Thursday, May 20, 2010

Getting to Utah: An adventure and a half

This post finds me sitting comfortably on the couch in the college house of Trigrace Ministries in Ephraim, Utah. Well there, now I've gone and ruined the ending. Most of you already know that I made it here safe, however, so I probably haven't ruined anyone's surprise. The story of how I actually got to this couch is full of surprises and adventure.

I started out with a commitment to come to Utah this summer but no idea how everything would come together. I had a faith conundrum on my hands- I trust God to provide for me everything that I need in order to do the things that he has given me to do in any situation. I also know that many times God's provision in my life comes in the form of the sweat of my brow, providing for myself through the abilities he has given me. If I merely have faith that God will provide and wait, without action, for the things I need to come to me- God's path in my life will wait unwalked because I have failed to put works behind my faith and go out there and get the things God has provided for me.

So I have a balance to keep- I have to actively work and pursue the provisions for my needs that God has given me, but I can't do that to the extent that I am failing to trust God in faith that he will provide in me. There are some times that I am perfectly content to make a leap of faith, knowing that no matter what end I find myself in, God will provide for me. There are other times when I know God has called me to be a good steward of the things he has given me, carefully preparing and using every available asset in concert in order to meet a challenge. The flip side of those is a leap of folly, when I step out in what I think is faith but is really foolishness, having failed to see what God wanted me to do and take a more difficult path. Finally I can be shortsighted to the faith and work so hard to ensure my success that I have provided for myself in blindness to the provision that God has, which I failed to see because I was either too busy making plans for myself or not trusting in God enough to give me what I need. All this factors into how I got to Utah- in this story, there was a lot of God's provision through the sweat of my brow- as well as the blood of my knuckles and the buzz of my alarm clock.

I find myself in late April with a commitment and desire to go to Utah to serve the Lord, but no plans or idea how it will all come together. The first and most obvious need is to actually get myself there- I explored all sorts of options. Flying in to Salt Lake City, hitchhiking, catching a ride with the north-bound Baja senior design team, even a possibility of borrowing a truck from a friend currently in Idaho. What ended up happening, however, is that God provided me with a steel steed to carry me all the way there. A benevolent graduating senior, a Mr. Caleb Reinking, had an old and slightly-unroadworthy Toyota Camry he needed to dispense with before he left LETU. He was looking to sell it for only $100-$200, but upon hearing that I would be taking it to America's foremost mission field this summer, he and his wife decided to just give it to me. It's at this point that I must warn you, reader, that things are going to get pretty long here. I'm going to recount all the details from Longview to Ephraim if for no other reason than my own reminiscing over it decades from now. In the meantime, perhaps you will find it fit to read- but if you find yourself at the end of this entry and shaking your head at how much time you spent (wasted?) reading it, remember that you were warned.

I had two main obstacles that I needed to take care of before I could hit the road to Utah: first, the car needed to actually be capable of taking me there. Second, I needed to complete the checkout process for my floor. When I got the car from Caleb, he told me it needed a few things- one or both of the CV joints were bad, the brakes needed work, one of the tires was low, and some brake lines were rusty and might need help soon. In fact the main thing I ended up working on was the brake lines. I never touched the CV joint and the brakes ended up being fine on all but one tire. I accidentally brought home brake shoes the first time, thinking for sure a 1990 Japanese econo-box would have drum brakes in the rear. Not this Camry, though- disks on all four corners! Classy! I took the Camry for a spin and stomped on the brakes a few times to diagnose- I got out to discover a steady and rapid drip-drip-drip of brake fluid from the middle of the car, where I found out the rear brake lines run. Uh-oh. After removing the plastic cover, I found that three of the five lines that ran there were incredibly rusty (as is the rest of the car). I was pulling strips of rust off held together by the paint that used to be on the outside of the steel lines. Bad news bears. Steel lines are no fun to work on. I resolved to get some nice rust-free Texas steel lines from a junkyard and patch them in. My research showed, unfortunately, that there is no easy way to safely join steel lines. The only safe and acceptable method is what's called a double-flare joint. It involves using a special tool to deform the steel on the line such that a special fitting can be tightened down on it and form a connection than can withstand the 1000+ psi transients present in brake lines. Unfortunately, I had eight of these flares to make under the car.

I took off to a local scrapyard with my friends Neuse and Guac. After a fair amount of searching, I found a Camry which I hoped would have the appropriate brake lines, but it was in a second row back from the lane, and sitting on its haunches in the dust with my brake lines right there under the car on the ground. I decided this was a time to accept the hard road and get that car lifted up enough to get at those brake lines. After a surprisingly long time searching the junkyard for a jack, I found a little one and tried lifting the car up, which was slow going both because I had to dig under the unibody rail to get the jack in under it and because there were no jack handles to be found, and I was using a bent-up hood support rod to turn the screw on the jack. It was slow going indeed.

Fortunately, however, Neuse and Guac were more optimistic and while searching for some internal trim for Guac's Pathfinder, hailed down one of the giant fork-loaders and sent him to help me out. The operator pulled out the car in front of the Camry, but informed me that he wouldn't be able to lift the Camry out because his forks were too short to get under it completely in the second row. Shucks. He was able to lift up the back of the car, however, and we stacked some discarded tires under the Camry so it would remain lofted up in the air. In a move sure to worry my mom, (sorry mom!) I found myself crawling under a car half-suspended in the air by its bumper, shifting tires around so that when the forks were withdrawn, the car would remain in its position, looking like a snapshot of a movie stunt with the car plummeting to earth nose-first. In this case there was no stunt driver, just me sweating it out in jean shorts underneath the car trying to cut the steel lines free. It was edging close to five o'clock, though- I had to work fast to get them out. Unfortunately, I hadn't brought the proper tools and was using a pair of vice grips and dikes to crush and cut the lines. Not very elegant... or fast. I was nearly done when a rattly old junkyard van arrived to tell us that it was quitting time. I asked for five more minutes, but understandably heard back that 5 o'clock is 5 o'clock. I've seen the way that the topology of a junkyard changes day to day- the line of cars that was there yesterday might be completely different today. I was worried that I would return Monday to find my prized Camry with it nearly-liberated brake lines nowhere in sight. I asked and was assured that the operator and counter man would not move the Camry from its perch until Monday after I came back and got my brake lines.

The weekend saw me give a short blurb at church about my summer plans. I handed out some copies of the recap I wrote up of my spring break mission trip to Utah which Corey and Patty had printed out. I was blessed to receive support from the church in prayer, and also a $50 donation from a friend. Thank you to my church friends, if you ever read this!

This upcoming week was made interesting by the finals I had. I had a final Monday morning preventing me from returning to the junkyard bright and early to glean my brake lines before anything bad could happen to them. When I came back in the afternoon with my freshman friend Josh in his (fitting for the task) Mustang, I was craning my neck around the corner of the junkyard to see if it remained in place- and there it was, sitting cockeyed in the air among all the other Japanese econoboxes. With the car in the air still, I was able to comfortably (if somewhat nervously) complete the extraction process without a time rush. I was hoping to take as much of the line as possible so that I could avoid coming back to my own Camry and finding that I hadn't gotten enough line to get past the (expansive) rusty portion. This was made complex by the fact that steel brake lines appear to be the first thing Toyota installs, with everything else piling in around it in fun locations sure to exclude the easy removal of a circuitously-bent steel tube. In order to get one of the lines, I ended up undoing the gas tank from its mounts and hoses to get at it. I would later find out that this wasn't actually a brake line, but a fuel vapor return line. It exists for emissions purposes, and could safely be left in its rusty state. Had I known that, I certainly wouldn't have bothered.

If you're an ecologically-conscious person, it may pay to skip the next few sentences. When I lowered said gas tank, I was surprised at its weight. I am fairly sure that automobile recyclers are supposed to drain all of a vehicle's fluids before condemning it to the scrapyard. This tank turned out to be full of gas. Not so much that it spilled all down my front as soon as I disconnected the filler neck, but enough to dump several gallons of gas on the ground when I shoved the car over to signal to the fork-loader operator that I was done with the it. Sorry, mother earth. Unburnt gasoline is supposed to be something like a million times worse for the environment than its combustion products.

With my ever-so-valuable brake lines in hand, I went forward to the front of the yard. I stopped at a Camry that was much closer to the front of the yard, and also much more accessible than the last one. Neuse and Guac had pointed it out during the first trip's closing-time march out the yard, much to my chagrin. Had I found that one first, I would have had my brake lines Friday instead of Monday. Shucks. I harvested a brake caliper from this one. I had very inconveniently sheared off one of the bolts in a rear caliper when trying to do the brakes the previous week. The bolt was sheared off deep enough that I would have to resport to die-grinding through part of the caliper to get it out, and count myself fortunate to have that opportunity due to the design of the part. I would need a new caliper, in any case.

With parts in hand, though, car repair would have to take a back seat. The feared checkout week had come, and I had my hands plenty full between checking each of my 31 residents out of their rooms and completing my remaining final exams. As a wise returning RA said, checkouts are the one time of the year when it pays off to be a jerk as an RA. Why? Because the RA is the one finally responsible for the cleanliness of the entire floor, including every room, and every mess that a resident left uncleaned was one I would have to clean myself. Therefore, almost all of my residents had to return to their drawers at least once with a moist paper towel to chase the last dust bunnies. Sometimes, though, I decided it was easier to clean the last bit of mess myself than return to an obstinate resident's room four times to tell them they hadn't actually cleaned anything.

