best with what we had to ride in. Full speed runs were very short and usually ended up in an awesome launch off of a swell. The rest of the day was spent fiddling around and relaxing. That evening me, Randy, and Ann went over to the Hursts and looked at old HydroStream brochures, and watched the "Live and let die" chase scene, "Suck my wake" in The great outdoors, and the stealth boat scene in the new James Bond movie.
Day 6 Sunday
This was the start of the long haul. I had 45+ hours and two mountain
ranges to conquer in the next few days. I left Randy and Ann's place at 9
am (remember this time). The drive through Wisconsin was pleasant and the Jeep
was doing fine. I was filling up every 120 miles with the boat in tow and
55 was about the top speed. As I was getting back on the freeway after a fuel
stop just before Minn. / St. Paul, I felt the rear of the Jeep shift. I looked
in the rear view mirror and everything looked normal. (Clue #1 to stop and look)
While going through the twin cities Sunday afternoon I heard a squeaking coming
from the hitch area. (Clue #2 ) Since I was in the center lane of what seemed
like fifty million freeways merging and breaking off and I was frantically
watching the signs to stay on my freeway and not get lost again, plus there
wasn't anywhere to pull over even if you wanted to. When I pulled into the next
gas station, I felt another shift in the rear of the Jeep. I walked around
the back to see what was up.
The bouncing of the Jeep sheared off the hitches mounting bolts on the right side and it was hanging out about two feet and 6" from the ground. After I regained my composure, I replaced one of the two bolts that had broken, checked the two bolts on the left side that were surely stressed, and had to give up on the second right side bolt as it was threaded into the frame. This was Sunday afternoon / early evening and the station attendant said no one was open to help me out. I put the safety chains on the bumper and used the rope I had with me to tie the hell out of the hitch. I drove to a truck stop in Sauk Center Minn. and had it welded up. After this little incident, I was really pumped to get home. I decided I would drive till I got tired then sleep at a rest stop. Well, I never got sleepy.
Day 7 Monday
When daylight came, I found myself in Montana. I was amazed. It seemed like I had left the truck stop only a couple hours earlier. As I got closer to Billings, the hills started getting steeper and longer. The poor old Jeep was starting to struggle and I had to downshift to keep moving. Right before Billings I realized that I was going 35 mph on a long but slight hill. I knew the Jeep wouldn't make the mountains at any decent speed so I put plan "B" into effect. Once in Billings I rented a 17' U-Haul and drove the Jeep inside. I hitched up the boat and off I went. I was really pumped now and wanted to get the hell out of this long state. Since I was still wide awake and now in a comfy rig, I just drove. From time to time I would point the camera at the front windshield and click a picture. Since I had my brother doing nightly posts on the Scream and Fly board for me, I wanted so bad to have this nights post say that I was in Washington!! I crossed into Washington at 10:15pm EST (24 hours after I left WI. CST) At this point, my body was starting to slow down and I decided to pull into a rest stop in the next few hours and catch up on some well needed sleep. A couple hours later, I started to see clouds in the shape of an arm reach down and touch the roofs of the cars in front of me. The trees seemed to be bending inward towards me as I passed by them also. I kept telling myself that this was just my mind shutting down. I remembered a story at this time that Bob Eck told me when he was driving too long. He saw a big pie in the sky and it came down and clobbered him in the face. I pulled into the next rest stop and parked in-between two semi's. It didn't take too long to get to sleep.
Day 8 Tuesday
I awoke after five hours sleep and felt pretty good so I took off again. About thirty minutes later, my eyes started to go blurry. I could shake my head and clear them up, but it would only last a few minutes before blurring again. I pulled over at the next rest stop and slept for three more hours. After this I was good to go. A few hours later the sun started to rise and I was on the home stretch. I arrived in Seattle at 9 am PST. and in Gig Harbor at 10:30 am. Since everyone at grandma's house was at work, I pulled into the car lot where John (the guy I bought my Viking from) works. He called Cal Smith (who got me and John together) to come over and look at this weird fat 'Stream. Cal just received a 2000 Voyager w/ 225 Promax this summer and brought it with him for me to see. We visited a while then I backed the U-Haul up to a bank and off loaded the Jeep. I met up with my sister in law later and officially handed over the keys to the Jeep. It sure felt good being at grandma's house on the beach!! I made it!!!!
Day 9 Wednesday
Felt much better with 12 hours of sleep. Grandmas renter (Steve)
brought up an e-mail from David Last this morning. He got Steve's e-mail
address from my post on the board. He is known as "Propster".
David had been reading my progress on North to Alaska and wanted to get together
to run the boats. I called him at work and told him that I needed to get
the boat to the barge company by noon. David said he would take the rest
of the day off work and come down to Gig Harbor (1 1/2 hours) and take the boat
to the barge for me (without ever meeting me). While he was coming down I
returned the U-Haul, called Alaska Airlines and changed my ticket from Friday at
6 pm to today at 6 pm. David showed up, we hitched up the boat, and we
were off. Since David grew up in Seattle, he had no trouble finding Boyer barge
co. We made it with fifteen minutes to spare. Whew!!!! David took me
over to his house and showed me his Cobra kit car and Daytona Eliminator w/ 260.
Since we had all day left, we jumped in the Cobra and did some tire burning
around the neighborhood. Boy can this rig accelerate!!!! After we
figured every cop in the area was coming our way, we parked the car and hooked
up the Daytona. The lake closest to him had a 35 mph speed limit.
Well, we kinda broke the hell out of that. After a few speed runs we figured we better get out before our luck ran out. Once we got the boat home we went to Boeings museum of flight and looked at the old planes, then it was off to the airport.
I arrived back in Sitka at 11:00 pm.
Oct. 30 Monday
The Virage arrived on the state ferry Kennikot at 8:30 pm. It had arrived in Wrangell the previous Monday on Boyer barge lines, but missed the ferry by 12 hours so it had to sit for a week. Now it gets to live in a nice heated garage along side the Viking until it sells (the Viking that is).
Would I do this again???? Not on your life!!! With another rig and a traveling partner,.....you bet!!!! I'm thankful for not having any breakdowns that left me stranded, and for having all the nice supportive friends who hooked up with me and shared their homes. My brother and parents got on the Scream and Fly board several times a day and relayed all the responses when I would call. They were shocked to see the support from so many people. My mom went as far as to print out every article and response and made it into a book for future reading. We truly have a unique sport and the people involved in it are a special breed. Thank you all!!