Stop Breaking Down

A rough start, but eventually we’ll get there.

I had a bad feeling pulling out of Washburn. The bus sat for nearly four months this summer. The bus hates sitting. I had time to drive it to the upholstery shop and back and that was the extent of my test driving. I was hoping, whatever was going to break, would do it in a populous area with an auto parts store.

To dash my hopes, our first stop was the Keweenaw peninsula, the long arm of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that sticks out into Lake Superior. In an already remote place, the Keweenaw is even more remote. That’s very much the kind of place we enjoy though, the outer edges, the forgotten places that the 21st century, and in some cases most of the 20th century, has passed over. The Keweenaw isn’t as unknown as it once was, but it’s still out there.

Fortunately for us the bus made it less than 50 miles before it died in a Walmart parking lot. One minute it was cranking over, about to start, and then boom, dead. Not even a click when I turned the key. Well, well. Electrical issues were not what I had expected to go wrong, but I went and dug out my multimeter (which I’m pretty sure is my most used tool), and started checking connections.

My instinct was that the starter relay was bad (or remote solenoid as some people call it). It went bad once long ago, before we even hit the road, and left me stranded at a dump station. That’s the sort of thing you remember. I swapped out the relay with an extra one I carry, but nothing changed. Damn.

When I bent down by the starter relay and listened closely I could hear it attenuating, or at least it sounded like something was happening and really it’s a pretty simple device, a coil is charged and two pieces of metal touch, completing the circuit and sending the charge on to the starter, which then turns the flywheel.

I’ve seen quite a few mechanics complaining that over the last few years the quality of parts have done a nose dive. Maybe I’d replaced a dead relay with a dead relay? I called a local parts shop to see if they had a relay but they’d have to order it and it wouldn’t be there until Monday. Damn.

One of the things I learned at that dump station long ago was that you can bypass the relay by using a screwdriver to bridge the gap. I did that and she cranked up. Pretty sure I’d solved the problem, I quickly packed up my tools and figured I’d just get another relay somewhere down the road.

As I was pulling out of the Walmart parking lot, smoke began pouring out from under the dash and a strong electrical smell of melting plastic filled my nose. Then some burning wire dropped on the ground between my feet. I quickly hooked the bus back around, parked it in a corner, grabbed my fire extinguisher and started tearing apart the front of the bus looking for the source of the fire. Thankfully stopping the bus had stopped the short and there was no fire.

Still, having hung around Travco forums and other places online, I’ve heard my share of electrical horror stories.To head that off I had re-wired everything related to the house batteries, and I replaced the old glass fuse panel under the dash with a modern one. But the “wiring harness” of the Travco is a rat’s nest of chaos. It seems to have come that way from the factory as far as I can tell. Whatever the case, I was feeling like I’d just cheated the mechanical gods with so small a fire and I wasn’t about to hit the road again until I knew everything was good with the wiring.

The problem was: was the fire related to the engine not starting? Or something totally unrelated? It seemed mighty coincidental to have an electrical fire right after you were messing with the wiring, so I figured they must be related.

I found the remains of the wire on the back of the instrument panel and it turned out to be one of two wires going into a single blade. The other wire went to the windshield wiper, which made it a reasonable assumption to think the other probably went to the other windshield wiper switch. I pulled out the manual and looked over the wiring diagram. The wiring diagram had every instrument and dial on the dash. Except the windshield wiper switch. Damn.

At this point I’d been troubleshooting the wiring for a couple of hours. In six years of traveling we’ve never spent a night in a Walmart parking lot, but it was beginning to look a lot like we weren’t going to move. We called AAA, thinking that it’d be easier to do whatever work needed to be done back in Washburn. We called at 2 PM, they said it’d be about an hour. We made some lunch. AAA called back and said they didn’t know when a tow truck was coming.

I kept testing wires. I went through the whole ignition harness and everything tested fine. I moved on to the relay, which now was giving me nothing on the starter side. Hmm. I decided, since I had nothing else to do, I might as well pull the starter and have it bench tested, so I did. When I did I noticed that one wire from the relay to the starter was pressed up against the transmission lines and the insulation had melted. Not good. I went ahead and took the starter to the auto parts store and had it tested. It was fine.

I came back and re-installed the starter and made a new wire to replace the melted one. I also bent the transmission line down some so it wouldn’t touch the wire. That’s when I realized I had probably bent it when I installed the exhaust. That felt like the problem to me, but it still wouldn’t start, which confused me.

By now it was painfully obvious that AAA was useless. I could see the towing shop they claimed they’d called across the street, so I called them and asked if AAA had contacted them. They had not. Corrinne called AAA back and found that the person entering our info had listed us as an A108 van, which is about 1/3 our size. She got a manager who promised he’d have a tow truck there in an hour. An hour later, guess what wasn’t there?

By now I’d given up hope of going back to Washburn. Olivia made dinner while I kept testing and trying to follow the wiring diagram. It started to get dark not long after that, so we called it a night — our first in a Walmart parking lot. I’ve spent quite a few nights in various parking lots with the bus and I have to say, Walmart was by far the best.

The next morning I was up and at it after an early breakfast. My plan was to rewire everything related to the ignition. Before I got started though, a couple came over to say hi. They turned out to also own a Travco, and lived just down the road. I told him we were having electrical issues and he offered to help. He went through basically everything I’d done the day before (which made me feel like at least I was on the right track), and ended up at the same point: the relay. Could it be as simple as having replaced a bad relay with a bad relay?

