Day 0 trip/ Travel/ United States/ Wisconsin

Day 327 – The Great Wisconsin Tire Fiasco


We’ve been trapped in Wisconsin for nearly a month now. About an hour after we left Minneapolis after picking the Rialta up from an oil change, we stopped in Red Wing, MN, the hometown of a friend I worked with at Half Price Books and birthplace of Red Wing Shoes. Our next stop was about 1.5 hours away in La Crosse, WI to see the “world’s largest six pack”. That’s when I noticed the tire was almost completely flat. With the high curb and heavy traffic we decided to use our Good Sam road service.

It took 6 hours for someone to show up with constant assurances the driver would be there soon. By the time the spare tire was on we were spent and grabbed a room in La Crosse.

During the process I noticed one of the existing tires did not match and did not have the proper load rating. The spare was driveable but pretty worn. Rialta tires are notoriously hard to find. The week previous I had lengthy discussion with an older Rialta owner at camp ground, almost entirely about tires. The Eurovan base takes a smaller 15″ tire but requires a heavy 8 ply tire vs. the normal 4 ply 15″ tires you find in most shops. Specifically a 215/70 15″ with a 109 load rating. Katy made a bunch of calls and with some online research we determined the best place to buy these tires is online at Walmart and have them shipped to a location for installation. The store we called assured us they could lift the Rialta or have other means to install the tires. So we ordered 5 new tires to a location in Portage, WI to be delivered by end of day the following Wednesday (the fastest ship time we could find).

This was a setback but the Wisconsin Dells which was on the way had been recommended to us and we thought we could use the time to explore a bit. We booked a campground for 4 nights.

As it turns out the Dells is basically like a Wisconsin version of Gatlingburg, TN. A kitschy playground for vacationing families with plenty of paintball ranges, arcades, tourist traps, elaborate put-put courses, and family fun centers, much of which was closed and the places that were open were not very COVID friendly. It looked like a fun place but not a particularly good time to visit. The rock formations known as the dells were only accessible by boat which were all very crowded and the hiking options were all closed due to the virus. This left us basically twittling our thumbs for four days.

Tuesday night we drove to Portage where the tires were to be delivered, a small not-so-mask-friendly town with few delivery options. My favorite part of Portage was the recently re-opened movie theater which I saw four movies at and was the only person in the theater for all of them.

We arrived at noon when the tire center opened on Wednesday to find only one tire had arrived in the daily shipment. Apparently they were all coming from different warehouses. We were also told that they could not install the tires due to lift limitations (which we had explained clearly on the phone). Our only option would have been to remove each tire on our own, have them put the new tire on the rim, then we would have put the new tire back on. Repeat for each tire.

Each day we would show up at Walmart only to have the tires not be there and then later get an email stating they would be late but would arrive by the next day. Repeat. We stayed another four days in Portage before four of the five tires had arrived. We thought, yeah close enough, grabbed the four tires, canceled the fifth which had been shipped to some other store accidentally, and hit the road once again.

Meanwhile we found a VW dealership in Madison, WI who agreed to install the tires and take a look at our tie rods (we had been experiencing a bit of drift at high speeds and in curves). They had no problem fitting us in but by the time the tires arrived it was Saturday and the shop was closed. So we drove to Madison and got another hotel to wait for the shop to open the following Monday. But when we called at 7am they were already booked up for the week. We dropped the Rialta off anyway hoping to get fitted in somewhere but expected to be at least another few days before we got it back.

It wasn’t until the following Thursday that we got a call back. The shop recommended new tie rods, ball joints, shocks, and as their highest priority new front brakes that had signs of heat damage. The new parts would take two weeks to arrive before they could start work. We were crushed. But decided the work was worth doing. So we rented a room in a lakeside bed and breakfast downtown and settled in a for a bit.

The parts came in only a week but it took another week to finish the work. So we’ll be leaving Monday the 21st, a full month after we experienced the initial flat.

As it turns out, Madison was a really great town to spend a few weeks in. I’ll be doing a separate post on the city. We found it to be very livable and progressive with decent food and markets, and a certain vibe we both enjoyed. And we really needed a little break. The 3 months previous were constant almost daily movement. It was nice to chill out for a while.


A short break for maintenance

Before the flat we stopped for 3 days in Minneapolis to get the oil changed and have a rattle looked at. After we got the Rialta back from the shop, I took the opportunity to reseal the back windows. We had experienced leaks from heavy rain and from the air conditioner draining over the windows. After some study I determined it was either leaking through bad seals in the windowframe top or slipping through from short seals in the top window leaf. We had purchased the recommended Dicor sealant at an RV store in Duluth with a caulking gun, tape, putty knife, etc. I had heard it was a bitch to work with so I carefully taped off the surrounding surfaces. They only had self leveling Dicor so I also bought a second non-sag sealant for the leaf seals to substitute.


We had our oil changed at this shop in Minneapolis. They also fixed a rattle for us.


Resealing the tops of the windows.


Filling in some gaps in the window seals.


Red Wing, MN

We mostly stopped through here because a friend had recommended it but the town was actually quite cute and stopped in the Duluth Trading store. We walked around a bit. Apparently the Red Wing shoe store had the worlds largest boot or some such but we missed it.




Flat tire at the world’s largest six pack.

We had only planned to spend a few minutes in La Crosse for a photo but ended up staying the night. After I got the tire off we found a deep gouge in the tire wall that couldn’t be repaired. So we ordered new tires thinking we could pick them up in a few days down the road.


