september 1 2008 : portland, oregon, usa
We boogied right on through Canada this time, stopping only to eat and fill up. It rained pretty much right up to the border anyway. We felt like that Pigpen character who always had the dust cloud following him, only for us it was a black rain cloud above us.
Surprisingly American customs wasn’t much friendlier towards us than the Canadians. I’m convinced it is the bus. Apparently customs officers think it is still the 60s and every VW bus is packed solid with weed. Either that or it is Ali’s shifty eyes and nervous twitching.
On the way down the highway yesterday we were cruising at 55 for a couple of hours when I took my foot off the gas and realized the bus wasn’t slowing down. The accelerator was stuck, just like cruise control. I pumped the pedal a couple of times, but that didn’t do anything. That’s when Ali realized something was wrong and got a little panicky. I shifted into neutral and the engine sounded like it was going to explode, but at least I knew I could get it in neutral and we still had brakes. After that we relaxed and began looking for an exit. As we came up on one I gave the pedal a few more pumps and whatever the problem was finally came undone. I’m still not sure what exactly caused that, but it has ran fine since.
Portland, OR, to Portland, OR on this last leg of the trip: 11,475 miles, 67 days, three oil changes, one flat tire, hundreds of large animals, two safari window rock chips, three front end dented rock chips, dozens of friendly people, and 87 gallons of rain water mopped up off the dashboard.
september 5 2008 : portland
I have to say this has been one of our more productive weeks. Bus projects are being rattled off at an alarming pace. We’ve finally gotten a shipping quote, albeit a ridiculous one. And we even managed to get told to be quiet and then cut-off at a pizza joint. I have to place the blame squarely on our friends Maggie and Berkeley, because Ali wasn’t even up to a level three volume before the pizza boy was complaining to us about not being able to hear the phone ring. Ahh well, like they always say, there’s other pizza in the sea.
Yesterday I crawled under the bus with a new brake light switch, a four dollar part that we probably should have tracked down six weeks ago but didn’t. I replaced the switch and then piled my two tool bags on the brake pedal. I walked to the back of the bus, and saw nothing but two unlit taillights. I was extremely disappointed and told Ali I didn’t know what the problem was but that I’d probably have to rewire the whole thing because I’d checked it all out and was sure that this switch was going to solve the problem. So an hour later I’m still out tinkering on the bus and Ali comes out and says, “Press the brake.” I humored her and pressed it down. “That’s the brakes?” she yelled. Turns out my bags weren’t pressing the pedal hard enough, and the brake light was in fact flaming brightly.
I’ve lubed up everything on the bus, cleaned and detailed my engine compartment, changed the oil, adjusted the valves, etc.. Meanwhile Ali has been cleaning every square inch inside and out. Flat tire fixed, window chips repaired, we’re ready to roll another 25,000 miles.
We also did an interview with Radio Margaritaville which will hit the air next week sometime. So those of you with Sirius make sure and tune in.
september 8 2008 : portland
The front page headline in the Portland paper today screams IS MEXICO SAFE? DEATH FUELS DEBATE. The facts of the story aren’t reported on the front page though, and that is the part that drives me nuts. Here are the facts as reported earlier in the week. An Oregon man and his wife flew to Cabo for a vacation after his commercial fishing season ended. One night they got high on marijuana, cocaine, and meth. The man then got in a fight and stabbed an innocent Mexican man 7 times. Police arrived and a group of them were finally able to control, handcuff, and take him away. An hour later he was found dead in his cell. Dead of asphyxia. The general consensus is that the cops beat him to death. Maybe, maybe not.
Now back to the headline, IS MEXICO SAFE? The answer clearly is absolutely not. If you love to get high out of your mind on meth and coke, then you should definitely stay in the U.S. If you love to attack strangers and attempt to murder them while stoned then you should probably not go there. In fact, I’d say just to be on the safe side, even if you don’t enjoy a good crack pipe now and then, that you should probably stay home. Meanwhile, Ali and I are leaving tomorrow and heading for Mexico and Central America to conduct some more research on this critical issue of safety. We’ll be testing the safety of everything from fish tacos to cervezas, and paying special attention to the safety of the sunny beaches on our white bodies.
september 9 2008 : prineville, oregon, usa
On our way again and it feels like a new chapter is beginning. The bus feels fantastic; having been aired out, cleaned from top to bottom, waxed, lubed, tightened, and topped off. Before hitting the road a nice neighbor lady came by to see us off and give us one last dire warning.
