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July 9, 2007
The saga of our 11-year-old van

Our beloved 11-year-old Dodge Grand Caravan at rest on the top of our mountain. Note the puddle of coolant/antifreeze at the bottom.

Our family has two vehicles. One is a 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan that gets about 20 miles per gallon and has accumulated about 100,000 miles. The other is a 2001 Toyota Prius hybrid that gets 48 mph and has also accumulated about 100,000 miles.

This situation actually violates two of our unwritten rules of car ownership:

  1. We normally like to replace a vehicle when it passes 10 years or 100,000 miles, and
  2. We don’t like to have two vehicles that need to be replaced at the same time

We continue to hold onto the van because we really can’t afford a new vehicle right now (we’re building a house), and because we constantly need to use it to haul things (we’re building a house). With Russell using an electric scooter to commute, we can normally get by with just the Prius (that’s how it racked up 100,000 miles in less than seven years). We use the van so seldom that we normally keep the battery disconnected so it doesn’t run down.

Back in July 2002, it was our loyal van that welcomed us home after our one-year trip around the world

When Gail and Russell took a weekend trip to the mountain on Friday, July 6, there was exactly one reason why we took the van instead of the Prius: we were carrying up a mini-refrigerator that Gail had obtained from freecycle.org. Our plan was to get an early start on Friday afternoon so that we could actually begin work on Friday evening, then stay until Sunday evening.

We started off well, leaving the Bay Area at 2:30 pm for what is normally a 2.5-hour drive (3.5 hours during rush hour). We were not able to beat the Friday afternoon commute up the East Bay (considered one of the worse corridors in California, if not the entire country), and soon found ourselves stuck in traffic. As usual, Gail drove while Russell read to her. As a result, neither of us were watching the van’s temperature gauge.

It was as we entered Dublin (and the junction of freeways 680 and 580) that the temperature light came on and a bell started ringing incessantly. Gail glanced at the temperature gauge and saw it all the way up at “H,” which we had never seen before. We immediately pulled off of the dead-stopped freeway and parked in a nearby shopping mall.

The van had overheated, a situation that neither of us had ever experienced. Consulting the manual, Gail turned the engine on with the heater at full blast and ran it for awhile to cool down the engine. Russell added some motor oil that he bought at a nearby gas station.

(Gail actually pulled Russell aside, walked him away from the van, and whispered in his ear: “I didn’t want to say this in front of the van... but I don’t think she has much longer left in her.”)

Seeing that the radiator fluid levels were full, Gail called a nearby dealership and consulted with a very friendly and helpful technician on the phone. First, he said that there was no way he could look at the van at such short notice. Second, he said that the van most likely had a problem with the radiator fan. The radiator was fine (and cool) as long as we kept moving; but when the van stopped the fan was supposed to switch on, which apparently was not happening. Third, he recommended that we turn around and drive back home.

This was extremely disappointing news. We were a half-hour from home, and two hours from the mountain. Gail was fine either way, but Russell felt strongly that we should continue all the way up to the mountain. He reasoned that if we took backroads, avoided the freeway, and stopped occasionally to rest the van, we could make it all the way without overheating again. Gail was game to give it a try.

Russell took over driving duties, and we went all the way across the Altamont Pass to Tracy before we decided to stop again. It was when we parked and opened the hood that Russell discovered another link in our chain of bad events. When he had added oil back in Dublin, he had forgotten to replace the oil cap. Not only was the cap probably lying somewhere on the road fifty miles back, but the van had been spewing oil all over the inside of the engine compartment for the last fifty miles.

It was time for Gail the incredible wonder woman to come to the rescue. She bought a roll of aluminum foil at the nearby mini-mart and improvised a plug for the oil compartment. She asked around in the mart for the location of the nearest automotive parts store. After more conversations with more friendly and helpful people, we learned of a Kragen Automotive store a few miles back. Because it was against the commute, we should have no problem taking the freeway without getting stuck in stopped traffic – and overheating – again.

The engine compartment, with an improvised aluminum-foil oil cap versus the real thing

One replacement oil cap later, we set out on the back roads again. We made an additional stop for dinner (which we don’t usually do) and finally arrived at the mountain at 8:00 pm. Our normal 2.5-hour drive had taken 5.5 hours.

The biggest heartbreak came when we actually arrived at the property. We had to stop the van to open the gate, and stupidly kept it idling for those few crucial minutes. The final half mile to our building site is a steep 20-degree grade. By the time we reached the top, the temperature light and bell were both flashing at us once again. That last half-mile had been just enough to completely overheat the engine once more. We parked, opened the hood, and watched the entire contents of our radiator boil over and spill into the ground.

The van delivered us to the top of the mountain literally on its last legs, after which it completely boiled over and all of the engine coolant leaked out

We had lost our Friday evening for working. We now realized that we would also need to depart as early Sunday morning as possible, in order to beat traffic and mid-day heat for our drive back home... if we could make it home at all. This would leave us only one full day for work – half of the two days that we had originally hoped for.

Fortunately, the one Saturday of work ended up being extremely productive, and we successfully installed all three of the main interior walls on the lower floor. The temperature was 82º when we arrived Friday evening, and it peaked at 92º on Saturday (which meant that it was probably 102º down in the valley).

The weather was hot enough that Gail actually covered the windows with blocks of insulation to keep the house cool

Also on the positive side, we both maintained our good humor and demonstrated strong teamwork regarding both the van and our building agenda. We were just very happy that we had left both boys at home for this particular adventure.

We left the mountain by 8:00 am on Sunday morning, stopping at the first opportunity to buy some coolant/antifreeze to replace the stuff that we had lost. Traffic was light and we were able to take the freeways. We arrived home in the early afternoon without a single overheat.

During the drive home, just outside of Tracy, our van reached the major milestone of 100,000 miles

It was the following Monday that we got the final piece of bad news, from our local Dodge service technician. The van indeed had a broken relay in the radiator fan. Unfortunately, when it boiled over, it blew two additional gaskets in the radiator. On top of that, a service diagnostic revealed that we actually had a slow leak in the power steering fluid. The total cost for repair would be $3,100. Gail consulted the Blue Book and discovered that the van itself is currently worth about $2,900.

We have not yet decided what to do. We could get the van repaired, get the van partially repaired, buy a new vehicle, or try to get by with one vehicle. In any event, it appears that our beloved 11-year-old van may have taken its last trip up to the mountain.

Gail cleans our "new" refrigerator – one of the few happy consolations of a very unhappy weekend


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