Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


A Series of Unfortunate Events

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.

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  1. love your blog and reading these amazing stories and the amazing photos. That was a great read today on your latest adventure.

    Comment by Ryan on August 7, 2013 at 1:40 am

  2. D. Whit

    Sorry to think that a heat shield that is meant to protect wound up being part of the problem in your case.

    I use to own a Vanagon without the quad drive option and took it all thu the mountains on trails I had no business being on actually.
    It wasn’t considered a successful jaunt until Blue was stuck.
    Many times, I could come out of muck by merely letting air out of the rear tires.
    A small electric winch helped other times and a hand crank winch did the rest.
    Sometimes both were utilized after cussing and kicking something.
    I never had to “abandon ship” and pay for a tow. I did appreciate other hillbillies coming along and helping ….after some derogatory remarks about a two wheel drive Volks van off logging trails in the backwoods. Bite lip.
    One of my most valuable ‘modern” tools was a small compressor unit. It would not air up to road pressure unless I used my always handy dandy piece of wood stump that served as a small table, footstool, workbench and fulcrum. The good thing about the Vanagon was the light weight, so corner up and the small compressor could air the tire to road pressure. Also kept a couple of 2×8’s on top to use for various purposes and to breach small water hazards and grand dining table and to lay on for laying under blue to access and fix damage. I bet you find a roll of good wire for the future.
    Backwoods Engineering dictates that having replacement components and such will usually result in absolutely no problems with a particular system.

    A small roll of the old insulated flex pipe always served well at keeping exhaust out until proper repairs could be made. We won’t discuss the abestos factor. Keep your powder dry and all the sockets in arms reach.

    Comment by D. Whit on August 7, 2013 at 2:12 am

  3. William James Long

    Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. But, on the other hand…….you are in THAILAND!!!!!!

    Comment by William James Long on August 7, 2013 at 3:30 am

  4. Brad: Murphy occasionally requires a sacrifice, you know that.
    This particular “hot exhaust leads to melted ball of copper and plastic” phenomena is not unique to Nacho however. Something very similar happened to us on a 86 Pontiac Parisienne some years ago. Frustrating but somewhat easy to diagnose once you wind up looking in the right general area. But as they say, all’s well that ends well or something like that. Keep on.

    Comment by Keith on August 7, 2013 at 3:56 am

  5. Paul

    Great story. At least reading about it was great…

    Just curious – have you ever tried going up a steep hill in reverse? I’ve done that before in underpowered vehicles (68 Simca) and since reverse is almost always a lower gear than first, it’s worked every time!

    Of course, I’m not sure if you’d want to go backwards up a Thai road, but it just might work next time, albeit with a 72 point turn this time.

    Comment by Paul on August 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

  6. Pat

    My favorite part of this is that Sheena was standing back taking pictures of the two old Thai ladies struggling in the muck. Now if there were just a smiling selfie of you with that tiny old lady straining away outside the window it would be perfect. :)

    Comment by Pat on August 9, 2013 at 11:21 am

  7. I just read Sheena your comment, Pat, and Sheena had this to say:

    “Yeah, I should have done that. Someone’s gotta capture the moment.”

    She has a stone heart. Kicks dogs. Spits on peasants.

    Comment by Brad on August 9, 2013 at 5:14 pm

  8. Frank

    “Thank goodness for multimeters and beer.”

    This should be on a t-shirt.

    Comment by Frank on August 15, 2013 at 11:06 pm

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