I can count on one hand the number of destinations I have picked on this trip. Most of the time, Corrinne figures out the details of our life on the road.
We generally come to an agreement on a general area — the gulf coast, or the great lakes, for example — and then she works out the details. I worry about logistics and repairs, she handles picking where we stay. It’s a pretty good system. But every now and then I book something, and, historically, the places I have booked are not, shall we say, our favorites.
It all goes back to the Altamaha river take out, which I will probably never live down. The experience there was awful enough that I was tacitly relieved of navigation duties. When we were planning this leg of the trip though I was somehow left unattended again, which is how we ended up at Myrtle Beach State Park.
Myrtle Beach is not really our thing. Bumper cars and putt putt is fun and all, but not really what we’re looking for most of the time. It’s actually about the opposite of what we’re looking for most of the time. However, South Carolina State Parks have what they call a “snow bird special” which gets you 2-for-1 camping prices and the ability to stay for a month. Unfortunately it’s only at select parks, and the only coastal one this year was Myrtle Beach. Not ideal, but it’ll work.
That’s how we came to spend all of February, and then some, in Myrtle Beach.
We figured staying in one place for so long we could knock out a bunch of bus projects, let the kids take Jui Jitsu, which they’d been clamoring to do for some time, and be in one place long enough for my parents to come for a visit.
That is exactly what we did. And while Myrtle Beach still isn’t really our thing, we enjoyed our time here. We met a ton of friendly folks, local and snowbird, took care of almost all our projects, visited with family, and dove head first into the world of Jui Jitsu, which turns out to be fantastic, you should try it.
Our time here wasn’t without some downsides though. We’ve dealt with decidedly un-traveler-like things, like traffic and at least for me, that low-grade background stress you can’t put your finger on because if you put your finger on it you’d have to stop ignoring the source of the stress and do something rather than ignoring it and hoping it will just go away.
But problems don’t go away until you fix them. You’d think then, with time on my hands, I’d get right on the fixing. But um, I didn’t. Waves hands
For two months we drove around South Carolina in the bus like it was a finely tuned machine. Which is it was, but that never lasts. On the way from Hunting Island to Huntington Beach the engine started to stutter a bit when I sat at a stoplight, my foot on the brakes. Then when I was backing into the site at Huntington Beach it got worse, the engine died about five times before I got the bus where I needed it.
But then it turned cold. I knew I didn’t have to go anywhere for a couple weeks so I ignored the brakes. Or rather I thought about the problem, but didn’t actually do anything. I knew there was a vacuum leak somewhere. I knew I needed to figure out where the leak was and fix it, but other things kept coming up.
Then on the short drive from Huntington to Myrtle Beach the brake pedal started to lock up. Well, that’s what it feels like, but really it’s loss of vacuum.
The Travco has drum brakes1, powered by a single chamber hydrovac booster that adds the pressure you need to stop it without your leg having to do all the work (which would be impossible). On the drive to Myrtle Beach I lost a good part of that assist and learned first hand why the hydrovac system is there. It was a little nerve wracking, but I took it slow and managed to get safely to our campsite in Myrtle Beach State Park. I shut off the engine and breathed a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t need to start it up again (except to dump the tanks) for five weeks.
I promptly pushed the brakes from my mind and went off to do other important things, like sign the kids up for Jui Jitsu and get a ladder and roof rack made. Brakes? Yeah, I’ll get to that. Next week.
I spent a week getting the ladder project off the ground, making Jui Jitsu happen, ordering parts for half a dozen other projects, and generally doing everything I could to avoid working on the brakes because deep down I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fix the brakes.
Finally the low grade stress my avoidance was causing me got to me and I pulled down the shop manual and read through the entire brake section three times. Once I had everything in my head, I started working through the diagnostic steps. I put my vacuum gauge on every hose and pipe I could, and went out bought some adapters for all the fittings I couldn’t. Eventually, after three evenings of testing, I came up with the idea that probably something was wrong inside the actual hydrovac booster. I texted my uncle the basics of the problem to see what he thought and with in ten seconds he came right back with the same answer. Experience is a valuable thing.
While it was some relief to know what the problem was, that was actually only the beginning of the problem. You can’t buy a new hydrovac booster for a Dodge M375 chassis. I spent almost an entire day calling around the country to nearly every company I could find that did anything at all to hydraulic systems and no one had anything. Several said they could rebuild it, but it would take, at best 7-10 days. I considered trying to rebuild it myself, I found some rebuilt kits, but that seemed unwise without a reasonably clean shop to work in. This is the one disadvantage of shade tree mechanics — sand, dirt, dust, gods’ know what tends to get in your parts as you’re working. You have to be careful and in some cases you really just can’t do it.
At the same time we can’t not move for ten days. We do have to dump our black tank. And we had to move campsites. As soon as I pulled off the booster, we were dead weight. Because I’d procrastinated we were right at the edge of the seven day period most places said they’d need for the rebuild. In other words, there was no margin for error, and when it comes to finding and fixing Travco parts, you want a wide margin for error.
In the end I went with Precision Rebuilders in Missouri because they said they could rebuild it in seven days. When I called back and explained our unique situation to them, Amanda took pity on us and shortened the turn around time to three days. I figured that was the best I could do and I pulled the booster and sent it off to them. In the end they managed to rebuild it and send it back out the same day, for a total turn around time of three days. It was one of the best parts experiences we’ve ever had. Many thanks to Amanda and everyone else at Precision Rebuilders who really came through for us (and did great work too).
I installed the rebuilt booster, bled the brakes, and… spongey pedal. I was having to pump three times to get it firm, but that was good enough to dump the tanks and move to our new site (about 20 feet in front of the old site), but not good enough to keep on keepin on as we say.
Unlike the vacuum leak though, now I knew it was hydraulics, most likely my half-ass bleeding job. I went out and bought a proper bleeder hose and Corrinne helped me re-bleed them all the way around again. This time by the end we had a firm pedal and the brakes were back to their old selves. Better than their old selves actually, I don’t have to push nearly as hard to brake, clearly the booster had been past its prime for a while.
We celebrated our new brakes with some sushi, and then it was time to load some new (and old) toys up on the new roof rack, say some sad goodbyes to the kids’ new friends at Jui Jitsu and elsewhere, and hit the road for points north.
Every time I write about the brakes, I get emails and comments telling me how dangerous drum brakes are. As if every single car/truck/whatever made prior to about 1965 didn’t have drum brakes. Oh wait, they did. And somehow people did not die in droves. Relax, there’s nothing inherently dangerous about drum brakes. They do have a single point of failure, which is something to keep in mind, but so long as you maintain them they’ll be there for you. At least that’s my experience. ↩