Breaking Down in Kansas: Life in a Syncro Named Ripley

a Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro loaded onto the flatbed of a tow truck, lights flashing in the night


There is a feature in the Google Maps app that allows you set a course that avoids all highways.

It’s one of our favorite features in any app and we almost always use it when we’re faced with long drives. The slow, meandering scenic route can sometimes take two or three times longer but we find that passing through all the little towns in between here and there gives one a more fully orbed and colored picture of the character of a place than blasting through on Eisenhower’s interstate system.

Google’s route takes us by Small American Gothic Town after Small American Gothic Town, silo after silo, mile upon mile of train tracks and harvested wheat fields, barren and blackish grey, others brown and decayed. Some roads we drive are packed dirt, some muddy and slathered with cow shit. Without our 4WD engaged I don’t think we could’ve made it through some of those tracks. Woe be the soul that gets stuck in that cruddy bog. Because of all the AgriBusiness in Kansas nearly all of the Prairie eco-system has been plowed under, much of it fertilized with cattle dung. Our mud track through parts of Kansas is almost certainly a literal ton of shit we drove through.

Looking out the window at what once was rolling hills teeming with wildlife now engineered to feed masses of humans feels a little painful. My deeply buried inner John Muir sheds a single green tear at the sight of it. But then I remember that I eat bread and that mass starvation is mostly a thing of the past. Now, apparently, humans in western countries eat too much and the rest of the world’s caloric intake is increasing dramatically. Maybe that’s a better problem than mass graves filled with the hungry. Looking over Kansas, I wondered whether the loss of the bison and antelope and prairie dogs and 6′ tall grasses and grizzly and wolves and the rest of it is worth the trade off to stave off mass starvation. Maybe not having the prairie is the price we pay to add more humans to the mix of our existence. I’m mostly ok with that; inner John Muir be damned.

Kansas makes us take our time and we don’t mind it much. Fact is, we might be the only people that enjoy driving through Kansas. From sunrise to sunset we coast along its straight roads stopping every 300 miles or so to fill up our fuel tank with diesel at off-brand fuel stations in the middle of nowhere. It seems every station has bleached white buildings, sitting on cracked asphalt, grasses piercing through, small green stalks trembling in the wind that still sweeps across the plains. Some stations have overhangs for their diesel pumps. Others didn’t. A small note of importance, rural fuel stations that carry diesel tend to have diesel fuel with algae growing in it. A fact we’ve come to account for in our travels and spare parts lists.

I pump fuel into our Syncro’s tank, snot pouring from my nose because it’s cold and the baby Jesus didn’t build me out of weather-proof Viking skin. A brown Cutlass pulls up next to us, out jumps an older gentleman named Ron and he is just mesmerized by our rig. He walks around it asking about this or that doodad, and tells us he’s never seen a Syncro in person. He asks us questions about what we do, where we take our Syncro, where we’re from, how old we are and on and on. We tell him our age, that we’ve been on the road for three and a half years, that our rig was built by us to take us around the world. His face lights up, he goes from awe struck to inspired. Ron is wearing a red sweat shirt with the Marines Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia on it, bold slab serif letters declaring Semper Fi. He’s a Vietnam vet. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out two coins. One with Betsy Ross on it, one with John Adams. As a former service member myself I know that receiving a coin from a fellow veteran is quite an honor.

Ron grabs my hand firmly and places both coins in my palm, he then shakes my hand and looks Jess and I square in the face and with the certainty that can only come from a Devil Dog, he says, “You’re going to do great things in this life.” And with that, he smiles warmly in the gusting cold breeze, steps back into his Cutlass and drives off down a perfectly straight Kansas road.

a couple of young lovers make it clear that vanlife is don't well for them as they grapple and toss in the life
Jorge, Jess and their previous Vanagon, Falcor. Photo by the When the Road is Home.

The moment comes to an end when the diesel pump clicks indicating the tank is full. I take over at the wheel from Jessica who has just logged 1,200 miles at the helm. I drive west until the sun begins to set over the Great Plains, some 200 miles later near Wilson, KS. I slowly approach a 4-way intersection, clutch fully engaged I come to a full stop and the van shuts off. “Weird,” I think. “Why did that just happen?” I turn the key and the engine fires up, the clackity clack of our diesel heartbeat fills the air.

Jess looks at me.

“That was strange.” she says.

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened. I slowed down, clutch in, and she just shut off.”

We pull into a fuel station a few blocks down, come to a full stop and the van keeps running. Hmmm, this is also weird. Why can’t I replicate the issue? I hop out, refuel the vehicle thinking maybe it’s just low on fuel and then head off down the road again.

