We’ve said it over and over again, building a nomadic lifestyle does not get you out of “bad stuff” happening.
It still happens.
Life on the road is still “life”, and it is not all beautiful sunsets and 50Gbps LTE. Sometimes the unicorns fart rainbows, and sometimes they just plain fart.
At the end of the last post I left you hanging mentioning how we saved $100 in fuel on the next segment of our adventure.
In case you haven’t been following along in realtime on Facebook, the secret to saving fuel while driving a GM 4106 across Montana at 75Mph (backwards!) is… to let a tow truck do all the work.
Here is the story…
We had just gone through the “Wavingest Town in the West” – Broadus, MT – where I was able to send a picture of my dad and I crossing into Montana to my family. We noticed a little RV Park in the town’s center, and we thought “this seems like a cute town with good cell signal” and seriously contemplated stopping for the night.
We knew our next camping option would not be for quite a while, and it would probably not have cellular coverage… (have you noticed the blatant foreshadowing yet?)
But it was still early in the day, we hadn’t made that many miles yet, and we decided to press on.
So westward we went leaving that glorious cell tower behind in the rearview camera. Twenty miles we traveled through beautiful eastern Montana prairie before we encounter the first chain-up area we’ve seen in a really long time. Of course it’s summer, so no chains required – but that means a mountain pass.
It’s a relatively minor pass however. Nothing of concern – Zephry has handled plenty of steeper and longer inclines without problem.
Zephyr starts climbing the pass, when the RPMs start to slip, Chris manually shifts her into 2nd to keep them up. All is fine, but I do note that the transmission sounds slightly different – a little more ‘airy’ perhaps. Not enough to mention it to Chris, it could just be the way the air is hitting the bus.
We crest the incline, and the temperature has barely budged above normal. Chris pats the dashboard and congratulates Zephyr on another hill well climbed. It’s flat at the top of Camp Pass for a bit – and I jokingly note, ‘Camp Pass.. we could camp here!’.
And as soon as Zephyr regains her oomph, Chris shifts her back into 3rd. There’s a bit more of a lurch in the shifting than normal, but Chris says everything looks fine and isn’t concerned.
But I wouldn’t write about ‘normal’…
As we start the downhill, which isn’t even as extreme as the slight incline we just climbed, rather than slowly going down, the engine temperature instead starts to spike up. That’s very unusual on a slight downhill, and Chris goes into alert. In all the bus training we’ve gone through, the tips on temperature regulation had to do with handling an INCLINE, or a downhill when using extensive engine braking. The temps aren’t supposed to increase when going down a slight hill.. that’s supposed to be the easy on the engine stuff. We didn’t even have the Jake engaged!
Within a minute, even though we were essentially coasting, the engine temp was up to 205 and was rising fast. Chris started slowing down, braking to pull off onto the shoulder.
The temperature kept rising and as Chris was nearly on the shoulder (which was thankfully wide at this particular point) he put the engine into neutral to take all load off of it. Regardless, the overheat light came on and the engine automatically shut off.
We had enough momentum left to get safely parked well off the road.
As we stopped we heard liquids gushing from the back of the bus, and rushed to find boiling coolant was gushing to the ground underneath the engine bay. Well, there goes most hopes of us not having done damage to the engine.
After the coolant quit gushing out all over the road, we had the not-so-bright idea to check the coolant in the reservoir to see if anything was left. Chris put his heavy work gloves on to open the coolant fill chamber, opened the inspection hatch, and out came a geyser of coolant that sprayed across the entire highway. Thankfully, Chris was positioned so only his gloves and arm got hit with coolant… and even more thankfully, it was actually not hot (?!?!) and didn’t scald him. It was just the steam from the rest of the cooling system that was pushing it out.
It was actually quite the spectacle to witness.
Ok. So now we had a very hot engine bay, a bus on the side of the road… and despite checking our phones several times in hopes of new towers having been installed since our May ‘Coverage?’ update – no cellular signal.
Unhitching the Mini and driving back into town is of course an option, so we’re not completely stranded. But it sure would be nice to manifest some connectivity out here and get a call into our roadside emergency service – Coach-Net.
