Going Down Swinging

Forty-seven bolts later, what do you have?

When we broke down in Lamar I kept thinking about a book I read almost a decade ago: Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford. The gist of the book is that the only way to escape a dependency on stuff is to be able to take it apart and repair it. There is empowerment in knowing how things work — your stuff will never fail you because if it does break, you can repair it.

Crawford calls this person who wants to fix their own stuff, The Spirited Man. Crawford writes:

[The Spirited Man] 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.

I kept staring at the bus’s valve covers thinking about that line. Could I get my valve train back together again? There was only one way to find out. Still, I don’t think I would have done it if Corrinne hadn’t insisted that I could do it. The kids also seemed to think I could do it. You can do a lot more when people believe in you. So I decided I had to try, to go down swinging at least.

After a week of thinking it over, weighing other options, and realizing no one else was going to do it for me, I dove in. The valve covers came off.

Well, first I messaged my Uncle Ron and asked for advice before I dug in. He gave me some helpful pointers — take lots of photos, label everything, keep track of where each rod came from, clean it all up with soap and water, coat it with a light coat of oil. Check. The best mechanics he told me are the ones that were patient and methodical — take your time. Patient. Methodical. Check.

I grabbed the four wrenches I’d need and started taking things apart. I pulled off the electrical components first. That’s when I remembered the alternator problems I’d yet to deal with. Since I had to drain the radiator anyway, I decided to pull it out completely which would give me easier access to the alternator. I removed the alternator (the most difficult, stubborn bolt in the whole job) and had the local Napa bench test it. Dead. I ordered a new alternator. If you’re going to go all the way, you better go all the way.

Then I pulled off the carburetor and then the valve covers. I took a lot of photos, I cleaned and labeled everything. I pulled off the intake manifold (which was so much heavier than I expected), and then I took out the valve trains (the bus’s are all on a long rod, which I took out as a single piece, so they stayed together nicely). Finally, the only thing left was the head. Ten more bolts and then I’d know. I won’t lie, I was a little scared that I’d find a blown cylinder in there, but I didn’t. The head came off and there was the gasket burnt through in pretty much the exact same place it blew last time.

That told me something was wrong with more than the gasket.

At Ron’s suggestion I tested it with a feeler gauge, which is just a bunch of strips of metal of precise thicknesses, and discovered that the head and the block are each slightly warped in that spot. That’s why we blew the gasket again, and it’s why we’ll blow the new one I installed eventually too. If there’d been a machine shop around I might have pulled the other head and had them both ground down, but there wasn’t. Machine shops that were over 200 miles away in big cities told me it would be at least two weeks before they could get to it.

All I wanted to do was get us back on the road and keep us there for a few more months. I do plan to rebuild or replace the engine next year, but now that I’ve done the head gasket, I feel like I want to do a rebuild myself too. But I want to do it where I can work on it without being stuck somewhere we don’t really want do be. In the mean time we just need to squeeze a few thousand more miles out of it. In the end I put some copper coat on the block, the gasket, and the head to help seal it a little better and hoped for the best.

Once I had everything I needed, I reversed everything I’d done, working from my notes, photos, and some videos, to get it all back together. It took me three days to get everything back in, though I imagine I could do it in two now that I have a better idea of how it all works.

Then came the evening when I first fired it up. Deep down I knew it was going to work, but it was still a stressful moment. Especially with the amount of oil that had to burn off… so much oil… for a moment I thought we’d failed. It was too windy that day to go for a drive, but the next day after work I drove into town and filled up the tank before going down the highway for about 20 minutes. Amazingly, everything seemed to work. Well, almost everything. I must have bumped a wire somewhere because the headlights don’t come on anymore, but if that’s the only thing I screwed up… I can live with (and fix) that.

Two days later we hit the road south. Unfortunately we had to abandon our plans to go to Tucson. There are too many hills between here and there. We didn’t want to push it. If we’re going to squeeze more life out this engine as it is, we’re going to have to stick to the flat areas. So we pointed south, to Texas. It was a long drive to Amarillo, probably the longest, most nerve-wracking drive I’ve ever done in the bus. Dead into a 20-30 mile per hour headwind the whole way, with me obsessively opening the doghouse hatch, sure I would see the telltale smoke blowing out again… but I never did. We made it to Amarillo. We checked into The Big Texan RV park and took the kids to swim at the indoor pool. It was almost like a normal day on the road for us.

driving in to Amarillo photographed by luxagraf
One of these buildings is a prison, one is an Amazon warehouse. You decide.

With more wind in the forecast the following day we got a very early start, hitting the road when the light was just enough to not need headlights anymore. We got three hours of driving in before the wind came up hard again, but by then we were only an hour from Lake Arrowhead State Park, where we planned to spend the weekend. I managed to relax a little, I only lifted the doghouse half a dozen times on the drive. There was never any smoke coming out. So far so good. A few thousand more miles and I’ll start to trust myself.

We set up camp at Lake Arrowhead State Park, which was deserted, and settled into something we haven’t had in a long time: silence. There was just the wind in the trees and the sounds of the kids playing. A huge white-tailed buck wandered by. I forgot how peaceful it could be out here. It’s good to be back.


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