I found some time to steal away and do some brake work on the car. While I would need a lift to do the real brake line work on the car, I could do the brake-pads-and-caliper job with just that wheel jacked up. As I mentioned before, though, I needed to grind through part of the caliper, a spacer sleeve in which the stub of the sheared-off bolt was hiding. Naturally I needed some power tools. [grunt grunt grunt] While the rules of the Machine Tool Lab don't specifically forbid backing a car in through the roll-up door to work on it, I'm not sure how it would have been received if a Figure of School Authority (other than myself) had walked in on the scene. I decided to plead the fifth if necessary- I needed this car to WORK! I closed the door behind me after the sketchy maneuver of backing-a-car-with-no-brakes-up-a-ramp-and-towards-a-two-ton-engine-lathe.

Soon after starting work, I discovered that I was the most epic of epic klutzes. Had I applied an iota of thought to my preparation for this work, I would have avoided the problem I now had: I had acquired a right-rear caliper to replace my left-rear one. I failed to note that there is actually a functional difference. The casting I had in my hand could never work in place of the one I had to grind through. I decided not to let this stop me, and ground through the sleeve on the old caliper anyway. I was able to remove the bolt handily enough with some vice grips. I found myself then in a strange position. The ground-through caliper was 'technically' usable. I hadn't ground into the cylinder, or through any fluid lines, and the new bolt could still go through where the sleeve had been and secure it in place. The sleeve, however, was a precisely machined component of the caliper that I had just ground off and was now lying on the ground amidst all the rust that inevitably comes off whenever I work on the Camry. Those of you familiar with disk brakes will know that they are a fairly precise mechanism, with the distance and perpendicularity between the two brake pads and the disc itself being fairly critical. The now-destroyed sleeve was half of the mechanism which kept those things within their operational tolerances.

My problem was fairly large. I could order a new caliper online or from a parts store, but junkyard-diving was not an option: the first Camry I found had drum brakes in the rear, and the one from which I harvested the caliper I had in hand from had the exact same problem mine had: some ham-fisted so-called-mechanic idiot (cough who could that be?) had sheared off the bolt holding it on. Despite the precise nature of the disc brake system, I justified/rationalized that I could get by with my old caliper. After all, brakes are a self-adjusting mechanism as the pads wear, and the remaining stud would keep things roughly in alignment anyway. Besides, I could slip some washers over the bolt where the sleeve had been in order to set the distance at least close to where it had been before to ensure things wouldn't get too out of hand.

Well, throw that out the window too because the second-hand junkyard brake pads were too thick. If the caliper still had it's proper sleeve, the new brake pads wouldn't work. At least problem #1 helped with problem #2. With my safety-system-integrity-flaunting decision made, I just bolted it all back together as near as I could guess would work. As an aside, some of you may be thinking "Ned is nuts. I would never let him work on my car with that kind of disregard for craftsmanship and safety!." I'll point out that I only ever gamble with my own neck- I wouldn't put this kind of sketchy work onto somebody else's car. And come on- it was the rear brake. Front brakes do 75% of the braking anyway. Job done!

I was able to take a bit of an adventure on Wednesday- I had some errands to run for car parts, and although I could have surely borrowed a car or truck, I decided to exercise my newly-acquired motorcycle license. I packed the brake shoes I needed to return into a backpack and rode Patches' sweet Honda CBR600F4 across town. I hate left turns, by the way. Ever since my wreck in Marshalltown I've been very apprehensive about making left turns through traffic. Pulling out from Autozone at 80 and Spur 63 is the worst. The combination of lights means a skittish driver like me has to wait a looong time to get a break in traffic. I'm sure that on a sportbike I could have darted out nearly any time and a proper application of riding skill would have kept me from trying to occupy the same space as another vehicle. However, for a new rider, that just wouldn't be wise. I'm not looking to evaluate my protective gear's capabilities first-hand.

On the same trip I had to pick up something at Hobby Lobby. It was a non-event, really, but I thought it was kind of funny to be walking through a crafts store in a motorcycle jacket and a helmet in hand, asking the craft lady where the bandannas were. (They were right behind me. She said so.) I also picked up the flare fittings I needed at a cool Volkswagen shop in town. It's of a dying breed, one being killed off by corporate chain stores. The guys working there are actually knowledgeable and give advice, and were able to get me all the fittings I needed. Eighteen bucks feels like a lot for a handful metal trinkets, but then again, an artificial heart will fit in my hand but is worth a lot more than that. My errands took a lot longer than I thought, and I ended up walking into my final a few minutes late and still in riding gear, to the amusement of Mr. Warke. I got my B, though, motorcycle gear or not.

By this time of the week, checkouts were at their peak and I was glad to have an incoming RA who was available at times when I was not in order to check out residents with tight schedules. I started to think more about fixing the car, but knew I could do nothing with it until at least after church on Sunday. I needed to work in Automotive Society, a club/building on campus with a car lift and some car-wise guys. Finishing my last final on Thursday was a relief. On Thursday night I met for the last time with some Mormon missionaries that a friend and I had been meeting with for the last month or so. We talked for a good two and a half hours and covered some serious topics. I pray still that God is at work there.

The next day was interspersed with checkouts all throughout the day. I felt like a jerk all day as I told my guys to sweep again, hit the drawers again, wipe the shelves again.. etc. I also discovered that the dining hall was closed, and I began to feed myself off of student chow left under the water fountain (free pile). Saturday smelled like a busy day a long way off. I had signed up to be an usher at graduation (easy money!) and had two graduation parties to attend before an RA last-hurrah party that evening. Busy, yes- but I don't feel like I can complain when two-thirds of the day is busy due to parties. Man, what a rough life I have! Juggernaut ever let me ride his motorcycle to one of the parties. Sheesh.

And now for an update from the slightly-illicit-fun department: part of cleaning up meant that all the old mattresses no longer fit for college-dorm duty had to be disposed of. We were getting rid of all the mattresses two years old and older, because we didn't know how old any of them were beyond that and all the newish and new mattresses were going to be labelled with a date. Therefore, we had a LOT of mattresses to get rid of- 20 or better. The natural, efficient way to move 20+ mattresses from the second floor to the dumpster is to pitch them all out of the bathroom window, then carefully arrange them in a landing zone and follow them out of said window. Here's a video of OT helping with the cleanup:



The fun didn't last long, however, as the Voice of Responsibility and Reason arrived shortly thereafter to remind us how silly we were being in our cleanup procedure. Naturally, the safe and wise way to arrive at the mattresses' location to haul them to the dumpster was to take the stairs.

My plan was to fix the car on Sunday night, wrap checkouts up on Monday morning, and hit the road to Dallas to stay with Tim Hutchens Monday night. I knew, of course, that chances were very good that this schedule would get pushed back. On Sunday morning I went to church as usual with Titus and Lydia, but Titus' parents were in town to see him graduate the day before. (Congrats, Titus!) This, combined with my unexpected bringing of a guest, made for a cozy car ride. At church received a warm send-off from the people there, more promises of prayer, and another gift of financial support.

When I got back from church it was time to face my challenges in earnest- getting the car on the road and getting the floor prepared for checkout. I have a couple contacts who are members of Automotive Society(AS), where I would do my car work, but unfortunately none of them were available to let me into the building for me to work until that night. I reversed my plans and decided to work on getting the floor spic and span so it would pass T-bird's white-glove inspection. In theory my room checkout inspections would have been strict enough to ensure that all the rooms would be this clean already. However, the reality is that sometimes I let residents go with a less-than-perfect room for my own sanity, I miss things, people have to leave in a rush... etc. I spent the afternoon cleaning up the rooms to T-bird level, mopping the bathroom, etc. I have heard stories before of RAs having to spend twelve additional hours cleaning up after T-birds inspection, and with my plans being as tight as there were, I figured that as long as I was waiting to get into AS anyway, I might as well make darn sure that the floor was as clean as possible to minimize the chances that I'd have to delay my departure to clean some more. Therefore, I scrubbed, swept, mopped, and vacuumed all with the utmost gusto.

My evening appointment came to work on the Camry. I brought it down to AS and got it up on the lift and began my work. On the junkyard car, where I performed the reverse procedure, I had the luxury of not caring about the rest of the car. This enabled me to drop the tank and forget about reinstalling it and to just cut, bend, and break things that got in my way. This handy fact was not true for my own Camry. I had to cut the lines beyond their zone of rust, which meant after they started curving up into the jungle of components that is the bottom of a modern, efficiently-engineering, emissions-compliant automobile. Snap. While the splice work up front would be fairly simple thanks to a long straight unrusty stretch, the rear work would be inside the jungle of car parts and linkages around the rear wheelwell. I swallowed in resignation to my fate and began diking out the old lines, the sound of brake fluid dripping into the catch pan below whispering to me that the point of no return had been passed.

