Monday 22nd May – Brilliant Morning, Unpredictable Afternoon

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I was up super early so made the most of it. My mood had lifted and the sun was out, I was excited to explore one of the canyons that had been recommended to me. Even in the early morning, it was just warm enough to be in shorts while I treated myself to eggs for breakfast. I was on the road by 8am.

I drove straight through Capitol Reef National Park, where I pretty much had the roads to myself since it was so early. Such a contrast to yesterday when there had been tourists aplenty. At the east exit of the park, I turned onto a road heading south and took note of my trip meter. Eight miles later, I was at the trailhead for Burro Wash. Out of the three canyons, this was the one most recommended by Hiking Project, hence my choice. I got my backpack set with some waterproof gear in case of deep puddles and walked off into the dry landscape.

The wash was extremely dry. It looked like it hadn’t seen proper water flow in years and so the creek bed was sandy. A few twists and turns of the wash in and I discovered some bee lines that cut across the curves. I was happy to take them and it was firmer ground so faster going. I was listening to music since this sort of scenery didn’t really excite me. It was so dry and exposed! Anyway, I was hoping for some impressive canyon features further into the wash, as promised by the ranger.

I continued walking for 3km before anything interesting came up. I was pissed to find that what had been described as the first technical obstacle was nothing more than walking over a few rocks. Maybe this wouldn’t be as cool as I’d expected. I carried on anyway, hoping that it would get better. And oh, did it get better. After scrambling over a few more rocks, I came to a huge bed of rock that had been distorted into waves by the water that must have come rushing this way in days, weeks or years past.

After crossing the massive pink/red rock, I came upon my first pool of water. It was a murky colour and looked like it had been sitting awhile. I was surprised to see life inside the pool in the form of dozens of tadpoles! I think this was the first time I’d seen them outside of a tank and they were all different sizes, though none of them had sprouted legs yet. After nerding out on the wildlife, I continued my scramble up the smooth rock.

The scenery and terrain kept getting better the further I got into the wash. The walls were getting taller and the rocks more interesting. Just as I was wondering if I’d ever come across some serious water, I was met with a small boulder problem over a knee deep pool of water. Since it didn’t look like I’d be in the water for long, I took my shoes off and hung them onto the back of my pack, navigating the water and the climbing the boulder in bare feet. Thinking I might come upon another water feature up ahead, I kept my shoes off and walked on. Turns out I could have put my shoes on, but I stayed all natural for the sake of trying to harden my baby feet.

Just when I thought the wash couldn’t get any cooler, I came upon a canyon that was the narrowest of the narrow, at just barely my shoulder width. Wicked! The channel was pretty much straight, but instead of being vertical, it leant over to one side so that as I walked I had to keep my body upright by pressing my hands against the walls as I clambered through. I couldn’t see the exit and could barely see the blue of the sky above me. There were boulders wedged above my head and all sorts of debris around them from a previous flood.

At the end of this narrow channel, it opened up a little to another obstacle to get over. No water this time, but the boulders were above my head and required a little creativity to navigate. Before attempting, I consulted the map to see if this was supposed to be the turn around point. According to my guide, it was, for most hikers. But I’m not most hikers. After trying to get up with my pack on and failing, I threw my pack on top of the boulders (committed now) and bridged up the narrow walls until I managed to get on top of the rocks and on to the next thing.

The canyon opened up again, into the welcome sun and more broad pink rocks. It wasn’t long before I was in another narrow canyon, this one even smaller than the last, going down to only a foot’s width at the base in some places!

A bit more climbing to get out, this was heaps of fun and I was the only one out here! Bugger walking a mile to see a natural bridge with a bunch of overweight tourists, this was a unique experience!

I hit one more narrow canyon, shorter this time, but it had its own character with black streaks embedded into the rock. Oh, to see water flow through these channels would be such a sight. The wash opened up again and I walked along the sand and loose rocks, looking up at the weird rock formations on the cliffs while trying to watch my step to avoid sharp bits. When I came to the next stack of boulders wedged into a wide channel, I thought this might be the real end. Sure enough it was. Thinking I’d give it a go, I had a bit of a feel around the rocks but decided I’d probably already seen the most impressive features of the canyon, it wasn’t worth the risk to go off route for the chance of seeing more. With a pat of the stone, I turned around and went back the way I’d come.

