It all started with a little bump.
“What on Earth was that?” Sheena asked, wide-eyed and alarmed. “Just a little bump,” I said reassuringly.
As dictated by Murphy’s Law, it was 92 kilometers into a 100 kilometer diversion off of Thailand’s northwestern mountain circuit that would have taken us to a high mountaintop campsite next to a glistening lake, when the road turned up at an unnaturally steep gradient. As we rounded the bend we saw the road kick straight up and we knew it was over before it began. I gunned it, we slowed, I kept the pedal on the floor, we slowed more, I feathered the clutch, and then the engine died.
“Bloody hell.” Just a few days prior we’d come within 10 kilometers of the highest point in Thailand before we were forced to turn around for lack of power. Nacho weighs 5,800 pounds and we have a 90 horsepower engine. Solid.
Without engine power to boost our brakes I couldn’t hold Nacho there on the hill for long, so I slowly guided us backwards until we came to a small side road. I wedged Nacho up onto the path and started the back-and-forth motion of a 36 point turn, Austin Powers style. Finally, I pulled onto the road, but when I did, the steepness of the side road exceeded our exit angle and our exhaust pipe and rear bumper slammed into the ground.
“Probably nothing!” I said as we carried on. I made a mental note to check that out later. Two days later I finally remembered to look at it, and found that we’d dented our bumper a little, but the exhaust pipe looked fine. When the exhaust pipe fell off the next day, it became clear that, in fact, the exhaust pipe was not fine.
All right, no exhaust pipe. The muffler was still there, so seemingly the only difference was that exhaust gases would come out the side of the van instead of being diverted backwards. We carried on through Chiang Mai, and drove a few hundred kilometers south to the town of Sukothai where we imagined ourselves passing our days strolling among ancient temple ruins.
“The idle’s a bit erratic,” I told Sheena. “I’m going in for a closer look.” We’d checked into a guesthouse, and that’s where I left Sheena as I walked to the field next door to see why Nacho was misbehaving. I removed everything from the back and popped the engine lid for a closer look.
Lots of dirt, little bit of oil—normal.
Throttle position switch still clicks—good to go.
No loose connections, no broken hoses—sweet action.
A big charred ball of wires stuck to the exhaust heat shield…hmmm.
My mind went into analytical mode, recounting the possibilities. Oh yes. Mmhmm. Oh, of course. That’s bad. Soon enough I’d realized why engineers invented exhaust pipes in the first place. Whenever I sat at idle, the heat from our muffler had been wafting straight up into the engine compartment rather than being diverted safely out the back. This had caused the heat shield to become red hot, which in turn melted our main engine wiring harness, which was inexplicably strung right across the heat shield. I picked it up and inspected it, but it was obvious that all of the wires had melted and shorted together, causing all 14 of them to become one big charred mess. It’s a miracle Nacho didn’t burst into flames, as this charred ball sat directly under our brittle plastic semi-leaky fuel rail from 1984.
I hopped on a little girl’s bike that I found at the guesthouse, and pedaled it to the nearest home supply store, where I bought 30 meters of monofilament wire. Not exactly “the right stuff”, but one can’t be picky when one’s engine is in shambles and one’s wife is contentedly sitting in her comfortable guesthouse, unaware that she might have reason to be discontented.
And that’s the story of how I came to be sitting in the hot field in Sukothai for the whole day rewiring our entire engine. Thank goodness for multimeters and beer.
Being that we were still on Earth, and thus still under the constant pull of gravity and Murphy’s law, it started to rain just as I was finishing up. And boy did it rain. And rain. And rain. I opted to save the test drive for the next morning, when we would jet out of town to explore the nearby temple ruins.
When morning rolled around we loaded Nacho up and crossed our fingers. I turned the key, and to our collective delight Nacho whimpered to life, stuttered, nearly died, and then resumed an unhealthy idle fluttering between 800 and 1500 RPM. Yes! Back to normal!
I threw it in reverse and pressed the gas. Rather than moving backwards, as expected, we traveled straight down, approximately eight inches, into the ground, which was unexpected. Huh.
As it turned out, the heavy rain had turned our field into somewhat of a soil crème brûlée. The slightest movement of our tires had caused us to break through the crispy top layer and sink into the clay custard below. Out came the sand ladders, out came the shovel.
Damn you, Murphy!
The white guy with the tiny shovel caused quite a sensation, and soon we had a small audience of old Thai ladies and seemingly helpless backpackers from the guesthouse who must have forgotten that it’s customary to offer one’s help when a fellow countryman finds himself stuck in the mud.
After several nearly successful tries, which saw our tires slipping deeper and deeper into the custard, the little old Thai ladies decided that we would not be successful without their help. They sprang into action, throwing bits of debris into our tire holes, and then motioned for me to fire it up. I delicately put it in reverse and slowly released the clutch. Seeing little promise of success, the little old Thai ladies started pushing. The bigger of the two pushed on the front bumper, while the smaller one, weighing in at around 75 pounds, placed her hand on my door handle and pulled with all of her might.
Slowly Nacho crept backwards, and soon I was crawling out of the quagmire, trying not to run over the skinny lady, who was still holding onto my door handle. Success! The backpackers went back to their coconut waters and their books, the old ladies helped us wash off our sand ladders in the well, and soon we were on our way to the welder to get a new exhaust pipe.
What a cluster. And to think, this all started with a little bump.