Ominously she said, “Be very careful in Mexico.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“It can be dangerous.”
I played along, “What can?”
“Well, the police and stuff.”
“Really? We were stopped by the police dozens of times and never had any problems.”
“Hmmph. A good friend of my daughter got in a bad car accident back in the 70s and the police saved her but wouldn’t save her husband no matter how much she begged them to.”
I said, “That’s a weird story.”
“Well,” she said, “That’s what happened. The police are bad, and there’s bad people too.”
I asked, “Did you watch the news last night?”
“Yes, yes, I know, but that’s different.”
She’s a sweet lady in her 80s and has lived and traveled extensively throughout Europe and the States, yet somehow she has still gotten it in her head that once you cross that border to our south there is nothing but drug runners, cops on the take, and poor people who will rob you blind the second you turn your head. It’s amazing to me how wholeheartedly people can buy into these stereotypes.
We were quickly out of Portland and headed east up and over Mount Hood and then into hot, flat, dry farm country. Everything around us was dusty brown except for the irrigated green fields and the bright blue sky. With temps in the 80s, the windows wide open, a new empty road in front of us, and Ali’s long blonde hair blowing in circles over her shoulders, I thought to myself that it really couldn’t get much better. Seriously, if I could spend every day of my life just driving like that, I would be content.
september 10 2008 : rock springs, oregon, usa
“I love flip-flops,” Ali said as she slipped them off and tucked her feet underneath her butt on the seat beside me. I glanced over and, with my eyebrows raised, said, “Yep, no more socks, undies, or bra. This is why we must stay in warm weather at all times.” She punched me in the arm but conceded that yes, wearing just two articles of clothing is infinitely preferable to the seven or eight she was wrapping herself up in just a couple of weeks back. Now, in just a pair of bell-bottom jeans and a flowing tank-top she is back to perfecting the hippie chic look without even trying. I know I just said this yesterday, but I really would be content to spend every day like this.
The weather has been incredible since we arrived back in Oregon and today’s drive was really nice too. So nice in fact that we only made it about 150 miles, cruising leisurely along through desert, forest, and mountains. Oregon really has about every type of terrain imaginable.
september 12 2008 : alvord desert, oregon, usa
Southeastern Oregon is terrific bus driving territory. We just spent a couple more great days tooling along through the mountains and desert. The terrain seems to change all the time. Yesterday we stopped in Burns to fill up the gas tank and grab lunner. Burns is the sort of place I would consider a small town, but out in this area of the state it is a hub. It is where the folks from Frenchglen and Fields drive two or three hours to get to on a Friday night for high school football. The high school, according to the sign out front, was sponsored by Coke and Macca’s. I guess that’s easier than raising taxes to pay for school books and a football field. In a subtle act of defiance Ali and I pulled into Dairy Queen for cheeseburgers and shakes.
From Burns there was nothing and nobody on the road toward Steens Mountain. In fact the only people we saw the rest of the day were carrying binoculars, and wearing fanny packs and floppy hats. This, apparently, is bird watching territory. The roads themselves seemed to be built simply for the convenience of two or three farmers, because aside from them there was absolutely nothing out here for roughly a hundred miles. We cruised along at forty-five and detoured for every scenic loop that the road threw at us, and surprisingly there were quite a few.
At the end of the day we pulled onto the Steens Mountain loop road and pulled into the first campground. Then this morning we went out to tackle it. The Steens Mountain road climbs to the highest pass in Oregon somewhere around 9300 feet or so. The thing is though is that you can hardly tell you are climbing or that you are even on a mountain at all until you near the end. The Steens Mountain is like a thirty mile long bluff that climbs gradually from the west and then from the summit plummets over 5000 feet straight down to the Alvord desert below it to the east.
The road turned out to be possibly our worst ever. We’re accustomed to washboard roads, usually lasting a few hundred feet at a time before leveling out for a while and popping up again. This road however was sixty continuous miles of bus rattling washboard. It never stopped even once. We began to look forward to the cattle grates because they were smoother than the road. Fortunately the payoff from the top, looking along a couple of glacier carved valleys that seemed as deep as the Grand Canyon and then off the sheer east side to the dry desert lake beds below, was worth it.
