Note: This essay first appeared, with a different title and photographs, in the May 2023 issue of Wired magazine. It is a retelling of the events I first wrote about here, along with some of the many lessons we’ve learned about keeping the bus on the road. Where relevant I’ve added links to the journal entries from that time.
There’s no temperature gauge. That broke several thousand desert miles ago. But you can smell trouble coming, whiffs of radiator fluid slipping in the draft at the front of the engine doghouse. That’s when you know it’s time to stop. This doesn’t happen often. The 318 likes to run hot, but climbing mountains with a 12,000-pound RV on your back will eventually make any small block engine overheat.
I start looking for a place to pull over. There’s nothing. The left side of the road is a sheer cut of rock, quartzite, phyllite, and limestone laid bare by dynamite. To the east, as far as I can see, the barren rocky foothills of the White Mountains bubble and scrape their way toward a desert valley floor, dust-swept and brown. Dotted here and there are clumps of creosote and sagebrush, interrupted occasionally by splashes of yellow rabbitbrush. It’s a stark but beautiful landscape. Without a pullout. But it doesn’t matter, we haven’t seen another car in at least an hour of driving. We are on Highway 168 somewhere in Eastern California, between the Nevada ghost town where we camped last night and the top of the White Mountains.
So I stop right in the middle of the road.
When the engine shuts off a quiet descends. No wind. No birds. No talking. We—my wife, three children, and me—just listen to the faint hissing of steam escaping the radiator cap, and then a gentle gurgle of coolant in the engine. It’s October, but I’m glad I had the presence of mind to stop in the shade; the desert sun casts a harsh light on the road. After a minute my wife turns to the kids and says, “You want to walk around and see if we can find some fossils?”
As a child of the ’70s, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the side of the road next to broken-down vehicles. This is what vehicles of those days did. The 1967 Volkswagen fastback, which managed to get us home safely from the hospital after I was born, was replaced by a 1976 mustard-yellow VW Dasher that routinely overheated near Yuma, Arizona, on its way from my childhood home in Los Angeles to my grandparents’ house in Tucson. To this day my father curses that car. There was also a 1969 Ford F-250 pickup that was reliable until you stuck a camper on its back and tried to climb over the Sierra Nevada mountains. It used to be more of a necessity to know how to fix a car. These days it is often, if not a luxury, a labor of love.
My father handed that F-250 down to me. I wanted to work on it, but the truth is I was intimidated. What if I broke something irreparable? What if I just couldn’t hack it? I was a computer programmer then. In principle, fixing code is not so different from fixing an engine. But a computer will tell you what is wrong with your code. An engine—at least an older one—doesn’t do that. When you work on an older vehicle, you are the computer. And I was one with no software.
That made it hard to know where to start, and so I didn’t. Instead I helped more knowledgable friends with their cars. In the process I discovered that, for me, solving mechanical problems brought a kind of satisfaction that digital ones did not. One weekend I was helping a friend bleed the brakes on his car, pumping the pedal while he was under the chassis turning the bleeder screws. As we worked I could feel the resistance building, a tactile feedback that I loved. I was hooked. I wanted to learn how to repair engines, but to do that I knew I needed a project of my own—one with higher stakes than the F-250.
In June 2015, my wife and I bought a 1969 Dodge Travco, a motor home that, at the time, was just shy of its 50th birthday. My kids called it the bus. Which was apt. When you say “motor home,” most people picture something that looks nothing like our old Dodge. To call it an RV is to say a Stradivarius is a violin. The Travco is a 27-foot-long fiberglass container of beauty and joy. It’s bright 1960s turquoise and white with sweeping curves and rounded windows. It is bold in a sea of beige modern RVs. The Travco was cool enough that it was once featured in Playboy magazine, back when that was a marker of cool. Johnny Cash had one. So did John Wayne.