At this point, as had happened many times before and would happen again soon, I wondered if rear brakes were really so important. I had asked my cardinal car guru friend, Micah, if I could get away with just closing off the rear brake lines and enjoying front brakes only. After all, front brakes, as we know, do 75% of the braking. Well, it is at this point at which a man must sit and think about just where his threshold of sketchiness-acceptance lies. I am willing to put up with a fairly high level of sketch in my vehicles (as the riders in my van to Utah know, thanks to my life story including many of them). However, having just plain ZERO rear brakes, and the front brake pressure being held in only by some half-witted plug, crimp, or braze job on the steel lines is just too sketchy. My sketchy side was telling me that hey, it wouldn't be that bad- at least the sketchy plug would be downstream of the proportioning valve, so I would still retain some front brake pressure in case my super-sketch rear line plug failed... right?

I decided it wasn't worth it. I would proceed as planned, just like Darth Vader proceeding to blow up Alderan even after Princess Leiiaiaiaiah gave in and revealed the location of the rebel base. Apparently, I'm nerdy enough to make that reference, but not nerdy enough to know how to spell Princess Leahehehiahaheiah. Until recently, I didn't know how to spell Albaquerqueueueueueuque either. After the rabbit-trail, though, the brakes would get their legitimate fix- complete with double flare fittings instead of the convenient-but-unsafe compression tube fittings. I'm building my good-mechanic cred.

That resolve to do things the right way took a nose-dive, however, when I discovered that AS's flare tool, critical to creating all of the connections, did not have the right size die to do my brake lines. Ooooh badnews. If there was no die, there would be no flared connections that night, and that meant no on-time departure. The temptation to lower my sketchiness-acceptance threshold was increasing. I didn't want to push back my departure by a day. I wanted this car just make it the 1337 (!) miles between Longview and Ephraim. I started consulting with the Car Guys about blocking the brake lines. Various options existed, but we had the parts for none of them, and as it was after midnight already none would be available until the next day. They pointed out that if I could trace the lines from the Antilock Braking System (ABS) pump, it wouldn't be that bad, probably, as long as the ABS pump didn't explode from the immediate and massive backpressure buildup.

If the Camry didn't have ABS I might have done it. But as it was, I stared at the jungle of steel lines under the hood and knew that among the things that shadetree mechanics should not meddle with, ABS was right there near the top of the list, right next to automatic transmission internals and alarm system wiring, where all of the thirty wires are the same color to confound theives. These things run on Magic, which is really expensive to replace if you mess it up.

I took my lumps and accepted a day-late departure. I would go to the parts store tomorrow and borrow a flaring took kit with a right-size die. I would come back the next day and finish the job, come hell or high water. Gosh darn it, I would be in Amarillo by morning. (That's not actually that far off, actually- my planned route would take me through Amarillo around noon on my second day of travel.)

Normally, nothing exciting really happens after one decides to call it quits for the night. On car shows on TV it always just happens with a burly guy with a mustache throwing a rag on a table and a shot of the shop lights turning off from outside. Not so in my case. As you recall, I cut the brake lines completely away after I got the car on the lift. Before, I thought I had no brake pressure due to the leak. I was wrong. Now, with the brake lines completely gone, I KNEW I had no brake pressure. I backed the car off of the lift, which actually takes a fair amount of gas pedal because you have to make it over the hump. I was rolling backwards towards somebody's project Case-IH Scout behind the lift, and my foot went STRAIGHT to the floor on the brake pedal, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Omigosh. There was a Rational Thing To Do, of course- I could put the car in neutral and apply the parking brake. I didn't do that. I slammed it into park and listened to the loud click-click-grind as the dog teeth on the park mechanism in the poor transmission caught the still-moving vehicle and squeeked the tires with the sudden stop. Moments like these are the ones that give mechanics that lump in the throat feeling like they just might have caused a much bigger problem than the one they are working on.

As a small consolation, the Rational Thing To Do wouldn't have worked either, as the parking brake was so worn from being used as a last-ditch-maneuver brake on this brake-deficient car that it wouldn't have done anything anyway. So really, I had actually made the right decision on impulse. I can't take credit for it, though- as I did out out of panic, not out of reason or honed instinct. I'm still an idiot, even if the idiot thing to do was actually the right thing, as transmission-punishing as it was. I managed to get the car rolled onto the grass outside safely- although I opted to push it rather than risk another engine-powered zero-brake adventure.

Monday's sun rose and I found myself in the same predicament as Sunday- car work desperately needing to get done, but impossible to do without AS being open. There was still plenty of floor-cleaning to do, though. The original plan was to have a working car at this point, and to finish clean-up and inspection by afternoon so I could roll out to Dallas in the evening and spend the night at Tim Hutchens' place, ready to to embark fresh in the morning. As I did all my stuff on Monday, however, I realized just how impossible it would have been to get out of town that day even if I had had a working Camry. It was still not in my name, inspected, insured, or registered. All that needed to happen before I could roll out, in addition to all my cleanup and fixing.

I would take care of what I could, though, while I had time. I cleaned and cleaned. I went to AutoZone and got the flaring tool with the right-size die. I cleaned some more. I ate an MRE. I cleaned. I went down to the Reinking's apartment and officially 'bought' the Camry, which was essentially a gift anyway. I texted T-bird that my hoped inspection time was delayed by a day. T-bird had an impression that I would be leaving Wednesday, an impression I might have given him a few weeks before in an RA meeting. I decided to stick with the mantra to under-promise and over-deliver. If I could leave earlier than Wednesday, I'd look good- rather than having plans in stone for Monday and looking incompetent when a postponement became necessary.

All my delays to my already-late departure had an upside or two, though. The school's staff cleaning crew was coming through already, and before my inspection- meaning that even though I had already cleaned pretty thoroughly, the janitors were coming through and giving it a professional job, and before my inspection. Score! That's insurance for getting a clean bill of... er.. cleanliness.

In the afternoon, I decided I could at least do something on the car, if not the main job of brake lines. The parking brake I mentioned before is adjustable. While it was useless the night before, a tensioning of a certain cable would bring the friction material closer to the inside of the drum, meaning that when I wrenched up on the brake lever in a panic, the car would actually decelerate and stop rather than careening into the nearest fruit stand. I had left my toolbox and materials in AS next to the lift the night before, though, so I was hoping I could manage the simple job with only a leatherman.

I might have been able to, but I didn't have to. When I got down to in front of AS where my car was parked, I saw signs of life- another car parked out front. I tried the front door, and open it came. Bonus! Now I would access to my tools and brake lines and get some of the work done in advance. A guy I didn't know was sitting on one of the couches inside. He must be a trusting guy (I forget his name), though, because he had no problem when I asked if I could take all my tools and stuff outside and work. He had to leave shortly, otherwise I might have asked about pressing my luck and putting the Camry up on the lift and getting to work. That would have been superfluous, though, as there was plenty of preliminary work to do before I needed the lift.

With the aid of the service manual that I got from the Reinkings with the title and papers, I discovered that the properly adjusted brake lever should click between five and eight times when adjusted to spec. Mine clicked eleven times. Ouch. Fortunately, the adjustment is an entirely inside-the-car procedure. That doesn't mean it's not capable of being irritating, though. Interior trim works is always a Chinese puzzle box to get off. The courteous "don't forget your keys, mister!" beeper will go off when the door is open and the key in, meaning any music one tries to play while working with ones lower half extending out the driver's door to work is accented by a staccato bong-bong-bong-bong-bong endlessly. Look, Camry- I know the keys are in the ignition. Shut it. The Camry also has those totally 1990's automatic seatbelts, for which a mechanism exists right behind the brake lever, adding a level of complexity to the Chinese puzzle box.

A proper application of tools, patience, skill, and euphemism-utterances got the jamb nuts that adjust the brake cable managed. I was down to a nice and tight five clicks, which would assure me maximum parking brake performance in case my should-be-legit brake job pulled a Chernobyl. I decided to do that before taking on the preliminary work for the main brake job because it is always a good idea to have your factory-equipped backup plan functional to stop your car when your brakes have any degree of sketch to them.

Now I got to move on to the task of flaring the brake lines. There were three lines that needed to be replaced, and two of them needed to be flared. I had the new sections to go in, and each of the ends of those would need to be flared, as well as the ends of the sections still on the car that I would be splicing to. I would need the car up on the lift to to the latter, but I could work on the former in the open. The AS member who was there was leaving, so I just worked on it outside on top of the Camry.

In every instruction set that exists for how to flare brake tube, there exists in very large print a warning: ALWAYS PUT THE FLARE NUT ON THE TUBE BEFORE FLARING THE TUBE. This is because it is impossible to get the flare fitting on after- flaring expands the tube, and naturally, the close-fitting flare nut won't fit over afterwards. Despite how obvious this step is, everyone makes this mistake at least once. I swore I wouldn't- I would use my careful approach and analytical skills to avoid making the rookie mistake. Naturally, I failed. The very first flare I made looked really good- except that there was no flare nut behind it. Off it had to come, and since I only had my hand tools to work with, I had to file the whole thing off. Well, the more dearly one pays for a lesson, the better it will stick.

Flaring is a pretty menial and time consuming job, the kind of thing that clever engineers have made specialized machines for that will do the job that takes me 15 minutes to do in a swift three-second operation at a button-press. Doing the task on the trunk of my Camry and in a brisk wind took about two hours and a few scares after the plastic-bagged fittings blew off and I briefly thought I had purchased the wrong amount. I eventually got the two brake line sections flared and was prepared to do my work on the lift that evening.