I was sure the light was making the narrows look different so I kept taking photos as I went back through. I couldn’t believe this is such a hidden gem and not recorded or noted on any park maps! Not that I’m complaining, I was happy to be the only one out here.

It was pretty easy to retrace my steps and once I passed through the water a second time, I stopped near the tadpole pool to put my shoes back on. I put my earphones back in and looked for my footprints in the sand as I went back to the car. I was happy to find even more bee lines than I’d followed on the way out, making my route back to the car as quick and easy as possible.

The van remained solo in the parking lot, waiting for me to return. The normal smile spread across my face. Once I got back, I took my top off, got in the driver’s seat and drove away, happy to be on my way from Capitol Reef having feel like I’d seen a part of it not many people do.

It was thirty miles to the next town east called Hanksville, but I didn’t make it. After about 15 miles, I was taking a photo out my window of the tufas by the road when I lost power and the Astro cruised to a stop. I was on a perfectly straight highway with no one behind me so I chucked my hazards on and let her coast to a stop, pumping at the throttle pedal trying to determine what had gone wrong. Shit. Every time up until now, I’d always considered myself lucky that failures never happened in the middle of nowhere. Well, I wasn’t lucky this time.

I sat a while considering my options. I couldn’t do any work right on the highway and I had no hint of phone reception. I walked up a couple of hundred meters to find that there was a pullout so decided to push the old girl to there so I could at least do some diagnosis. While walking up to inspect the site, a couple in a sedan stopped to ask if I needed a lift somewhere, which I politely declined and they moved on. After seeing the pull out would work, I walked back, put the car in neutral and started pushing, getting it going from the back of the car, then moving to the driver’s door so I could steer. Thankfully, the highway was recently re-surfaced and dead flat so it was pretty easy going. Thanks to the straight road, people could also see me for miles so it wasn’t a problem for people to overtake me safely.

After pushing for about 100 meters, two British guys on touring motorcycles turned around and came back to assist. I told them I thought I’d broken a throttle cable so was trying to push it to the parking area and one guy parked his bike to help me push while his mate went ahead to see why the U-haul truck ahead of me had stopped too. The U-haul guy was probably stopped to see if I needed a tow or a lift. I will never know, the motorcyclist told him to move on so we didn’t have to stop pushing. With two people, it was super easy work and we made it to the pull out in no time. I backed it in, rolling it down the hill and onto the flat sandy area between two driveways. It was a pretty good place to work on the car actually.

I thanked the motorcyclists profusely and after they made sure I had roadside assistance, I told them I was it and they went on their way, clearly convinced I was capable. Thankfully, I’d passed a roadside café a few miles back, so worst case, I could ride my bike back there to use their phone, but I was already thinking of ways I could fix the throttle cable with the bits and pieces I had on hand.

First things first, I made my workshop comfortable by putting my tarp up at the side so that I had some shade. I then got on to the familiar task of pulling the engine access tunnel out, which of course means taking the passenger seat out and all the shit stashed behind it. Sigh. Once I got my first look inside, I noticed the throttle cable was absolutely fine. Hmmm. This is a condition referred to in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” where you make an assumption that convinces you of the root cause, before you’ve properly confirmed it. I thought I’d felt something under my right foot when I lost power, so I’d assumed the cable had snapped. Now I could see that wasn’t the case, I was a bit stumped.

To give myself some thinking time, I made myself lunch. I was trying to keep my mood light, knowing that these things happen and it’s all part of the experience, but I just really wanted to talk to Dad and brainstorm possible causes. It put my feeling of isolation right at the forefront of my mind. I’d been travelling with people for two months and not a single thing had gone wrong while I had someone to talk to about it! Anyway, that wasn’t going to help anyone.

Lunch finished and armed with some fresh ideas, I checked for engine codes, even though I hadn’t seen a “Service Engine Soon” light. Nothing. Right, so there is a mechanical issue stopping ignition. I went through the basics of checking spark, fuel and compression. The engine would try to start when cranking, but if it managed to ignite, it would die immediately after. This got me thinking it was fuel, but I started with the easiest first. When I checked for spark at one of the points on the distributor cap, I got nothing. Wow! Could it be that easy? I pulled the lead off the cap that comes from the coil and cranked, confirming that there was spark coming from the coil so the issue was in the distributor. I remembered that the rotor did look pretty second hand when I’d had those ICM issues, I was kicking myself now for not replacing it.