We didn’t buy it solely so I would have a project. We bought it to make it our full-time home. We were tired of the suburbs, and we wanted our kids to see the United States, to have a better sense of the place they were born. I didn’t want them to read about the deserts and mountains and forests, I wanted them to be in them. I wanted them to know the difference between the South, where they were born, the Midwest, the West, the Northeast. I wanted them to also know the frustration and the joy of continuing down the road by your own sweat and effort. Out of a muddled sense of self-reliance born of stubbornness and ideals, I wanted them to know that anything worth fixing can be fixed, and anything that can’t be fixed isn’t worth having. But sitting there in the heat of the California sun on Highway 168 that afternoon, the bus felt more like a giant check my ego had written that my fumbling fingers and tools could not cash.
In truth, I didn’t have much experience with cars, but I did grow up around repair and restoration. My grandfather worked for the telephone company and had a shed full of tools behind his house in Tucson. When he retired, he spent his weekends buying broken things at the swap meet and his weekdays fixing them to resell the next weekend. In the summer it was blazing hot in Grandpa’s shed, but my cousins and I didn’t notice. We were too excited watching him tear things apart—phones, televisions, radios, blenders—and breathe life back into them.
My dad had a garage full of tools as well. I was playing with hammers and tape measures from the time I could walk, building model airplanes in grade school. As I got older, I started taking more and more things apart and trying to put them back together. I sketched bookshelves, tables, chairs, and then built them as best I could. I came out of childhood with a few carpentry skills, and more importantly, perhaps misguidedly, a belief that with the right tools and a good mentor, anything was fixable.
Years later, a line in Matthew Crawford’s best-selling manifesto of the manual arts, Shop Class as Soulcraft, echoed the feeling my mentors had instilled in me. There is a type of person, he writes, who “hates the feeling of dependence, especially when it is a direct result of his not understanding something. So he goes home and starts taking the valve covers off his engine to investigate for himself. Maybe he has no idea what he is doing, but he trusts that whatever the problem is, he ought to be able to figure it out by his own efforts. Then again, maybe not—he may never get his valve train back together again. But he intends to go down swinging.”
Going down swinging is central to the culture of repair. You have to be willing to try. Yet in these days of high technology, products are often covered with stickers warning you that even undoing a screw will void the warranty or risk injury. Companies like John Deere have even restricted the owners of their machines from repairing them themselves or through a third party. Those stickers aren’t an accident. Manufacturers know that the best way to stop people from repairing things is to convince them that they can’t.
But to be more than a consumer of stuff, to not be dependent, you must first believe that you can repair it. That willingness to try—in spite of, or to spite, the stickers—is where it starts, whether you’re trying to fix your laptop or replace your head gasket.
There aren’t many Travcos left in the world, but in June 2015, after a few months of haunting Craigslist, I found one for sale in the mountains of North Carolina, in the sleepy college town of Mars Hill. A couple who restored vintage trailers found the bus somewhere in Tennessee and tried their hand at fixing it up. Then they changed their mind and put it up for sale. A few days later I was standing there in the hills, looking over the bus. There was some obvious water damage, but nothing I didn’t think I could fix.
I was blissfully ignorant about the engine. It was hard to start, but once it got running it seemed good enough to my untrained ear. I handed over the money and climbed into the cockpit.
That first drive was nerve-racking. Strapping yourself into a 27-foot-long monstrosity is nothing like driving a car, especially when the monstrosity is in unknown condition and pointing downhill. A prudent man would have done a test drive. A couple of hairpin turns had my palms sweating—I made a note to myself to buy my next vehicle in Kansas—but I finally managed to get her out on a four-lane road where she felt more manageable. After I had been driving, tensely, for a couple of hours I pulled over at a rest area to take a break.
I’d barely come to a stop when two people came up to the bus to take pictures and ask about it: What year is it? Where did you get it? Then they asked the question everyone who loves old cars wanted to know: What engine is in it?