Afterward, I went down to Titus and Lydia's apartment, where they had invited me to dinner. Titus was experimenting with marinating chicken in Dr. Pepper. This actually turned out pretty well- Dr. Pepper has most of what a marinade does- acidity, sugar, and flavor. Titus noted, however, that one missing ingredient was salt. He said he'd try it again. I visited with the Lepics for a while before I had to depart for AS to meet Tim, who was letting me in, at 8:00.

I was worried when I entered, because there was already a car on a lift- uh oh. Fortunately, work hadn't started on it yet, and the owner didn't mind pulling it off and doing the strut replacement with a floor jack so that I could use the lift. After getting the Camry on the lift, I settled in for the hours of work I knew I had ahead of me. It was rather long and tedious, with not much to write about. I flared the brake lines attached to the car. It took a long time. I was down to the last of the four I had to do, and it was a bear. I remember proclaiming aloud (although to myself, due to the nearly-empty shop) that I was clamping down on the brake line for the last time. I was wrong, unfortunately, as I apparently hadn't clamped hard enough and ended up with a botched flare. I did the dang-it-I-screwed-up ritual of fuming while I hand-filed off the botched flare and trying again- success! ...only when I went to actually screw down the connection, the threads didn't fit- argh! I had grabbed the wrong size flare nut when I put it on, and it was now trapped behind the flare.

I had a moment or two of panic while I carefully sorted through all the plastic wrappers that the flare nuts came in, petrified that I had too many of the big size and one short of the small size. After searching through my toolbox and bag, laying everything out neatly on the floor, I found a plastic wrapper that still had a small flare nut in it. Whew. I still needed to cut off the beautiful second flare I had just done to get it on, but at least I had the materials I needed. After a bunch more monkeying around with the flaring tool, I finally had all the flare nuts on, and found that all the flare nuts agreeably threaded into each other finger-tight: right sizes all around. Finally! Done with flaring! I used the borrowed flare nut wrench set to tighten down all the connections.

Tightening down the connections is non-trivial, as when you are torquing the nut into the fitting,you are actually deforming the steel line non-trivially to make it fit the fitting with absolute conformance. The word here is 'torque'. Lots of it is required. The people I talked to said just to torque it down as hard as I could without stripping anything out. Well, that's sort of a conundrum. I'm going to be able to torque it down more than a six-year-old girl and Ahhnold Schwarzenegger is going to be able to torque it down more than me. And you never know when you're about to strip a fitting, it just comes sort of all at once. Well, that is to say, unless you've stripped a great many fasteners in your life and sort of have an idea of just how much abuse a fastener can take before it gives you the proverbial finger and gives up on being a hexagon and decides that life as an irregular circle is less likely to garner more abuse from a ham-fisted idiot mechanic. Like me. So I torqued them down until I estimated I was near the point of fitting capitulation.

If you're familiar with the operation of hydraulic systems (like brakes), you will know that it is necessary to ensure that there is no air in the fluid system. The reason for this is that air is compressible, whereas the basic mechanism of operation for hydraulic systems is that the working fluid is incompressible, and therefore relative motion is absolute. If air is in the system, then the motion of me pressing on the brake pedal does not have an absolute relationship to the brake pad being pressed against the disc, resulting in me crashing into a moose or truck or child or fruit stand. Therefore, air in the lines = collision with fruit stand, just like in the movies.

The act of mangling the brake lines severely and splicing in new (air-filled) sections meant that my brake system contained probably half it's own volume in air. Bleeding brakes takes two people - one to pump the brake pedal and one to work the valve at the brake caliper. I enlisted the help of James Wolfe (who apparently sleeps at AS frequently, which meant I had the convenience of being able to work through the night) to help bleed the air from the brakes. This took a while but the job got done. (thanks James!) This was the beginning of the end- was the brake pedal firming up? Were the newly-rigged brake lines holding pressure? Hard to know. After the brakes were bled and the pedal apparently possessive of a normal amount of firmness (according to James). I let the car down and stomped on the brake pedal violently a few times, which ought to simulate the worst-case scenario for pressure building in the brake lines. I got out and lifted the car again- holding my breath: would there be brake fluid seeping from the new connections? Gushing? Would they be completely dry?

A grin spread across my face as I saw that each of the connections was entirely devoid of brake fluid. Hooray! The ludicrous-torque method had worked! The hours of being dirty under the car had paid off! This was the moment when I knew I would be on the road to Utah. With a car that moved and stopped, nothing could get in my way- no matter what other problems the car had, it could get to Utah. Yes! Thank you God for a working car! He always provides. I cleaned up and went for a test ride. Bear in mind I'd never had the car over 25 mph because I could only drive it on campus and with shoddy brakes. I took it out on the real road and got up to 50mph and was satisfied with having a working car. Hooray! It was only as I was pulling back into campus that I remembered I still didn't have insurance. Whoops! Good thing it was 2AM with no other cars on the road to speak of. With this job done, I cleaned up and went to bed.

The next day would be departure day- but there was a lot to do. I started off the day with the breakfast of champions: insurance shopping. As usual, Geico was cheapest for me and I ended up going with them. I might have been able to save $20 from some obscure company, but with the day so packed, it wasn't worth spending the requisite hours on. There was a lot to get done- the car still needed to be inspected and registered, then I needed to pack myself, clean my room and do all the other cleaning the floor needed, and do my walkthrough with T-bird. Phew. I decided to do the inspection first, as it was the most likely of anything to throw a wrench in my plans. I took it down to the shop Mr. Arden used to own. I had a moment of slight panic while I was driving down there when a police cruiser appeared behind me- but apparently the cop wasn't worried at all about a sketchy Camry rolling down the street without plates. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the Camry did not get off with a clean bill of health. I was most worried about the notable exhaust leak or perhaps that the brake repair would catastrophically pop during the test drive and the test tech would crash into a fruit stand. That would probably fail the inspection. What got me, though, was more mundane- a small broken section in the driver's side rear tail light was letting white light shine through, which is contraindicated by the test requirements. I didn't think it actually was visible from behind, but I'm not the one administering the test. Therefore, I knew I needed to make a trip to Joe-boy's to get a taillight. This time I knew where the Camry was (hopefully would still be) and the procedure to take the light out should be fairly simple. I took the offending light out of my Camry to make sure that if there were going to be any problems with the operation, I would find out before I was in the junkyard. It was simple after all, except for the inconvenience of the sealant Toyota used to keep water out of the trunk, which was a tar-like stuff about the consistency of mozzarella cheese and as sticky as honey.

My longsuffering friend Titus let me borrow his truck for probably about the billionth time since I've known him, and I took off to get my taillight. I also needed to return the flare tool to Autozone. I went to leave about four or five times before I actually made it off campus. I would make it as far as Glaske and remember that I had to go back for something- first it was the flare tool, then the receipt for the flare tool, then two or three other things. Crazy. I was also confusing the snot out of some people in Titus' parking area, who apparently were trying to learn to drive stick while I was maniacally driving around them several times in my rush to get out of dodge. At one point I was trying to sneak behind them and they started rolling backwards on an incline. Hill starts in a manual are very tricky for a novice, and I probably made the driver very nervous. After I left I noted somewhat sarcastically that I had left the parking lot three times in a stick vehicle before they had left once.

Once I was departing for the last time, I looked in my rearview mirror to see a grey plastic bag fluttering out of the bed of the truck- oh snap! That bag had the Autozone receipt in it! And now it is blowing away! I did a quick U-turn and doubled back, watching the bag blow across the field between MSC and AS2. I pulled quickly into the MSC parking lot, cutting it off at the pass. I leapt out of the truck and positioned myself to intercept the bag, which was now blowing obliquely toward me. There were some pedestrians nearby watching my antics, and they probably thought I was nuts. I caught it, but a thorough search revealed no receipt inside. Shucks. Hopefully Autozone would be able to look it up.

The cross-town trek was unadventurous, except that while I thought I was being clever taking guessed-at shortcuts, I'm pretty sure I took the long way. I've been living in Longview for four years now and I still don't know my way around very well. Autozone was in fact able to look up the receipt from my phone number, and I was able to return the flaring tool uneventfully. Hooray for zero-cost tool loans. At this point I was actually closer to another junkyard I know, which probably would have a Camry, but I knew that Joe-boy's had at least one and I decided to go there rather than risk the closer one not having any. During this drive I also did the whole talking-on-cell-phone-while-driving-a-manual operation, which is exciting for the person on the other end of the phone because they get to listen to engine noise mid-sentence every time I need to shift. I don't remember what the call was, only that it was important enough for me not to want to hang up prematurely but also needing to not stall traffic. Hmph.

Once I got into Joe-boy's (they are charging $3 admission now), I reflected that I shouldn't have worn sandals. All that sand, and the dangers of the junkyard- broken glass and sharp metal- mmm. To my surprise and pleasure, the same Camry was sitting exactly where and how I left it, cocked up at a weird angle on a stack of tires- even though the topography of the cars around it had changed significantly. I was able to pull the taillight assembly in no time. The office guy asked $35 for it, and I countered with $30- he said he'd take it- but as I was counting how much cash I had on hand ($27) he told me just to pay the $25 I had in my hand. Sweet! I stopped at Taco Casa on the way back and got some real food to eat because I was tired of eating cold MRE food. I acquired a taste for Taco Casa when we ate it for lunch during the Spring Break Missions fundraiser car wash. I thought it fitting that Taco Casa was keeping me going for mission work.