Along the way we stopped to watch a few hundred sheep trot down a hillside into a valley where they all huddled, loudly, and munched on the dry grass. The rancher and his wife drove by and stopped to talk. They were a cute old couple that looked to be straight out of the 19th century. It turns out they sort of were, as their families, Basques from Spain, had settled here sometime soon after the Gold Rush. Angrily the man pointed at a huge plume of smoke coming from over the hill, The BLM and NPS wouldn’t let them graze those lands anymore, only the private lands. The U.S. could stop importing meat if they’d just let farmers use the parks he said. Instead they wasted taxpayer money on controlled burns. “But what can I do, except get mad.”
At the end of the road we took stock and found that we had a flat. The same tire that went flat on us way back in Canada. But when we brought it in last week they couldn’t find a puncture so they just threw it back on. We then zipped down the road another fifty miles to the town of Fields, which is simply two houses, and a gas station/liquor store/diner. They were just shutting down the grill so they could all head up to Burns for some fun, but they threw a couple more burgers on for us and let us fill up the bus before they left.
From there it was just another thirty miles back up another uncomfortably washboarded out road to the dry lake bed we’d seen earlier in the day from high up above. Ali wasn’t too sure about driving out on the lake, worried that we’d get stuck somehow, but I convinced her that we would follow another set of tracks out to the middle and if they disappeared into quicksand we would stop. Our timing out onto the lake couldn’t have been better, with about thirty minutes left before the sun disappeared behind the mountains the light was amazing. The sky never looked so blue, the mountains in the distance seemed to blaze orange, while the salty sand beneath our tires glowed white. It was beautiful, quiet, and best of all, lonely.
september 13 2008 : winnemucca, nevada, usa
In the morning we packed up and drove a few miles up the road to the Alvord Hot Springs. What a mistake. This place confirmed every disgusting vision we’ve ever had of sharing a hot water bath with strangers. When we arrived we found a naked guy sitting in the big cement hot tub scrubbing away at himself. He looked up at us and said, “Aren’t these springs great after a few days on the road? It feels so good to get cleaned off.” Yeah, great. Trying not to be a total germaphobe I climbed into the second tub, up to my chest, while Ali sat on the edge and dipped her feet in. After about two minutes of that we’d had enough. I don’t foresee many more hot springs in our future.
We were soon in Nevada. I always like driving in Nevada, and I don’t know why. It should rank as extremely boring. When they built roads here there was obviously nothing to impede their progress. The roads stretch straight as a ruler for ten, twenty, thirty miles at a time. Generally we can see the road as far as the next set of mountains where it climbs straight up in front of us. This usually appears to be two or three miles away, but then thirty minutes later we’re still chugging along trying to reach the bottom of that hill.
Early in the afternoon we came across the good sized town of Winnemucca where we washed the bus of a healthy accumulation of dust, and then checked into a campground to do the same to ourselves.
september 14 2008 : outside austin, nevada, usa
I was just looking at a couple of those pictures that Ali included on the last update and realized just how small our home is. It’s sort of funny because we get a lot of email from people who say they think they’d like to travel around in a bus too. Quite a few of them you can tell have never been in a bus. Which is fine, either had we before we bought ours, but we also didn’t anticipate quite the lavish lifestyle that some people do. Microwaves, televisions, espresso makers, sure you could probably squeeze them in there somewhere but have a look at that picture of our bed and you kind of have to wonder how exactly. I mean, our bed isn’t even two pillows wide. And look at me in that driver’s seat; I look like I’m wedged into a clown car. Yet despite it all we sit here night after night and rave about how much we love our bus. I’ve heard Ali say it a hundred times, “I like my home.” It’s times like that that I realize just how much we’ve changed, and how happy we can be with what just a few years ago would have seemed like so little.
Today we drove through Nevada desert. Long lonely roads that seem to lead nowhere. Highway 50 is actually called “The Loneliest Road in America.” I don’t know if that is true, but we did drive 45 miles at one point today without passing another car, and that’s with us doing 45 in a 70. Towards late afternoon we passed through Austin, a junction town, which had a couple points of interest.
