“We expect there to be regular hiccups, periodic breakdowns, and the occasional emergency. But hopefully, they will be few and far between”.

These lines were written long before we actually got around to publishing our first video. We wrote them sitting on my parent’s porch in Illinois, as we dreamt of open highways and long roads stretching out before us, wondering when our first car problems would hit us and what they would be. For hit us they would, we knew.

But we meant what we said when we hoped they would be rather infrequent. So when we had our first breakdown not even a week into our trip, the thought had to cross our minds: really, it only took us a week? How untalented are we at this car stuff, how unrealistic was our idea of traveling in a 40-year-old vehicle and being able to successfully get where we are going without constantly having problems? It’s almost embarrassing. If we estimate the number of weeks that we will be on the road in Big Emma in the coming years (a whole lot), a breakdown every other week that then leaves us stranded for another one is a pretty nasty score. Oh shit.

Brake job or Hailstorm?

We left Illinois in euphoria. Yes, we will miss my parents and the comfort of their home. But now we are in the comfort of our home, and we can take it wherever we want to, explore the world from top to bottom. We can just drive and write and take pictures. We left, headed towards Wisconsin to visit my aunt before heading across the Great Plains, where you can see just hills and grass for miles. We got to the Badlands, an otherworldly collection of strange rock formations that have no earthly place on the plains of South Dekota. We traveled, we slept in our Bus, we made sure to listen for all sorts of irregular Bus sounds, and we headed towards Denver.

Next came a combination of bad decisions and the wrong kind of luck. We get on the interstate, and we don’t even make it off the entrance ramp. Then our engine stalls, and that tic of “I must take care of Big Emma” and “Crap, this isn’t good” kicks in. That last part is not because there is necessarily something drastically wrong with the Bus, but because we are on the side of an interstate, with cars speeding past us and in a situation where it is very dangerous to climb underneath our car. A pickup truck pulls up and offers to tow us off, which we gladly accept. They tow us at 80 miles per hour, 20 miles faster than Big Emma has ever gone before. Sitting in the passenger seat, I hope we will not crash and die as Sven rides the brakes to make sure that does not happen. At the same time, I hope like hell that the damage to Big Emma is not too bad. We get off safely, with brakes that smoke for a good half hour. We look at the engine and solve the actual problem within about five minutes (the air-flow meter had gotten stuck, which turned off the car). Our brakes are still smoking, and it takes us another 24 hours to realize that they are toast.

And we sit there and cannot believe this has happened to us. We had taken apart and adjusted the brakes with Colin, and they were doing better than we had probably ever had them before. They had been so nice and freshly polished and great. And now we had literally crumbled them to dust.

But at least we had done the brakes with Colin. We had seen how they work, how they fit together, what pieces we need and what they do. We could do this, we could fix it. We do not need a mechanic, we thought. This is what we were learning to do. This is when it counts. We will get the parts we need, and we will get this done. We will do it. By ourselves.

And we did. With a safe haven thanks to a magnificent contact in Denver, we had the time and the space to work on the car. We got the parts (new brake shoes, new drums, new brake cylinders, and lots of sandpaper, paper towels, and brake cleaner) and we started to put them together.

Brake-Pads-Comparison-1_scaled

And then the rain started. No, excuse me, the hail started, as a storm struck Denver that made national news. Our awning was torn off the car, our tools and books and camping gear were buried in water and grit and dirt. And the whole time, our car was up on the jack, in the middle of putting on our shiny new brake drum. It was so damn shiny. And now it was so damn wet. Goddamn it. We got this far, why does everything just get even more difficult?

Our camp dried out. We cleaned our tools, and our awning, and our brake drum. Our car did not fall off the jack. The sun came out, and we got back to work. We worked on our brakes for five days and it did not hail again. We got them done. Our car moves again (and stops again). We did it. By ourselves.

And this will happen, again and again. This time was more like a freak accident, a result of a series of unfortunate events. But every car problem we were able to solve with patience and knowledge and time. We will take care of Big Emma. We will not brake down every week. We can do this, we will overcome these obstacles. We will not be defeated. And on she will go.

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About Author

RegularEmma

Emma is a writer, traveler, and teacher. She co-runs this blog and is currently traveling in her VW Bus “Big Emma” from Alaska to Argentina. She loves everything colorful and occasionally licks a rock. She doesn’t believe in mustard.

10 Comments

  1. Learning the in and outs of the mechanics will serve you well. Enjoy the travels! I’m enjoying the writings.

  2. You are doing GREAT!!! We are so very proud of you! Good job with Big Emma. We look forward to your continuing adventure! 💋

  3. I am so proud of both of you—perseverance is such a gracious gift to have. Big Emma is truly–the little engine that could….with the help of you & Sven……

    The Little Blue Engine pulled up close. She
    took hold of the little train. The toys and dolls
    climbed back into their cars. At last the Little
    Blue Engine said, “I think I can climb up the
    mountain. I think I can. I think I can.” Then
    the Little Blue Engine began to pull. She tugged
    and she pulled. She pulled and she tugged. Puff
    puff, chug chug went the little engine. “I think I
    can. I think I can,” she said. Slowly, slowly, the
    train started to move. The dolls and toys began
    to smile and clap. Puff Puff, chug chug. Up the
    mountain went the Little Blue Engine. And all the
    time she kept saying, “I think I can, I think I can,
    I think I can…” Up, up, up. The little engine
    climbed and climbed. At last she reached the top
    of the mountain. Down below lay the city.
    “Hurray! Hurray!” cried the dolls and animals.
    “The boys and girls will be so happy,” said the toy
    clown. “All because you helped us, Little Blue
    Engine.” The Little Blue Engine just smiled.

    I love you with my heart, soul & very being.

  4. Kathi Cullop on

    You are just strong and amazing – not knowing you but knowing your mom – I am not at all surprised. You’ve got this!

  5. Realemma…I love you guys and don’t want to see you hurt. You never work on a car on a jack. Bad bad bad… I know jack stands are a pain to carry, but come up with something that you can rest the car on if ( when) you need to do more wheel work. I have seen jacks that have a jack stand functionality built in, too.

    • RegularEmma
      RegularEmma on

      Aw thank you, it’s really nice that you are so concerned 🙂 We actually came to the same conclusion before we started working on the car in Denver and bought jackstands. We also became rather uncomfortable without them. I’m glad to hear you’re following our journey!

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