I got back to campus and had the new taillight in just as quickly as it went out. I drove the Camry back over to be reinspected and had no problems- the test tech was surprised to see me back with the problem solved only two hours later. He must have figured that I meant it when I said I needed to get out of town in this car ASAP. The rest of the inspection went smoothly except for a moment of panic when he pulled out some kind of gun-like apparatus for testing my gas cap, presumably to ensure no gas vapors could leak out into the atmosphere. Perhaps they just started doing this recently, I've never seen it before. Given that the car is 20 years old, I was worried it might not pass and I'd be on an errand to get yet another unanticipated fix done. It passed, though, so I was happy. With my handy inspection sticker displayed proudly in the lower driver's side corner of my windshield, I was good to go. I also got a slip to take to the courthouse as proof that I was inspected.

My next stop would be the courthouse to get the car legal. I still needed to print the insurance and directions to Utah, so I stopped into the Longview Hall computer labs to do that. Unfortunately, something had gone wrong with the PDF I had sent myself of the directions to Utah, so I had to run back to my room to re-do them, as I couldn't remember the addresses of where I was to go. I was making two stops before Ephraim, Utah- on in Irving, TX with Tim Hutchens, and one with some second-degree friends of the family in Albuquerque. With all that finally printed off, I headed to the courthouse in Titus' truck to do the deed.

This was the last hurdle in getting the car Utah-bound. There was no real reason why the car ought not to be completely legal and no reason why the registration ought not to go smoothly. I'd wager that most readers have some sense of fear and trembling when it comes to the DMV, though- they have the power to make your life miserable when it comes to cars, and often appear to do so according to unknown and arbitrary rules. It's the same reaction to seeing a police cruiser on the highway- you are doing the speed limit, but you instinctively hit the brakes anyway, by instinct. Just the presence of an authority like that makes one feel guilty automatically. ...or maybe it's just me. In any case, whenever I go to the auto registrar, I always put on my extra-nice face. I'm usually pretty nice to begin with (I hope), but I am super bubbly and friendly and sickly-sweet when to go in there. I want to gain as much buffer from sourness as I can.

The lady that helped me was also nice, so no real problems existed. The one thing that came up is that I have two names- Ned and Edward. I signed the back of the title as Ned (like I normallly do) but my legal name is Edward. The signature on my driver's license is actually Ned, so it's not completely illegitimate. The lady filled out a form called "statement of fact" that Ned and Edward are in fact the same person. Last time I was there, registering the Montero, I got them to give me a license plate that contained a power of two (HZN-164). I asked the same this time, and because they were not busy, they actually went to all of the desks and found a liscense plate that was ***-R256. That makes it easy to remember. I wonder if I can have power-of-two license plates all my life. In the end, I think the registration fees and tax actually cost me more than I spent on the car and repairs combined. I could use that fact to say that the fees are expensive and our government is bloated, or I could say that God blessed me with such an inexpensive car that the amount I actually laid out was trivial. I choose the latter.

I got back and things were getting quite underway- the car was drivable and legal, so now it was just down to being ready to leave in terms of packing and being squared away with T-bird for checkouts. My room had been getting packed over the past few days while I had time waiting to get into AS or somesuch. There was still a load of stuff that needed to go over to my storage van - everything that wasn't coming with me. It turns out I missed some things I should have stored- you know thing are getting down to the wire with packing when your peanut butter is in the same box as your spare video card.

The biggest item on that list was my ATV, which has been sitting on campus since I quasi-finished it over christmas break. It still needs a few things, but it moves under its own power. In anticipation of needing to move it, during the last week of school I had moved it up close to the building so I could charge the battery. Tyler wanted to ride it before he left, so when he was just on his way out of town we fired it up and he rode it around the parking lot, discovering that it has a dangerous predilection to want to throw the rider in turns. Something is jacked up with the front suspension- the front wheel on the outside track of the turn wants to camber in during turns, which is bad news. Gotta fix that before it can be ridden. I loaded it up into Titus' truck using the Belcher-loading-dock method and piled all my other stuff in around it.

I had made a van run earlier the week before and got a chance to speak with Mr. Arden, whose land I am storing the van on. He was very generous to let me park it there all the way back in 2007, with our original agreement that it would remain for about a year. It's been much longer now, and I didn't ever see him since then so I had no idea if he was completely cool with the idea of having the van back there still, or if he wanted to get rid of it ASAP but could never get in touch with me. I'd left him notes a few times over the years, but I was still nervous every time I drove to the van that he'd come out of his house shaking a broom and shouting at me to get that darn ugly van out of here. (He'd be entirely justified) I needn't have worried, though, as Mr. Arden has not a mean bone in his body. I caught him in his shop and we were able to catch up for a while. He was not at all worried about the van still being back there and was very friendly, and told me I could keep it there as long as it took to graduate. Phew- good to know.

On this last trip, I took things like my bike, fridge, Tanner's old scooter, boxes, etc with me. I forgot I was supposed to leave the bike with Darly for the summer- oops! My bike lock apparently bounced off of the handlebars during the drive over and is decorating the Texas roadside somewhere. Darn.

Inching ever closer, I was now ready to pack the Camry. I was scheduled with T-bird to check out at 4:30. The Brakers were returning to town at 5:00 or so, and I had planned on leaving no earlier than that so that I could see them and say goodbye before the summer. 5:00 seemed like a late time to be staying around, as I wanted to get to Dallas that night as early as I could, but realistically I never would have gotten out of town before then anyway. It was good to see them again before I left. T-bird was a wee bit late for checkout anyway due to some meeting running long, so I got to actually chat with the Brakers some instead of just waving goodbye. By this point I had the Camry mostly packed and my room cleaned up. They helped by accepting a box of random leftover camping food and stuff, in addition to the Mac I agreed to post on ebay for them ages ago but never have. Sorry for so many empty promises, guys- I will do it sometime!

Walkthrough is a daunting time. It's the first time you've ever done it, generally, and you've been given reason to expect the worst. As I mentioned above, though, the cleaning crew was already coming through and doing their thing on all the rooms, so really I got off easy. All the extra cleaning I had done was being followed up on, so all we really did was clean out some drawers as T-bird directed, clean some glass, and make sure that each room's condition forms were in order and any necessary fines would be dealt with. We were done in 30 minutes, which T-bird remarked was probably the quickest checkout he'd ever done. He was also probably being sensitive to my readiness to leave and schedule to keep. I also found out that the directive to discard all the old mattresses was actually in error, and they were supposed to go out at the end of the summer rather than the beginning, as LETU hosts summer camps. Oh well- looks like 2A won't be hosting any summer kids.

After my final handshake with T-bird, all that was left to do was fill my water bottle and get on the road. Finally! After all these 10,416 words of preparation, I was ready to go. I checked my tire pressure. I cleaned my windshield. I visited the restroom. And after all that, I got in the car and drove off campus for the summer. Woo! After a gas stop, I was on the long road. It would be 1337 miles to Ephraim, Utah from Longview, TX. I’d made arrangements to stay with Tim Hutchens in the Dallas area for the night- this allowed me to beat the Dallas traffic and to slightly shorten the distance I’d have to travel spread out over two days- a little head start. Leaving from Dallas in the morning meant I’d drive a 10 hour day and an 11 hour day subsequently, rather than making those longer.

The real bonus, though, was that I got to visit with Tim overnight. I arrived early enough in the evening (8:00?) that we were able to spend some time catching up and talking and sharing a meal. I hate it when I am staying the night with someone and I just show up late, leave early, and feel like I just used them as a hotel. Tim and I walked over to a local grocery store and got some fancy soda, which is a habit that Tim is making into a tradition- his mantle is adorned by a collection of fancy soda bottles, reminders of visitors he’s had. Neat. Another neat feature of Tim’s apartment is a super-cool quilt his sister made for him. Because Tim was so involved with leadership and activities at LETU, he ended up with a quite a few T-shirts during his tenure there- too many to reasonably keep around, but many too sentimentally-valuable to simply discard. He gave his sister a bunch of these T-shirts and she made them into a super-cool quilt. Tim’s sister- I don’t know you, but I give you a high-five for such a cool creation. I wish I had an industrious sister like you to convert my voluminous t-shirt collection into a quilt.

The next morning I took off when Tim did, around 7:30. Because I was leaving the city, I didn’t hardly have to worry about traffic. What I did have to worry about, however, was a flat tire. Darn. When I walked out to the Camry, I found one of the tires was low. Drivable to a nearby service station, but not fit for highway travel. I checked the pressure- 20psi. Down from 35 the day before at my departure. Caleb had pointed out to me that it had gotten low during the two months he’d not been driving it. It’s strange that it would hold pressure for a week or two when I was working on it at school, but then die in the span of 16 hours or so. My theory is that the driving on it is what actually caused the leak. Perhaps there is a little hole someplace that has enough compression to remain closed normally, but rotating at 1000 rpm, every time it hits the ground it lets a little bit of air seep out. Could be.

