I noticed the engine acting a little funny when we pulled into Anchorage a couple weeks ago; it would diesel when I shut it off and when I turned it on, it took a few cranks to turn over. Our ever-trusty hometown VW guru, Norm, said it might be points. Fortunately, before heading north on the long and lonely Cassiar, I bought a spare set of points from Lordco. “If you correct the points and gap them correctly, the timing should fall into place.”
I put in the new points, gapped them at .4 mm as instructed and took off. We still dieseled. And then things got worse. We shuttered and stuttered our way toward Tok—the only outpost on the 500 miles between Anchorage and Whitehorse. In total, Tok has three gas stations, a few shops and campgrounds and 700 full-time residents. In the summer that number can mushroom up to 1200. Our chances of finding an air-cooled VW mechanic were infinitesimally small. Still.
We pulled into a gravel pull-out on the side of the AlCan and found ourselves lacking power. “I’ve lost a cylinder,” I said. When Miracle asked what that meant exactly, I said there was a good chance that we would live here—wherever here happened to be. In a stroke of good fortune that rarely happens this far north, we had decent cell signal. I searched on VanAlert for any sign of hope ahead: a European auto shop perhaps, a driveway stay with some tools and spare parts. I found Tim.
Tim, as I learned is a flight nurse, which is a sorely needed profession along the AlCan, where motorist (particularly those on two wheels) encounter all sorts of hazards that require a medical evacuation. So Tim loads into a small plane and the pilot lands them near the accident and Tim simply keeps the patient alive. Last week they shut down a mile of the AlCan so Tim and his pilot could land an evacuate someone who’d encountered the worst the AlCan can deliver.
I called Tim on his first day off work in a month and says my timing is great, sure bring the bus on by, he will probably be able to help us out, but not until after 1 p.m. because he has to check his fish wheel. Oh, and Randy might be available.
Randy, as I learned is a retired factory-trained VW mechanic who lived in Portland before retiring to an area where he surely would not encounter some rube testing the limits on his VW bus. I imagine Randy came to Tok, kicked up his feet, cracked open a Bud Lite and said, “I’m done with all that bullshit.”
I rested a little easier that night, knowing all we needed to do is limp the bus 100 miles to Tok. Tim sounded confident in his ability and Randy’s.
The next morning, the bus turned over fairly easily given the previous few days and we began to drive. The bus sometimes rumbled and grumbled, but the miles ticked under our tires. We pulled into a rest area to pee and when we had to restart the bus, it would not turn over. “Here,” I said, jumping out of the door and pushing the bus forward. “Do you want me to push?” Miracle asked.
If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you may remember Miracle’s concussion from way back in Utah. Although the head injury itself cleared up and her confusion faded, she had an unabating pain in her neck and shoulder. An intense day of chiropractic care, massage, and acupuncture in Oregon finally knocked out the pain altogether and we were smooth sailing until we hit the potholed madness of the AlCan.
Road guides will tell you that the AlCan is completely paved the days; gone are the wooden bridges and long gravel stretches, the single-lane tracks that test your suspension. And, on paper, the guides are correct. Some form of pavement—be it asphalt or chip seal—has at some point in time covered each mile of the AlCan from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. But then winter comes.
Winter here destroys the roads. Like completely annihilates them. Potholes are craters. The lanes warp and lift and crack apart with the frost. Long stretches are completely gravel. Parts of the AlCan squeeze down to one lane and will break your suspension if you don’t weave to avoid the larger craters. And a flood and an errant beaver dam took out a bridge, so now there’s a one-lane makeshift wooden bridge and a pilot car driven by Bo Duke will lead you across.
That is what we traversed in Adie. By the time we reached the Alaska border, Miracle’s shoulder and neck screamed in pain. A blood vessel burst in her eye from the pain. One doc we visited suggested Miracle wear a soft neck brace while we drove. It was bad.
So Miracle pushing the bus was not an option. Besides, the rest area was flat and I was feeling hopeful about Tim and Randy. I jumped in after the bus reached a steady coasting speed and cranked the key. The bus started—not happily, but we were moving. Not fast, but faster than if we had to walk.
I noticed we were losing power. Like a lot of power. On a slight uphill, our speed plummeted to 15 and cars honked as they careened around us, bucketing into the potholes of the other lane while cursing the rube who decided to drive his old bus this far north. We had to pull over. Miracle watched her cell phone for that precious moment when we would have both signal and a place to safely pull over. At the top of a long hill, the moment came and we pulled over.
I performed a basic diagnostic check and concluded that we were indeed stuck here. I called Tim. Even though the offer to look over the engine had been extended, I began to fear it would be beyond the capabilities of Tim and Randy. It was two hundred miles back to Anchorage, where there was at least a VW shop (though no telling how long they might have the bus or how long we may have to wait for the bus to be seen). And it was a mere 70 miles to Tok. Once I relayed the scope of the issue to Tim, he said it plainly: “You need us to commit to getting you back on the road or you need to go to Anchorage.” He immediately added that, yeah, he thought they could figure it out.