I pulled the distributor cap off and gave the rotor and the points a good cleaning with some sand paper. After a good blow out, I put the thing back together and gave it another go. Still no ignition. I checked for spark again and I got it. Shit! I put that to the side for now, thinking that maybe my screwdriver hadn’t been close enough to the point the first time I checked to cause a spark, but I now assumed that I had good spark. Next was to check for fuel.

I pulled the fuel filler cap off and put my ear to the filler hole to listen for the fuel pump with the car on. It whirred away like it should. Ok, maybe fuel isn’t getting from the pump to the cylinders? I was out of depth now, having not gone any further into the engine than the air filter, but off I went. I pulled the air filter and its casing off (with much difficulty) to expose the injectors and throttle body beneath. When cranking, I could see that fuel was coming out of both injectors in a nice cone spray pattern. Shit! What then? I had fuel and spark and if it was compression I was up shit creek anyway, so I called it quits. My head wasn’t in the right place for problem solving and I needed a mechanic.

I packed my tarp away and put everything back in the car. My plan from here was to try and wave someone down to give me a tow and if that didn’t work, I’d ride back to the café and call a tow truck. Feeling like an idiot, I grabbed my obnoxiously yellow tow rope and walked to the side of the road. I allowed myself half an hour of trying before I’d go back to the café. This was an experience that taught me that I could never hack hitch hiking. Each car that came by, I held up my tow rope in appeal. After ten minutes, half a dozen people had passed me by, only one of which that would have been suitable for towing. I was disheartened and felt so stupid because I didn’t know what look to put on my face. The strategy for hitch hiking is to give a big smile, but that wouldn’t be right because I wasn’t happy to be stuck out here! I didn’t want to look angry either, so I tried to put an appealing look on my face but made sure not to look pissed off if someone passed me by.

After five minutes of no traffic, I’d had enough so went back to the car to pack a bag with enough to keep me entertained at the café until a tow truck came. Each time I saw another car coming, I would run back out onto the road, pick up my tow rope and appeal. Still no dice. When I’d just about finished packing, there was another string of cars so I went out for another go. The F-150 truck out in front stopped and nearly caused an accident with the car behind in doing so. That crisis averted, the young lady reversed back into my pullout to see what was wrong. I explained that I was looking for a tow and her and her mate didn’t seem to have much of an idea about towing. I told them they didn’t have to do anything they weren’t comfortable with, I was just happy they’d at least stopped. They said they were low on fuel and were generally unsure about the whole thing, but eventually the guy said he didn’t see a problem with towing me into Hanksville.

Ethan reversed the truck down to mine and after hooking one end of the rope easily to mine, we fiddled a bit with the tow loops on the truck until we eventually hooked the rope up to the chassis member and were all set. I don’t think Rachel had much of an idea when she asked if I would go in my car to steer it. Oh dear. At least Ethan was driving. He eased away gently and the truck got me up the rise and onto the highway. I put my hazard lights on and realised just how short my tow rope is. The tow ball sticking out of the back of the truck had my bumper’s name all over it. I was nervous and concentrated entirely on the taughtness of the tow rope. Thankfully it was pretty flat, but we struggled at our first downhill when Ethan slowed down a little too much and without power brakes, I couldn’t slow myself down properly. He noticed I was having issues and did the worst thing he could have done – slowed down. I put all my might into the brake pedal now and after a bit of bouncing around and an uphill section, we were alright again. When Rachel gave me a thumbs up in question, I returned one to her and we carried on. We only had one more downhill before town and I pre-empted much better, slowing Ethan right now by pulling on my brakes.

I was grateful to see the town of Hanksville come into view, but also disheartened when I saw it was a tiny, tiny town with only a couple of servos, a restaurant and a campground. Rachel and Ethan towed me to the side of the Shell servo where I assumed I’d be spending the night. Apart from being right next to the bins, it wouldn’t be the worst camp I’d ever had! Rachel and Ethan hopped out and we were all happy with how it went since none of us were experienced with towing. When they asked if they could tow me somewhere, I declined, ever grateful that they’d helped me get this far and figuring I’d sort something out from here. I say goodbye and they wished me luck. Thanks so much guys, I don’t think I’ll ever take the kindness of strangers for granted, you got me out of a real tough spot.