First was the hilltop castle. A prominent mining family built a three story castle here back in 1867. Castle might be a stretch, at 15′ by 15′ straight up for 30′, but it still had that castle look to it. The story read that the family then lived there for two months that year. It said from then on it remained unoccupied, which seemed pretty amazing to me. The place was really cool looking, and had an amazing view of the desert below; it seemed surprising that somebody didn’t come along in the next hundred years or so and move in. But there it stands, a fenced off monument to a rich man who had once visited Italy and taken a fancy to a certain castle there.
In town stood an even more important monument, a bar that had been put into operation in 1860. I could almost hear the rich mine owner a few short years later say, “You know, I reckon I’ll have a castle built up on the hill over yonder.” On the woodwork of the bar itself was still the imprint of the company that built it. Sitting there drinking a beer and looking in the mirror you could still envision a row of card tables with drunken gamblers losing their weeks pay from the mine, but nowadays it was just a row of slot machines to fleece a few lonely old men. Nothing is more depressing to me than watching people who can’t afford it flush twenty dollars down a video poker machine. But hey, to liven the place up there was a life size painting of a nude redhead with Farrah Fawcett hair. That would brighten the day of even the biggest slot loser.
september 16 2008 : glendale, utah, usa
We spent the night in a free campground, which Nevada is chock full of, and then continued down the loneliest road the next morning. We drove pretty much all day long with only a handful of cars passing by and only one or two small towns struggling to stay alive off of them. Crossing into Utah that afternoon there seemed to be very little difference. Public lands stretched to the mountains in every direction, with nothing to break up the view. We pulled off on a random dirt road and camped among the bleached cattle bones and the jackrabbits.
In the morning something got into me and I decided to climb a nearby hill (also known as a mountain in Minnesota). Ali sat below drinking coffee and talking to me as I went. It was so quiet and so desolate out there that we could hold a conversation from 200 yards away without raising our voices. On my way back down I somehow got myself in a little trouble when I started a boulder avalanche. When the rocks started sliding it took my mind a couple of seconds to realize that I could actually be in trouble. Six inch round rocks were rolling down the hill and smashing up my flip-flop clad feet. Every attempt I made to scramble away just set off a bigger rock slide. When I finally jumped clear I started down a different route. Fifty yards away I realized the camera was no longer in my pocket. I swore, forgetting that Ali could hear everything I said. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Crap.
I found the camera in a pile of rocks, still working, and we set off again. Further into Utah we hit the real mountains and the weather started to change on us real quick. We climbed up to one pass at 9,900 feet in second gear, and at the top found that it was snowing/sleeting/hailing. I don’t know exactly what it was but when it hit the windshield it exploded into a baseball sized splatter of snow. Along this drive we also found what appeared to be a deer mass suicide. We have never before seen so much road kill. Deer littered the road for the next fifty miles. We soon realized why, when one monster pickup truck after another flew past us along the narrow forest clad road. After a week of seeing maybe ten cars a day it had us a little off balance and we were happy to pull into an RV park for the night.
september 17 2008 : red rock canyon, utah, usa
“I hadda…” I can’t tell you how many stories we have heard start like that. I hadda ’67, I hadda a ’71 back in college, My daddy hadda ’56 when I was growing up. That’s what makes driving around in the bus so much fun. It’s incredible how many memories this thing provokes in people, and how eager they are to share those memories with us. I should interview every person that says those words to us and put it all down in a book. There’d be some fun stories in there.
Another fun thing about the bus is when we run into Germans, which surprisingly is pretty often. Today we came out of a diner to find a couple of guys peeking in the bus, laughing, and slapping each other on the back. Obviously having a good time. “Izzz zees your Volksvaaahgen?” Then comes the line that always makes me smile, “Aahhhh, vee are from Germany.” Your kidding, I would have never guessed. The Germans absolutely love to see the bus though, taking great national pride in it.
Today while we stood there talking we gathered a Euro crowd. Soon we had a family from Holland over admiring it. When we told them about the plans for our trip they all quickly jotted down their addresses and said we must look them up. Then one of the ladies said to us, “Yes, you must come stay with us. And you can use our shower.” If we hadn’t just showered two hours earlier I might have been offended, but I think it was just more that she couldn’t understand how we could travel like that. Before the party broke up another chap ran across the road to tell us that he had driven a bus all the way down Route 66 back in ’71. More bus memories.