Call it a leap of faith or what-have-you, but we decided to press on to Tok. No worries, Tim said, he had already contacted the tow truck company and they were heading our way. Because of its size, Tok is an intimate place and everyone knows everyone else. And hour later, the tow truck arrived and the friendliest of all tow truck drivers got Adie loaded up. Miracle sat inside the cab and fell asleep on the back seat—passed out from pain. What would have been a $1000+ tow was no cost, thanks to AAA.*
We arrived at Tim’s house that evening weary and somewhat crestfallen, but it felt like Tim and his wife, Maria, had been expecting us. As we have experienced before on this journey of ours, they were incredibly kind and welcoming. They let Miracle and I sleep inside—away from the mosquitos and on an honest-to-God mattress. And Tim had salmon fresh from the fish wheel.
If you spend any amount of time in the Yukon/Alaska area, you will learn about salmon. It’s their favorite thing. Nearly every pull-off or rest area has some amount of signage dedicated to explaining the lifecycle of the salmon—from spawn to its upstream swim to your dinner table. In order to become a resident of the north, I imagine the citizenship test is just one item: explain the lifecycle of the salmon. It is the upstream swim that makes a fish wheel possible. As Tim explained it, the fish wheel is a giant paddle wheel turned by the current. The paddles also act as nets and scoop the upstream swimmers and flop them into a live trap where they can be harvested the next day. Our timing, Tim noted, was perfect as he had three fresh fish. We dined like royalty, conversing with Tim and Maria and learning about life in the north. We would relax this evening and then work tomorrow.
Randy showed up in a conversion van and walked directly around the back of the bus. We already performed some basic tests to rule out fuel pump and filter as culprits. Randy moved like a livewire, pausing to listen to the engine and then point to the distributor, declaring without a doubt that the problem resided in there. He pulled the distributor and spun it around to watch the points I recently installed. It’s hard to describe, but they did not open and close smoothly as they should have. Instead they chattered. Randy declared the points to be crap and reinstalled the worn out Bosch points after filing them a little. “These will work better than those things,” he said. And I noted to myself not get the Lordco brand next time around. Like Norm, Randy recommends Bosch whenever possible.
But the timing was off. Randy fiddled with this and that, cursed, then dove back in. Something, he finally said, is broken beneath the breaker plate in that distributor. We broke down the distributor and, lo, one of the springs was missing. (And no, it wasn’t inside there; we have no idea where it was or if it ever existed.) Normally a missing spring is no big deal, but we are in Tok and the chances of finding—
Tim knew a place where he could get his hands on a VW distributor. He and Randy took off to an undisclosed location to retrieve the part while I walked Jolene, who had been watching the saga of Tok unfold over the past three days.
Tim and Randy returned, installed the spring, rebuilt the distributor, and began pulling the spark plugs, which were scorched charcoal black. Also, one of the spark plug wires was loose as was that spark plug. (Keep in mind, I had all of these things checked at a shop in Victoria, BC before starting the long haul north. Even though I had paid for new spark plugs, it was not done. Plus, my filters had been swapped out for some cheap knockoffs.) At least the compression issue was explained. Randy set the timing and I took a test drive. For the first time in a couple weeks, I was confident about my vehicle. Miracle slept for two days straight and left in a lot less pain.
We bid Tim and Maria—both wonderful and gracious hosts—farewell. We headed west and south—on to new adventures, back toward the Lower 48 and eventually home, the last legs of our adventure. From here it should be smooth sailing. except we got a flat tire. (To be continued…)
*Ah, AAA. If you’ve been following our adventure since the onset, you know I had an especially poor experience with AAA while stranded in Wisconsin. After being stranded overnight in Wisconsin for a tow I was assured would arrive in 2 hours, I spent 40 hours on the phone trying to recoup my expenses since I was a premier member and had trip interruption protection.** So I let my membership lapse, thinking it really was not worth it. Then, on July 4, I received a survey from AAA asking why I dropped coverage. As I filled it out, Miracle rolled her eyes. “They aren’t going to do anything,” she said. I replied that you never know; maybe we would get free coverage or something. A week later we are in Wasilla—a couple days from heading back out on the AlCan—when AAA calls. They apologized and offered a free one-year premium membership to us, which I gladly accepted. Not even 48 hours later, we used it and learned how valuable it is to have AAA in the north country. The gentleman at the tow company assured me that our little 70-mile tow cost well over $1,000 and that everyone in the north has AAA for that reason.
**To be clear, AAA does not offer trip interruption. They say they do, but it is outsourced to Alianz—a company presumably staffed exclusively by people adept at saying, “I’m sorry sir, but we have no way of knowing that.” I still have not had my trip interruption expenses reimbursed.