In any case, I needed this to be fixed before I could hit the highway again. I drove out of Tim’s neighborhood and a commercial area around the onramp where I was supposed to get on the highway. Just beyond the overpass, I spotted a Firestone- perfect. I pulled in and told them my predicament (as if a tire tech wouldn’t have spotted the low tire from 60 yards). They told me they could affect a repair for $30 and within 45 minutes or so. I agreed, handed over the keys, and resolved to find some breakfast.

Next door was a Panera bread, which I briefly entered but decided I could do better after viewing their menu full of $6 breakfast sandwiches. I spied a Kroger grocery store across the street and decided to do the frugal thing. I played frogger across the six-lane street between Firestone and the grocery and survived. This Kroger was apparently a pretty upscale one- everything was all fancy-like. They had an olive bar. Sheesh. I got myself a half-pound of ham and a loaf of bread. I contemplated getting a head of lettuce to complement my sandwiches but figured that it’d go to waste sans refrigeration. One might argue the same about the ham, but it's not really negotiable. I picked up some mayo packets from their deli (no mustard, darn) and checked out. I made myself some sandwiches while sitting at the patio furniture they had on display out front. I wondered if passers-by would think I was a hobo. I decided my t-shirt was classy enough to accurately place me as a college student. After having only killed about 20 minutes this way I decided some yogurt was in order, and also got a container thereof. I almost left it in the store, though, as I already had a Kroger bag in hand still containing my sandwich fixings. The deli again provided; a spoon this time. I contented myself with strawberry yogurt and moseyed back to the Firestone to check in and wait for the car to be done.

I found, though, that I would have done well to come back sooner as they were unable to do the repair. The tire has previously had fix-a-flat used on it, which is a goopy substance that comes in an aerosol can and can be used to re-inflate and sometimes ghetto-patch a tire in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, it makes a sticky mess out of the inside of the tire, creating difficulty for any tire guy that wants to work on it. Most tire chains refuse to work on a tire that has previously been fix-a-flat’ed. They offered to sell me a new tire for $60 plus installation, and also informed me that the results of their 27-point inspection were that my car had 27 things wrong with it. I told them that I had bought the car for $20 and couldn’t really justify all the repairs they wanted to do, and really wanted to get back on the road. They said they could put the spare on for me and I could try another tire shop nearby which had used tires, a cheaper alternative. I agreed, but we quickly found that my trunk was filled with junk, so getting at the spare would be a hassle. I told them they could just put air in the bad tire and that’d be enough to get me a few miles down the road to find another, sketchier, tire shop.

I figured that if the tire had gotten to a low-but-drivable condition in two hours last night, I could safely check on it after an hour this morning. I followed my directions out of town, and was reminded that I had promised myself that I would buy a GPS before attempting any more road trips. (I broke that promise, under the circumstances). Whenever I drive in urban jungles, I always get confused. Am I on the right road? Every road has four names, and when construction hits everything just gets doubly confusing. In the end I resisted my ever-present urge to give into the thought that “surely I have missed my turn, I should pull off and turn around”. I managed to get out to Dallas and on the northwest road just fine.

During my hour, I discovered that there was one problem with the Camry that bothered me above all the others. It was developing a problem with the tape deck: about once per song, the stereo would suddenly emit a very loud SCREEEEEEEEE sound that would not go away until you ejected the tape and put it back in. The sound didn’t come from the speakers, but from the tape unit itself. I tried jamming things into the tape opening to see if perhaps I could free something that was jammed. I tried smacking my tape-to-MP3 adapter around to see if that was the problem. I wasn’t looking forward to another 21 hours in the car with this issue.

After an hour had passed, and I was starting to notice the Camry wanting to pull to the left, I pulled over into a gas station to check the tire. One look told me all I needed to know- the tire had gotten as low in one hour that morning as it had in two hours the night before. The problem was intensifying, not ongoing. It needed to be fixed before I could go on. I was in a pretty small town- Decatur, TX. I craned my neck to look around to see if there were any tire shops nearby. Well, wouldn’t you know it, there was a little tire shop 300 feet down the road. I pulled a little bit of slightly-illicit wrong-lane driving and pulled into their parking lot.
Unfortunately, they catered more towards larger vehicles and farm equipment and had no tires my size, nor any 15-inch rim tires at all. A phone call to their local competitor (whose number they cheerfully furnished from memory, apparently competition in North Texas is friendly) confirmed they had the same story. Shucks. I figured I’d get back on the road; maybe I could get 30 minutes out of the tire this time and find another tire shop that would work. Little did I know, though, that tire salvation was close at hand. I pulled my car around back and was going to fill my tire, but the young man working there said he’d do it for me. Just to check, I asked him if it was possible to repair a tire that had previously been fix-a-flat’ed. He said it was. Hooray! I asked him if he could do so for my car. Sure enough, it would be no problem and they could do it right away. He got to work.

While the young man was doing his thing, I began to be impressed by this little shop. At a commercial chain, surely at this point they’d be stretching on a plastic steering wheel cover to keep technician’s greasy fingerprint off of my obviously-already-greasy steering wheel, and walking around the car with a clipboard doing a 27-point inspection. That is great on someone else’s $60k Caddilac, but on my $20 beater Camry it’s just a waste of time. The guys at North Texas Tire didn’t fool around. While the young man worked on my tire, I watched at the shop’s presumed proprietor got some work done. He had a PT cruiser pulled into the bay- he had it jacked up, tire off, tire aired down, tire removed from rim, new tire mounted, reinflated, balanced, and mounted back on the car with all four wheels on the ground in what couldn’t have been more than four minutes. After watching that work I was sure my tire was in good hands.

The young man working on my tire wasn’t quite as fast, but he got the job done quickly nonetheless. I am actually not entirely sure what he did while repairing, all I know is that at some point the inside of my tire was on fire, and a few minutes later I was good to go again. And how much did they charge me for the lightning-quick service on a tire that the last shop wouldn’t touch? All of ten bucks out the door. If you ever need a tire in Decatur, TX, then don’t neglect North Texas Tire.

Getting back on the road I reflected on just how much of a godsend that little tire shop was. God knew I needed a tire, and that I didn’t want to waste his money on a new one that would outlast a car I only needed to eek 1141 more miles out of. I’d hardly have been surprised if I went back the next day and found there was no tire shop there at all, God had just popped one down for the 20 minutes that I needed one, right there.

I was on the phone with my parents telling them of my renewed safety on the road thanks to God’s provision when the rainstorm of the century hit. I was glad my tire problems had hit when they had- only 15 minutes later, and I would have been dealing with the problem in the driving, pouring rain. I’ve only seen rain that intense one time before in my life. It slowed everyone on the road way down- I could only barely see the car ahead of me with wipers on high. I would guess that North Texans are oddly proud of their freakish rain. Intense though it was, it was brief- only about 20 minutes and things had cleared up to a steady drizzle.

After that, it was down for the long haul. There are lots of long, boring straight roads through North Texas and New Mexico on the way to Albuquerque. Unfortunately, those long, straight roads lulled me into complacency. I looked down to realize that I was low on gas. Really low- the light would be coming on any minute. Ohhhhhhbad. I’m in the middle of nowhere, Northeast New Mexico. This is the point where I start praying that I will make it to the next gas station. I estimate that I’ll get 30 miles after the light turns on before the engine sputters to a halt. I watch the light turn on as I’m seeing signs for towns about 30 miles away. Phew… this is going to be close. My friends have heard a lot of stories about me running out of gas in sketchy ways before, so I’m no stranger to the experience. I actually once managed to run out of gas and get a flat tire at the same time.

Finally, I see an overpass coming up- an exit! Woo! I might make it! As I get closer I start examining the skyline for gas stations- I see a big truck stop on the other side of the highway, but I’m worried- the blue signs advertising services haven’t shown any gas stations. Additionally, the truck stop has a big ‘DIESEL’ sign… only. But surely a truck stop will have gas too, right? I decided to chance it. I got off at the exit, navigated the overpass and arrived at the truck stop- I looked around for gas pumps and saw none- everything was marked diesel. Oh darn.

I’m nearly running on fumes and I’ve made an unnecessary detour. I head back to the highway, and somehow find myself on an access road that is joining up with the highway eastbound. I must have missed a turn, but I swear I never saw a sign for the westbound lane. Maybe I needed to leave the truck stop going the other direction. In either case, I was now headed the wrong way on the highway, making negative progress with nil gas. Each foot I covered now would burn its own gas, plus the gas I’d have to burn making that foot up the opposite direction. Generally, the little gravel turnarounds on a divided highway are ‘for official use only’- but I saw one that wasn’t marked as such and decided I’d take the next one, which mercifully was only a mile or so down the road. I braked hard to get into the 20-foot long gravel strip with no run-down lane, and punched the accelerator hard to get up to speed on the highway ahead of the approaching traffic- burning a whole lot of fuel at wide-open throttle. I start to pray harder that the next exit will not be much further away, and that it will have gas.

An episode of Top Gear comes to mind in which Jeremy Clarkson is trying to drive to London to Edinburgh and back on a single tank of fuel- some 800 miles. He employs tons of crazy fuel economy techniques, not of which are applicable to me, but I remember one thing- as he is getting to the very end of his fuel, he can start to hear the whine of the fuel pump after it has pumped the tank dry and is now churning air. I tried to listen for that sound myself (morbidly, perhaps), but Jeremy Clarkson was driving a fancy luxury Jaguar with tons of silencing and sound-deadening pads to kill engine and road noise, and I was driving a rusty Japanese econobox with an exhaust leak. The chances of me hearing the fuel pipe whining on air were from impossible to almost not impossible.

