Sometimes you do crazy things when the juice looks like it will be worth the squeeze. Six months ago my best friend and I drove to the Great White North to buy a twelve-year-old Toyota. It was one of our best adventures yet. This is the story.
Off-roading has been a constant in my life. Memories of days on the trail in my father’s YJ Wrangler, days spent deep in the woods, are the foundation of my automotive enthusiasm. Visions from early childhood of watching the rocky and muddy miles pass by in conjunction with having spent the last twelve years riding an ATV in countless places all over the Northeast have led me on a path that has basically made it mandatory to buy a proper road-worthy 4×4 of my own.
A 2005 Toyota 4Runner might be a bloated, four-wheel-drive snoozefest to those who love pavement more than dirt, but off-roaders look at it as a big box of potential. With a solid platform, an expansive aftermarket, and a lot of built-in capability, the full-size SUV is a vehicle that can do just about everything with aplomb, and even more so when modified. It might not be a great track toy, but it can be a great escape pod.
This is the story of how my best friend and I drove up to Canada to buy a 4Runner to serve as an adventure rig. To me, the Stormtrooper 4Runner represents just that: adventure. It represents exploration, represents being able to and having the desire to seek out new experiences and new sights and new places, represents moving forward and making the most of life while building on past memories. From the previous owner’s use of the ‘Runner to my thousand-mile round-trip Canadian weekend to bring it home, everything about the truck screams “let’s go on an adventure.” The story of how the Stormtrooper 4Runner came into my life starts with an utterly insane idea, climaxes with importing a vehicle into the States entirely on my own, and ends with a life-long goal having come to fruition. What follows after the jump is the story I’ve been referring to, for obvious reasons, as the Stormtrooper 4Runner Canadian Retrieval Mission. Spoiler alert: the juice was worth the squeeze.
The story starts with an uncomfortable feeling deep within my soul that I wasn’t making the most of life. It hubs around an extensive bucket list and the progress that wasn’t being made to check items off that agenda, and comes to be realized as I was perusing the depths of Craigslist and forum For Sale sections in search of an off-road worthy vehicle without breaking the bank. One of these websites is ExpeditionPortal.
I stumbled upon ExPo back before purchasing my VehiCROSS, and hours spent on the site eventually knocked the sense into me that the VX was very poorly matched to my intended uses for it. Too small, too hard to find parts for, and already in need of serious repairs the little Isuzu wasn’t the answer I was looking for but rather the eye-opener, showing me what the ideal off-road vehicle would be nothing like the Trooper-based sport-SUV. Coincidentally the 4Runner had been a top choice before buying the ill-fated VX but none of them fit my low budget; the VX was fun and quirky and dirt cheap, so I bought one. It was destined for failure from the get-go. Many months after the VehiCROSS was sold, a late-night browsing of the ExPo Classifieds revealed a 4Runner that caught my interest and wouldn’t let it go. It was modified, had already proven itself in the woods, was incredibly inexpensive, and would make the perfect rig for my purposes.
But, as you already know if you’ve read any of my pieces on the Stromtrooper 4Runner, there was one big hurdle to be dealt with: Canada. This story wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Canada. Rather, it wouldn’t exist if not for country borders and the laws separating them. A Canuck its entire life, the Toyota was for sale in the city of Ottawa, a cool six-plus hour drive (sans traffic) north of my home, but more importantly two border crossings away from making the purchase a legal, registered-for-US-driving reality. The questions that presented themselves were seemingly infinite: What does it take to import a vehicle into the States? Is it even possible? Would the Gas Guzzler tax that some of the government websites were mentioning actually have to be paid? How does one go about proving to Customs and the DMV that the truck is the same as those sold in the U.S.? Is all this research even worth it? Why the hell am I putting myself through all this stress? Wouldn’t life be easier if I didn’t give two shits about cars?
