Eight days of travel. Six days driving. 1508 miles from the shores of St George Island to the shores of Lake Superior.
It was too fast. I knew it was too fast, but we wanted to get out of the heat. I was ready for the toll it takes on us, but I was not prepared for the toll it would take on the vehicles. If you do the math there, we were doing over 250 miles a day. Often considerably more since one of those days was mostly spent by the side of the road.
The first day started smooth. It was hot and we left early so we wouldn’t be driving in the heat. Everything was fine until the last 100 miles when the bus engine sudden got real loud. I pulled over and popped the doghouse to make sure an exhaust manifold hadn’t cracked. Nothing that bad fortunately, so I crawled underneath and sure enough there was the tailpipe, broken in two just past the t-joint on the passenger’s side.
I limped into the nearest town and stopped at Napa. Which was closed. I limped back to O’Reilly and went in to see what I could find to try to rejoin those two pieces. After some debate with myself I went with a thinner piece that would fit inside. I borrowed a spreader tool and tried the widen the rear section, which would have allowed a wider diameter piece to fit, but I backed off, it just seemed too brittle to possibly stretch, more likely I’d crack it. I went with the next smaller diameter piece. It fit, the problem was that I couldn’t just shove it in because that would block the flow of exhaust from the passenger’s side.
I fitted it as best I could and figured I could drill a hole and then widen that with a metal blade on my jigsaw. That would have worked, but one of the O’Reilly employees saved me a ton of time by announcing that he had a vice and a reciprocating saw in his truck. As we all should. He had welded up his own vice stand that fit in the two hitch. It was genius and I may have to copy it if I can get someone to weld it for me.
With the vent hole cut, I inserted the pipe into the other and anchored it with a machine screw. Then I fitted on the back half of the tailpipe and anchored it with another machine screw. I bought some putty and shoved an entire container of it into the cracks and wrapped it all up with a patch to seal it.
By this time it was hot and miserable and Corrinne and kids had done everything there was to do in this little Alabama town so after I bought some baling wire, we hit the road. The Jeep did not like the heat though, and the wind had drained from our day, so we ended up calling it a day and getting hotel. We stopped about fifty miles short of goal, but we figured the hotel would let us get an early start the next day.
We were on the road at 6 AM the next morning, trying to beat the heat up to Tupelo. We ended up driving over 300 miles, which I think is maybe the longest day we’ve ever done. Both vehicles ran great, though by the end of the day, when we pulled into Tombigbee State Park for the night, the supposedly heat-resistant exhaust wrap was pretty well burned off.
We pulled into the first site that looked appealing, and headed for the cold showers. So long as you stayed in the shade it was actually tolerable. We whiled away the evening playing baseball and grilling burgers. After the sun set that night, and it cooled down, I got underneath and re-wrapped the repaired joint with some header tape I had lying around and then anchored that with baling wire.
The next morning we hit the road again early and pulled off another long day up to Metropolis IL, to the same campground we stayed in last year. We took a day off the next day to get some work done, but even here we hadn’t truly escaped the heat so we didn’t linger. The only problem was that the last few miles to Metropolis the bus had been making a horrible scraping noise that sounded like it was coming from the left front wheel. I suspected either the brakes or the wheel bearings, the latter of which would be especially bad.
Leaving Metropolis I didn’t hear a thing, so I pushed on. After about 100 miles I stopped to get gas and again, once I dropped below highway speeds, there was the scrapping again. I got gas and got back on the highway, scraping until I was up to about 35 MPH and then it went away. Curious.
Then I hit a particularly large bump and heard it again. Hmm. Then something in my head screamed wheel bearings. I know I have a piece about safety third, but I don’t mess around with wheel bearings so I pulled over. Corrinne and kids joined me at a gas station. I told her I needed to get the wheel off and apart and take a look. They headed off to explore an antique store while I went off to convince a diesel mechanic to help me get the wheel off. He agreed to help, he even spun the bolts off for me, but then he had to go run an errand.
