I couldn’t believe it. It was the biggest breakdown we had ever had. How could we have let it come to this? How could we have been so careless? No matter how we got here, we had to live with the consequences.

It is a beautiful summer day, the sun is shining. We are happy to be exploring in Big Emma. We are enamored of her, our perfect travel vehicle. It’s a bit crowded in the van these days, four people take up a lot of room. But we make due, and it is awesome traveling with this group of people.

We pull into Crescent City, California. We have waited so long to get to the California coast, it is one of the major destinations of our trip. We crossed the state line yesterday evening, but it was dark, so we didn’t see much of anything. We headed straight for our campground, which turned out to be pretty epic this morning, full of old-growth trees and very woodsy. We got to the town itself this morning, after our usual morning pack-up routine. We have to get the oil changed. So we pull up to the Chevron, get everything organized, then wait while the mechanics do their thing. We are very excited. One of the things we have looked forward to the most on this trip is coming up this afternoon – the redwoods forests of Northern California.

How do you describe the grand beauty of the redwoods?

If you have never seen one, I do apologize, for I could never accurately describe these forests for you. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, they can grow up to over 115 meters tall, and can be nearly 9 meters wide. And trees like that need a lot of rain, which is why this is their perfect climate. It is sunny, and wet, and luscious. The forests smell of growth, and you can’t see the top of many of the trees. They have very distinctive, reddish bark – very coarse, with thick rivets running through it. Their presence is astounding. It is almost intimidating to stand next to something that is quite likely over 1000 years old. That’s one very experienced tree.

The Avenue of the Giants

We pile into the Bus and head south, to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There is no entrance fee, you can just drive through it. Later down the road, which we will visit tomorrow, is part of the park that is rightly named “The Avenue of the Giants”. I’ve been here before, so I know what to expect, but Sven and our travel companions have not. They are amazed, as we drive down a road that is surrounded by trees that are wider than Big Emma is long. They are very, very big. We stop somewhere, go for a hike. Let’s go to the ocean, we say, it can’t be that far away. But it turns out it is, and we turn around and go back to the car. We drive, we camp, we drive some more, see some more redwoods and continue to be impressed. We stop in the town of Eureka, and decide to splurge on a burger at a local burger shack because they just look so damn good. We drive, we find a campground, set up camp, enjoy the northern California coast.

The sinking feeling of despair

Starter still doesn’t want to start. What do we do now?

We wake up the next morning and get ready to go. We are a bit slow this time, but we’re not in a rush, so who cares. Sven turns the key and I am filled with sinking despair as the car starts, utters one horrible backfire and dies. F*ck. Not again. Not another day of trying to figure out what is wrong and fixing it again. I hang around and make tea while the guys get under the car, fiddle with things, try to figure it out. Mess with this, mess with that. I’m pretty much just waiting for somebody to come up with a solution. They try the starter again – no luck. A few more times throughout the day – same deal. We come to the conclusion that we can neither fix nor drive it, and a nice fellow offers to tow us to the nearest town – Fort Bragg – to get it looked at.

We do that. We wait a bit, and then the mechanic comes out and says, “Well, guys, I’m sorry to tell you, but your engine is fried. You need a new one.” We stare at him in utter disbelief. How are we supposed to get a new engine, in the middle of our trip? He said we had been leaking oil. Apparently a lot of it. And with no oil, engines overheat. A lot. Like a lot a lot. Big Emma’s engine, our trusty steed, was completely, utterly dead. Past the point of no return. The only thing that we could do was get her a different one. What the hell were we going to do now?

That’s the rear end of our transmission right there – behind where the engine usually goes.


We drive over the border and head for Crescent City, California. We are super excited, finally we might get some warm weather here, even though it is December. It’s rainy, but the further south we go, the more luck we will have. We drive into the town, looking for a gas station. We drive by the Chevron and yell and flip it off as we stream past. We would have to be very very desperate for gas to go to a Chevron, and we would hitchhike for more before going to this Chevron. Our collective group loathes it, with a passion.

Back in 2011, on that fateful roadtrip from Illinois to California and back, I wish I had known how to change the oil myself, like I do now. It really isn’t that hard. It would have saved us a very big chunk of heartache, not to mention money. We were traveling with our two best friends and roommates at the time, and none of us were car-experts. Or even really car-novices. But a bit of common sense sure would have helped.