Next, to find a mechanic. I walked into the servo and asked if there was a place in town. He handed me a business card and said that yes there was, about a mile out of town. Wow! Maybe my luck had returned! When I explained I didn’t have phone service, he told me I couldn’t use his phone because it didn’t call mobile numbers. When another customer overheard us, she offered me the use of her cell phone if it had service. When she finished making her purchase, her and her husband came outside and the husband had full bars! Maybe I need to switch providers. Using his phone, I called the number on the business card only to get a voicemail. I left a message explaining my situation then returned the phone to my helpers. They were sorry they couldn’t be more help, but I sent them on their way with a smile. I’d be fine. Right?

I went back inside the servo and asked the guy if the place really was only a mile out and he gave me directions. Sweet. I got my bike off the roof and rode off. About a mile down the highway, sure enough, I saw huge signs advertising Rabbitbrush Repair & Service. This was my man. His front yard was a mess of old cars, boats and all sorts of bits and pieces. I felt like we were going to get along.

There were customers out front with a boat but I couldn’t tell who was in charge so I wandered around until the owner called me over. He was a big guy with a tan, a thin white handlebar moustache and a near-white cowboy hat. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Dave. I got right into it, explaining that I’d checked for spark and fuel and the events leading up to my arrival. After a bit of back and forth, we inferred that maybe the spark had been the original problem, but that I might have flooded the engine after all the cranking I’d done without ignition. Dave was still sorting out that customer, so we decided it would be best if I rode back to base and checked for flooding and he’d be out to meet me in an hour or so. Cool. I already felt better just to have someone to talk it out with.

Back at base, I got to work trying to remove a spark plug, which from memory doing the plugs with Dad a year ago, was a monumental pain in the arse. Especially when I don’t have a spark plug socket! I racked my brain trying to remember how we’d done it without a bloody socket! Thankfully I didn’t have to rack long because Dave showed up after only ten minutes of me being there. He had the appropriate socket and after he had an attempt, with my small hands, we got a plug out. It was bone dry. Hmmm. Not flooded.

Dave was such a good guy to problem solve with. Not that he didn’t believe me, he wanted to go through and check for fuel and spark again, which we did. Spark was still ok and I liked his technical way of checking for fuel. We put a piece of paper underneath one of the injectors, cranked a while, then pulled it out to see if it was wet. Wet it was. We definitely had fuel. Hmmm. Ok, let’s actually check compression since we had a sparkplug out. My fingers were too small for the purpose so Dave took point, plugging the sparkplug hole with his finger and avoiding the sparking ignition lead while I cranked. I could hear the pressure and he felt it. Spark, tick. Fuel, tick. Compression, tick. WTF?!!?! I checked for engine codes one more time for kicks. Nothing.

At this point, Dave had another customer when a couple came up and asked if he could fix a slow leak in a tyre. Sure thing, except he didn’t have a jack in his truck. “I’ve got a jack!” That was the end of that, I got my bottle jack out and he got to work with his new customers, able to take a tyre off its rim and plug a leak all from the back of his truck. While he was busying himself with that, I figured I’d pull the injectors out and see if one of them was blocked or something. I was on the train of thought that if we had all three elements for ignition, maybe we weren’t getting ENOUGH fuel to make a bang. When Dave finished and came back to me, he explained that I was doing exactly what he’d have done next, we were on the same page. Just as I got the fuel injector assembly off, Dave went inside the servo needing to get something. He returned with the American equivalent of “Start Ya Bastard” and two strawberry popsicles. Awww!

We stuck into the popsicles and he explained we should try spraying the Start Ya Bastard into the throttle body to confirm our inference that we weren’t getting enough fuel. I managed to reinstall the spark plug and ignition lead one handed (my other hand occupied by my popsicle) and we were ready to try. Dave sprayed as I cranked and sure enough, she turned over, but only as long as we sprayed. As soon as we stopped, it would die again. Theory confirmed! Now to see WHY we weren’t getting enough fuel to the injectors.

