Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Gas Story, by Jake Beaty


Last night at 9:00pm, we arrived back from 22 days of hard travel through five different South American countries.

For 5 of the last 6 days, I had to wonder if we'd ever make it, or just be stranded on a lightly traveled road in the middle of nowhere, Argentina...

Jake tells why here:

I was shot in the stomach last week in San Nicolas, Argentina. I put both hands on the wound. It hurt so bad! There was blood all over the place. My mother said it was a normal amount of blood for such a wound and I wouldn’t die. 

Then I woke up, but my car was still in the shop. I had paid big money to have it towed on a flatbed – it might as well have been me on a gurney. “Fuel pump,” he said, but I couldn’t understand his reasoning. “I think it’s the fuel,” I said. “No, that’s good Nafta,” he said, “when the fuel pump gets hot, it stops working.” He added an electric fuel pump and we drove that night from San Nicolas to Villa Maria. Hmm, that seemed to have done it. 

Then it happened again in the heat of the next afternoon. The car would jump and bounce like a gangsta low rider on power shocks. The mechanic in the little town of Jesus Maria was too busy, we’d have to go to the other guy a few blocks back. But the car wouldn’t start again, and since we were in his driveway, he decided to help us. “Yep, that’s it,” he said. “When the fuel pump sucks air, it stops working, so you have to loosen this hose clamp, let the air out, and then it will work again.” He wouldn’t let me pay him – “Next time,” he said with a smile.

It worked for six minutes. Jennifer timed it. I turned on the hazard lights, popped the hood, burned my arm, and let the air out. We drove on for six more minutes. The car went gangsta. I repeated the process of blinky lights, burning and purging. Six more minutes. I drove more gently. Seven minutes. I pounded on the steering wheel and swore. I prayed. I fixed it. Six minutes. The fuel hose leading in to the pump was clear, and I could watch bubbles of air coming through the hose from the tank. How is air getting in to the line from the tank! I laid on the ground under the car and searched for leaks – if air can get in, then fuel can get out – nothing. 

We made it to another little town, I don’t even remember the name, probably Mary something. I asked the mechanic to move the fuel pump close to the tank. “No, that won’t make any difference,” he said. “But maybe if you loosen the caps on the tank, and that will help. Since the new pump doesn’t have a return line, maybe you’re creating a vacuum in the tank. Take it for a test drive, and if that doesn’t work, come back, and we’ll try something else.” So I loosened the fuel caps and it worked like a charm. Gosh I’m stupid. All that monkeying around under the hood and I didn’t think to loosen the fuel caps.
We made it nearly 800 km to San Miguel de Tucuman. We arrived after 10:00pm, but we were back on schedule. The next day was hotter than each previous, and the car went gangsta again when I tried to pass a truck. I needed extra power because there was an oncoming car, and it failed me. I bailed to the left and swore and pounded the steering wheel. I prayed. (That was usually the order, but sometimes I prayed before I swore.) 

The gas caps were loose, but I could watch the fuel vaporizing in the line even at an idle. I decided to move the fuel pump myself. I stopped in the middle of nowhere, miles and hours from even the smallest town, and started disconnecting the pump. 

Jennifer asked, “Are you sure you can do this? Shouldn’t we do it in town with a mechanic?”
“We can’t even make to a town with a mechanic. I don’t have any other options.”
I need a longer wire. What am I going to do? I prayed – without swearing. Oh yeah! That extra driving light circuit the car used to have! As I gathered my parts and tools and made my plans, a big rig stopped and the driver said, “Just 4 km’s up the road is a river and shade.” The heat was oppressive and the horrible invisible mosquitoes had already given me six growing welts on my legs, so I reconnected the pump and we limped along at 25 mph to the river.

“Is this 100% guaranteed to work?” Jennifer asked as I drove off the highway and parked out of sight of everyone and everything under the bridge that went over the river. 

“No,” I replied, and set to work.

Forty minutes later I had moved the fuel pump as close to the tanks as I could get them, connected all the lines and wires, and asked Jennifer to turn the key while I watched from below. The car roared to life. I floored it a couple times – everything worked perfect. I had grease to my elbows and under my fingernails. I used sand from the river to scrub it off, and away we went, flying at 70 mph without a hitch. . . for about fifteen minutes. . . when the car started jumping again. 

This time, with the pump so close to the tanks, I could not take advantage of any siphon to push the air bubble out of the system. I just laid on my back under the car, my body limp in defeat. There is no solution. Everything works. I can’t fix something that isn’t broken.

I asked Jennifer to sit in the driver’s seat while I pushed the car backwards down the slight hill on which we had died. I ran as fast as I could to push the car down into the dip and up the other side. With the nose downhill, some gas trickled into the pump and the car started again, running rough and choppy.  

I noticed that the car ran fine as long as the tanks were full. Right at the ¾ full mark, the car would start jumping. We limped into the next town and I topped off both tanks. I followed dangerously close to a big rig doing 60 mph and like a lead goose heading south for the winter, let him help pull me to the border. 

The tanks were down slightly when I filled up with Bolivian gasoline the next morning. I was convinced it was a fuel problem. The Argentinian Nafta, not even gasoline, was super high octane – 95 for the low grade and 98 for the high grade. The best stuff in the US is 92, and jet fuel is 100. The car knocks like mad on the low quality Bolivian fuel, but on cool days with Argentinian Nafta, it ran like a champ with power to spare. Argentinian fuel is race gas, thin like acetone, so close to its boiling point that on a hot day with a little suction, it would flash into vapor and make the pump stop working and the car start jumping.

The day was hotter yet, and we were gaining altitude. With the tanks full, the caps loose, the pump close and a few liters of Bolivian gas mixed in, we were still getting vapor bound. I had to drop into first gear and idle over a few small hills just to keep the car going. We took an hour to go what should have taken fifteen minutes. I poured out my tale of woe to a police officer at one of the check points and explained what I thought needed to be done. 

He said, “There’s a guy 200 meters down that road who sells gasoline, ask him.” 

I drove down the side road.

“My tanks are full of $150 worth of Argentinian Nafta – do you want to buy it from me at a very low price?” 

“No,” he said. “That stuff is too thin, we don’t use it here in Bolivia. No one would buy it.” 

“Okay, then, let’s just suck it out and throw it away. And sell me enough gasoline to fill my tanks, please.”  

I siphoned gas for the first time – it was as awful as my dad always said it was. We drove away from the black market gasoline dealer down the dusty side road and that old knocking sound I used to scorn returned when I’d press hard on the accelerator. It was music to my ears. The car relapsed a few more times until the fuel mix was thick enough, but when all that Nafta was burned up, we stopped having trouble. 

I was right all along. It was never the car. It was always the fuel. And for over 1000 miles from just outside Buenos Aires to well inside the border of Bolivia, I found way after way to keep us rolling. 

We made it home. 

As for another trip like this in the future? Never again!

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