But first things first, if we may be stranded here for awhile, it’s best to start going into ultra conservation mode with our house battery systems – so we shut everything non essential down (just leaving the vent fan going to keep cool, and the fridge).
Despite being in the Custer National Forest, we had spotted two houses right nearby. One of them has a sign over the driveway saying ‘Lemonade Run’, and there’s an RV parked there. Friendly signs? We approach the driveway in hopes of finding the front door, to discover this is only the garage. The house is actually much further down the drive and up on a hill. We start to factor in if it’s worth risking trespasing on someone’s property out in the middle of nowhere like this to walk up and knock on the door of a potentially empty house.
We stand in the driveway for a few moments to contemplate our options. And then we spot two 4×4 ATVs turning onto Hyw 212 and heading our way. They stop right by us, and ask how they can help. *whew*
Turns out these are our new neighbors coming back from an expedition. She goes up to the house and returns with a cell phone.
What?? You have *VERIZON* cell signal out here?? How’d we miss that??
Oh, right.. our app ‘Coverage?‘ focuses on data coverage.. not voice. And there are still old voice only towers around in the rural areas that our fancy (and useless in this matter) data only devices don’t have an antenna for.
You can probably guess what the next major upgrade to Coverage will be, and that these nomads will be adding some pre-paid voice only phones from the major carriers to our connectivity arsenal for potential future emergency use…
So Chris gets a call into Coach-Net to start our ticket, and as we’re safely off the road and in the middle of nowhere – they say it’ll probably be the morning before they can get a wrecker to us. We inform them that we have no phone coverage of our own where the bus is parked, we give them our neighbor’s number as as stand-by, but tell them we’ll drive into Broadus where we know we have coverage to check in later with them.
Their diesel tech assigned to our case tells us he needs to go off and do some research to find us the right shop to take an old 2-stroke bus to, and to locate the right wrecking equipment.
We’re actually thankful they’re not rushing someone out, as we also need time to figure things out – and want a say in the matter of where we go and how we get there.
We know that rushing and panic are not our friends, and we keep calm and collected. Besides, we’re at Camp Pass, a good place to camp, right? Our neighbors let us know that the driveway we happened to stop next to is not used by anyone, and if we can get the bus up on there we’d be a heck of a lot safer and more level.
By this time, our IR Thermometer indicates the engine has cooled down to a reasonable 140 degrees. We have a few gallons of distilled water onboard for topping off the coolant and start refilling the reservoir. Nothing is dripping out anywhere, so we’re pretty sure this wasn’t as simple as a coolant hose bursting that caused the overheat.
Zephyr drinks in the 4 gallons of distilled water, and is still thirsty. So I start filling water jugs from the faucet, and we end up putting 12 gallons in until the reservoir looks full again. Originally the bus took 24 gallons of coolant, but it’s hard to say what it needs today as some bus heating systems connected into the coolant system had been removed when it was converted.
We pull our Coolfire extinguisher out of the bay – just in case. We unhitch the Mini to reduce any extra loads.
We take a deep breath, cross our fingers and do a rear engine start. She starts up easily, the smoke is its normal white – so we have some hope.
Chris hops in the drivers seat and I guide him half way up unto the driveway, and even this small move is a struggle for our poor Zephyr girl – she has barely any power. And the smoke has a little bit of black in it when the pedal is pushed. But we’re well off the road now, and more level. We feel good about staying here overnight, and have more information to relay to our bus community when we can get online to help us figure out what went wrong.
As it’s nearly 8pm at this point, we decide it’s best to head into town – as Broadus is likely to roll up the sidewalks early. We make the 25 mile drive back, replaying the events over and over trying to figure it all out.
We enter Broadus and have our first internet signal since this all happened, and get a quick message out on our Facebook page to let everyone know we’re ok – but have a potentially big problem on our hands. We then find a little cafe open, and decide some dinner would do us good as we post the saga to the bus forums to start soliciting ideas.