All of the aforementioned had to be answered prior to doing any further planning. Luckily the then-owner of the 4Runner was more than willing to take a deposit and hold the vehicle while everything was ironed out. Lunch breaks at work, nights, weekends, even the time between sets at the gym– every free moment was spent researching how to make importing the 4Runner a reality. Phone calls were made to US Customs and Border Patrol, Canadian agencies alike, Toyota of Canada, the NYS DMV, the US DOT, the EPA, and so on. The calls and Google searches seemed never-ending, constantly running me in circles just to get back to where I started without any answers, and the more research I did the more it seemed like importing the truck was a daunting task that would prove to require more energy and effort than it was worth.
A quick aside: I must have made over fifty phone calls. If half of those were to places/organizations in the US and the other half were to their Canadian counterparts, then 75% of the people I spoke with on the US side of things were either completely disinterested, in no way knowledgeable, or outright rude. 100% of the people I spoke to in/from Canada were as friendly and helpful as could be. Take that as you will.
I nearly gave up. Nearly broke down, nearly backed out and left the previous owner with my deposit, nearly deemed it all too much legwork, nearly called it off. Multiple times my brain said stop, but my heart said don’t give up. Backing away from the situation briefly, giving myself some space, it all came into view: this was going to happen, whatever it took, so long as it wasn’t fiscally prohibitive. The research and calls continued. Head down, eye on the prize.
We set a date. A leap of faith. The 4Runner’s then-owner and I chose a weekend both of us were free. I booked a hotel, cleared with my dad that I could borrow his beloved 2008 Silverado 2500HD to serve as a tow vehicle, and verified with my best friend that he was free to go on a pseudo-vacation. The stars seemed to align, things started to fall into place. But let me be clear: at no point was I ever one-hundred-percent positive things would go smoothly, or even work out at all.
We left early on the morning of January 13th. Friday, the 13th. Of course it was. But, gusto in hand, we said screw the superstitions; let’s make our own luck. We filled the big Chevy’s enormous 57-gallon gas tank with diesel, pointed north, and listened to the Duramax purr as we blasted through the frigid air towards a territory that would be a new sight for both of us. With no working radio, music provided the background sounds through a $13 Amazon speaker as we hammered through snow and wind. After the last of the cities were in our mirrors we were left with the sights of farms and fields as we passed innumerable tiny towns and villages that so many hardly acknowledge as they head to their destinations, leaving the small off-highway communities to themselves. The Silverado pushed forward with freight-train strength. It was our driving force even when we needed a break, physically and psychologically.
We stopped in Watertown, NY to pick up a UHaul trailer, a backup to the backup plan after fighting for hours on end with the company that now sits atop my Shit List. I had reserved an auto transport trailer to be picked up in Ottawa early in the morning on Saturday, January 14, before we headed over to buy the 4Runner. UHaul emailed me twenty-four hours before we were set to leave for Canada, informing me that no trailer was available for pickup at that location. A real nice email to receive after having already had the trailer booked for over two weeks. Instead, they told us we would have to grab another car hauler at another UHaul facility an hour southeast of Ottawa. Inconvenient, as we would arrive on Friday at the facility well after business hours, and thus would have to drive an hour each way Saturday morning to grab it prior to meeting up with the then-owner of the 4Runner…who lived in the complete opposite direction. After a few hours on the phone with UHaul they found a trailer for us in Watertown, and I jumped at the opportunity to reserve it. Anything to not have to back-track from our hotel. We hooked the trailer to the hitch as the sun was setting, grabbed Subway from across the street, then hit the highway, Silverado chugging along as if it was completely unladen.
Trailer in tow, truck in Tow Mode, we made a beeline for the border. Off-highway sights went unseen; as great as an LED light bar and headlights that are pointed higher than usual due to a leveling kit and the added weight of the trailer on the back can be, they still do nothing to show you the surrounding area off-pavement. It was for the better though, as it kept our eyes on our destination and my right foot down on the accelerator.