The Travco is driven by a Chrysler 318 LA, a 5.2L small-block V8 engine. The LA stands for lightweight A-series engine. This is the same engine type you could find in most things Dodge made in 1969, from the Dart to the D100 truck. Larger V8s like the 440 are more sought after in vintage racing circles, but the 318, as most enthusiasts call it, is the unsung hero of the muscle car era. Some people claim the cylinder bore size in my 318 is bigger than what you’d find in a Dart, which would give the bus’s 318 more power. (I’ve done a little research and still can’t confirm or deny this. On the side of a long mountain climb in the desert hills of Nevada, it can certainly feel like I have the power of a Dodge Dart, with 8,000 extra pounds of weight on top.) On that first drive with the Travco, when I stopped at that rest area to collect my wits, all I knew was the engine’s name, and that it lacked the sensors, computer chips, automation, and complexity of modern vehicles. It was something I felt I could take a swing at.
The first year with the Travco, I spent most of my free time rebuilding the interior. For the bulk of 2016 it sat in our driveway with me inside, sweating through the southern summer, freezing through the winter. Our neighbors begin to give directions based on it: “We’re two houses after the big blue bus.”
I gutted the inside. I wanted to understand how all the systems worked, and to design and build out everything so I could fix it if I needed to. There are no backup cameras, no motorized awnings, no automated systems at all. I had to go out of my way to find a water heater with a nonelectric pilot light system. Every time we reach camp, I have to get out and light it by hand—but the system will never fail.
A friend of mine joked that I had become like Captain Adama from Battlestar Galactica, who famously wouldn’t let networked computers on his ship because they introduced a vulnerability he considered unacceptable. It wasn’t that he was opposed to technology—his character commands a spaceship after all—but that he distrusted a particular kind of technology. In his case, networked systems opened the door to murderous robots bent on destroying humanity. Our case was a little less dramatic. We just didn’t want to have something break far away from the nearest place that could fix it. Every technology you use should be something you choose for a known benefit, with trade-offs you can accept.
No one is perfect though, and the bus does include one complex, fragile system: our solar panels and batteries. I think Adama would approve of the solar panels—they have been our primary source of power for years. But he wouldn’t approve of the Bluetooth network the solar charge controller uses; it’s an unnecessary potential point of failure. Sure, it’s nice to be able to check our solar and battery status from my phone, but we don’t have to. To mitigate that vulnerability, I installed a shunt with a hardwired gauge. Should the Bluetooth fail (or, more likely, should I lose my phone), I can just look at the gauge. Like Adama, I am not opposed to technology. I’m opposed to unnecessary technology and single points of failure.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a joke about how an escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. In web design this is referred to as graceful degradation. How good your technology is depends on how elegantly it handles failures. A lot of modern design has taken exactly the opposite approach. In the name of convenience, complex systems are hidden behind deceptively simple user interfaces. But no matter how simple these things might seem when you use them, the complexity behind them is inherently fragile.
Sometimes inconvenience can even be a benefit. It has a way of forcing you off autopilot and getting you to pay attention. With an engine as old as the Travco’s, I found out I need to pay attention. It’s part of the cost of admission.
Modern user interfaces have hidden this fact from you, but the first time you start your car every morning, the engine is cold, which makes it hard to start. There are three important components in an internal combustion engine: air, fuel, and spark. The spark is a constant, but when your engine is cold it needs more fuel than air. A computer chip controls this mixture in modern cars, but in older, aspirated engines like the 318, the carburetor controls this mixture with a flap that opens and closes. In our 318 this flap is controlled by the driver via the choke cable—a steel wire attached to the carburetor flap at one end, and a knob on the dashboard at the other. Pull out the knob and the flap in the carburetor closes, limiting the air coming in and allowing the cold engine to start up.
Manual choke is archaic. But since ours was broken when we got it, I went even more archaic. Every time I start the engine, I lift up the engine cover, unscrew the air filter, and close the carburetor flap with my finger. At first this was just expedient. Fixing the choke was on my list of things to do, but finding a long enough choke cable, with a period-correct Dodge dashboard knob, took years of scouring eBay. By the time I found one I was simply used to doing it myself, literally by hand. The eBay choke cable has been sitting in a storage hatch under the back bed for more than a year.
The truth is, I like opening the engine, I like making sure everything looks right, I like watching it come to life. If something is wrong, I know right away. Once a wire came off the ignition coil, and instead of wondering why the engine wasn’t starting—which it wasn’t—I was startled to watch electricity arcing out of the ignition coil. That’s not right. But it was also very simple to fix. I found the wire and plugged it back in. The engine started right up.