The world’s largest six pack at the La Crosse brewery.


We found a large hole through the interior side wall.


Killing some time in the Wisconsin Dells

The Dells looked like the kind of place that would be absolutely magical to a kid in school. Race tracks, amusement parks, huge theme restaurants. It reminded me of traveling with my family to Dollywood and Gatlinburg, TN as a kid and all the kitschy madness that the town did so well. But with the addition of enormous waterparks and theme parks. It felt like a Vegas for high volume families on a budget.

We couldn’t really experience most of what seemed to make the town interesting, either closed or too crowded. So we mostly chilled in the camper hiding from the blazing heat. Katy was getting a bit stir crazy at this point so we tried to get out a bit but didn’t have much success. We stopped by the Ringling Brother’s Circus museum in Baraboo but it was closed and the Devil’s Lake state park but ran into crowds and other problems.


The owner’s name was Nigel, but people seemed to like the sign for all the wrong reasons.


Trump seemed pretty popular throughout rural Wisconsin.


The town was filled with these types of places.


It’s like the lifeless abyss inside the clown’s throat, reaching out for your soul.


Circus museum. Clowns aren’t creepy at all.


The town also had massive amusement parks. Most closed. But this one was open to residents of their hotel only.



Cheese. I mean it is Wisconsin

We did however find an open cheese shop and bought a few of the local specialties. We were specifically looking for local string cheese. But I found a “chicken soup” cheese and Katy bought some Wisconsin cheese curds.







A gas station by the cheese shop.


A gas station by the cheese shop.


Portage, WI

We finally made our way to Portage to pick up the tires. Neither of us particularly liked Portage, a sleepy little conservative town in decline. There was definitely an anti-mask sentiment about and limited options for food outside of fast food. The recently opened theater was a treasure. I love movies in the theater. But with no public transport options and no uber it really did limit my ability not to watch them stone sober. But you can’t have everything.

Katy tried her best to find anything to do including a trip to a local historical house. Portage sits between two rivers that connect the great lakes to the Mississippi. All of which can be made by boat except for a less than 2 mile stretch where boats needed to be carried over land. This area later became the town of Portage, WI.

In true American form we learned of the Ho-Chunk people (the people with a big voice) who once lived here but were forced off their lands and either killed or forced onto distant reservations. These people were misnamed by Europeans as Winnebago (the land of stinky water) which was the term used by other tribes to describe the marshlands nearby. Some of the Ho-Chunk people relocated to Iowa and one of the towns there took the misnomer Winnebago in which a certain RV company began. The same company that created our Winnebago Rialta.


A canal connecting the two major rivers.


My favorite part of Portage. I miss movies.


The town had some interesting architecture. But the lack of masks was worrisome.


Sign in restaurant window. I thought it was funny.


Finally get the tires, well most of them.

The Walmart certainly did not enjoy our sad faces showing up every morning for four days. The head of the tire center was actually pretty awesome even though he couldn’t help us with the tires. He took time to come out to our rig and talk to us even though we both already knew the verdict. The counter staff were less friendly and patient but I don’t blame them for the mixup. They were constantly swamped with work and I understood their desire to get rid of us.

As soon as the fourth tire arrived we loaded the Rialta up and hit the road. We had to get the fuck out of Portage, Wisconsin. Our patience had worn away and we were starting to squabble with each other.


Finally got 4 of the 5 tires we ordered.


We just chucked them inside and drove to Madison.


Madison, WI

We spent our first week in Madison in a two room suite in a La Quinta Inn north of Madison in a sea of penumbral sprawl, square grey big box stores and chain restaurants, situated in a corporate industrial park. It was fine but Katy was loosing her mind in the somewhat soulless environment. When the news came that it would be at least another two weeks, that was the last straw to a long inconvenience. This wasn’t going to work. So we found a very homey three story bed and breakfast within a short walk of downtown with a view of Lake Mendota and a kitchen we could cook in. This made all the difference. After we settled in a bit, we quite enjoyed the city and our stay.


The Rialta out the window of our hotel.


Giant bird sculptures in town.


There were students in hammocks all along the lake.


Amazing Thai pavilion at the botanical gardens.


Most businesses were boarded up but open. Most of the theaters were closed except a few larger cinemas.


The Rialta is road worthy once again. Hopefully.

It wasn’t until September 17th that we got a call from the shop that the Rialta was finally ready to pick up. We had already rented our room through the weekend so we decided to leave it at the shop and pick it up the following Monday on our way out of town. It’s going to be tricky to get our momentum back. It always takes a little while.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s don’t get a flat in a Rialta. Especially during a pandemic. But better to be stuck in Madison for a few weeks than a little town somewhere else.



Some food I ran across.

I’m actually quite surprised by the enormous grocery stores here and the variety of things they carry. Maybe not the fancy import kind of things but the sheer volume of types of cheese, odd pickled bits, and old world rarities that I find difficult to find in Seattle are well represented. If I stayed here at any length I’m sure it would be the death of me but it’s fun to browse and even get a little nibble here and there. I’ve been pretty good save my hot dog night which was delicious!


Pickled eggs!


They love jello and fluff here.


Old Dutch. The native chip.


Look at the variety of spreadable cheese! I resisted as long as I could.


I found this local beer in Portage. When I asked what kind of beer it was I got blank stares. “… It’s … Spotted Cow. Everyone knows Spotted Cow.


These kringles were a Wisconsin thing. They were everywhere.



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