From there we drove into Zion National Park. I don’t know if Ali and I are becoming jaded, or if we are simply becoming so averse to crowds of tourists, but almost immediately we were ready to turn around. Unfortunately the park ranger had already snatched our twenty-five dollars. Cars and buses lined the road down into the canyon, which was quite beautiful, but ruined for us by our sour mood. I used to think that we’d slip right back into downtown Chicago life someday, but now I don’t know any more. At the bottom of the canyon we found that we would have to board a shuttle bus to take us further into the park. When we found the parking lot completely full that was the final straw for us. We turned the bus around and drove right back up, stopping for one quick hike along the way. In our minds the whole park just had a Disneyland feel to it. That’s fine sometimes, but we were just in no mood for it.
september 19 2008 : blue ridge, arizona, usa
Yesterday I had a look at the map and picked out a suitably deserted looking road, figuring that we’d just pull off somewhere and camp for the night. That road turned out to run through the Navajo Indian Reservation. It was deserted, but the only public appearing roads through the miles of barbed wire fencing led onto 4×4 trails that were a bit soft and uninviting for us in the bus. For hours we continued on hemmed in by the fences, passing through towns without even noticing that is what they were. Places with appealing names such as Cow Springs. Eventually we drove into Tuba City, which was like being in an entirely different country. You could be fooled for a minute by the abundance of fast food joints, but one look at the trash heaped in the ditches and the packs of stray dogs running everywhere and we knew something had changed.
This morning we woke to find that one of my flip-flops had disappeared in the night. The resident mutt had made off with it in the night. We found it after a few minutes of searching with a good chunk missing from the toe. Next to it was a chewed up milk carton and a torn up loaf of bread. Later when a sad looking mutt in heat tried to climb on our laps to get away from the ravenous male following her everywhere we decided that we just had to get out of town. We’re in Arizona for goodness sake; we aren’t supposed to be worrying over stray dogs here.
Today took us through Winslow, Arizona, probably one of the most famous corners in the world. The town doesn’t amount to much though. On the corner itself are a couple of tourist shops blasting Eagles music 24/7, and one block further on is nothing. A mile down the road are the fast food joints and the ramp to the interstate.
september 22 2008 : show low, arizona (175 nights in the bus : 30,140 miles)
Busy weekend. A couple days back we drove down to Phoenix to visit some new Bum friends. The drive there took us along one particularly long stretch of road filled with stoplights through suburbia. No big deal in a normal car, as they were all rolled up with the air conditioning cranking, but at a hundred and four degrees the bus was like a toaster oven. We must have looked ridiculous to the well heeled senior citizens all around us.
Jim and Lara welcomed us to their home, got us settled and then took us out for poker night with their friends. We didn’t think it would be polite to take all of their money so we threw half of our six dollar buy in. A fair exchange for dinner anyway. At six the next morning we were at the airport, trying desperately to beat the heat. The flight was beautiful. The mountains, mesas, volcanoes, lakes, and desert provided interesting diversity to the startlingly blue sky. Out near the canyon we dropped down and landed on a tiny air strip in the town of Marble Canyon.
After breakfast we were off again, this time flying over the Grand Canyon itself. Standing on the edge of the Canyon you think you get a sense of the size of it, but from the air you can truly appreciate just how Grand it really is. Awesome. Continuing towards home we flew over Meteor Crater, where I believe some 50,000 years ago a giant meteor slammed into the earth. The part of the story I liked was that a hundred years ago some guy figured out the hole wasn’t a volcano but was in fact caused by a meteor. He then quickly made a claim on the land, somehow hoping that the meteor was made of gold. It wasn’t, but once the government learned it was a meteor they bought him out anyway.
Anyway, it was great to be treated like royalty for a couple of days, but like the sign in the guesthouse said, After Three Days, Guests like Fish, Stink!
Today we were on the road again. We somehow got lost in what seemed to be a never ending series of housing developments. I’ve found that city planners are making it tougher and tougher to get around a city without simply hopping on the interstates. We eventually flagged down a cop who pointed us in the right direction and soon we were back in the mountains.