Every morning before we head out on the road, I open the engine cover and spend some time studying the 318, connecting with it. It’s a ritual, somewhere between making coffee and invoking the gods, a small part of my morning that’s dedicated to making sure the rest of our day goes smoothly. For a long time I really was looking over the engine before every drive; these days I am often just spending time with it.
Car enthusiasts often get this way. It might seem irrational to be attached to a particular set of nuts and bolts and cast iron, but it happens. Now, driving around the country, when I see broken-down cars in someone’s yard I don’t see junk, I see failed relationships.
The bus is very much a relationship. The five of us moved in and hit the road on April 1, 2017. My wife said that if it didn’t work out, we’d just pass it off as a bad April Fools joke. It worked out. Though, as in any relationship, the bus and I have had some rocky moments.
On April 2, less than 100 miles from home, we had our first problem. I had just finished backing into a campsite at Raysville campground, still in Georgia, when I smelled a strange scent, something like burnt grapefruit. I lay down in the dirt and slid myself under the engine. A thin, warm red liquid splashed onto my forehead. Transmission fluid was leaking out of the bottom of the radiator. There are two transmission lines running into the bottom of the radiator where fluid is cooled before being sent back to the transmission.
I didn’t know exactly how to fix it, but I knew just enough about engines to recognize that this wasn’t too serious. As long as I kept the fluid level topped off, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I didn’t want to disrupt our new life on the road by taking the bus in for repairs on our third day out. Instead, I added a transmission fluid refill to my morning ritual.
I went through a lot of transmission fluid those first three weeks. I topped it off every morning before we hit the road and every time we stopped for gas. Treating symptoms works for a while, but inevitably the underlying cause gets worse. We made it down to the South Carolina coast and then swung south, through the windswept marshes of the Georgia coast. Then we headed inland, across the swampy pine flats of south Georgia and into the Florida panhandle.
I put off dealing with the leak in part because state and national parks frown on people working on their rigs in campgrounds. And we were heading to a friend’s beach house on St. George Island. Friends’ driveways are much more conducive to repairs. But the day we arrived, the leak got dramatically worse. I pulled into the driveway with barely any transmission fluid left. At this point, I felt overwhelmed by the problem; it seemed like too big of a task, but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to go down so soon. So I spent an hour on the phone searching for a mechanic willing to work on such an old, huge vehicle. I finally found one who was game. A few days later, my wallet lighter, the problem was solved. Yet every time I went to a mechanic I felt inadequate. Why didn’t I try to fix it myself? I made excuses (there wasn’t time, I wanted to play with my kids), but the truth is I was afraid I would fail.
We got back in the bus and on our way, tracing a route along the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, west through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, into New Orleans, where people cheered the bus from the sidewalks. For two months it ran perfectly. But as we headed into the June heat of Texas, the temperature gauge began to climb. And climb. All the way into the red. We took to driving in the early mornings, which helped, but something needed to be done.
We stopped to visit relatives in Dallas, and at yet another mechanic, we had the radiator re-cored. That eliminated it as the source of the problem. (Again, I chastised myself for taking it to a mechanic, but I had a good excuse—even experienced mechanics rarely re-core their own radiators.) Not an hour outside of Dallas, the temperature gauge shot right back up to the red. We stopped at another repair shop. They replaced the water pump and thermostat. We headed out of town early again, before it got too hot. That worked. Until it got hot. The temperature gauge climbed again.
Our temperature problem, and the brutal West Texas heat, was getting to us. I punted. In Amarillo we got a hotel for the night and I called my uncle. He listened to me for a while and then told me to go get a temperature gun and take readings around the engine when it was running. That night, I paid way too much for a temperature gun at a local hardware store, and we hit the road again early the next morning. Every half hour, I stopped, got out, and took readings on the top and bottom of the engine. Everything was within the operating parameters. We drove on into the midday heat and watched the temperature gauge climb again, but the readings done with the gun remained fine. I called my uncle back. “If I were you,” he said, “I’d pull the temperature sensor out of your engine and chuck it out in the desert somewhere.” I hung up feeling that the main problem with the bus was me. I didn’t know how to find the problems, let alone fix them. I don’t know when my uncle started working on cars, but he’s 35 years older than me. Thirty-five years chasing the spirit of inquiry teaches you a lot.
