Be prepared, stay calm, and have gelato containers at the ready. I recently got caught in a frightening experience that could’ve been worse, much, much worse. Just how did I find myself under my van stuck in the middle of a highway?
So here I am, van stalled out at a very busy intersection of a six lane road/highway, cars buzzing by at over 50 mph as I stalled out in the pole position of the middle lane at this busy intersection with a large camper van that suddenly would not start. It turns out that the box of gum candy with its plastic interior shell that was found near a fuel station on a hot and windy second day of my ten day trip no longer held its adequate pressure on the fuel pump power wire from the spring of its thin plastic and cardboard as it had thru horrible Saturday afternoon traffic across Los Angeles and to south coast beach cities to visit with a long seen college friend for a small birthday party reunion.
So hear I am, completely under my vehicle, laying on the ground hot from the sun, ensuring that all of myself is safely under the vehicle as I try to cram this now not springy enough candy box found as trash blowing around to reseat the wire connector back into the fuel pump’s housing while I watch as cars barrel towards my stuck vehicle and turn away, hoping they will turn away and not rear end my van, yet prepared to pull myself up slightly from the ground from the hot drive shaft in case a vehicle rear ends mine and forces my vehicle forward as it crashes into the rear of it at speed in order to prevent being compacted between rear axle and ground and vehicle moves over me. Fortunately, this is not a story of physical injury or vehicle accident, but one of an on road, literally middle of the road repair, and my thoughts of what succeeded and what would had made me more prepared to prevent this incident, but also what I could of done to better deal with it.
So I am under my vehicle trying to contort my hand between the top of the fuel tank and floor of the van, contorting around the driveshaft and emergency brake cable, while I careen my head up as high as I can lift it in this uncomfortable position between the extremely hot catalytic converter and too hot to touch transfer case—I had no idea how hot a transfer case housing gets from driving at calm speeds along a side highway in cooler weather. Note to self, do check those fluid levels before the next trip. I wriggle this just about the perfect size box back into the position and try to feel and push the wire connector forward thinking I’ve made my middle of the road fix, to wait for cars to come to the stop at this red light so I can safely pull myself out from under my van likely to the shock of the dozens of drivers now stopped at this intersection, thinking that I wish I was in the right hand lane when this happened and was able to coast to the side fo the road or that I had another person to direct cars around mine as they kept lining up behind mine dutifully in line at this red light, my car in the pole position, yet my blinking hazard lights didn’t prevent that. So I’d lift myself up from the rock slider off the sticky and dirty ground, sit into the driver seat, close the door for safety, re-insert the ignition key and wait and hope to feel the fuel pump motor whine over the Sprinter’s love of making many annoying beeps as it does when the key is just simply inserted. I could not hear the whirr of the electric pump over the road noise but mostly these annoying beeps as I turned the key with extreme anticipation for a starting engine reborn to life with fuel to burn, yet over and over I went thru this process with hearing a starter motor attempt to start an engine that would not, immediately telling me in frustration that I must repeat this frightening, dangerous and dirty proposition of exiting my vehicle, slide back under it on the hot and dirty road, and attempt this fix again while I risk injury and accident from a car not heeding to my blinking hazards and stationary position in the middle of the road.
Before exiting the van, I would wait until all of the cars would work around my van that queued up behind its blinking hazards only to find it did not progress when the light turned green to dangerously work around it and the fast passing cars on each side of it. I would wait for this repeating pattern until all cars have passed, almost always at the start of the next red light cycle, to exit out as cars were now safely stopping on each side, to crawl back under my stuck van in the middle of the road to reattempt fate for a middle of the road fix. You see, two days ago I was bouncing along a terribly washboarded road outside of Bishop, California after skiing at Mammoth Mountain with a friend, and having a mountain bike ride in the area, a night under a sky full of stars camped along the beautiful Owen’s River backdropped by the glorious 12 and 13,000 foot still snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, when my fuel gauge went to empty yet I knew I had about 3/4 of a full tank, and knew the culprit of this cause. So I stopped along the Owen’s River to re-air tires back up once on pavement that were lowered to cushion the beating washboard road and waited until in Bishop to pull off on a quiet and paved side road, off to the wide paved shoulder to see how to repair the errant fuel gauge reading which I knew was warning of a loosening fuel pump wire connector. I felt the zip tie holding it into position still wrapped around the wire connector and seemingly doing its job as I placed it there a few weeks before. And a day later alongside a hot gas station that I picked up the candy box to hold this wire in position after attempting to pull zip ties around it, but could not without some long handled needle-nose pliers as I had from the comfort of my home garage floor a few weeks before. Back in Bishop, I tried in vain to get my emergency repair roll of duct tape to press between the brake cable and top of fuel tank without bunching up and stick to the top of the wire connector to hold it into position, only for it to get bunched up and stick to itself or build up dirt accumulated from recently traveling down the washboarded dirt road. So I found myself peeling off piece of tape after piece of tape, only to be discarded in dozens of balls of dirt and tape to be discarded. I tried to get zip ties wrapped around a connector that I could not see but also could barely get my hand crammed in to feel, with only room for one hand to also work a zip tie around the connector and fuel pump sender without seeing it, or being able to work it into position while simultaneously pressing the connector into its seated position to do its electrical communications. So while I thought I had a good repair completed at home, that now partially failed at roadside to mis-report fuel level, and the re-attemped repair in hot Adelanto with a candy box that the winds kept ominously blowing back at me, that held for about two hundred miles, to now fail me in the middle of a busy road with seemingly nothing to fix it.