Rain starts pouring. It’s about 35° Fahrenheit and the sun is gone. We drive down Old Highway 40 and the van feels sluggish, heavy, like walking through peanut butter in a headwind. The boost gauge isn’t normal, our exhaust gas temps (EGTs) are running about 250° hotter than usual which makes no sense on a flat road in the cold rain. Something is definitely off. I feel a shudder, a weird thud sound, my boost gauge spikes to 28psi then drops to 0psi, the van lurches and I go from 2900rpm to under 1200. The Syncro burps and hiccups. We lose speed and the peanut butter has gone from creamy to chunky as the van is just lugging along.

I pull over as quick as I can and her engine doesn’t wait for me to come to a full stop. The van shudders and faints. I’m cussing in my head, the same word over and over, I transfer it from within my head to the edges of my lips and it rolls off my tongue in rapid succession. It rhymes with buck.

Did our fuel pump just shit the bed? Why would that make the boost spike? Did we just blow a turbo? Or did that one wire in the harness I’ve been eyeing suspiciously just short out because of the rain?

The rain comes down sideways. Jessica opens our under floor tool box compartment and begins pulling tools. While she does that I dress myself in warmer clothing and a rain jacket. With a miserably poor headlamp strapped to my head, a flashlight in my left hand and tools in my right, I step out into the downpour and into 2” deep mud.

“Time to get comfortable.” I tell myself.

I get down under the rear of the van to check the turbo. I’m looking for any blown hoses or loose hose clamps, oil leaks coming from the output side of the turbo. Maybe this was caused by a boost leak? Everything around the turbo looks ok to me.

Soon Jessica joins me, camera in hand, and a multitude of questions and suggestions as to what to look for. She knows the engine better than I do. I ask her to go inside and grab road flares while I check off each of her suggestions. I am laying only a foot from the road in dick deep mud and it’s darker than coal outside.

Flares in place, Jessica goes to the cockpit to try to the turn the van over on my mark. She cranks it and the exhaust blows a puff of white smoke, stays on for about 3 seconds and dies. She turns her over again, no smoke and she doesn’t die.

“Give it gas, Tiny!” I yell. I need the turbo to spool up and create pressure to verify there are no visible leaks. She mashes the gas and the turbo won’t spool up past 3 or 4psi. No bueno.

I’m soaked. Like, John the Baptist soaked. The mud I’ve been laying in for the last 10 minutes smells less like earth and more like cow shit. Cold water has reached my tender under-bits, bathing them in Shrinkage-ade™. The wind is quite literally howling. Jessica comes back to check on me, my complexion has paled as she calmly states, “You need to get the fuck up out of there. Let’s call a tow truck and sort this out somewhere not in the mud.”

You know how people say they’re in the middle of nowhere when in fact they’re actually in the left third of nowhere close to somewhere but far enough away to feel like the middle? Ok, well, where we broke down was in the literal middle of Kansas which is about as close to nowhere as you can get. Getting a tow truck out there in a reasonable time was going to take a small miracle. Fortunately, that miracle has a name: Premiere RV AAA membership and it costs us $300 a year. Who knew you could buy your way into the supernatural?

We wait there by the side of the road for just under two hours. Nine cars passed by us in that time, 8 of them stop to offer assistance. Say what you want about Kansas, but we once broke down on the I-5 in Sacramento, CA and not a soul in 5000 could be bothered.

While we wait, Jessica helps me undress and get the mud off and then we sit back in our bed watching videos on YouTube, our heater running, blankets on top of us. We hear the rumbling clackity clack of a big diesel slowly pull up, the darkness outside slashed by flashing lights.

Dan was a heavy set guy wearing a bright orange sweatshirt, a hat and rocking a handle bar mustache he must’ve stolen off of a super chopper motorcycle. Inside his tow truck sits a little eight pound miniature pinscher named Daisy, the radio playing Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train.

I swear on my life that Dan is the fastest working tow truck driver I’ve ever laid eyes on. He’s like a one man tow truck pit crew and he gets our van up on his flatbed faster than anyone else, ever…and we’ve been on a lot of tow trucks. Honestly, I think it’s the freezing cold rain lighting a fire under his ass.

The van secured, Dan climbs into his truck and joins Jessica and I. He’s turns down Ozzy.

“Where we headin’, folks?” His voice sounds like it belongs to a Southern Saint Bernard.

“Walmart parking lot in Hays, KS,” I respond.

“Why Walmart? I know a mechanic in Hays that can help you out.”

Jess and I don’t want to spend any money if we can help it so we graciously decline and tell him Walmart would work best for us since we can camp there and use their restrooms and maybe they have some parts we may need.

“Sounds good.” He replies, putting the tow truck into drive and heading down a straight, long and dark Kansas road.

Grey light intrudes into our cabin through our windows. Our fiberglass pop top snaps, crackles and pops with the sound of fat, icy rain plopping down on the roof. We can hear wheezing outside and our van rocks in the wind sweeping through the parking lot. We check the outside temperature: 29° Fahrenheit with a real feel of 15°. That mechanic shop sounds good. Except it was Sunday in Kansas. So Jess and I slip on our Long Juans™, water proof socks, ski bib gear, our heaviest jackets with rain jackets over top and our winter beanies. We looked like two fat kids waddling about in all our clothes fishing through our tool box to get out the right set of wrenches and sockets and clamps for the job ahead.

