The Rolling Blunder -2Prequel:
It's been pretty hot up here in north central middle of noplace, so I've been a bit reluctant to crawl around in a parking lot under a sun-smouldering-hot van. Every operation pretty much seems to require it, unfortunately. Since all the components need to be shock-mounted and vibration-proof that means a lot of drilling holes, positioning bolts, and tightening them.
(battery box and pumps)
I finally completed the mounting for the battery box, battery, and filling pump. Inside the battery box is a 40# trolling motor deep cycle battery and a bunch of vibration-damping padding. Did you know that batteries wear out very quickly when exposed to constant vibration? Neither did I. I nestled the battery box up against the side of the wheel well, so in case of an accident it will be braced by the solid metal. The retaining strap is bolted through the undercarriage with stainless st
Last year I published a journal entry about my project van (AKA "The Rolling Blunder") - an old Verizon phone company step-van that I got for not-a-whole-lot-of-money with the brilliant idea of turning it into a rolling darkroom/camper so I could take my wet-plate photography out onto the highway. My secret master plan was to run down to New Orleans, then hang a right across Texas and to California, taking wet-plate photos of vintage diners and laundromats (what, don't you like diners and laundromats?) eventually making the loop up across California then to Seattle, down across Oklahoma, toward home.
I figured this would be an awesome trip and, because I'd be hauling all my wet-plate gear, it'd need to be very carefully kitted out. The idea of having to stop suddenly and getting hit in the back by a 400lb water-tank or a bottle of cyanide didn't thrill me much; everything was bolted and shock-mounted through the floor-plates. Since this was a project undertaken for my own enjoyment, I pulled out all the stops and did everything right: shag carpets on the interior walls to deaden sound, acoustic mats on the floor covered with vinyl tile flooring, dual electrical system with a huge inverter and solar panel charging circuits on the van roof, gooseneck LED lamps in the driver's compartment, futon-bunk bed in the back (with a cargo compartment underneath to hold glass plates, scanner, and light panels, custom captain's chairs (with hot rod flames) for long-distance comfort, etc, etc. There are some pictures of some of the modifications in the previous journal entry on the van, but I never got around to doing a photo-set of its interior before I set out on the road.
All told I suppose I put a couple hundred hours of work into it, including some really painfully gnarly details like fabricating custom seat-mounts, completely re-wiring the dashboard electrical system, and replacing all the door latches/locks and windows. I spent some money on parts, too, probably a couple thousand dollars.
Obviously, it'd be sheer foolhardiness to just hop in and take off - I figured I'd do a couple of shakedown cruises in the near distance (mostly so I wouldn't wind up in New Orleans and realize I hadn't brought my Cadmium Bromide, or something) so I came up with a nice local project: I was going to ride down to my buddy Gary McGraw's and do wet-plates of him and his family and their guest-house, drink a bunch of Gary's bourbon, throw up, and drive home.
There was a last-minute "push" in which I had to make cut-foam inserts for the wall-mounted chemical cabinets, so I could store my chemical bottles without them flying around inside, and a few things like that. But Aug 26, I was ready to hit the road bright and early, downed a preparatory mug of coffee, fired up the van and hit the road. Gary's place is about 3hr from my house, and I'd be there by noon and photographing by 1:00pm.
On The Road
I stopped for fuel and more coffee in Altoona, about an hour south of my house, and noticed that the van was pretty loud and rattly at highway speeds (I'd mostly driven it slowly around local roads) but nothing too unusual. It had a stiff suspension and concrete highways are generally noisy. No problem.
The view from up here, just leaving Altoona: Aug 26 2012
About 1/2 hour south of Altoona (about 1/2 north of Bedford, in the middle of noplace near a place called Claysburg) I noticed the rattling was getting worse - lots worse. In fact it was getting so "worse" I began to worry and got off at the next exit, and stopped at the mechanic's/gas station there. And that was the end of my trip, though I didn't know it yet.
When I stopped, I could tell immediately that the problem was the left/front wheel bearing, because the hub was steaming. I walked around front and took this picture of the wheel:
Not the correct wheel angle
That's nothing you ever want to see. Usually it means, at the very least, that the bearing race has collapsed and there may be damage to the spindle that the bearings mount on, or the wheel hub itself. The mechanic jacked the front up and unbolted the wheel, then dismounted it. The whole hub interior was munched out - the bearing surfaces were completely gone - and all that was keeping the hub/wheel on was the disc brake. It was a good call on my part to stop when I did, because, if I had gone too much farther, the brake would have eventually seized and I'd have wound up in a ditch at 55mph, or worse - the wheel could have locked and spun me into another vehicle or something unimaginably ugly.