As I sat in the driver’s seat after another failed attempt to start the van, dirty and covered in road dirt, hot and feeling defeated, I thought positively for about what do I have. I looked around the van: an orange, a book, a pen, papers I could wad up, and an empty Talenti container now half filled with dark chocolate covered pecans. Just maybe its lid could be compressed into the position to act as a spring, and its knurled edges might hold it in position. I again waited for cars to come to a stop at the light, exited my vehicle at this red light and embarrassingly yet dutifully crawled back under my vehicle as surely the driver’s of the Lamborghinis and Ferraris traveling this road must of thought pitifully of me. I focused my attentions on my safety and the quick repair at hand. The gelato container lid was just too large of a diameter to wedge between frame rail and fuel pump connector and just too large and difficult to wedge between the van floor and brake cable. So with one hand in the position, I bent it and bent it and pushed that connector forward until the lid could be rotated into position, with its knurled edges gripping the frame rail and electrical connector like a gear between to other gears, its plastic bent into a spring holding this position like an A-frame tent with peak against the van floor, and forcing the electrical connector into position. I again waited until cars had come to a stop at the light, pulled myself out from under the van, and covered in road dirt, turned that key once again, waiting to hear the sound of a fuel pump whirring, but I could not over the idling engines along each side. I carefully and hopefully turned that key and watched the tachometer spring upward, and van slightly vibrating as the engine once again came to life. And I could at least advance out of this precarious and dangerous position. You see, I was on my way to meet a guy about an expedition truck chassis to be built for my next vehicle, planned to be driven to and thru every country in the America’s and maybe more, exploring many places as I am doing on this abridged 10-day adventure that I only started three days ago. So I motor on, staying in the right lane, trying to avoid potholes and road bumps that may unsettle this sprung gelato container lid from its dutiful position and ready to shift into neutral, turn on hazard lights, and pull off the road in a hurry should this occur again. I turned off the podcast I was listening to so that I could focus on this stressful drive on LA freeways under construction with continuous concrete barriers alongside the right lane preventing any emergency lane to pull onto. Thinking that if this middle of the road fix fails, I will be in a worse position as literally stopped on a freeway with no ability to exit or get to an emergency lane off to the side as there is nothing by a Jersey barrier to straddle up alongside.
Fortunately Talenti not only makes a great gelato, but a strong, reusable container that provides many uses. I got to my meeting and afterward called three nearby Mercedes dealers for all to tell me the same story—that this $25 wire is available at two dealers, one in New Jersey and the other South Carolina—which does me little good while in Southern California with seemingly Mercedes dealers abound. So I ordered it from a dealer I will be traveling near two days from now in Northern California on this journey as a travel onward from this portion of the trip and hope that my gelato middle the road fix holds at least a few more days, and does not again leave me stranded literally in the middle of the road. I hope.
But I also learn some things I already know and think about during this driving time. That when I broke that electrical connector back home while installing and auxiliary fuel tank weeks ago, I should had ordered it then from my nearby dealer and replaced it instead of trusting my zip-tie fix would hold fine and I could replace it later. I should had packed a pair of pliers into my always in vehicle tool kit.
For now, I finish another week of driving hundreds of miles with a fuel gauge reading empty while I know there is plenty of fuel in tank, so will use my redundant system of resetting the trip odometer at each fuel up, calculating estimated fuel economy and calculating fuel usage. Fortunately, I track every gallon filled and penny spent, so I know exactly what fuel economy and thus what my fuel range should be. So I plan to refill fuel when half to 1/4 full to ensure and recalibrate my estimates as I journey along. I try to drive softly over bumps and be ready to quickly pull to the side of the road, always observing my ability to quickly and safely do so, and have this quick exit plan always in my mind as I watch for open road sides to pull onto and traffic to safely maneuver with if needed. I am hopeful that Talent built the perfect spring that will keep that electrical connector tensioned for another 500 or so miles of rough California roads, and I will avoid traveling down those beaten paths on the rest of this journey until I can pick up that replacement part in 2-3 days. So much for Mercedes great network of parts having a part always just a day away. Two days is still pretty great except when you are under a vehicle on a busy road, literally in the middle of it, making two days wait far too long of a wait, but I think that now with my new learned wisdom from this experience, I will complete repairs properly before I travel. And I will carry a few more tools with me at all times, and always a Talenti container filled with chocolate covered nuts. Ask me if you’d like flavor recommendations for which Talenti to keep handy in your freezer. Meanwhile, I have thought about framing this gelato lid as a memento of this experience and will do so virtually here to share with you.