We hit the border crossing and queued in line to make what would mark the first time in our lives either of us had driven to into Canada. Lining up with the eighteen-wheelers, we waited to tell the border agent our purpose, length of stay, that we weren’t carrying firearms, and so on. Despite my best effort to be cheerful and friendly so as to make things go smoothly, the woman in the booth demanded we bring the truck and trailer to a parking spot and enter the Canadian government building to be questioned. Unprepared for how serious things were about to get, we walked in laughing and joking around like we would any other place of business. It wasn’t the mojo anybody inside wanted to see or hear. After reviewing our passports, a border agent questioned heavily: What is your purpose in entering Canada? How did you find out about the vehicle you’re buying? Whose truck are you driving? How long have you known each other? What are each other’s’ parents’ names? Questions seemed to be a recurring theme. We were dismissed to sit in the waiting area among other not-so-happy looking psuedo-detainees. The wait was nerve-racking.
Minutes later we were called back to the desk and, having probably assumed we were harmless, they sent us on our merry way. We jumped into the truck and floored it towards the hotel. An hour or so later we arrived, dumped the truck and trailer on a parking lot adorned by about 6” of ice covering the pavement, and immediately asked the guy at the counter the best close place for food and beer. Belongings safely in the room, we called an Uber and headed into town. The burgers, as our hungry mouths were so happy to eat, were among the best we’d ever had; the local beer the perfect medication after a full day spent driving. In such a comfortable bar and finally relaxing for the first time after a several-hundred mile drive, time got away from us. The drinks flowed quickly and suddenly it was later than we’d expected to stay out. We called another Uber, headed back to the hotel, set alarms, and called it a night.
I awoke the next morning with what felt like a small-caliber sledgehammer slamming into my skull, striking my cranium from the inside out. For the number of beers that were consumed there’s no way my head should have felt like this; a quick inventory revealed a water intake of almost zero over the duration of the prior day, so things made sense fairly quickly. Food and coffee is usually my go-to remedy for a hangover, but we were already rushing to meet up with the then-owner and his 4Runner; it looked as if, despite having factored in ample time, we’d be cutting it close. We forewent sustenance in favor of Tylenol and water and got ready for the big day. Upon walking outside we were met with a shock to the system: it was cold. And not just cold, but REALLY FUCKING COLD. A cold unlike that which we had experienced in a long, long time…if ever. The truck started without any real struggle but took a full half hour to warm up to the point that we were actually comfortable enough to remove our hats and gloves. The truck’s thermometer showed a number that led with a negative sign. It was fucking frigid.
Our first course of action was to meet the then-owner of the 4Runner at the only local shop that was willing to do a pre-purchase inspection. We arrived second but, much to the dismay of our hungry stomachs that were banking on a close-call on time, still well before the shop opened. After making acquaintances with the truck’s owner and poking around the vehicle as much as we could in the sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, we went for a test drive that proved the truck as solid as was promised. Happily, we returned to the shop for the PPI. The truck felt great, the then-owner was extremely cool and similar to us in personality, and Canada was a ton of fun already. Things were going quite well.
A pre-purchase inspection isn’t something many people consider necessary before buying a used vehicle, but if nothing else it exists for peace-of-mind. The shop’s owner turned out to be the guy who was doing the inspection on the truck, and was effectively a doctor for cars. He wore a clean jumpsuit, glasses, white latex gloves, and used a pen-style flashlight to look closely at everything. The thoroughness with which he inspected the truck was impressive, a seriously in-depth a job especially for $50 Canadian. After a half hour he showed us the concern points: a bad tie-rod end, wheel bearings in need of replacement, and shocks nearing the end of their life. Nothing catastrophic, and he reported that the motor sounded solid and the frame was straight with little rust. All in all there was nothing to stop me from buying the 4Runner
Inspection over, we followed the still-owner to his mother’s house where some extra parts for the 4Runner were being stored. We threw them in the truck then followed him to his own house. There we parked the truck and trailer on the street, hanging out in the painfully bitter air as he removed the last of his things. The omni-present cold never let up, if anything only feeling more and more amplified as time passed, and was so horribly ice-like that the ink froze in the pen that I had brought outside to use to sign the title and bill of sale. We exchanged paperwork and money, loaded the truck on the trailer, strapped it down, and shivered like we never had before.
