Lying on my back under Nacho on the side of the road, my hair becoming matted in oily mud, It occurred to me: this is probably the first time in five months that an office desk didn’t seem like a bad place to be. The events over the last 65 miles leading up to this point were almost unbelievable. Like listening for hours on end of the bone-chilling sound of children’s laughter, this too was a test of endurance.
In Costa Rica, our planned two week stop in Atenas had turned into a month. We had dropped Nacho at a shop for a week of TLC, but after a week they hadn’t yet started to work. After two weeks, the engine and transmission were on the ground, but no real progress had been made. Meanwhile, Sheena and I were going stir crazy. The list of jobs I gave to the mechanic at the beginning was a half page long, including the replacement of several oil seals, new brake rotors, a clutch inspection and slave cylinder rebuild, and a full-fledged investigation into why our rear wheel bearings kept failing. At this rate, we would be back on the road in a year. Maybe two.
Week three in the shop saw me spending every day there, doing much of the work myself. There was no other way we’d get back up and running otherwise. By the middle of week four, Nacho was ready to roll with new engine oil seals, transmission seals, an inspected clutch, new valve cover and water pump seals, new brake rotors and front wheel bearings, and all new fuel lines in the engine compartment. I also managed to install an industrial fuel filter before the fuel pump to combat silt-laden gas later in our trip. Notably absent from our list of complete projects was the full-fledged investigation into our rear wheel bearings – the main reason we stopped in the first place. After a month, however, we were unable to hang around any longer. The rainy season had come, and we had long overstayed our welcome at our layover house.
At long last, a full month after we arrived in Atenas, we hit the road. Our friends had invited us to go trout fishing in the mountains outside of Cartago, and as we climbed the steep road into the mountains, we saw the first bad omen: our oil pressure light started to flicker. Without an oil pressure gauge, there wasn’t much I could do, so we kept driving. Before long, we arrived at the dirt road that led to the trout pond. Waiting for us at the turnoff were our friends James and Lauren, who, after having seen the road, assumed (correctly) that we’d need a tow up the steepest section.
A hundred yards down the dirt road, all hell broke loose in Nacho’s front end; in an instant it sounded like our van was being attacked by Langoliers. You know, from that Stephen King movie.
I got out in the pouring rain and mud, and jacked Nacho up. It was immediately obvious that something had gone horribly wrong; the front wheels were totally effed up, as we engineers say. I took the wheels off and found that both hubs were about to come apart, and both wheels were hanging onto their spindles by a few threads. Further investigation showed that our mechanic had failed to adequately peen both front hub locknuts, and they had almost completely backed off. I disbelievingly unscrewed them the rest of the way with my fingers.
I reassembled the hubs and torqued the locknuts to the factory spec, and then peened them in place. After putting everything back together we again got underway. Some of the noise had subsided, but it still sounded like a dominatrix was whipping Nacho with a chain as we drove. Not a nice dominatrix either – more like a truck driver dressed as a dominatrix. It was bad. We were only a few hundred meters from our camp, and decided to press on and figure it out later on when it wasn’t dark and raining.
In the morning, I found that one of our front brake caliper bolts had fallen out, and the other one had backed out 90% of the way. This would have been due to improper torque being applied by the mechanics when they reassembled the brakes after we swapped rotors. Our caliper had been smashing around as we drove on the dirt road, making all kinds of racket. We walked back on the road and miraculously found the missing bolt, and then I remounted the caliper and set the torque on all of the brake caliper bolts. With a torque wrench. The way Mother Nature intended it.
At the trout farm we met up with several of our overlanding friends; James, Lauren, Jessica, Kobus, and Jared. We spent two days stream fishing (with limited luck), pond fishing (with ease, as the pond was stocked with trout), Dutch oven cooking, and seeking refuge from the newly arrived rainy season. The pond was so well stocked, in fact, that it seemed like a great idea to try spearfishing for some trout. You see, after so much time away from academia and other forms of intellectual stimulation, my mind is becoming soft like baby fat.
On the second morning, I wrestled myself into my wetsuit and donned my flippers and mask. I slipped into the black, icy cold pond carrying my speargun, and put my head under the water. It was worse than the red tide in Playa Coco. In a small pond containing hundreds of slimy, writhing water-breathing beasts, I couldn’t see a thing. Do trout have teeth? So terrifying. I held the speargun up in front of me, but couldn’t see as far as the tip. It should have been obvious to me that if you can’t see the spear tip, you won’t see anything in front of the spear tip either. The odds were stacked against me, but the frigid water was constricting the blood flow to my baby fat mind. I hunted on.
