“Vannymoon”

“What’s that grinding noise?”

November 19 – December 7, 2019.

“What’s that grinding noise?!” It was just a signal telling us that the “vannymoon” was over. Our vannymoon lasted three years and almost 65K miles. But it definitely ended on Tuesday 11/19/2019.

We had been on the move, visiting friends and family, and were looking forward to camping in a remote spot in the Appalachicola National Forest. Also, I was hoping to fix our check engine light there. (The light had come on two days before as we left Knoxville. Autozone ran a check and sold us an EVAP purge canister which was supposed to fix the problem.) We passed a small group of homes and turned down a dirt road to find our campsite.

The road was in pretty good shape, but there were a few dips. We went through one slowly and immediately heard the grinding noise. I hopped out and jacked up the front driver’s side to check it out.

I pulled the tire off and saw that something was wrong with the strut. The strut assembly had twisted somehow and a bolt head was cutting away the inner side of the tire. I couldn’t see how to fix it, we couldn’t drive anywhere, we had no cell phone service, and it was getting dark.

A couple of fishermen came up the road from the camping area. I put the tire back on and carefully pulled to the side. They said no one was at the campground. We decided to stay put by the road and deal with the strut the next day.

In just a few seconds a bolt had cut a groove into our tire. I’m glad we weren’t doing 65mph at the time.

We decided to make this our campsite for the night.

On the morning of the 20th, we walked back to the cluster of homes, where we got a couple of signal bars on the cell phone. We stood in an intersection while Duwan called our insurance company. She managed to arrange for a tow and a visit to Mears Garage before we completely lost cell service. The tow truck was supposed to arrive in a couple of hours. We hiked back to the van, got lawn chairs, and sat by the paved road to wait for the truck.

Of course, it blew right past us. But the driver sensed he had missed the turn. We flagged him down when he came back. With Ballena Blanca now on the back, we climbed into the cab for the 20-mile ride to civilization (Blountstown). Our driver was friendly. He explained that a camera was recording the cab’s interior because another driver was no longer trusted. Since our solar panels and roof vent were now around 13 feet off the ground, I cringed every time we brushed under low hanging trees.

Ballena Blanca gets a ride to Mears Auto Shop in Blountstown.

Clinton, the mechanic in Blountstown, was very capable, but an initial glance at his shop did not inspire confidence. The shop was surrounded by junk cars and just plain junk. His waiting shed had only been in place for four years. Why did some of the stuff look like it had been in place for twenty?

Mears Auto Shop.

Waiting Shed at Mears. Lori Ann was our hostess here. Duwan helped her debug a WiFi problem (allowing us to pay our bill). Lori Ann is Clinton the mechanic’s girlfriend and office manager. We also met some of Clinton’s family.

Diagnosing the “pinch” bolt problem. The bolt screws into the strut. There is no locking nut on it. The Ford dealership I took it to later wouldn’t believe the bolt had just worked its way out.

This cat at Mears doesn’t look too friendly in this picture, but he warmed up to us a bit. Also, Clinton and Lori Ann were very hospitable. The shop was busy, but they worked us in right away.

Lori Ann has named the cat “Dog” because the spot on his back looks like a dog sleeping.

I was beginning to have dark thoughts about our rolling home. We had already taken it in for drive train recall last year. It was one of those recall notices you don’t dare ignore. Now the check engine light was on. And you may remember we had the torque converter replaced a couple of weeks before.

Yes, back in October we had developed a shimmy. At first, the van just vibrated a bit, like we were going over a rough patch of interstate. But we started noticing it when the road looked smooth. Finally, I asked to have it checked in Greenville, NC, and was told we needed a $3,200 torque converter. We went back to Charlotte, NC, found someone who could order the part, then traveled to PA and back while the part was being delivered. It was fixed now. Yay! But our steady 21 cents per mile cost had now jumped to 50 cents per mile for 2019. Ouch.

And now Clinton the mechanic was speculating that our strut problem was much more serious. Dark thoughts. Things got better after he got us up on the rack. Seems we were just missing a bolt that keeps the strut housing from rotating around the strut. He found a suitable replacement bolt, ordered a stabilizer arm to replace the one that was damaged, and sent us off into the woods to camp. We came back the next day and he replaced the stabilizer arm.

