Monday September 15, 2014.
“Here use this bandana.” Greg didn’t look good. He took the bandana and wrapped it over his nose and mouth like an old west bank robber. Diesel fumes were permeating the van. It was rainy, the sky was darkening and we had a long way to go, but I wanted to push on, back to Atlanta, back to Cabbagetown. I wasn’t going to leave The Great A’Tuin alone, in the middle of rural Georgia, in the middle of nowhere.
The day had started well. The van had no problem cruising at 60 on the trip down to Florida the day before, so we decided to take the highway for the trip back to Atlanta. Despite Greg not having his driver’s license (his passport sufficed for ID), everything went smooth at the DMV in Green Cove Springs and The Great A’Tuin joined us as official Florida residents. Next stop was just up the road at St. Brendan’s Isle to pick up our mail. Woo Hoo! I had a check for $20!
Back on the highway, Greg and A’T took the lead. Sailing along at 60 mph, lunchtime came and passed and I wondered if he would stop at all before getting back to Atlanta. Then about 2pm, just north of Tifton Georgia, Greg exited the highway. I figured he must be looking for fuel, but the two gas stations at this exit had long since been closed. Aside from the two abandoned stations, a vacant lot, and three police vehicles waiting to pull cars in a speed trap, this exit had nothing to offer.
But Greg wasn’t looking for gas.
He pulled off the road, got out and told me that the van had lost power, was sounding terrible, and that he could smell something burning. We opened the engine compartment with the van still running and the problem was immediately apparent. One of the fuel injector tubes was broken and diesel was squirting out onto the engine. The smell of burning diesel was overwhelming. Greg shut A’T off. We waited for the engine to cool a little bit and then try to remove the broken injector tube. It snapped in half.
One of the speed trap cops drove over in his cruiser. Are we being suspicious again, I wondered? But he was just there to check on us and asked if everything was OK in his friendly middle Georgia drawl. He offered us lots advice on where we could get help. We decided to take one of his suggestions and go to the O’Riley’s in the next town up the highway, but first we wanted to move A’T to a safer location, to the vacant lot next to where the speed trap cops were stationed. We wrapped the leaking injector line in duct tape for our short trip to the lot. We found a gooey melted duct tape mess hanging off the line by time we got there.
On our way to O’Riley’s we tied to work out a solution to our problem. Can the van run on 3 cylinders? How can we keep the diesel from squirting out on to the engine? What if we just cap off the injector pump? It sounded like a possible idea. Once at O’Riley’s we realized that we needed the bolt that goes over the injector pump in order to find a replacement for it. We turned around and drove back down the highway to the van.
Back at our exit, our speed cop came to check on us again. He told us about a machine shop not too far from where we were. Now we started to think about welding our broken piece or fabricating something to replace it. Back in the Honda, we headed off to the machine shop. Greg was now thinking that stopping the flow of diesel was not a good idea. What if we divert it, I ask, funnel it into a container of some sort?
We showed the guy behind the counter at the machine shop a picture of our problem, the bolt that connected the injector line to the injector, and told him our ideas. He seemed to consider the problem a minute, then picked up the phone and called a tractor diesel mechanic in the next town over. He and the mechanic talked a bit, then he hung up, and told us his friend didn’t think capping the injector pump was a very good idea. But diverting the fuel flow might work. He took our bolt, walked around the store collecting items, and returned to the counter with a 4 foot length of hose, a O clamp, a empty motor oil bottle and a length of twine. Back in the Honda we headed back to the van with our $5 solution.
While Greg rigged up our diversion line, I mapped a new route on the phone. We were only about 2 ½ hours from Atlanta by interstate, but we wouldn’t be taking the highway again. Running on only 3 cylinders we wouldn’t be going very fast and we would need to stop every 30 minutes or so to pour the diesel that was collected in the motor oil bottle back into the van’s gas tank. I called our backup plan pet sitter and told her we are going to be late and asked her to go look in on Jimmy and June Bug. We set out down the road, this time, with me and the Google map lady in the lead.
Our first order of business was to find more diesel. There was none to be found so far off the interstate, so we eventually headed back to the highway. As we were fueling up it started to pour down raining. We hunkered down in A’T and ate dinner while we waited for it to let up enough to get back on track.
Back on the road I listened intently to the Google map lady hoping she wouldn’t lead me astray as she directed me from one small town to the next. The rain poured, then drizzled, fog drifted across the landscape, and rural Georgia was overtaken by darkness. Every 30 minutes we stopped to pour diesel backing into A’T’s gas tank and for Greg to take a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Then we came to the sign, Road Closed. The map lady had led me to a dead end. We pulled over and conferred. I couldn’t see clear way to get around the closed road on the little cracked map on the phone. I tried to reroute through another city, but we weren’t getting a data signal. I decided to just wing it, go back through the town we just came from and then head off in another direction. As I reached the town, I saw detour signs and made a quick decision to follow them. I wondered about the soundness of this decision as we twisted through the dark country roads. I was not really sure where we would end up.
Once we got to the end of the detour, I pulled over. It was pitch dark, but off in the distance I could see what looked like road signs. I hoped they would tell us we were on the right path. We poured fuel back into A’T’s gas tank and I pulled back onto the road. In my rear view mirror I saw total darkness. Where were A’T’s headlights? Greg was not following. I made a u-turn.
The van wouldn’t start. I looked at the engine dumbfounded as Greg tried to crank the starter. Nothing. It can’t all end here can it? I so wanted to get the van back to Atlanta. After our three weeks in limbo with the van in the shop, I didn’t want to take A’T to another garage again. I had already decided that Greg was going to become a diesel mechanic, but he couldn’t do that unless we got the van back to somewhere where he could work on it.
We took a break in the van. Greg was not doing well. The fumes were still really bad, it was late, and he was tired. We discussed the new problem. I thought about us spending the night in the van on the side of the road in the darkness in the middle of nowhere. After a while I suggested that I crank the van while he looked at the engine. We gave it a try and A’T fired right up.
New rule #1: only stop in well lit areas.
The roads signs told us we are on the right path. The map lady rejoined us. And we made two more stops to pour fuel back in the gas tank before A’T decided not to start again. We were parked at a convenience store, closed for the evening. It was late, midnight-ish, maybe. Greg joined me and the air conditioning in the Honda, we rested, killing time, hoping that the van just needed a short break. Then a cop (police encounter #3) drove by and shined a spot light into our car. We explained our situation, he asked very few questions, and drove away. We were so close now. We could leave the van and drive back to Atlanta in the Honda in about an hour. We could come back the next day and deal with the situation in the daylight after some sleep. But I wanted to get our new “home” back “home.” A half hour passed, maybe 45 minutes. We cranked the van again. It started.
New rule #2: don’t turn the van off until we reach Cabbagetown.
Soon I saw a glow in the sky. The suburbs: strip malls, fast food places, car lots, streetlights, stop lights. We were soooo close. I kept waiting to see tall buildings poking out over the trees. I followed the map lady’s instructions closely as she guided us through a labyrinth of the suburban streets. We crossed under 385, across the perimeter that separates Atlanta from the rest of the world, and turned on to Moreland Ave. We were back in Atlanta!
It was about 3:30 am when we finally walked into the loft where we were house sitting. It took us hours to unwind. Greg drank the two beers he found in the fridge and started scouring the house for the liquor cabinet. I thought about making a post on FaceBook, but I couldn’t think of how to describe this arduous 13-hour journey in a sentence or two or even a paragraph or two. Although, “Greg and The Great A’Tuin rock!” might have summed it up pretty well.