He left his tools for me, so I got the wheel apart and… the brakes looked okay. One of the wheel cylinder pins was slightly off kilter and the cylinder was leaking, but neither of those were making the scraping noise. I dug deeper and the bearings all looked okay to me.
Eventually the mechanic came back and he agreed with my assessment. Then he looked at me funny and said, “weird thing is, back down the road from here a car just blew out its wheel bearings, sheared off the whole wheel and it hit a motorcyclist. They’re all down in a ditch, they’re trying to get them out now.” We talked for a while after that. He told me some sad, sad stories about his town, his family. It was a strange stop that left me feeling like things in this country are more painfully broken than I thought.
Eventually he helped me repack the bearings and we put the wheel back together. I paid him for his time and tools and hit the road again. The scraping went away when I got above 35 and I figured if it wasn’t the wheel bearings or the brakes maybe I could just keep driving and try to puzzle it out. Which is what I did for about another 100 miles or so.
It’s tough to find camping in the middle of Illinois, but there are some county parks in the small towns. We pulled into Arthur, Illinois — mostly notable for its Amish population — not really knowing what to expect. We found a gravel lot behind the high school with electric and water. Good enough for the night.
We were also in the middle of several baseball fields so after dinner I took the kids over to watch a little league game for a couple innings. When we came back there was a softball game going at the field right in front of the bus. We sat around watching the Amish play softball against the English (that’s what the Amish call you and I). We arrived late, and the lighted scoreboard didn’t work so I don’t know who won, but the Amish were damn good and I’d be surprised if the other team won.
The next morning we hit the road early, but we decided to split up. Since stop-and-go was not good for the bus, I decided to take the interstate while Corrinne would continue on the backroads that we usually take. This worked for about 50 miles. Then I hit a bump and that was the end, the scraping became a grinding and I pulled to the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere.
It’s been a long time since I was at the side of the road with no clue what was wrong. I got out and crawled under the bus but I didn’t see anything wrong. The conclusion I came up with was that maybe the slightly crooked pin in the wheel cylinder had become worse, making the brake pad rub the drum. That didn’t feel right, but I had no other ideas. I limped along a couple of miles on the shoulder and pulled off in the tiny town of Tonika IL where there was a Casey’s gas station with a truck parking lot we could leave the bus in if we needed to. And we did.
People always ask if we’re actually as calm as I make it seem when things go wrong. It comes up enough that now Corrinne and I joke about it whenever something does happen. Are you stressed? Never.
I actually was stressed this time because we wanted to meet up with some friends the next day in Wisconsin, and I was supposed to meet a colleague who lives in Rockford for coffee that evening . None of that was going to happen and I was stressed about that. I don’t like to flake on people. But once I accepted that those things weren’t going to happen, the stress went away, and I was able to get to work. You have to start where you are, not where you wish you were.
I called around to find a new wheel cylinder and found a parts store that said they’d have it the next morning. We got a hotel for the kids and I stayed with the bus, camping in the parking lot for the night. I was at the parts store the next morning at 8 AM and… the wheel cylinder did not arrive. Actually one did, since I ordered both left and right side. The right side was there, the left was not. I got back on the phone and found a Napa that said they could have it by 2 that afternoon.
With a few hours to kill we decided to check out nearby Starved Rock State Park. It proved a very crowded, but interesting park. As with most places, a little walking and you soon left most of the crowds behind.
After the hike we ate lunch and then I went back to the bus and set about taking the wheels off so everything would be ready to go when I got the parts. Except I couldn’t get the lug nuts off. I stood and bounced on my breaker bar and they just wouldn’t move. I walked over to a Semi truck repair shop behind the gas station and borrowed a four foot long breaker bar. Still no dice. I took it back and ended up talking to the owner for a bit. He agreed to spin off the lug nuts for me so I pulled the bus over to his driveway. He listened to my story, but I could tell he didn’t think it sounded good either. We jacked it up and spun the wheel. No scrape. “Take me for a drive then,” he said.