I made it a point not to count the miles since the ‘E’ light had turned on, as there was nothing I could do about it. Signs for another exit starting appearing, some number of miles away. Whether that number of miles was something to celebrate or something to fear, I didn’t know. As I neared the exit and took it, I was listening not for the fuel pump whine that would signal nearing doom, but for the sound of doom itself, the sputtering engine. I was starting to call to mind the old trick of pushing the car to a downhill slant and turning the key to the on position five times to get the fuel pump to suck up the last dregs of fuel from the tank. Fortunately, I didn’t need it- I made it to the gas station with nary a sputter or cough. I decided it was an opportune time for a break and used the last of my ham to make sandwiches for dinner, and ate some of the now-no-longer-very-cool yogurt. When the pump clacked to signal the tank was now full, it had put 12.93 gallons in the tank. Apparently I have a 13 gallon tank.

I took off with my nerves remaining only slightly taut from the experience, and looked forward to having half of my day’s driving done. That night, I would be staying with the son of a pastor whom my parents know. I’d never met him or his father before, but I’m much more of a fan of staying with friends of friends than I am of hitting a hotel. It’s more adventurous, sociable, and free. Nate lived right in Albuquerque, conveniently splitting my journey in half and not even requiring a significant detour.

Nate has led a life a bit different from my own, one that might lead some to judge him. His driver’s license is suspended due to DUI, he works at a call center, and lives with an older woman, Mary, as a roommate. He is, however, unfailingly kind, generous, and always was going out of his way to make me feel comfortable and at home. I’d arrived around 6PM and we had an evening to spend- they fed me dinner, and asked me if I would like to go to a bar with them. They assured me it wasn’t a bad bar and we wouldn’t get into trouble. My inclination is not to go to bars, but to steer clear. I saw it, though, as an opportunity to live the difference in being in the world but not of the world. I have met too many people who live sheltered lives in the sterile Christian bubble, steering well clear of anything that could stain their bleach-white reputation, and completely missing all the opportunities they could have to minister to the world. I wouldn’t change Albuquerque in one night, but then again one night is the entirety of the opportunity that was set before me.

When trying to describe things that are generally outside of my comfort zone while trying to avoid sounding judgmental, I typically run to the word ‘interesting’. My bar experience was interesting. There were a lot of things that you’d expect in a bar. Incredibly loud music (which fortunately was not continuous), typical bar patrons and not much house lighting. Nate had a lot of friends and acquaintances that I tried to accept introductions to, but frankly all I could do was smile and pretend to hear over the music. Nate bought me a Sprite and a Coke for Mary. Conversation was a bit limited due to the music’s volume, but after we moved to a table that was farther from the speaker, it was the kind of conversation one might expect at a bar. Loud though the music was, I have to give props the guitar player. He was really skilled. Mary introduced me to a few people and made sure I was comfortable. I played a game of billiards with a girl I had been warned about. I took a lot of opportunities to look at decorations on the wall rather than things I oughtn’t have. I made conversation and tried to keep it above water level. I realized I had accidentally worn a LeTourneau shirt into a bar, which students (and RAs) are not supposed to do. I hope, imperfect as I am, that I left the people I spent the evening with not with an impression of a stuck-up Christian who wanted nothing to do with them, but of someone who doesn’t need to condemn them to follow God.

We got back at a reasonable hour, as Nate and Mary were sensitive to my desire to depart reasonably early. On the drive in and seeing how nicely Albuquerque was laid out, I was starting to get a good impression of New Mexico. Nate and Mary filled me in some of the state’s deficiencies, though- apparently their education system isn’t the best. Their roads are nice, though.

Mary had generously prepared the couch for me and I was glad to have a solid night’s rest after a long day of driving. Between that and a shower I felt downright human again. After some cereal and reclaiming my food that I kept in their fridge overnight, the three of us set out for the day around 8AM. Nate had given me a road atlas which ended up coming in handy later. I checked my tire pressures and found that the earlier repair was holding just fine. They insisted on leading me out to the on-ramp that I would need to get to for the highway, which was quite handy- it’s the in-city driving that always gets to me. It was very nice of them. At the appropriate on-ramp, they waved me on and I was on the road once again.

Northern New Mexico is pretty boring. There is a lot of sand and rocks and not a lot of vegetation. In order to avoid my tape-deck SCREEEE problem, I tuned into the Albuquerque radio stations as long as I could before they faded. For some reason, the Camry has an enormous three-stage telescoping antenna. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to extend it before I departed. Oh well- popping the tape out every minute isn’t that bad, I guess.

Progress was made, miles were counted by and by… I got bored and started with my irresponsible antics. I tried to see how many miles I could go without touching the steering wheel, driving only with my knees. This worked pretty well except when there was another car nearby and I got nervous and grabbed the wheel. The road I was on actually had a fair amount of curvature to it, so it wasn’t all trivial. I tried seeing how many seconds I could drive with my eyes closed on straight sections. At one point, I decided I wanted to be a racecar driver, and donned my motorcycle helmet, which was within arm’s length in the back seat:



I was tempted to change my driving style to match the racing driver attire, but I did not. I also found that the combination of helmet and limited headroom meant I couldn’t really move my head around at all without hitting my helmet on something. I took it off after a few minutes, it was getting hot. I started raiding the bag of food I had collected from the free pile on the water fountain- somebody had left a whole sealed 1-lb bag of pistachios- score! I started eating them, but because they were heavily salted I found myself getting very thirsty very quickly. Eating a ton of pistachios isn’t really good for your lips, I guess. I was tossing the shells out the window and I wondered if people thought I was a litterbug. Pistachio shells are biodegradable, I swear.

I stopped for gas in some little town in New Mexico- I didn’t know where I was, really, only that they had cheap gas and I needed some. Unfortunately, the girl working the counter in the gas station didn’t know what town we were in either. Strange…. It’s not like there were any towns nearby… I guess she had a long commute to a mystery town. I only wanted to know so I could estimate my distance covered, so it was no big deal. I made myself some sandwiches with my remaining ham and bread, ate some yogurt, and filled up the water bottle I was using. I cleaned out the car after I got it from the Reinkings, but I apparently missed the one-liter Nalgene bottle hiding under the seat. I started using it in preference to the half-liter bottle I had, as it had a convenient spout top in addition to twice the capacity. I also scored from the water fountain free pile an entire Walmart bag of Crystal light packets and tubs. Score! If you know me, you know I thoroughly enjoy my Crystal Light (or rather, the Walmart knock-off brand) I drank a whooole lot of sugar-free beverage that trip- nearly making myself sick of Strawberry Kiwi.

People who make long road trips will be familiar with the idea of turning left and going 300 miles, then being rewarded with only another turn, which ends up only really being keeping left at a fork, and then another few hundred miles. This was essentially what I did all morning. I crossed into Colorado, the first time I’d been into the state except for the Denver airport during my layover on my way to Alaska in 2007.

Shortly after cruising into CO, however, I managed to miss one of those once-every-300-miles turns. I ended up going down a wrong road for 10 miles or so. I knew something was wrong, but by the philosophy of the heroic Kip Russell in Have Space Suit, Will Travel: it’s better to go one extra mile to be sure of your mistake than to turn around and return five miles in vain when your quarry was in fact just a bit further. I knew I was wrong when I hit a turn with road signs that didn’t make any sense. However, I did spot a Chinese restaurant, and decided to stop for lunch, as it was about that time anyway. In fact, I had told Nate and Mary that morning that I had intended to get Chinese for lunch if possible. Perfect.

I took my newly-gifted road atlas in with me and figured out where I was and where I needed to go while I waited for my General Tso’s chicken. An older couple at the table across from mine informed me that I was in Cortez, Colorado. They also told me how to get back to the road I needed to be on. Job done. I ate my meal (and was surprised by the super-ridiculously-hot peppers hidden in it) and got back on the road. I filled up with gas before leaving Colorado because I wasn’t sure about gas prices in Utah. I’d feel dumb if they were cheaper in Utah, but the station I saw advertised prices on the lower end of what I had seen thus far on the trip. During my gas break I let the car continue to play some funky music, I think it was Jamiroquai. A young guy on a motorcycle pulled up and I wondered what he thought of the weirdo in the beater car from Texas playing really odd music and checking his tire pressure. I tried to act cool in my sweet safety sunglasses that Tyrell gave me. I looked over his shoulder and realized there was a family in a Subaru with Texas plates parked at the convenience store. Ha! Texans have got you outnumbered in your own state, Colorado biker dude. I might have been kinder to him in my mind if he had been riding a sport bike rather than the cruiser he was on.

Less than an hour on the road and I was over the Utah border. Hooray! I texted (yes, while driving, I know- it’s long and straight, ok) Gareth to let him know that I was getting closer. I’d also been told by Kim, who is half of the couple running the intern program, to call once I was about an hour out to make sure someone would be there to meet me. Up until this point I had been hoping and praying that God would get me to ‘Utah’ but I changed my focus at this point to ‘Ephraim’, because he had already brought me to Utah. I must have rejoined the route that we took on the Spring Break trip- I started recognizing things from the not-that-long-ago drive, and being reminded of what we were talking about in the van as was passed those areas. Candyce, I think we used up a good 100 miles on your testimony.