After 15 minutes I had failed to spear anything and was teetering on the edge of hypothermia. Our new friend Juan even came down and fed the fish all around me, trying to give me a clear shot. Even with hundreds of trout bodies slapping my body in a feeding frenzy, it wasn’t to be. My repeated blind shots failed to kill anything except for my dreams. The trout had won.
Back on the road, we pointed toward Pavones in the far South of Costa Rica. If all went well, by the following morning we’d be surfing the world’s second longest left hand break. The mechanical gods had a different idea, and a few miles after leaving, while traveling up a long climb in the pouring rain, our front brakes overheated. We pulled over as smoke billowed out from our front wheels.
After pulling the front wheels off, it became clear that our front brake pistons were frozen. This meant that when I would apply the brakes, the pads would squeeze the disc brake, but wouldn’t retract, leaving our brakes on at all times. I removed the brake pads and cycled the pistons in and out, trying to loosen them up. I noticed that the rubber piston seals were shredded, allowing water and grit to fly right into the calipers.
Back on the road, we made it no farther than a few more miles before we smelled the unmistakable odor of burning asbestos. My half-assed brake fix had failed to solve our sticky piston problem. We pulled to the roadside, this time on a descent leading into an enormous valley in the middle of nowhere, and settled in. I decided to rebuild our calipers there on the roadside, and make a crude repair to the dust seals with some RTV silicone. We were ready to spend at least one night on the side of the road.
While removing the first caliper my wrench slipped and I ripped a chunk of flesh from my thumb on the fenderwell. Not a great start. As I pulled the first caliper from the van, a man walked up to us. His engine had blown a few kilometers down the road, and he was trying to find some food for his waiting family. He told us that if we were able to coast down to where he was stopped, his son, a mechanic from San Jose, would be arriving at 8:30PM to give him a tow. He called him and verified that he would be able to help us out.
At 11:30PM, the man’s son and another mechanic showed up and started working on Nacho. Rather than rebuild the calipers, they opted to cycle them in and out as I had done earlier, only this time they sprayed WD40 into the pistons. Not quite as good, but it was enough to get all four pistons moving enough to move along safely. We spent the night by the roadside, and in the morning we headed out. I would just have to find a couple of caliper rebuild kits soon. My new rotors had already warped due to the stuck pistons, and I would need to get everything back to normal before any more damage was done.
We carried on through San Isidro, and started the long descent to the coast. I put Nacho in first gear and slowly crept along so as not to have to rely much on our brakes. We arrived in Dominical late in the day and turned South on the coastal road. A mile down the road, I heard a light tapping from the rear wheel. I swerved a couple of times to assess where it was coming from, when all of a sudden we lost all engine power and a rapid beating sound erupted from our rear end. It sounded like we’d run over one of those improvised explosive devices, but I quickly ruled that out. Seemed unlikely.
As I got out, my mind first went to a transmission failure. I really hoped it was a failed CV joint instead. In the sweltering heat and humidity I lowered myself into the dirt and crawled under Nacho’s underbelly. I grabbed the axle and it spun freely in my hand. Somehow the passenger side outer CV joint had come completely unbolted from the stub axle. All six bolts, the ones I’ve been battling for the last two years to keep tight, the ones I replaced right before the trip and slathered with “permanent” Loctite, had all come out.
Since the CV joint was exposed to the elements, I had no choice but to unbolt the entire axle and rebuild the joint. This is a job I’ve done at least a half dozen times in my ongoing quest to keep the CV bolts from coming loose, so I knew exactly what to do. What I didn’t count on was the downpour that started just before I was ready to crawl back under Nacho to bolt everything back in place.
As I lay there on my back, my hair becoming matted and my shirt becoming soaked in oily mud, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. This whole ordeal had started with preventative maintenance. Then, in a span of 65 miles we had a tire puncture, an oil pressure light, had to be towed up two hills, our hubs came loose, our brake caliper bolts fell out, our brake pistons seized up, and our axle fell off. Now I was lying on my back in a mud puddle with mosquitoes buzzing around my face while I slowly hit each of the 12 passenger side axle bolts with brake cleaner, wire brush, Loctite, and a torque wrench.
I will henceforth be doing all of my own auto mechanics, and that’s final. There’s a reason I spent two tedious years learning how to work on Nacho correctly. And while many days make our hearts want to explode with overwhelming joy, days like this remind us that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out here. But we’ve come this far, so what the hell. Might as well see what tomorrow brings.
Author: Drive Nacho Drive
At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, “Nacho”. Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin’ it.