The following Monday (back in Blountstown) I had the damaged tire replaced. I checked the passenger side strut pinch bolt and saw that it, too, had backed out a couple of thread widths. I had it tightened down (and will continue to check it, periodically).

Oh, I did install the EVAP purge canister, and after five days the check engine light finally turned off!

Removing the manifold to get to the EVAP purge canister. Videos I watched said that before 2009 these rarely failed. In 2009 some improvements were made and they fail frequently now. It’s not a difficult or costly fix. I tried getting auto stores to reset the engine light, but they don’t do that. Eventually, the light went off.

Later, on Dec 3, we received another Ford drive train recall notice. Not one you ignore. I called area dealerships. No one nearby could see us any time soon. One had appointments booked for three months. (We found that the whole area is still behind from Hurricane Michael’s arrival 14 months before.)

The short version of the story is that we drove west across the Florida panhandle to get the recall handled three hours away in Ft. Walton Beach. For us, the round trip there and back took three days.

Driving back on the third day I started hearing a “click” when we’d hit a bump. It happened more frequently. I could feel it in the steering wheel. Finally, I asked Duwan, “Do you hear that clicking noise?”. She did. We decided it was coming from the left front wheel. I stopped to tighten the lug nuts. No change.

I white-knuckled on to our campsite, positive the van would collapse with each bump in the dirt road. We arrived. As the sunset, I took off the tire and tried to tighten down everything in sight. I was able to tighten one nut about half a turn. But that couldn’t possibly be the solution, could it?

The next morning we hopped up and started back down the dirt road. Reluctantly, we had decided to go back to Clinton, the Blountstown mechanic. He had worked on this wheel before.

We started toward the dirt crossroad. Left turn for Blountstown. Right to move on to the city of Appalachicola. No clicks yet. Could that 1/2 turn on the nut have fixed our problem? Still no clicks at the crossroad. The vannymoon may be over, but we turned to the right.

6 thoughts on ““Vannymoon”

  1. What a nightmare! You’re probably learning more about vans than you ever wanted to. Making me a little nervous for when we hit the road. Love “Dog” the cat.

    • Duwan said:

      We are learning a bit. I don’t think stationary people have to know so much about their abodes as us traveling people.

      Van troubles are to be expected. We were do lucky that we went so long without any problems. There is always “it could’ve been worse” with this kind of stuff. I’m pretty please with how it all ended up except for the lightening if our pockets.

  2. John McDonough said:

    “I tried getting auto stores to reset the engine light, but they don’t do that. Eventually, the light went off.”
    Next time, assuming the engine light is really superfluous, just disconnect the battery and then connect it back up. That resets all the errors (removes them from memory!). Matt Mitchell gave me that hint for passing emission tests. First disconnect the battery and reconnect, then drive up and down the freeway to get the engine really hot, and then go get tested. If you haven’t had any error lights coming up you can skip the first step for emission testing. A hot engine, though, is a necessity.

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks for the tips! I don’t think we have emissions testing in Florida where the van is registered but I imagine we won’t always live in Florida either.

      I was very pleased that I figured out that we could go to an auto parts store to find out what the engine light was warning us about instead of the dealer. That saved us time and money.

  3. Hi guys!

    What an ordeal to read the entire Florida “breakdown” story in detail. You’ve been having a lot of bad luck with Ballena Blanca recently. It’s all happening in quick succession, so I guess you were really fortunate the first three years. Hopefully, all is solved now. Even though we’ve had to fix and maintain heaps of things on Zesty, it’s still less than on a boat. But, we will see how much it has cost us, in our yearly expense report.

    We have a tool that explains why our check engine light is on, when it’s on. Mark just told me it’s called a OBD2 adapter. Maybe something to look into? It has helped us often.

    Enjoy Texas and smooth driving!

    • Duwan said:

      I’m positive that we have spent less money on Ballena Blanca than we ever did on our boat. We never had enough money while we sailing and now we have money in the bank (thankfully since we have really needed it).

      Cool tool. Doesn’t seem too expensive and looks small. Apparently you can go to any auto parts store and they will use their own tool to tell you what’s wrong. So glad that’s what we did first instead getting an appointment and going to a Ford dealer.

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