The cafe closes up, so we head further into town to complete our online time. We decide to top the gas tank off on the Mini, to be more prepared for needing to make multiple trips into town. Clifford, a bus forum hero who we affectionately call ‘bus yoda’ says the symptoms sound bad. We potentially have a cracked head, or at the very least blew a seal gasket due to the overheating.
But what caused the overheating in the first place?
Theories abound online – it could be anything ranging from a thermostat getting stuck, a water pump failing, or even something related to the transmission. But regardless, this won’t be something we can fix on the side of the road, and we’ll need to find a good shop to get the bus to for some potential major repairs.
The forum folks put us in touch with a bus nut in Billings, MT to help us locate our options. We call one shop in Miles City to at least leave a message, who remarkably answer their phone at 10pm. They tell us they’re swamped right now, but might at the very least be able to offer us space to park and equipment to rent, and a little coaching. While we’re resourceful, we’re not sure we’re up to the task of doing this work ourselves (but what a learning experience that would be!).
A particular shop in Billings, Interstate Power, keeps coming up from multiple sources as a potential.. so we start putting out feelers.
We get another call into Coach-Net to check in, there’s no new news. We set up a call for 9am the next morning to compare notes and start sorting this out with the diesel tech. We decide it’s time to head back into the land of no-internet, to give Kiki some company and get some sleep.
It’s been a long day.
Saturday in Broadus
We set the alarm for an early morning wake-up, and try to catch some snoozes after a very intense day. Our minds are over-active continuing to replay the events. We’re sleeping at an incline, and the bus shakes as occasional big rigs speed down Highway 212 several feet from us. But we manage to each get a few hours in.
We wake up before our alarms go off, ready to tackle what we know will be another long day ahead of us.
We hop in the Mini and head back into bandwidth. We’re greeted with more advice that had arrived overnight, and waiting voicemails from our diesel tech at Coach-Net. We check in again with the shop in Miles City, and they give us several great ideas, but still can’t offer a lot of their time. And then we call iState Power – who tells us they can fit us in their schedule on Monday, and we can stay onsite in our bus. We continue asking around for first hand accounts about the company, and decide we’d like to be taken to Billings, MT – liking the idea of having more resources around in a bigger city.
We call in to Coach-Net, and are told they’ve located a shop in Sheridan, WY that they want to take us to. We tell them we’ve already contacted a shop in Billings, and they tell us we’d have to pay the extra mileage to get there. We point out that it’s actually 10 miles closer to our shop of choice, and they instantly approved it for us.
Now, to make sure we get the right kind of wrecker service…
Because we have an automatic transmission, it’s not recommend we get towed behind something. It can be done, but would require the drive axle being disconnected – and there’s just so much more potential for damage being done if this is not done right. All our bus folks told us to insist on a Landol, ‘low boy’ or ‘drop deck’ style flat bed trailer. Coach-net said they’d do their best – but we’re out in the boonies, and would have to take what they can find.
We winced at the thought of our Zephyr being swung around on a tow hook going over 140 miles of mountain passes, and decided when we got back to the bus we’d pack up everything essential (ie. the computers and backups) and an overnight pack – just in case.
We got the call from Coach-Net that they had contacted a wrecker service, and with enough poking and prodding we got the name of the company out of them so we could make direct contact. Between the desire for a flatbed option and the lack of cellular signal, we wanted to leave little to second hand communication. We knew the neighbors near where we broke down were out of town for the weekend, and thus would be unable to get a message to us if the wrecker or Coach-Net tried to call.
At noon, Hanser’s Towing & Recovery service called to say a team from Billings had been dispatched to come get us – and to expect them in 3-3.5 hours. They assured us they knew what they were doing when it came to equipment, and that they knew we would not be reachable by cell phone once we left Broadus to go back to the bus.
That left us plenty of time to hang out in Broadus, grab some lunch, continue to research, soak up internet, watch the junior rodeo in the park we stumbled upon, and explore the little town.
It’s a very friendly town, and seems quite proud of being the “Wavingest”.