This is when Dave asked the obvious question. Is there enough fuel in the tank? I’d asked myself this question briefly during my thinking time over lunch and had written off an empty tank almost immediately because I’d looked for leaks and hadn’t seen any, the trip meter matched what I’d travelled, my gauge read half full, but most of all, the car hadn’t coughed or spluttered at all, it had been a sudden death. Despite this, it didn’t hurt to try and Dave needed to buy himself a jerry can for his truck anyway. I walked into the servo and bought a 5 gallon can and filled the car up. More cranking. Still nothing. While I was glad to not be proven so stupid, I would have been happy had it been such an easy fix.

Next.

I took the injector assembly off and that gave us access to the fuel lines that attached to the throttle body. Dave got a perfectly sized hose out and we connected it to the inlet. I turned the key to see how much fuel came out. With power on, it was nothing and while cranking, it was a trickle, but I didn’t know what to expect. Dave explained that the fuel system should have about 40 psi of pressure and he definitely wasn’t feeling that when he plugged the tip of the hose with his finger. The only things between the tank and the throttle body along the fuel lines are the filter and the pump. Starting with the easier thing first, I got under the passenger side of the car and followed the fuel lines to the fuel filter that sat on the side rail. Dave stood by and handed me tools as I got the thing off, managing to get fuel all over me, including a tiny bit of splash in my eyes. Dave explained that it felt a bit weird to be standing by while someone else did the work, but there was no way his body was going to fit under the car without a jack so I happily took point.

It took a while and a lot of swearing, but eventually I had a fuel filter loose in my hand. When I tipped it up in front of Dave to show him the black colour of the fuel that was coming out, he thought that was the cause of our problem. I wasn’t surprised, it was probably the original filter that came with the bloody car. Amazingly, Dave reckoned he had a new one back at his shop so he drove away to collect it. I reinstalled the fuel injector assembly while he was away since we were working under the assumption that those were ok. By the time I was done, he was back with a fresh filter in hand. Wow!

I installed it and, with trepidation, we attached the trusty hose to the fuel line to see what we had. Definitely more pressure and more fuel coming out than before. Could it be fixed? I reattached the fuel lines to the throttle body and we cranked. Still nothing. Boo. It was now 5:30pm and we were both fairly sure that the fuel pump wasn’t pumping hard enough. Need a new pump. When Dave realised the Napa parts store up the road in Greenville (25 miles away) was still open, he got on the phone and sure enough, they had a fuel pump in stock that Dave could pick up tomorrow while he was out that way. That was probably the best I could have hoped for! That meant we were done for the day and the restaurant across the road was shouting my name for a cold beer. Dave also told me that I could buy myself and shower from the adjacent campground which sounded plenty inviting since I was covered in fuel.

We chatted a while and Dave made sure I’d be alright for the night before he set off, saying he’d see me in the morning to help me drop my fuel tank. I rearranged all the shit in my van to make it suitable for sleeping in before packing my shower stuff into a bag and walking across the road to the campground. When I couldn’t find anyone in the office after yelling “Hello?!” for a while, I started wandering to the laundry to investigate when the office lady saw me and called me back. She’d been across the road but happily helped me pay $6 and give me a code for the shower. There wasn’t even a timer, it was just a code to get in the door! I gave myself a good scrub down, shaved my legs and put on a dress for good measure.

Fresh and clean, after a quick stop back at the van to arm myself with my laptop and phone, I went into the restaurant and explained that I was in dire need of some Wifi to get in touch with my people and a nice cold beer. They obliged with the second but struggled with the first since being in the middle of nowhere meant that even the Wifi was shotty. The connection was never good enough to call anyone, though I tried with Mum & Dad, so I sat, furiously typing messages to Dad to get his thoughts on my predicament. He hit me with a few questions and said that he thought I was on the right track, which was ever so assuring to hear. I got in touch with Derek, Vanessa, Dan, Kevin and Alex too. Just that little bit of contact with friends lifted my spirits ten fold. The beers were helping too. I ordered some deep fried green beans as an appetiser to go with my beer and that’s all I would have. After the first beer (6%), I was pretty well drunk and after the second (4%) I was tanked. Obviously not drinking for a week or two meant I was a Cadbury again! At around 9pm, I was ready for bed so paid the cheque, walked across the road and climbed into the not-so-mobile van to lie in bed, listen to music and watch the sunset out my window.

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