Things started to get exciting that afternoon, though- after passing through Moab, the land of Sweet Off-road Vehicular Fun, (SOVF), I was going through a mountain pass, which provided a steep and winding road through whatever range it is that occupies southeast Utah (not the Rockies). I noticed I was having to apply a whole lot of pedal in order to keep pace up the mountain. I was losing ground to 18-wheelers. Aren’t cars supposed to be faster than big trucks up mountains? Odd. Also, my steering was acting funny. Why am I having to correct so much to the right? Even in left-sweeping turns I was still holding the wheel almost straight. This isn’t good. Soon there was no denying that something was wrong with the Camry… oh nuts.

I’m somewhat ashamed that it took me as long as it did to note the obvious problem with the car. It was masked by the simultaneous onset of the mountains, which are also the reason I couldn’t pull over right away. I didn’t want to be working on the car in the outside edge of a bend, in the narrow breakdown lane, with 18-wheelers blowing by me trying to keep every joule of forward energy they have.

Things had gotten pretty bad by the time the road straightened out after the pass. I was having to hold the wheel at about 60° to the left in order to keep going straight, and with the pedal fully juiced I was going only 55mph. I pulled off as soon as I could. I got out and took stock of my situation. The same tire I’d been having trouble with before was flat, and catastrophically so this time. When a tire goes flat, the sidewall bulges out at the bottom between the rim and the road. I had been forced to drive on the flat with the sidewall completely flattened to the ground, and so badly that the molded-in writing on the side has worn off:



I gave some thought to my options. As I was just past the peak of a mountain, I could see that there were no services for miles and miles around. I also remember from the drive during spring break that there was nothing for a looong time- we had an adventure with the wipers freezing over during a snowstorm, leaving me with only an index-card sized part of the windshield to drive through while piloting a minivan full of college students down the winding, snowy mountain road. Fun times! It looked like I could either call AAA or try to get somewhere on my spare. The Camry was a 1990 Japanese econobox. I didn’t have a lot of faith at the time in it having a useful spare.

I got on the phone with AAA to see about a tow. Fortunately, my parents had the foresight to add me to their AAA plan before the trip- good thinking mom and dad! I gave them my info, but while I was on hold with them I decided to check out my spare anyway. I’d hate to be towed probably 100 miles to the nearest tire shop only to have to shell out for a new tire- it might pay to check the spare.

And of course, the Camry keeps on surprising me. I piled all my luggage in the trunk up behind the Camry and got at the tire under the trunk floor. I had thought for sure it would have a little donut spare, and flat at that. Nope, not this time- it was a full-size spare, and it didn’t even feel soft. Amazing! While still on hold with AAA I quickly got my tire pressure gauge out of the glovebox and checked the pressure- 28 psi. Not bad, and enough to get me down the road for a while until I could air up at that distance service station. Win! AAA got back on the line with me shortly and I informed them that I no longer needed a tow. The AAA person seemed reluctant to cancel my tow, and could barely hear me- I was worried they would send a tow truck anyway if we got disconnected or couldn’t communicate further. For all I know, they did- I was out of there shortly.

I pulled out the tire and jack and got to work. Getting the Camry up on a jack is always an adventure, as the steel of the Unibody seam where one is supposed to jack from is quite rusted and tends to crumple in instead of lifting the car. I found a solid-enough spot and got the car up and tire off. I was mortified when I inspected the damage more thoroughly, as I saw this:



That, ladies and gentlemen, is bad news. I figured out while I was driving that the tire was bad, but come on- if I had known I was driving on something that bad I would have pulled over a lot sooner. I almost feel like I lose car cred just for having failed to pull over sooner. Surely anyone who knows cars would have pulled over long before things got that bad.

So apparently the fix in Decatur, TX wasn’t that great after all- but it got me the next 1000 miles, which is most of my trip. Between that and having a pressurized, full-size spare ready to replace it, I think that’s God’s provision. What more, the full-size spare wasn’t perfect- it actually had a small split in it that worried (and worries) me. It may be that I needed the last 1000 miles out of the first tire because the spare didn’t have all 1300 miles in it, and the extra 1000 miles got from it made all the difference. If I had known I had a full-size spare back in Dallas, I would have put it on- but maybe that split would have let go sooner than the patch did. What I know is that God got me here on the combination of two sketchy tires. I trust his methods.

While I was changing my tire, a police truck pulled over to check on me. Last time I had the police check on me on the side of the road, they called in a tow truck that wasn’t AAA and I had to shell out $100 on the spot to get my car winched out of a snowbank- no choice in the matter. This time, though, the police office believed my statement that I had the situation under control and needed no assistance- I was almost done with the tire change then. Phew. With the car whole again and the scarily-deteriorated tire stowed back in the trunk, I was able to get back on the road. I’m always timid about pulling out in front of traffic, and it seems like the cars are always evenly spaced so that I don’t get a comfortable window between any of them. In reality, I think a normal person would have pulled put in a third of the space I waited for, but it pays to be cautious sometimes.

Back underway, I was glad to have the car feeling back to normal. I pressed on through the many miles before the next service station at Salina, UT. I was able to spot the exit where we had pulled over in with an opaque windshield in the minivan and James ran out to clean it quickly so we wouldn’t lose too many miles to the silver van. I arrived in Salina, again recognizing it from the prior trip. I was fortunate to find a gas station that didn’t charge for air- I rarely see gas stations that just have a compressed air hose sitting out for free rather than one of the ubiquitous 50¢-for-two-minutes compressor stations. This station was like a miniature truck stop, so I imagine it’s a courtesy to the truckers, but one plebian car drivers never see because it’s always hidden away with the set-apart diesel pumps.

I filled the tire, didn’t need gas, and got back on the way. I was getting close- Salina was my turn off for the last major road I’d take towards Ephraim- only about 45 minutes away. So close! So very close! Close enough that if something went horribly wrong, someone from Trigrace could come out and get me- it was like I was already there! Woo! I called Kim to let her know I would be arriving within an hour, and received direction to go to Chip and Jamie’s house. Chip and Jamie are the ones who lead the ministry in Ephraim, and when they arrived in the Sanpete valley 18 years ago, there were almost zero other Christians there. I was glad I was heading to their house, because they are great hosts, and Jamie is a great cook and always feeding people. I was looking forward to an end to packaged and fast foods.

On the road from Salina (pronounced Sal-eye-na, not Sal-ee-na, I found out) to Ephraim, there are several other small towns, and gosh, when you’re too excited to look for road signs, Manti and Sterling look a lot like Ephraim, which I’ve only been to once before. I remember making the same mistakes on the spring break drive out, only then it was snowy and foggy and cold- on this trip through, spring had sprung and green was everywhere. When I saw the Mormon temple in Manti I was reminded of why I was coming, and my excitement for my arrival was combined with the somber sense of knowing exactly why I am in Utah this summer.

It was not long before I started recognizing features that actually belonged to Ephraim- I had neglected to take note of my mileage-to-next-turn earlier so I wasn’t exactly sure when to expect to turn on to Center St, the location of the college house. The turn took me by surprise, and it was prooobably too late to turn- but I wasn’t about to add an extra quarter-mile to my 1337-mile trip by circling the block, so I impulsively jerked the wheel into the turn and attracted the attention of a nearby elderly gentleman by squealing my tires through the bend. I was a bit surprised by how much tire squeal I had induced. For a moment was worried that I might have rolled a tire off of a rim, given that the Camry’s tires are not exactly low-profile track tires.

The grin spreading across my face could not be resisted- I was finally here! I pulled into a parking spot on the street in front of Chip and Jamie’s house and started to ply myself from the Camry, collecting my cell phone and wallet etc from their hiding places. I’m not sure why I thought I’d need my wallet in Chip and Jamie’s house, but habit is hard to break. By the time I was approaching their front door, I was being greeted by the indefatigable Jamie. I had arrived before dinner was completely wrapped up, and she made some great homemade fried shrimp for me (really homemade, not just from a bag). Thanks Jamie!

That is the story of how I got from Longview, TX to Ephraim, UT- quite an adventure. I believe that even though it may appear to be a story of hardship and trial to some, that it is a testament of God’s faithfulness. I am thankful to have had this experience, every moment of it, because it taught me a lot about perseverance, work, faith, and following God. I don’t mean to make this out as one exceptional week in my life, and everything else it just boring- I frequently find myself in positions that give me the opportunity to learn the same lessons that this adventure taught me. Not every week of my life has the same visible and tangible experiences as this one, but every day is an opportunity to follow God and grow in him, just like this adventure was.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

we are praying for you Ned. May this be a fruitful time for you and the team with many seeds planted and/or watered. Don and Maryann Lepic

Redeemed by Christ said...

Ned,
That was quite the post. I enjoyed reading it. Welcome to Utah :). I miss being in Ephraim. I do have to agree with you that Jamie is a great cook. I pray for you and all the other summer interns. God Bless you and everyone else that is in Ephraim right now.

Stormy

James said...

Awesome. :-)

Although I seem to remember that patch in the windshield being rather larger than an index card. ;-)