Monday, June 15, 2009

Trainspotting, Bus Breaking, Now Laughing

This could be a long story. I'd like to embellish it with colorful details about various people involved - the police officers, Joe, John, Melissa, Regis, Chris, the tow truck driver, the Quincy auto parts stores - but I suspect that the mere mention of the above listed people will tell you what happened.

So... for posterity...

Joe and I set out around 3:30 pm on Friday to Trainspotting - Melissa's camp event in Twain, California, on the feather river. We left later than we wanted, but found some nice roads to take it slow on, and enjoy the zen peace of the California central valley.

The sun set behind us as we headed up the sierras. It's a pretty drive, and a slow climb to about 2000 feet. The Feather River determines it's own path through the mountains, and we are powerless to stop it, so we build bridges and tunnels that help us admire the force of nature that is running water.

Now the sun is gone, and the stars come out, and the bus headlights are illuminating the road as only a VW bus can - poorly. There is enough of a waning moon (technically a gibbous moon) to light the road, as we descend slowly and the stars do their happy dance in the sky.

Speaking of happy dances, have you ever thought deeply about the engine on your car? Robert Pirsig did in a really good philosophy book years ago. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance talks about Quality and Truth, technology in a dehumanized world, romantic and classical approaches to life, and finding beauty in good mechanical work. There is a happy dance between all the moving parts under the hood, and though we can romantically imagine a purring cat, the classicist will thing of it as series of engineered parts working as physical laws would allow. This may be correct, but it lacks a human quality that we so desire. Pirsig suggests that we can marry the two viewpoints, and that we probably need to in order to keep the technological world from destroying the central part of ourselves that is human.

So the happy dance in my engine compartment is off a few steps. Well, more accurately, it went from a waltz to floor nap just like that, a mere 10 miles from the camp site. Sputter, sputter more, dead. Is it strange that part of me grinned a little? I think I relish a challenge. So I pop open the engine compartment, shine the light, and see nothing immediate.

Note: at this stage, I return to previous experience and go for the obvious - points, condenser, rotor. No diagnosis, just assumption. In a word - Fail.

Joe and John show up, with the CHP and a series of very bright lights allow me to change to a new distributor. Turn the key, listen to the crank, and the engine just crosses its arm and shakes its head at me. About two hours later, I look at the stars and the time, and decide that tonight is not the night to fix it. The kind gentlemen of the CHP call a tow truck, and ten miles later I get dropped off in the camp site, and head over to the late night hold outs who were curious if I was going to make it. Two vodkas with cranberry juice later and I'm two sheets to the wind and two eyes on the pillow.

It's Saturday morning, and I'm greeted with french toast, sausage, and hot water for coffee. (Coffee story later.) I also get list of smiling faces, warm hugs, and the collective experience of several like-minded people who know their cars just as well.

It's fixing time, so back to the back of the bus.

Step one: I know I messed up the timing and the points on the distributor, so I take it out to set everything on it perfectly. We've tested the coil and the choke, so we've ruled out anything else. It goes back in, I crank, and still get nothing. Staring a car requires fuel and flame. We've determined that flame is not the problem. John mentions that he doesn't smell fuel. He mentioned it earlier, I ignored him. I'm stupid like that. In a pinch, always listed to John. Anyone who carries around a tent this big obviously needs it to contain his years of life experience. (This is his smaller tent. Yeah, he's that cool.)

Step two: Remove the fuel line from the carb, direct it to a cup crank the motor and see if fuel comes out of the line. It doesn't. Fuel pump. Dead. sigh. But don't let me miss the opportunity for dramatic swearing and occasional fist clenching while shouting FUEL PUMP! So for the rest of the day, I occasionally shout Fuel pump! in the same manner of William Shatner shouting KHAAAN!

Step three: Acquire fuel pump. Apparently it's easy. Chris calls his friends who do a search for me. Regis suggests that I take Melissa an here loaner syncro to Quincy and check the local flaps (Friendly Local Auto Parts Store). Napa has one. The right one. Right there. Right on!

Step four: Install. and by install, I mean 2 bolts, reconnect gas lines, and turn over engine. And that's it. Seriously. I set the timing and we're done. Eazy Peazy

Step five: Victory lap. Grin. Beer. It was a good day.

Some lessons learned. Always bring a timing light. Always listen to John. Never assume your first diagnosis is correct. Especially if it's mine. Be kind to your local CHP, they may be your only method of getting a tow truck when there is no cell phone reception. The bible of John Muir may be the start of your VW fixing adventure, but the writings of Bentley will be your finish. It helps to look at the breakdown as a challenge. Find joy in manual labor. It helps when you are fixing things.

Later that night, Regis gives me a sheet of paper to write a thought down, burn it in the camp fire, and thanks the road gods for good fortune He's right, it was lucky. The fuel pump brakes, as anything with moving parts does eventually. The laws of entropy trump the desire to go camping everytime.

But.... dude, you broke down... how are you lucky? (and thanks for asking)
The Fail: a part that may have gone under worse conditions
The Win(s): 10 miles from camp - easy to go there.
-Perfect weather
-Very nice tow truck driver who secured my bus well
-Perfect camp site
-Available parts, not too expensive
-Lots of expertise helping
-All the tools I needed
-Perfect weather for it
-Good humor the whole time
-Food made for me
-Wasn't a serious problem i.e. didn't need to drop the engine
I could go on, but you get the idea. Part of the deal of diving an old car is you must accept mechanical failure, and do everything to avoid it. When it happens, there is only one correct response. Smile, fix it, and keep moving.

More pictures here.

Thanks everyone for the kind ribbing, the moral support, the help, and the reason to laugh.


  1. Red is looking so picturesque! And it seems like it wouldn't be a proper story witout somebody's bus stopping dead. Glad you had a campsite of support and experience :)

  2. I like the Canterbury bus. Is it lowered?

  3. Somehow, at some point, I know you're going to blame this all on me and my negative bus karma.


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I have another VW. I know it's a sickness. I'm cutting and pasting the post that I put on the samba: The Back story: My grandpare...