Chris called a friend of his who was a Mopar guy and said to bring the relays by and he’d bench test them. He also thought he had a spare lying around. So I jumped in Chris’s car and we went over to his friend’s house which turned out to have a massive shop with more tools than some professional mechanics have on offer. When we got there he was welding new tension rods for a model A he was restoring.

He bench tested the relays and they were both bad. Chris then opened them up and they were both broken in the same way. Odd. While the relay was clearing the breaking point, what was breaking it? Chris’s friend dug out an old relay. It was from a manual transmission so it didn’t have the neutral safety switch (which means it would start in drive, which doesn’t matter in a manual because the clutch is engaged), but otherwise it was a working relay.

We headed back to the bus and installed it. She fired right up. By that time Chris and I had worked out that probably the wire touching the transmission line had sent current back up and burned out both relays. His friend called a few minutes later and said, you know, I was thinking, that wire you mentioned that melted, that’s gotta be what blew out the relays.

Problem solved. The melted wire we decided was just an unlucky coincidence, a result most likely of me bumping a wire when I testing the ignition wires.

Chris and his wife invited us over to check out their Travco, which we did. It was a couple years later than ours, and strangely had some parts from a 1972 and some from a 1973, making it one of the more unusual models I’ve ever seen. Chris had replaced the 413 with a 440 engine and swapped out most of the drive train to get disk brakes in the front. I have no doubt it screams up mountains. I also liked Chris’s collection of motorcycles, most of which he’d built out of spare parts.

After chatting for a bit, thanking them profusely for getting us back on the road, we headed out again, bound for the Keweenaw. We made it to Fort McLain, about half way up, and called it a day. We woke up the next morning on the shore of Lake Superior.

We’d had reservations for the weekend, but we were supposed to head on that morning. We liked the look of the place though and decided we’d try to stay. We were hunting for a vacant site online when the person next to us mentioned that their site was first-come first-served and they were headed out that morning. Perfect. I went down and booked it for two more nights and we pulled the bus over.

The next day I took the kids back to the town of Houghton, which has a park called Chutes and Ladders that their friends back in Washburn (who have a cabin up here) had been telling them about. I was a little worried that it might have been overhyped, but I was wrong. It was probably the best playground/slide setup I’ve ever seen, including parks you have to pay for, and this one was free.

houghton, a great place to live photographed by luxagraf
Houghton, a nice place to live… except for the zombie fishermen.

The kids liked it so much Corrinne took them back the next day while I got some work done. In fact, we like camping on the edge of the lake enough that we figured we’d extend our stay. At about 11 AM on the day we were supposed to check out, Corrinne went down to extend our stay and… found out that in Michigan people can buy your camp site out from under you. No one in Michigan seemed to see anything amiss about this, but I can assure you Michigan, this is not normal. In every other campground we have stayed in seven years of living on the road, a first-come, first-served site is not vacant until the current occupant leaves. There are no exceptions to this. State parks in 36 states, national parks, forest service campgrounds, state forest campgrounds, country parks, city parks, metro parks. Never an exception. Except Michigan state parks, where occupation counts for nothing.

No wonder Michigan is hotbed of militia, these poor people have been having the government steal their campsites all their lives. I’d be pissed too. I was pissed. But not really at the policy. That is what it is. Silly, and dare I say unAmerican, but to my way of thinking, Michigan is free to do what Michigan wants and I am free to go elsewhere. What blew my mind was that the woman working in the front office totally went crazy on Corrinne when Corrinne pushed back and said, hey, that’s not how it works everywhere else, where does it say that here? The woman exploded in front of the kids, swearing and telling Corrinne “I have a fucking Ph’D, I came here to get a break.”

Now it just seems funny to me—just one more ridiculous person working at one more misguided government institution, but at the time I was very mad. I went back up told that woman exactly what I thought of her and her Ph’D. Corrinne is very southern and polite and nice even when people swear at her. I was born in Los Angeles. I am not nice to people who swear at my wife.

In the end, what are you going to do? We packed up in a hurry and headed out, bound for points farther north.


Gwen Macallister October 05, 2023 at 2:44 p.m.

We stayed at that park last summer and had a really good experience. Loved camping right near Lake Superior. It happened to be pretty hot when we were there , so the kids had no problem playing in frigid Lake Superior for the better part of a day. Maybe PhD lady wasn’t there last summer!

andrew October 05, 2023 at 10:08 p.m.

thank you again for adding all the color of another lived path. i still can’t seem to muster enough energy and motivation to do my taxes - nevermind get my Cortez rolling again - or even out of the driveway. helpful to see an inspirational story of fortitude, adventure - and even the goodwill/good “samaritanship” coming from different corners of the country/continent. keep it up! keep it all up!

Scott October 06, 2023 at 8:54 a.m.


It was not warm while we were there, but that did not stop our kids. I was actually going to ask you if you had any recommendations for the Keweenaw because I remember you going last year, but then I realized there’s really only 2-3 places to go. Not a huge place, but a great one.


Once you start going, things tend to fall in place I’ve found. Usually. Either way, overcoming inertia is always the hardest part. And stay tuned, more Samaritan stories coming next week.

Gwen October 07, 2023 at 1:20 p.m.

Did you visit the copper mine? (Part of Keweenaw National Historical Park) Our kids really enjoyed that experience. I would definitely recommend it!

Scott October 07, 2023 at 4:55 p.m.


We did not. We talked about it, and probably would have if we hadn’t had to leave McClain, but since we had to keep going we ended up skipping it. Next time.


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