Powdered bearing: just add water!
I figured that I was looking at $250 in parts and another $250 in labor.
The mechanic and I spent the rest of the day on the phone, searching the internet, calling every junk yard in Pennsylvania, calling parts suppliers and vintage parts brokers/collectors. No dice. It turns out that Chevy made changes to the hub assembly every model year and I didn't just need a hub for a chevy step-van, it had to be a specific year and sub-model. It turns out that fleet vehicles like step-vans are usually purchased in a block and driven into the ground, with vehicles becoming parts-donors for the others in the block, until finally they're all worn out at which point the survivors are sold at auction and get bought by idiots like me! I talked to a fleet vehicle mechanic for a uniform rental company in Altoona, who explained that what they'd normally do in my situation would be to replace the whole front end (i-beam axle and all) then re-mate the steering system and it'd be good for another 200,000 miles. That'd only cost me - about as much, again, as I'd already sunk into the truck.
So I decided to cut my losses then and there, unloaded the van, paid a kid from the garage $150 to haul me and my stuff home in his pickup truck, and told the junkyard near the mechanic that I'd mail them the title if they wanted to tow it away.
I was not my usual sunny self on the ride home, I must say.
Here's the thing: halfway through the long afternoon of calling parts stores, I realized that the whole idea was stupid to begin with. When I hit the road, I had packed about 500lbs of gear (including my 8x10 camera, which weighs about 65lbs on its tripod) including some stuff that's basically unshippable (postal service: frowns on cyanide in the mail) - what would have happened if I'd been in the desert east of Albuquerque, NM and I'd munched the wheel bearing there? I'd have had to rent a U-haul or spend a small fortune shipping my stuff home.
Then, a couple days later, I realized "there are these things called 'RVs' that are already perfect for this purpose!" For what I spent on the Rolling Blunder I could have bought a pretty decent used trailer-home and then all I'd have needed is a 4x4-capable pickup truck rigged for towing, with a bed-cap, or a Suburban, and I could have put all the camera stuff in the back of the truck, lived, slept, and processed plates in the trailer-home, and done basically no prep-work, at all. An RV would even have a shower and toilet and a bed larger than the 6' x 3' futon-bunk-bench thing I had made in the back of the Blunder. Sure, it wouldn't have been as cool, except the Rolling Blunder turned out to be a whole lot less cool than I expected.
A couple of days after that realization, I realized that there are probably places that rent RV's, and looked on the internet, and - sure enough - I could have just rented someone else's RV for a month, for less than I paid for the Rolling Blunder and then I wouldn't have even needed a pickup truck and - best of all - someone else would have gotten to empty the sewage tank when I was done with it.
Lesson: a cool plan, insufficiently well thought-through, is not a cool plan.
I'm a bit sheepish about the whole idea, at this point, but if my winter schedule turns out to be light, I may rent an RV for a week and a half and just do the New Orleans run. The south is nice in the winter. If it turns out that making wet-plates on the road is fun, maybe I'll make a longer trip in 2013. Or maybe I'll discover that taking pictures of diners and laundromats and angry highway cops is no fun at all, in which case I'll stay home and take pictures of pretty women with their clothes off, which is what I normally do. It's possible that might be more interesting and fun and less stressful than diners, anyway.
Lemonade From Lemons
The only part of this whole project that still stings is the wasted effort. I sunk assloads of hard, sometimes nasty, often painful, and frequently sweaty work into the Rolling Blunder. I suffered the worst tool-related injury I've had in a decade, while drilling a bolt-hole in one of the cabinets (drill kicked and sent a 1/4" drill-bit spinning at full speed up the back of my left index finger and ripped it open bone-deep from fingernail to second knuckle) I got urethane glue in my hair, burned myself, and - generally had a wonderful time! Because, see, I was able to do it. I made myself a vehicle of awesomeness and was successful at rewiring a van, mounting chairs, making pimpin' red velvet curtains, fixing locks, mounting solar panels, wiring in tricky switches with LEDs and military covers, etc, etc - I did a whole lot of bad-ass work and I did it beautifully and with love and attention to detail. That's not a failure.
The only failure is that I didn't have a couple of awesome adventures with the thing; the final (and only) adventure was a bit of a bummer.
All in all, I'd rate the project as follows:
- Awesomeness axis: 95% Awesome 5% Suck
- Quality of work axis: 99% Good 1% Should have repacked the bearings
Shit happens. I'm not sure what my next project will be, but I'll make sure I think it through a little bit harder before I jump into it.