First up, remove the skid plate to check the turbo intake and rule out the turbo as a problem. Second on the list, remove a pre-filter from our fuel lines and replace it with a clean one. If it wasn’t the turbo, maybe it was the fuel delivery system was our thinking.

Tools in hand, I step outside, Jess following me with a black vinyl mat we’ve invested in for just these kinds of “adventures” and a camera to film the proceedings for our vlog. Under the van I went only this time I was on asphalt and dick deep in one of those rainbow colored parking lot puddles. No worries. I was dressed for the occasion.

I lay under there fighting our bent skid plate off for the next hour wondering why the damn thing was so hard to remove when I realize my fingers were trembling and my hands felt like they can’t close all the way. Nevertheless I am victorious though it’s short-lived as I soon discover all these waterproof clothes didn’t account for driving rain and wrenching in a puddle the size of Walmart’s entire parking lot.

My fingers sting. I will them to squeeze the turbo intake hose off. Peering in at the turbo’s fan blades everything looks minty fresh and so we took heart that our bank account would not soon see a line item reading: Borg-Warner S7 Turbo – $1,300.

Time to move on to the fuel filter. I look at the one presently on the van and it doesn’t look to have much algae in it but there was a little bit so I surmise maybe some of it was clogging the outlet. By this point, Jess’ lips are turning blue and my finger tips bright red. Every touch felt like a hundred fiery needles piercing my not-so-manly hands. I lay there under the van removing the pre-filter. It’s a job that should take about 15 minutes with your eyes closed. An hour and a half later I have the old filter removed and the new one in place. Vice grip style clamps are on the hoses of the inlet and outlet side to prevent diesel from spilling everywhere during the operation. I can barely move my fingers anymore to grip and release the clamps. I’m wearing layers of gloves and still the freezing rain has managed to seep into every crack and crevice in my clothing and gloves. So with the clamps still on the hoses, I crawled out from under the van and Jess and I retreat into the van to warm up our hands in front of our diesel heater and over our stove.

About 30 minutes later I jump out with a renewed conviction that we were only a few minutes away from being done with this nonsense and could get back on the road. I removed the hose clamps from either side of the filter and job done.

Except, it isn’t. Diesel pours onto my face and hair and left ear from the inlet hose. Jess crawls under to help me re-clamp the hose and diesel pours into her wet hair and covers the side of her head in a fine glaze of blue fuel. Turns out the nipple on the fuel filter we used was too small for the inlet hose and just the right size for the outlet hose.

Up until this point I have only complained about the weather, but after that happens, diesel in my beard, my left ear, inside the sleeve of my inner most layer of clothes and dripping down into my armpit, the “everything-is-going-to-be-alright-just-be-chill-and-take-it-one-step-at-a-time” Jorge turns into “smashing-the-pavement-with-tools-cussing-everything-and-yelling” Jorge. FML.

After taking a few heavy breaths of diesel and regaining my composure, we get out our other fuel filter and Jessica fills it with diesel. While she does, I fight hose-clamps and hose vice grips under the van to remove the filter that is the wrong size. It rains harder, the wind blows harder, my fingers scream and I can hear Jessica’s teeth chattering. Her golden brown face is ashen, her lips purple and blue. I have hot tears streaming down my face not because I was crying but because my eyes were trying to warm themselves by making more tears to fight the biting cold and wind.

After getting the filter on, we wrestle on the skid plate which I still maintain is remarkably difficult to remove/reinstall. The job was done this time. No leaks from the filter, no boost leaks, and the van fires right up and stays on.

Our clothes hit the floor like a janitor’s mop hitting the tile of a government building. We’re dripping water off of our naked bodies, shivering in the van, grasping for our towels, taking care to wrap ourselves tightly because of the open flame on our stove. The heater was on full blast and–slowly–feeling returns to our extremities. I sit there thinking “You know, we should change our pre-filters more often to avoid this shit from happening again.”

The fuel we’d been getting on these backroads has clogged our fuel filter with algae and caused our van’s ECU to go into limp-mode. It was limp mode that caused the boost to spike like it did and caused the EGTs to run so hot.

I sat in the driver’s seat, smelling of diesel and put the van into gear and headed for the main road. From 1st to 2nd and then 3rd and 4th. I mash the accelerator to see if I could replicate our issue. Nothing. The van was still in limp mode but she wasn’t shutting off. Because of the limp mode and because we didn’t know how to clear that mode at the time we were forced to drive from the middle of Kansas to Colorado Springs at 45mph where we could re-flash our ECU with our tune and get the van running normally again.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we won’t be taking our time in Kansas anymore.