I took his advice. I unhooked the temperature gauge from the engine sensor. I was happy to realize there was nothing wrong. I wasn’t happy thinking about the thousands of dollars I’d spent trying to fix what turned out to be a faulty $15 sensor. I also wasn’t happy now that I could see the learning curve I faced. It felt insurmountably steep.
Two months later, near the end of a summer spent in cool pine forests in the Rocky Mountains, we decided to attempt a 10,000-foot pass near Ridgway, Colorado. We’d managed to get the bus over 9,600 feet before, and the pass we were headed toward was not a steep climb as Rocky Mountain passes go. We started early, but we didn’t get more than a mile into the climb before I smelled that familiar grapefruit smell of transmission fluid. I pulled over and crawled under the bus —and saw the transmission cooler line leaking again.
We turned around, limped back to Ridgway, and found a side street to park on. I got under the bus again. This time I knew what I was looking for, and sure enough, once I got the nut off the end of the transmission line I could see that the metal pipe, which flares out to wrap over a metal fitting on the radiator, was not just cracked but missing a whole chunk. Instead of forming a tight seal over the metal fitting, fluid was shooting out the side. The transmission cooler lines are fitted tightly along the side of the engine. There is no slack. I couldn’t just cut them off, put in a new flare, and reattach them. Even if I could have made it work, they would have been nearly touching the exhaust, which would heat them far more than the transmission cooler ever cooled them.
I was forced to reach out for help, again. I called around for a shop that had big enough bays to work on the bus and eventually found one in Montrose, 30 miles away down the mountain. I put the existing line back on as best I could and limped back to the Ridgway State Park campground. We started repacking and gathering up what we’d need for a few days of tent camping.
That evening, I was sitting outside the laundry room in the campground, watching the famous golden light of the Rockies play across the Cimarron Range, when a fellow camper came to do his laundry. He stuffed his laundry in the machine, and we started talking. The conversation came around to the bus, as most conversations I have in campgrounds do. After he asked about the engine, he asked me something no one ever had, something that caught me off guard. Something that has haunted me since: “Do you turn your own wrenches?” I said I did as much as I could, but that sometimes I had to get professional help. “You have to turn your own wrenches,” he said, shaking his head. “You can’t have a vehicle like that if you don’t turn your own wrenches.”
I already knew that—I’d been feeling it for months—but it didn’t really hit home until someone else said it to me. You can’t have a vehicle like this if you don’t turn your own wrenches. You’ll go crazy or broke or both. I vowed that this would be the last time I would resort to a mechanic. I took the bus to that mechanic in Montrose. We spent a couple weeks in a tent while the shop found new transmission cooler lines and installed them. A couple weeks later, coming down through western Utah, bound for Zion National Park, I stopped for gas—and guess what I saw pooling under the bus?
It was a Sunday in Utah. We pulled over on a back street, across from a mechanic’s shop that was, like everything else on a Sunday in Utah, closed. I crawled under the bus and started poking around. Sure enough, the flare on the transmission line was cracked again. I knew what to do, but I didn’t have the tools, and the hardware stores weren’t open.
I climbed out from under and sat down on the Travco’s step, wiping the grease from my hands. My wife was just asking me what we were going to do, when the rolling metal door of the shop across the street rattled and opened with a clang. A man about my age came walking over and asked if I needed help. I told him my problem. It turned out it was his shop. He didn’t work Sundays, but he was there working on his own projects. Together we pulled off the transmission line, took it inside, cut off the cracked flare, and reflared it. Then he showed me where the last mechanic had gone wrong. He’d overtightened the nut, crushing the metal onto the fitting until it cracked. We tightened it. Gently. The mechanic wouldn’t take any money. Help someone else out someday, he told me.
