One of the most underappreciated, least talked about aspects of repair is the hierarchy. There are repair wizards and there are newbies and there are the rest of us, somewhere between those two poles. This hierarchy of skill and experience requires that you earn your way to the top. Experts in repair are experts because they have done it, not because they think they can do it, or they say they can do it. There’s no way to fake expertise in car repair. The thing either starts or it doesn’t.
It’s a long road to expert. The more experience you gain, as you work your way up that hierarchy, the more you see the summit recede in front of you. You start to know how much you don’t know. It’s one thing to be able to do basic things like replace a head gasket, it’s a whole other thing to be able to listen to an engine and know a head gasket needs replacing. The latter is a kind of total understanding of the system that takes years, possibly decades to obtain.
To really understand a system all the way from top to bottom is to hold a total cognitive model of the thing in your mind and be able to access it intuitively. To get that is a hard won process with a steep learning curve. You will fail. You will fail over and over until you learn. I find this dynamic interesting because those are two things I truly dislike — failure and asking for help. Both are essential if you want to repair things.
I hate asking for help more than I hate failure, so for me, learning to repair anything is a trial and error and error and error and error and error and give-up-and-ask-for-help process.
This process is important. You can’t shortcut it. You need those moments of crushing failure and ineptitude. Otherwise your sense of yourself can outstrip what you’re capable of, which is usually referred to as “having an ego.” Or worse that self-image becomes so fragile you avoid situations that might force you to alter it, and when it is inevitably punctured you go all to pieces, which is worse than ego — no ego.
Fail early, fail often.
Still, it’s one thing to understand this process intellectually. It’s another to live it.
About two weeks into our stay in the Outer Banks the Jeep started acting funny. There was no definitive thing I could put my finger on, just an intuition that something was wrong inside the engine. Deep inside the engine according to my hunch. I did what anyone would do. I ignored it. Until one day it became audible on the way home from the grocery store. Thunk thunk thunk when I accelerated.
For a long time there had been a tapping sound that I somehow instinctively knew was a bent rod. Despite two mechanics telling me it wasn’t. I took off the valve covers and sure enough, there was a bent rod. But that wasn’t all, I ran the engine with the covers off and realized one of the exhaust rods was no longer lifting the tappet. This was on one of the two cylinders that always had slightly sooty spark plugs when I checked them. So far it all made sense. I ordered some rods and some new lifters.
Unfortunately the heads on the AMC 360 engine do not allow you to extract the lifters. I had to pull the intake manifold off. I didn’t want to do that at a campsite in the sand dunes so I rented a storage unit to work on it and had it towed up.
It took me two days to unhook everything and get the intake manifold off. I pulled out the lifter in question. The bottom of it, which rides the cam lobe, was worn down a good 3/16th of an inch. It was then that I realized my original hunch was right, the problem was deeper, I was treating symptoms. The nagging suspicion that I was out of my depth and plain wrong began to set in.
Since I was waiting on new lifters I thought I might as well take off the passenger’s side head. The Jeep had always leaked oil toward the rear of the engine on that side. It was almost impossible to see where the leak was coming from, but I thought maybe the head gasket was bad. It turned out I was wrong. Fail number one, but that one was minor, a wasted morning and $40 for a new head gasket. I put the head back on and torqued it down.
At that point I’d spent the better part of three days hanging out alone in a storage unit, talking to my GoPro as I recorded everything I did. Still, I was optimistic, I was having fun. We weren’t due to leave for another five days. I had time.
Then the parts got delayed. Thoughts about opportunity costs started to creep in. I spent a day thinking about all the other things I could be doing. Everything has opportunity costs. I could be playing with the kids in the dunes, visiting with friends, writing things I wanted to write. Instead I went back and forth between the storage unit, the mailbox to check on parts, and various parts stores. Still, I was optimistic.
Long before I ever did any vehicle repairs I rationalized not doing them by saying that I could earn more money working the hours I’d be working on the vehicle, so it “made more sense” to pay someone else to do it. This kind of “sense” only really makes sense on a spreadsheet though. The truth is I was scared to try repairing anything because I didn’t have a clue how to do it and knew I’d probably screw it up.
I started to think about that rationalization from the opposite direction though — does it make sense to spend this much time working on a vehicle when what I really want to do is enjoy a warm day with my family or taking pictures of the dunes at sunrise?
One day I was sitting in the storage unit drinking coffee and I realized, I am done with this. This isn’t the way I want to spend my time, my family’s time. The Jeep is an incredible vehicle and I love it. If we lived in a house and I could work on it when I felt like it, it’d be perfect. But that’s not how it works on the road. There’s the added pressure of time, the need to move on. The Outer Banks was getting colder every day. We were waking up to frost on the windows and clouds of breath in the air. We needed to be in Edisto for Christmas. We’re supposed to spend January on the Georgia coast. All of these things felt like they might be slipping away, and for what? So we could drive the Jeep? Is that what we’re doing here?
And yet, the Jeep is by far the best car I’ve ever driven. It is an absolute joy when it’s running well. The kids love it. We all love it. I hated to give up on it.
The lifters finally arrived and I put everything back together. I left the valve covers off so I could make sure the new lifter was working. The kids came with me that day, and I let my daughter start it so I could watch the engine. It turned over and caught. But the thunking noise was still there. And that was when I realized oil was only coming out of the rod that I’d replaced. Not out of any other rods. That’s when I knew something else was wrong. I was out of my depth. I had failed. It hadn’t even occurred to me that oil should have been shooting out of all the rods all the times I’d started it with the valve covers off. That should have been extremely messy and it never was, something else was wrong. My uncle suggested the oil pump was probably dead. Either way, I was out of time, we had to get moving if we were going to make Christmas down south.
I punted. I called the mechanic I’d almost called to begin with. He said he didn’t have room for it on his lot and couldn’t get to it until after the holidays. Damn. I called some other mechanics, none of whom really grabbed me but I had to do something. I settled on one, called a tow truck, and sat down to wait for it. The original mechanic called me back. He said he’d make room, bring it on by. I took that as a sign, redirected the tow truck and dropped it off.
I took everything out of it, somehow found room for it in the bus and we hit the road with everyone in the bus, something we haven’t done in years. It’s fun to travel that way, but not terribly practical for us right now.
A few days later the mechanic called with bad news. The engine was a mess, the cam was blown and half a dozen other things had gone wrong. It needed to be completely rebuilt. Corrinne and I talked. Then we talked some more. We love the Jeep, but in the end, it was just too much to keep going with our life on the road. One engine to repair is enough. We decided to move on and put it up for sale. I’d like to see someone else rebuild it. It’s a great car. But it’s not for us right now. I’ll miss the Jeep, but it’s time to get back to what we love about this life.