In the afternoon we stopped for gas and to put air in our slowly leaking tire. When I got down to put the air in I could clearly hear a hissing sound like an air leak. I thought that was a little odd since it seemed to be leaking so slowly but filled it up and didn’t think much more of it. After we ate lunner we got back on the road and I noticed pretty much right away that the brakes didn’t feel right. I had to press the pedal nearly to the floor and even then wasn’t getting much of a response. Of course we were going up and down 8,000 foot mountains at the time. At the bottom of one particularly long decent I pulled over and climbed underneath to have a look. Right away I noticed a brake fluid mess all over the inside of the hissing tire.
Obviously we were losing brake fluid; and a lot of it. I got out the manual and figured out that it was the wheel cylinder, and it would have to be replaced or rebuilt. Then I checked the brake fluid reservoir and found it was almost completely empty. I don’t think we would have had any brakes at all after another hill or two. Fortunately I had a bottle of fluid and was able to top us off, bleed the brakes quickly, and get us back on the road for the final fifty miles of mountains before the next big town. The goal now was to use the brakes as little as possible, so we drove in third gear up and down hill upon hill, waving car after car past us. We made it to the town of Show Low in one piece and were happy to find four different major auto parts stores all within view of each other. Nobody had the part we needed, but we found one who promised us they could have it there at nine a.m. so we ordered it up and headed for the nearest State Forest to settle in for the night.
september 24 2008 : roswell, new mexico, usa
We woke up yesterday morning to find the bus sitting on a rim. Our slow leak had won the battle at last. I popped on the spare and we took off to get the tire fixed before picking up our parts. While waiting for the tire Ali was sitting in the parking lot when she noticed a steady drip coming from underneath the front of the bus. Immediately it dawned on me that it was brake fluid coming out of the master cylinder, which would explain the rapid loss in brake fluid the previous day. At first I was excited because I thought the problem would be that the brake switch I had installed a couple of weeks earlier was just not set right. That would be an easy fix. I didn’t think the garage we were at would appreciate me tearing the bus apart in their parking lot so we drove over to Checker Auto Parts to pick up our order and ask them if they knew a place we could work on the bus. No problem they said, go to it right in the parking lot.
First I replaced the spare tire, and then got to work on the master cylinder. It was underneath the splash pan so it took a couple of minutes, and when I got my first look at it I was disappointed. It wasn’t leaking from where I had hoped, it was from the front of the cylinder and would either require a rebuild or a whole new unit. Neither of which were available anywhere near us. After a while I hit on a temporary solution, removing a couple of spacers which seemed to tighten the whole thing up quite a bit. The brake pedal was suddenly stiff again. After a couple of turns around the parking lot I deemed it safe enough for now. We’d just have to check the fluid level every time we stopped to make sure it wasn’t empty, at which point we’d go hurtling off a cliff at top speed.
Since then we don’t seem to be losing any fluid, though it is obvious that the whole system needs some work. We’re headed to a friend’s home in Oklahoma City, just a few hundred miles away where we should be able to spend some quality time under the bus.
Aside from that there hasn’t been a whole lot happening. New Mexico is a top notch place, with that good old fashioned clean air feel of the west. Lots of big blue skies, mountains, and lonely roads. We pulled into Roswell late in the afternoon and plan to visit the UFO museum in the morning to gather some serious facts, not that conspiracy theory crap. Why do UFOs only fly at night, and why do they all need running lights if they are trying to be sneaky? These are the questions I want answered.
september 25 2008 : quitaque, texas, usa
I walked into the International UFO Museum with an open mind. Our galaxy is so big that there doesn’t seem to be any reason that we’d be the only living thing in it. However after visiting the museum I am actually less inclined to believe that earth has been visited by aliens. Though judging by the people working there I am now positive that there must be a more intelligent life form out there somewhere.
Ali nearly got us thrown out of the place before we’d even started when she got into it with the Alien Suspenders guy about taking her purse inside. When she asked why she couldn’t carry her purse he replied, “Because you could easily be tempted to stick something inside of it.” That answer excited me. I now fully expected to be awed by the displays of alien paraphernalia. It didn’t take long to realize my excitement was misplaced. The walls were covered with nothing but fuzzy pictures and newspaper clippings. This was their proof? All it did was fill me with more questions. Why are all flying saucers saucer shaped? Why do all aliens have two legs and two arms? If we were zillions of years more advanced wouldn’t we have like six arms and hundreds of fingers? Think of all we could accomplish.