We were almost two years into our family odyssey with the Travco when we found ourselves beached in the middle of the road on that desert mountain pass in Eastern California. By then, I knew that an engine’s tendency to overheat isn’t really a thing that can be fixed. It’s what happens when a small engine tries to climb a big hill. Eventually old cars will teach you so much, including patience.
I walked up the road to see what was beyond the next bend. Maybe the blacktop crested a ridge and dropped into a cool, lush valley with a river running through it. But the curve didn’t end. I kept walking but could never see more than the next few hundred yards; the road just kept climbing. I gave up and headed back to the bus. My wife and kids were back from their explorations, ready to go. The engine had cooled some, so we clamored in and decided to make another push up the mountain. But now we were starting from zero. On this kind of incline, I gave us a mile before we’d overheat again. (I’d never know exactly, because the odometer was broken.) After about five minutes I spied a pullout. I hadn’t smelled radiator fluid yet, but I decided to take advantage of the ability to get out of the road.
My wife and I talked about turning back. There was a strange college back in the valley behind us called Deep Springs. They had a sign out front that said no phone and not to bother them, but something told me they’d be OK with the bus. We could get a fresh start in the morning. It had been a long day of driving, and the kids were tired and hot.
Then we heard an unmistakable sound that always makes me smile. A loud engine, with the distinctive thump-thump heartbeat roar of a Harley Davidson, was rumbling up the hill. In a few minutes the bike appeared and the rider pulled over. He asked if we were OK. We went through the usual talk about the bus. Then he told us we were only about a mile from the top. Suddenly we weren’t quite so tired. Making it over the mountains felt possible again. We thanked the rider, and he continued on his way. We gave the engine more time to cool off.
An hour later we tried again. It was a long mile, and we never got above 20 miles an hour, but after a while we crested a ridge and a spectacular view of the Owens Valley in California opened up below. I could see the Sierra Nevada rising up out of the hazy valley. We were at the top. I had just a second to enjoy it before we passed a sign that read “Caution, One-Lane Road Ahead.” The Narrows, as this bit of highway is called, came up so fast we didn’t have time to plan for it. We were just in it. Thankfully, nothing came the other way.
Coming down the steep grade we stopped to rest the brakes a few times. After about three hours of descending, we pulled into a campground outside of Big Pine, California. It was empty this time of year, and the road was full of ruts that had the bus lurching and creaking around. About 20 yards from the first campsite we heard a loud clang. My wife and I looked at each other. I pulled in for the night and shut off the engine for the final time with a deep sense of relief.
The next morning we watched the sun light up the high peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada. We had a leisurely breakfast and sipped our coffee well into the morning. We found a train museum up the road and thought we’d take the kids.
It was around 10 when I started up the engine and made my customary walk around the bus to make sure all the windows and hatches and vents were closed and properly secured while the engine warmed up. Everything looked good until I came around to the driver’s side. The rear wheels were oddly far back in the wheel well. Wheels don’t just move around … that would mean the entire axle had moved. Oh shit.
I knelt down and peered under the frame. The rear axle, which supports about 5,000 pounds, is held in place by two mounts, one to the front of the axle, one to the rear of the axle. These hold the leaf springs in place. The mounts are secured by four welded steel pins, one at each corner, which hold the axle mount to the chassis. On the driver’s side, the forward axle mount, three of the four pins were gone. The mount was hanging by one pin and had swung down and backward, shifting the entire rear axle about 6 inches backward.
If that pin gave out while we were moving, the axle would come free and likely tear the back end of the bus off before dropping it on the ground. We weren’t going anywhere. Suddenly, all the things that had happened until now, all the leaking fluids, excess oil, even overheating, seemed pretty mild compared to this. Then I thought of something my uncle had said to me over and over: “It’s all just nuts and bolts.”
Nuts and bolts aren’t where most of the work is, though. It’s in the problem-solving that happens in your head. That skill takes years, even decades, to develop. But there’s an infectious thrill when you hold some unknown in your head until you come up with a hypothesis about what might be wrong. This takes me many miles of thinking.
