Monday 16th January – The Mechanic

Anyone can pull something apart, so now the real test, to put everything back together with everything functioning at the end. I didn’t sleep well last night, a lot of light outside and high humidity which I wasn’t used to. I felt a little couped up in the van. I had a quick breakfast and got straight to it.

I failed in trying to remove the plug that came with the water pump. I’m not sure why it was in there so tight and it had to come out. I tried with everything I had, using an extender bar (my jack handle) on an alan key, but no dice. I conceded and went inside to ask for some muscles. The men at the front desk sent me to the back where there was a big burly guy. When I asked him and his mate if they had a vice and they said no, they extended their arms so I gave them the pump and my tools. Together, one big man holding the pump, the other working the extender bar, there was an almighty crack an the plug came loose. Thank goodness for their muscles! I thanked them very much and went back to the workshop to continue.


I got to work scraping all the old gasket crap off the engine block, not an easy task because of course the inlet and outlet were in tricky places. While I was snapping a razor blade in half to make my life easier, one of the younger guys from yesterday had arrived at work so asked me how it was going. “Well!” I said. He asked if he could buy me lunch if I was still around by then. I assured him I probably would be so happily accepted! Now working with a semi-deadline, I continued my scraping until I was satisfied the new gaskets would seal. I cleaned the mounting bolts too for good measure then the pump went on. That was easy enough despite the weight of the damn thing. I fiddled and wrestled with the two hoses until I coaxed them onto the spigots and made sure they weren’t going anywhere.


When I went to install the fan and clutch, I realised the new pump didn’t have studs on its shaft so I would have to take the ones from the old one. This would have been an easier job with the new pump outside of the engine bay, but that is a lesson learnt. Thankfully, the studs from the old pump came loose easy enough and I used a couple of nuts to tighten them onto the new pump. I should note here that I am being pretty meticulous throughout this whole process, determined not to make a stupid mistake and at all costs avoid taking everything apart again. With the fan and clutch on and everything spinning the way it should it was time for the dreaded fan belt.

I made sure I routed it properly , then began my attempt at levering the tensioner enough so that I could get the belt on. My arms definitely got a work out and I got very, very close a few times, but I knew it wasn’t going to make it happen on my own. I went back in to the shop to ask for some muscles again. The big burly guy came out and we had a bit of a go the way I’d been trying, then he went to get the proper tools. With a breaker bar, it was a piece of piss. He held the tensioner as I installed the belt. It took less than a minute. Lesson learnt, use the right tools! I thanked him again, what a legend.

I loosely installed the radiator shroud, filled the system with coolant and water, double checked everything, then it was the moment of truth. I started her up and went straight onto my knees to look for water drips. Nothing. Still not celebrating, I did a bit of tidying up and let the engine run. A few minutes later, still nothing. I turned the engine off and had another inspection for water and everything looked sealed. Success!

Since I had everything out and I was well overdue for an oil change I got to work on that. As with every oil change, I couldn’t loosen the oil filter just with my muscles and much to my father’s disdain, I refuse to buy an oil filter wrench, so I punctured the oil filter with a hammer and screwdriver and that gave me enough leverage to twist the filter. I get extra points because I didn’t make too much of a mess. New filter on, new oil in; that was a quick job. While I had planned to fix the driver’s door as well, it was nearly 2pm by this stage and I suddenly realised I was starving (and probably late for my lunch date).

I went inside, used their bathroom to clean up and announced I was ready for lunch. James followed me out and had a quick look at the van then, after I changed into more respectable clothes, we went across the road to a 50s diner which was every bit as neon and ribbed-couches that you’d expect. James was born and raised in East Tennessee and has seen less of America than I have, but loves the area he lives in, constantly getting out to hike the mountain trails. I learnt about his life and he learnt about mine. We chatted easily, even managing to keep it up when our monstrous sandwiches arrived. I hoovered mine down, thoroughly cleaning my plate, I was grateful for a hearty meal. After all my hard work, I could feel fatigue in my arms.

Unfortunately we were cut short because James had to get back to work, but we exchanged details so we could keep in touch. He was inspired by my journey and is interested in van travel so I said I’d let him know when the Astro is eventually up for sale. I thanked him again for lunch, for everything that his crew had done for me and wished him well. When I got back to the van, I realised I was knackered.

I drove back towards the Smoky Mountains and stopped at the first picnic area by the road and right next to the river alongside it. All I wanted to do was lie in my hammock and that’s exactly what I did. I strung it up between two trees right over the river, put a pillow underneath my head and collapsed.


I had my book by me but I didn’t pick it up, I was content just laying there watching the river flow and waving at the people that drove by on the other side of the river on an old road. I don’t know how long I was there, at least an hour I think, but it started to get a bit cold so I packed up and figured I’d search for a camp. I drove around the area a bit, trying to find a secluded spot along the river, but eventually I settled for a place along the Foothills Parkway, partway up a mountain road with a beautiful view into a valley and the Smoky Mountains.

I had a much needed shower and it was the first one I had where I didn’t need to hurry to get dressed afterwards since it wasn’t too cold. I worked all the crud out from under my fingernails, washing away all the dirty, greasy work I’d done the past two days. I felt renewed. With the sun going down, I did some pilates/yoga facing the beautiful view, stretching my body towards the heavens. I feel like I’m on for a good night’s sleep.

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