My favorite display was the giant map of the earth. On it were buttons you could push to display different things like Alien Abductions, UFO Spotting’s, and the like. The part that struck me was that not one light lit up in the third world, in fact Africa appears never to have been visited from outer space. Get yourself in the U.S. or Europe though and it seems you have about a 50% chance of being transported by spacecraft at some point in your life. That’s why Ali and I are going to Africa, to get away from all these little green men. And why always green, what is the significance of that?
september 29 2008 : norman, oklahoma, usa
We arrived in Norman, Oklahoma to some terrific middle American hospitality from our friends Harlan and Kelley whom we met last year when the Great Race passed through town. We spent a couple of days eating, drinking, and hanging out with friends and family, being treated like celebrities, before finally getting down to work on the bus brake issues.
First was the leaky wheel cylinder. We pulled the wheel off, cracked the axle nut off with zero effort, and then set about getting the brake drum off. A seemingly simple process, but the drum just didn’t want to come loose. We sprayed it, we tapped on it, and we rented big drum pullers. None of these did a thing.
So this morning we drove over to a fancy Euro shop that told us they’d take a crack at it. They turned out not to have any bigger drum pullers, but did try some compression tools like a jackhammer. Still nothing. They were nice guys though and were quickly on the phone trying to track down the expert. We found the VW pros at Larry’s VW, a small shop with a yard overflowing with buses and bugs.
They dropped everything for us and brought out the big dog. A huge drum puller with steel arms an inch thick. We bolted that to the drum with the lug nuts and started cranking. BAM! a lug nut shot out, stripping an inch and a half of threads. We set it up again on a different set of lugs, and soon had the same result, busting out another lug on a drum that should have simply slid off. And also busting Larry’s drum puller that had faithfully pulled drums off for thirty years or so. Now the bus was un-driveable, and the crew was truly baffled.
After a lot of brainstorming we hit it with everything they had, heat, jackhammers, different pullers, hammers, and finally saws. They cut the drum in half, heated it so hot there was molten lava piling up on the floor, and hammered it into submission. Eight hours later, success. Everybody agreed they’d never seen anything like it in all those years of battling rusty old buses. The guys at the shop were first rate all the way, and didn’t mind at all having us hanging over them all day long. With the drum finally off we put the actual brake work on hold until tomorrow, and at closing time our friends picked us up, took us out to dinner, and then dropped us off at grandma’s house to take over the guest suite for the night. We’ve done nothing to deserve being treated so well.
september 30 2008 : norman
In the morning we arrived back at the shop. The thing I liked best about Larry’s was that Larry himself didn’t mind having me crawling around on the ground, bouncing ideas off of him, and handing him tools. Normally you can’t get past the waiting room. With one wheel put back together we decided to have a look at the other side. We were all holding our breath when the moment came to pull off the brake drum, but yet again there was no joy. The drum seemed as stuck as the other one. We gave it one half-hearted try with the big drum puller, but nobody wanted to go through the same scene again, so we just left well enough alone. It’ll need to come off someday I suppose, but hopefully that day is still another 50,000 miles away.
Before dropping the bus down to the ground for the last time Larry mentioned that we should have a look at the transmission oil. The cap is in about the most inaccessible place on the bus, a place I would have probably never ventured, so it was actually a good thing when he discovered that there was hardly a drop of oil left in there. It would have been a real treat to have the tranny lock up on us a couple of months down the road.
With the bill for the most expensive brake drum ever taken care of Larry took us over to his house down the road to show off his private collection. From the looks of the shop you would have never guessed this guy had a warehouse of pristine VWs just down the road. Trophies and magazine articles hung on the walls above mint condition fifty year old bugs, and the sweetest double cab I’ve ever seen; Larry’s retirement present to himself. He said though, that after working on our drum, he’s starting to rethink his retirement. Maybe air conditioning and a five year warranty aren’t so bad after all. Anyway, it’s a pretty rare occasion when Ali and I are this happy with any company, but this shop and it’s employees were simply the best.