It also requires asking many questions of many people. I’ve met Travco salesmen who knew the original designer, mechanics who’ve worked on Travcos, and dozens of people who knew the 318 engine inside and out. All of them helped me in some way, even if it was just an encouraging word, a congratulations on keeping it on the road.
Yet, as I sat there staring at the axle dangling by a single pin, I had no idea what to do. So I texted my uncle a picture of the problem. A few minutes later my phone rang. My uncle happens to live about two hours from Big Pine, back over the state line in Nevada. Sit tight, he said. He was loading up some tools and would be there that afternoon.
We took the kids hiking down to a nearby river. (Making the bus “work” for us is as much about making sure the kids have space to run and play as it is turning wrenches.) Around three that afternoon my uncle pulled into our campsite with a truck full of floor lifts, jacks, and tools. He crawled under the bus with me. He didn’t say anything, just lay there studying the situation. When he climbed back out he said, “I think we can fix that.” We made a run to a hardware store in Bishop, about an hour up the road, where we bought some grade 8 steel bolts, which are strong enough to hold. We then went to the store and grabbed some steaks and potatoes for dinner. Another lesson I’ve learned from my uncle: “Relax, and make sure you’re having fun while you do this.”
That night after dinner, around the campfire, he told me the plan. We’d use two jacks, one to hold up the bus should that last pin give out, and another to maneuver the axle mount back in place. Once it was close we’d use a flange alignment tool to line up the hole in the axle mount with the hole in the chassis. Then we’d slip in the grade 8 bolts. Once he said it, the plan seemed simple enough, obvious even. But I never would have thought of it on my own. I’d never even heard of a flange alignment tool, and I had no idea there were bolts strong enough to replace forged steel pins.
The next morning we started in, and the work took the better part of the day, but when we were done the axle was back where it should be. My uncle didn’t like the sound of the engine though. “Why don’t you bring it to my place, and we’ll see what we can do about that noise,” he said.
This is, in part, what I love about living in the bus, part of why we keep doing it six years later. It’s all the people I know, all the people I’ve met, the people who’ve helped—some professionals, most not. We haven’t stopped needing to fix things in the bus. In the course of writing this article I had to rebuild the vacuum booster that powers our brake system. I had to replace a head gasket, several worn belts, a failed alternator, the voltage regulator, and a fuel pump, and I had to do all the routine maintenance, like changing the spark plugs, wires, and oil. No mechanics were consulted, though I still regularly text my uncle for advice.
The bus will never not need fixing. But my relationship with it has changed. I no longer look at the engine in awe and mystery. Nor do I look at it with perfect, go-it-alone mastery. I know what all the parts do. I don’t know everything that can go wrong, and I don’t always know what to do when it does. But I have the thing I’ve come to prize the most—the relationship with my fellow shade tree mechanics and car enthusiasts. It isn’t just me turning my own wrenches that I rely on; it’s everyone who turns their own wrenches.
It isn’t just wrenches either. We are in the middle of a repair revival. Other repair gurus are out there helping the next generation. Sewing groups hold “mending days” where you can get your clothing repaired, and learn to do it yourself. A luthier friend of mine has apprenticed under a master and now helps others learn how to build and repair guitars. Another friend who started out buying and repairing bicycles for fun now regularly runs workshops for people to learn how to repair their own bikes. All around the country there are local fixing groups. Check the bulletin boards in your community and you’ll likely find someone organizing a repair group.
The community of people who repair things is an interesting group, perched on a curious dichotomy. We are, by and large, people who prize self-reliance. Whether that spirit grows out of economic necessity, pure enjoyment, or something else, it is essential to the ethic of repair. At the same time, the community is very hierarchical, which means those of us near the bottom must learn from those above. Self-reliance alone tends to make you isolated and either snobbish (if you think you’re good) or intimidated (if you know you’re not). The only way out of these predicaments is to connect with other people who know more than you. In the first case they’ll quickly put you in your place. In the second, they’ll lift you up to where they are.
Many thanks to my editors on this piece, Maria Streshinsky and John Gravois.