After some back-and-forth small talk I asked the no-longer-owner for a recommendation on a good local place to eat, seeing as the clock was ticking past one in the afternoon and we were desperate for food and coffee after having had nothing but water all day. He gave us a couple ideas then asked if he could join. Given the conversations we had, the ease of how well we were getting along, and the desire to have a local show us around, we obliged. He hopped in his nicely modified 5th-gen 4Runner and led the way to what would be one of the best breakfasts I, and we, have ever had. The food was truly incredible. He left a few minutes before us to rescue his girlfriend’s Civic from the snow, but we made plans to meet up later on.
Stomachs full, we headed back to the hotel. Parked the Silverado/UHaul/4Runner package, dropped our stuff, summoned an Uber, and ventured to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. I’m no plane lover, as is evident by my pictures from the museum being primarily of the few cars there, but it was a pretty cool exhibit that was surprisingly expansive and is absolutely worth the time should you be in the area. Another Canadian Uber ride later and we soon found ourselves at a local bar-meets-pool-hall drinking pitchers of beer in a celebration of the day and our the success of our pseudo-vacation thus far. I wasn’t convinced of full-blown accomplishment just yet, as we still had to cross into the States and clear Customs with a newly-purchased yet still very not-American vehicle, but tried to not let that ruin our fun. The no-longer-owner of the Stormtrooper 4Runner soon showed up and gave us a tour of the city in his 5th-gen as we decided where to eat.
Choosing a bar in the locals-heavy side of town, we were treated to more delicious food and the other-worldly drink that is the Caesar. It’s supposedly “the official drink of Canada,” and was so good that I’ve taken to making them myself at every possible opportunity. Think Bloody Mary but with clamato juice instead of normal tomato juice. Sounds strange, but is shockingly good. The bar itself also treated us to a bit of an impromptu show: the DJ was flicking the switch for the lights above the bar in coordination with the beat of the classic rock songs he was playing. Bohemian Rhapsody was truly special, made more so by one of the bartenders SHOUTING the more energetic call-and-respond lines through a megaphone:
“I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTNING,
VERY, VERY FRIGHTENING ME.
I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.
HE’S JUST A POOR BOY FROM A POOR FAMILY,
SPARE HIM HIS LIFE FROM THIS MONSTROSITY.
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
BISMILLAH! NO, WE WILL NOT LET YOU GO. (LET HIM GO!)
Bismillah! WE WILL NOT LET YOU GO. (LET HIM GO!)
Bismillah! WE WILL NOT LET YOU GO. (LET ME GO!)
WILL NOT LET YOU GO. (LET ME GO!)
Never let you go (Never, never, never, never let me go)
Oh oh oh oh
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO
Oh, mama mia, mama mia (MAMA MIA, LET ME GO!)
BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME, FOR ME, FOR MEEEEEEEEEEE!”
Right on cue, another bartender jumps from behind one side of the bar to the other, throwing beer glasses– yes, actual glass glasses– hard at the ceiling, sending the crowd, both eating dinner and having drinks alike, into a flurry of excitement so strong that another bartender jumped atop the counter and began dancing on the bar surface itself. It was a spectacle like I’ve never seen.
Soon after we parted ways with the no-longer-owner and his girlfriend and had a few more drinks at another, much calmer, bar. At the urging of a friend via Facebook, we then found ourselves trying Poutine at the supposed best-in-the-area diner. It was damn good, and I’d tell anyone who’s not a vegetarian to give it a shot. And even those meat-haters should do so. Night wrapped up, I went to bed quite content and finally not cold. Things were looking good, but my nerves hadn’t quieted down with the looming border crossing still ahead of us.
