After returning from Oregon to Salt Lake City, I linked up with my roommate Sean and labmate Eric and began phase 3 of my roadtrip, whereby many miles and many cities commenced. Sean had a late 90's Pontiac Sunfire, I had my 1981 Tercel "Bopper," and the three of us began driving south of Salt Lake City, complete with walkie-talkies to communicate in our two-car caravan. We didn't make it very far- 50 miles to be exact. In Provo, Utah (the site of Brigham Young University), the Sunfire's transmission failed and wouldn't shift past 2nd gear.
We found a transmission shop in Provo, and the mechanics were nice enough to do a free diagnostic on the gear box. Bad news. Needs to be rebuilt. Thousand dollars at the least. Soooo...Sean responds to this in the only way he could: He asked where the nearest junkyard was.
We found one a couple miles away, complete with junkyard dog and all, and Sean sold the car for $225 (He originally paid $600 for it). It was all rather funny. My car is small and was packed with gear to boot, but somehow we found a way to pack three grown men and all our supplies into Bopper. It wasn't pretty, but we made it to beautiful Moab in time for sunset.
On to Denver, Bopper had a very hard time making it up the mountains. With its tiny 1.5 liter engine with 60 horsepower, driving through the Vail Pass at 12,000 feet was very slow going. With the pedal all the way to the floor, and downshifting as much as I could, at some points I was only going 25 mph in a 70 mph zone. SUVs and other modern cars were screaming past us, but I had the hazard lights on.
We then went on to New Mexico. You have to be very careful driving through rural state roads because you might get caught in a speed trap. As we did in Magdalena, on our way to visit the radio telescopes. Yes, I got the $58 dollar ticket for going 20 miles over the speed limit.
Even better, an hour later we ran out of gas in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Bopper's fuel gauge is broken, so we had to simply write down the mileage upon every fill-up and make sure to get gas every 250 miles or so. The farthest I've gone on a single tank of gas is 300 miles. Sean was driving as fast as Bopper could go (84 mph), the wind was very strong, but we were trying to make it to Socorro (290 miles) to save time and make it to the telescopes before sunset.
At 270 miles into it, we lost power and had to pull over to the side of the road. Sean wondered if the car's fuel pump had broken, but I knew we had just run out of gas. We tried to flag some cars down for help, and thankfully it didn't take long before someone pulled over. A nice man in a Toyota FJ drove me into town, we borrowed a gas can, filled it up, and we drove back. The man, Jack Hooper, turned out to be a demolitions engineer in Soccorro, and he even paid for the gas. He was an awesome guy, and we're going to send him a 6-pack of Bell's as a thank you gift.
Bopper did well from there on in, making it to El Paso, Austin, Memphis, and Kentucky. But then something drastic happened. After filling up gas in Columbus, Ohio, we noticed a ratcheting noise eminating from the engine. We pulled over and tried to figure out what it was, but nothing appeared wrong under the hood. Since Columbus was only 120 miles to Cleveland (where I was going for the Neural Interfaces Conference), and Cleveland is then only 150 miles to Ann Arbor, I figured "Ehh...I'll just take a closer look at it when I get into Ann Arbor."
But 50 miles south of Cleveland, Bopper begin to overheat. I pulled over to the side of the road and the radiator was bone-dry. We refilled the radiator with coolant, and then in 10 minutes the engine began overheating again! For the life of me I could not determine where the leak was. At a rest stop I let the car run while I peered under the hood and under the car, but I couldn't not see any leak. Where in the hell was all the coolant going?
So, we had to drive the last 50 miles to Cleveland by stopping every 10 minutes to let the car cool down and refill the radiator. You can see the lovely excitement of such a thing in the two videos below. It took 2.5 hours to travel 50 miles.
Once we arrived in Cleveland, Eric and I parted ways (he took a greyhound back to Ann Arbor), and I was alone again. I took Bopper to the local Toyota dealership to get a diagnostic and possible repair. Mind you, I have not been to a mechanic in five years. Part of my personality that's developed in grad school, among other things, is my transformation into a gearhead. But with a problem I could not figure out, I had reservations about trying to fix the car on the side streets of Cleveland.
Anyway, the mechanics at the dealership had a field day with the car. Surrounded by new Prius, Scion, Camry, Corrola, and Tacoma models, Bopper looked simultaneously completely ridiculous and completely at home. The mechanics would sit in the car, keep looking under the hood, and smile all the time. The car was assigned to the oldest mechanic in the shop, a man in his late 50's named Gil, because he was THE ONLY ONE in the shop who had actually worked on that generation of Tercel. He drove the struggling car into his shop area, got out of the car smiling, saying, "Mannnn....I haven't worked on this car in over 20 years!"
The next day I get a call from the Toyota dealership and my worst fears are realized: blown head gasket. The seal between the engine block and engine head had corroded, and coolant was literally leaking into the engine. Gil told me as soon as he saw wet spark plugs he knew exactly what it was. The head gasket part is only $20, but its a huge labor job, and I was looking at $1500 initial assesment, with the potential for even more cost once he opened the engine up and looked at the state of the valves, cylinders, and piston heads. He said it might be better to replace the whole engine, which he could do for $4000 plus labor.
Gulp. What to do? Should I junk the car and just tell them they can have it? I can't afford the repair, and it's not even worth it anyway. I was only mentally prepared to pay $500 max.
I love this car. I love how old it is, how small it is, and all the history associated with it. I couldn't let it go. If only I could get it back to Ann Arbor, I could try to fix it myself. So, I rented a U-Haul truck with car tow bed in Cleveland, and towed Bopper all the way back to Ann Arbor for the tune of $350. It was a bummer to spend the money, but I was planning to go to New York City anyway after Cleveland, but that final trip was cut short due to Bopper's engine troubles.
And so now, Bopper and I, are back in Ann Arbor after our trek across this beautiful country.
Notice there is absolutely nothing in the storage space of the U-Haul. It was the smallest truck I could rent. All I had was my suitcase, my bookbag, and my guitar, and that all went in the cab!