Moby, the van, visits Yosemite’s White Wolf Campground in August 2010.
I’m reading a book right now called “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” by Matthew B. Crawford. It makes a convincing argument that we’ve largely banished what used to be called “the manual arts”–generally speaking, skills developed using tools, making stuff, and fixing stuff–at a large cost in lost competence and career opportunity and, in both tangible and intangible ways, engagement with our world of machines.
There’s a lot more to the book than that (if you want a sample, here’s the original essay upon which it’s based). For instance, it questions some of the essential assumptions of current assumptions about the purpose of educations and the role of people in the economy. But the part that immediately resonates with me is the piece about learning to fix things yourself, and actually doing the fixing.
It’s not that I don’t know how to fix some stuff. I’ve done a reasonable amount of work on my own bicycles and have even (it’s a sensitive enough job I think of it as “even”) overhauled a bottom bracket. Once upon a time I did some of the demolition work on what seemed at the time a very ambitious kitchen remodel. Of course, the part some friends still remember is how long our kitchen was a construction zone, with no ceiling and a nice view right up through the joists to the rafters (we eventually hired folks and got some help from skilled neighbors to finish the job).
For the most part, a complicated fix is a fix that I feel most comfortable handing to someone else, especially when it comes to cars. I’m competent to check the oil (and have changed it once or twice, though, wow, it seems like oil filters are getting harder and harder to reach). I have replaced light bulbs and whole light units. I take pride in having handled my own tire chains in the slush and snow (once–and they stayed on). I know how to jump-start a car. When the Number 1 cylinder on our Toyota Echo started missing on a trip out to California from Chicago with my brother, I was able to follow the mechanic’s explanation of what was wrong (and what was needed to fix it permanently, as opposed to the temporary repair we got that’s still in place) despite his Texas Panhandle accent. But like most of us, I’ve never done a brake job or tuned up a car (is that something that’s still done?) or replaced a belt, much less removed and torn down and rebuilt an engine.
All of that became relevant in the last few weeks when our semi-beloved 1998 Dodge Grand Caravan SE (six-cylinder, 3.3-liter engine), which had performed relatively faithfully despite getting pushed hard for much of its life, suddenly developed a critical illness. For most of its fourteen and a half years and 208,515 miles, the most trouble it had given us was a transmission that balked at long mountain grades. That issue appeared during a drive up to Eugene, Oregon, in 2008, when at 70 mph on a long 6 or 7 percent grade into the town of Mount Shasta, the van suddenly shifted into a lower gear, which led to the engine turning at much higher RPM, which forced me to slow down, which led to the engine shifting into an even lower gear, which forced me to slow down even more. Luckily, I was coming to an exit, got off the highway, and managed to find a garage in town that quickly and cheaply diagnosed the problem via computer: a solenoid inside the transmission was fouled, and since the car worked fine on a test drive, we’d probably be OK (we were, except for one subsequent trip into the Sierra two years later). Aside from that, and the failure of a power steering pump once when I was driving home with a couple other cyclists after a 190-mile ride in the rain, the only real complaint I had with the car was its lousy around-town gas mileage.
But last month, the van suddenly overheated one morning when Kate was driving it to school. We had it towed to the garage that had been taking care of it the last five or six years. I figured that the water pump had finally quit. But the news was worse: a cracked head gasket. Fixing it would require taking the engine apart and installing a new gasket (and hoping that the head hadn’t warped as the result of the overheating that probably cracked the gasket). It would be a big-ticket item to fix–minimum $1,500, probably, and more than we figured the car was worth (though checking now, the Kelley Blue Book price on our wreck is $2,500).
Our first thought was to donate the van to some worthy organization. I like the one up in Marin County that’s working to save the last wild coho salmon stream on our part of the coast. But Kate had another idea. A family at her school needed a car. The mom, Mirian, volunteers a lot, and the dad, Carlos, is a competent and confident mechanic. They came over and took a look at the van, and Carlos thought it would be no sweat to get it running again. He also wasn’t put off by the long list of minor maladies we’d been living with–a cracked windshield, a windshield washer that no longer works, a rear vent window that no longer opens, one pretty significant dent where I backed into a tree, paint peeling from the roof, and the fact the car has its original transmission, which is at double its predicted life. He took in the list of problems one by one and smiled–he’d fix them.
I admit I had a moment, just a moment, where I thought, “Gee, maybe I ought to be able to take this on.” But the truth is–“Shop Class as Soulcraft” notwithstanding–getting this car back on the road would probably be a project that for me would last for years, anyway.
So today, Carlos came with a tow truck and took the van away. I went out and shot pictures of the departure, the end of our Grand Caravan Era. The van, which we nicknamed Moby when we bought it (because we also had a Ford Escort, nicknamed Toby), had made one cross-country trip; Eamon and I drove it to Chicago in June 2004 to help my dad move (we left at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and made it into Chicago at 10:30 Sunday night). I drove it up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, back in 2007 with my friend, Pete, so we could test-ride the bike circuit used by the Ironman triathlon there (Pete did the race in 2008 and 2009). The van made more than two dozen trips back and forth to Eugene (1,025 miles round trip) when Thom was at the University of Oregon; we hauled stuff up there for his move-in in 2005 and back down when he graduated in ’08. Kate was driving the van on an excursion to Carrizo Plain back in May 2006 on the trip where she encountered and wound up adopting Scout (aka The Dog); he was initially too weak to get up into the car by himself. The last big trip we took in the van was in August 2010, when we went car camping in the Sierra (including a night in the Yosemite high country, pictured above) and did some extended bushwhacking along some Forest Service roads).
It’s gone, and hopefully it has more miles and adventures ahead for Carlos, Mirian, and their family.