Full of time, and history

We keep driving, into this beloved stretch of redwood forest. It is gorgeous, and wet, and full of time and history, just like we remembered it. We go on a hike and think, Hey, maybe we can reach the coast? We do, this time, and take some pictures on the beach, and hike back and by then everything we had with us is soaking wet. We get in the car, we drive, we camp. We drive some more, we visit more redwoods. We stop in the town of Eureka and splurge on a burger at a local burger shack for old time’s sake. They are really damn good. We camp, drive some more, heading south looking for warmer climates and sun and the Pacific Ocean.

A five-star campsite

We stop just north of Fort Bragg for the night. We can’t find that old campground (we knew it was a KOA – the expensive sort of campground, and recognizable) even though it shouldn’t be hard. I can’t believe we used to stay in those. Maybe they have sold it, or something. We pull into a free campsite, a beautiful one right on the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean and the craggly cliffs that define that stretch of coastline, talking about how stupid we were back then. How much we didn’t know about this Bus.

The power of knowledge and experience

If only we had known that it was the oil. It seems so so obvious to us now, such a rookie mistake. But how could we have known that the stupid Chevron people didn’t screw the oil plug in right? That we had been leaking oil for two full days before she wouldn’t start? No wonder she wouldn’t start, we don’t blame her. We probably fried a lot of it just testing the starter. How come we weren’t checking the oil on a daily basis? Even back then, wasn’t that something we did regularly? Well, at least I knew absolutely nothing back then about the Bus, and I didn’t particularly care. Not because I didn’t love this car – I did, even back then, in the beginning – but because I didn’t think it was my personal responsibility to figure it out. I knew nothing about cars, so what was the point? It’s not like I would be able to figure out what was wrong.

Back in 2011, Big Emma spent way to much time on tow trucks.

But still, two full days? It cost us a new engine. A new engine. Thousands of dollars. A new f*cking engine. The worst breakdown in Big Emma’s history. By really really far. I still can’t believe that happened. We had only even had Big Emma for what, three weeks? My parents gave her to me about a week before we left for our trip to California. And, on top of all of it, we were only going to be gone for about seven weeks before all four us had to fly back to Germany. What were we going to do, stay in Ukiah (where we got the car towed for the new engine) for two weeks? We decided to rent a car, explore California while the new engine was being installed, and pick Big Emma back up on time to head towards Las Vegas. It was the best option at the time. The rental was a small passenger car, I still remember, and red. Good thing we had a tent with us. I remember wishing we had brought sleeping mats on that trip.

We watch the sunset over the ocean and think about our stupidity. Five years later, I’m glad that I can guarantee that this will never, ever happen to us again. I can’t promise that we won’t ever need a new engine, but hell, it will never be because we ran out of oil. Or weren’t paying attention. Or anything. And at least I know more now. I do care, and it is my responsibility to keep this car running. And screw you, Chevron.

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Thought the breakdown was happening to you presently, because you’re in California now. Clickbait title how could you? Just kidding love it nice writing <3

  2. Right on, Ben. I fell bigly into the clickbait, and slowly did it dawn on me that I had been had:

    a) only AFTER I had prepared a reproachful response that you two, Emma and Sven, had apparently given up on even doing oil changes?!?!?!
    b) only after I rebuked myself for apparently not stressing deeply enough that checking the oil each morning is no less important than remembering to breathe.

    THANKFULLY, I have been able to cancel my cross-country airline ticket, and I was able to rescue my box of tools from the local Greyhound bus package shipping terminal, and my employer has allowed me to cancel that emergency request for a two week vacation. Sadly, my wife took the kids and the dog to her mother’s house, she last screamed at me, “I have HAD it with your always finding the time to help Sven and Emma, what about ME?”
    Clickbait . . . . yeah, we do clickbait.
    Colin ; )

    • Sven

      Thanks for your comment Colin (and Ben as well of course!). We feel bad about the clickbait, we actually didn’t plan it to be that at all. We just wanted to tell the story in an engaging way, and I guess we overdid that a little. Sorry about that.
      We’re usually among the people complaining the most about other websites doing clickbait headlines, so this is especially embarrassing. We appreciate everybody reading our blog and don’t want anybody to feel like we’re tricking them into reading something or caring about us. Instead, we want to earn the trust of our readers by producing good and interesting content. Therefore, sorry about the clickbait, won’t happen again 🙂
      Happy new year everybody!

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