As we were getting ready to head back to the bus, our phone would not quit ringing. Every call was from a fellow bus nut offering support, advice, and just letting us know we’re not alone. It was so incredibly invigorating, and reminds us why owning a bus comes with an entire new family.
Winched and Saved
Around 1:30 we decided to head back to the bus. If they were running early, we didn’t want to miss them. And we also wanted to fiddle with the engine a little more and do some further diagnosis that was recommended on the bus boards. We also made sure we had everything packed into the Mini that would make the 3 hour drive into Billings comfortable, and prepared ‘just in case’ this turned into a wild and crazy tow.
Precisely at 3pm, exactly on schedule – a huge truck with a flatbed pulled up across the road. Hooray!! The message of our special need for a flat bed made it through the game of telephone. This gave us an instant sense of relief, and our fears of Zephyr swinging all over a curvy mountain road put to rest.
And then our wrecking crew.. Chas and Mike walked across the street the greet us. Their smiles lit us up, and their sheer confidence and professional attitude put us instantly at ease. This wasn’t some little tow shop that Coach-Net contracted, they called in honest to goodness professionals.
They asked us to go over what transpired, and were shocked that they hadn’t been called in the night before – as they’re a 24/7 operation. We told them not to worry, we didn’t push Coach-Net to handle this as an urgent situation and we appreciated the time to get our ducks in a row.
Their first idea was to pull their truck into Lemonade Run’s driveway across the street, and then simply drive Zephyr up. We told them they’re welcome to see if she had enough power left to attempt that – but we didn’t think that’d work, and nor did we want to risk her running out of power while in the middle of the street. So we fired up the engine, they gave it a good listen, throttled her up – and agreed. They also told us that just by the sound, we had at least one cylinder out.
Ok.. Chas quickly, calmly and confidently moved on to Plan B without hesitation – we were winching her out of her spot, up the slight incline of the forest service road we parked on and up to the flat spot where they could park the flatbed trailer.
Watching these two guys coordinate the various angles and moves they’d have to make to get Zephyr on the trailer was like watching artists carefully craft a palette of colors. They made no less than 5 different angle adjustments to get her precisely maneuvered, and it was all fascinating to be part of. Chris steered the bus, Chas operated the winch and directed everything, and Mike constantly hooked, blocked and spotted.
I took pictures. Kiki napped.
It was 24 hrs since we stopped at this spot, and now we were on our way to civilization. It was slow going, but they got it done exactly right.
And they did it with extreme professionalism and a fun always smiling attitude. Once they got Zephyr secured on the flatbed, the let us know it was time to grab Kiki and move her to the Mini (we didn’t want her out in the sun during all this.)
We followed them back the 140 miles to iState Power in Billings, and they got us placed exactly where we were advised to park to get a power cord run.
We could not be more impressed with the service provided by Chas and Mike. Chas says ‘My job is to make your day better’ – and boy did he. This is a true artist – someone doing exactly what he wants to be doing, and doing it with joy in his heart.
Thank you Chas and Mike for being our heros and making our day better!
And thank you Coach-Net for coming through for us – that $130 annual fee is chump change in comparison the what this tow cost (easily over a grand), not to mention having someone to call to help coordinate this all.
So, we’re now in Billings. A shop tech has already greeted us and gotten the general story of what happened. On Monday morning, they’ll start digging deeper as to what caused this and how much damage has been done.
However, we already know – this is very likely a pretty major repair. We’ll update when we know more.
But in the end, it’ll all just be a bump in the road on our journey. We’re safe, we’re home and we’ll move on.
Want endless happiness? That comes from within, and how you approach everything life throws at you.
We know without a doubt there’s a reason we were placed in this predicament.
Maybe it saved us from a more serious calamity down the road.
Maybe my Dad wanted to spend some time in Billings.
Maybe there’s an experience waiting for us here.
Maybe too many people were getting the idea that bus ownership was cheap & easy and we needed to be an example.
… or maybe, just maybe, it was time to flex some serious serendipity muscles beyond just scoring scenic campsites.
Always Positive (keep chanting it, Cherie, keep chanting it.)