So we did and about half way across the parking lot I started having deja vu. “Nah, that’s your drive train,” he said, “spin it back around.” I pulled it back onto the concrete and he and I and his son all crawled under to inspect the u-joints and shafts. That’s when the deja vu got stronger and all the sudden it hit me. King City, California. I will quote myself: “there was a horrible grinding noise that really sounded like wheel bearings to me.” But it wasn’t then and it wasn’t now. Once it hit me I slipped forward and there it was, the rear transmission mount had broken again. The first u-joint was hanging down, scraping against the cross member.
Once I pointed it out the owner and his sons made quick work of it. They pulled it out, welded it back together and had it back in about 10 minutes. They wouldn’t even take any money for it. Yet again we continue on by the kindness of strangers.
By then it was late in the day and we’d already paid for the hotel for another night, so I just drove over there and we went to a nearby Mexican market and got a rotisserie chicken that was pretty damn close to what we used to enjoy all the time in San Miguel.
From there on out it was a pleasant drive. We mostly stayed on the backroads, as we usually do, though I did grab the highway through Madison because the faster I get through cities, the better. We stopped off in Edgerton WI to visit the boyhood home of Sterling North, since we’d recently read his novel Rascal, which the kids loved. In fact part of Rascal takes place on the Brule river, not far from where we’ve been spending our summers in Wisconsin. I looked up where Sterling North lived and discovered that his house has been preserved, so we decided to stop.
The house is only open Sundays, so we just saw the outside, but the Methodist church caretaker happened to see us outside and asked the kids if they wanted to come into the church and ring the bell. The bell tower figures prominently in the book, but even if it didn’t, what kid doesn’t love to ring a huge bell?
I spent some time in Edgerton trying to fix the steering wheel of the Jeep, which has become rather loose, but in the end I broke off the pivot pin puller and had to put it back together the way it was. That one ratcheted up my frustration levels because it was not just nut and bolts. It was weird torx screws, steering wheel pullers, and other specialty tools. If I want to get the steering wheel of the bus it’s just one bolt. I love the Jeep, but the complexity increase from one bolt to three hours of work is not progress.
We had one other small issue that day after we left Sterling North’s house. One of the bolts that holds the alternator on to the front of the bus engine snapped off and vibrated forward until the head of it was hitting the fan, making another horrible clanging noise. For a second I did panic that time. I pulled over and it really did sound like a piece of metal was bouncing around inside the engine. Then I saw the bolt vibrating around loose and relaxed. Twenty minutes later I had rigged it up well enough to get us the rest of the way to Washburn.
We’d left the heat behind a few days before in Metropolis IL, but that night in the middle of Wisconsin was the first night it was genuinely cold. This was what we’d been wanting. We pulled out our jackets before the sun had even set. I lay for a while outside on the picnic table thinking, we did it, we actually did it.
Eight days. Only three things broke on two cars that are more than 80 years old between them.
It wasn’t until I was sitting there, staring up at the pines above our campsite, that it occurred to me that everything that had gone wrong on our drive — the broke tailpipe, the cracked rear transmission mount, the broken alternator bolt, the lose steering wheel bolts in the Jeep — all those things ultimately happened most likely because of excessive vibration. You can maybe blame some of that on general engine vibration, but two of them happened after hitting potholes.
American roads are falling apart. I remember when we first started we’d notice bad roads. Louisiana’s roads were terrible. Corrinne’s grandfather built roads in Louisiana most of his life, we’d joke that the roads were probably the same surfaces he’d help lay. I also remember thinking that highway 101 in California, just north of and down through San Francisco, was one of the worst roads in the country. The point is we noticed bad roads.
Today, we notice good roads. And there are very few of them.
Luckily for us, the last day was a pleasant and very smooth drive over what was definitely the best road surface on our entire drive. We were in Washburn by mid afternoon, tucked away in the campsite that will be our home for most of the summer. Except for when we have to get our new tailpipe made. And probably when I rebuild the front brakes. And maybe when I pull the entire engine out for a rebuild. But for now at least we have nowhere else we need to be.