We hit the road early the next morning. Made a stop at a Tim Hortons to complete the list of mandatory things to do for one’s first time in Canada, then pointed the truck south with our mind set on making it home reasonably early. Crossing back into the States would prove much more difficult than the Canadian entry, but with a newly acquired 4Runner in tow, it was only logical that such was the case. We queued with the eighteen wheelers again, sat in line for a half hour, and answered a solid five minutes of questions from the super-serious guy in the booth. As expected we were told to park the truck and trailer and enter the main building for questioning and paperwork, but first we were instructed to drive the entire Silverado and trailer/4Runner combo through a bomb scanner disguised as a barn. Having successfully proved we weren’t a threat we went in to pay duty, prove everything was done legally, file papers with the US government, and so on. An hour and a half later we were back on our way.
It felt like a long, drawn-out process to get everything squared away, especially with the amount of time the officer on our case spent scanning through a paperback manual on what has to be done when importing a vehicle, but once we were given the all clear and set foot outside to head home, I was finally able to breathe a little; it was a huge relief to have made it back into the States trouble-free. After all, none of this would have been worth it if we hadn’t successfully been able to get the 4Runner into the good ‘ol U.S. of A., right? It turned out to be smooth sailing, and we were once again we found ourselves driving the HD Chevy south, myself finally quite a bit less anxious.
The remainder of the drive home proved to be the least exciting part of the trip, merely serving as proof that things went well. A stop for fuel and a stop for food were made but otherwise it was simply an easy and trouble-free drive. The miles ticked by and though the Silverado was working harder than it had on the way up, it was still hardly struggling under the added weight of the 4Runner on the already-heavy steel UHaul trailer. I really can’t begin to describe how wonderful my dad’s old truck is. At this point the odometer was showing nearly two-hundred-thousand miles (it has since long surpassed the big 200k mark), but it drives so well you wouldn’t know it. It’s smooth, quiet, calm, comfortable: everything you want out of a tow vehicle. It pulled a moderately heavy load, by far the heaviest I’d ever dragged, so easily so that it probably laughed at what I thought was a lot of weight. It might not be the most refined or luxurious vehicle out there, but a good truck is defined by its ability to do exactly what you ask of it and not have it put up a fight. By this measure, my dad’s truck is perfect. It sure felt so as we climbed one of the steep passes on Rt. 17 holding a steady 65 MPH with zero chance of slowing and even passing some normal cars that were losing speed. A damn great truck, that Silverado. We made it home trouble-free, went to our respective homes, and passed out. It had been a taxing, though rewarding, expedition to Canada and back…and now I had a 4Runner to show for it.
When all was said and done we had done over 1,100 miles Friday through Sunday, well over half of them towing. Everybody we met in Canada was friendly beyond belief, everywhere and everything we did such a great experience we wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Buying the 4Runner and importing it was among the most ambitious things I’ve ever done and will hopefully signify the turning point in my life towards many meaningful memories and towards knocking off so many of the bucket list items I’m yearning to make happen. If you’ve been reading about the Stormtrooper 4Runner you already know that it was purchased with the intent to use it and everything it’s capable of to explore as much as possible, and I’ve already begun to do so. It’s my hope that the 4Runner provides the backbone to what is the opportunity for me to the most of my life and shake that feeling of not enjoying everything off-roading, this country, and automotive universe have to offer. I might have bought the truck to take on adventures, but before any of that could happen, it all started all started with a trip to the Great White North…and as you’ve just read, it was a hell of an adventure of its own. I’m ready for the next one and the Stormtrooper 4Runner is too. Here’s to pursuing our automotive dreams and life goals alike: I started 2017 by knocking one off my list. Now, it’s time for the next adventure…
A quick thanks to those who helped make this possible, and didn’t laugh at me (at least in my face) for trying to pull this off. Pat: I couldn’t have asked for a better adventure-buddy, on this or on any of our other questionable trips. We both know that will never change. Sam: thank you for putting up with the stress of all these shenanigans and, for that matter, all of my automotive nonsense in general. You might not “get it,” but your support means everything. And to Dimitrios, the Stormtrooper 4Runner’s previous owner: the truck is in good hands. If you’re reading this, let’s plan a wheeling weekend. It goes without saying that I have to make it back to Canada, sooner rather than later.
Random bonus pictures!