Wow, I am stunned…
About 2 weeks ago, as we were driving from Asheville to Hot Springs, NC Edna’s transmission gave out. She wouldn’t move forward nor backward… nothing. We were on the side of the road all day, at first trying to rule out external transmission issues, and once we determined that it was indeed an internal failure, we called for a tow. AAA left us there for hours trying find a tow truck for us. Finally they called to tell us we needed to find our own tow.
I was super fortunate to have family in Asheville, where I could have the bus towed to. I’m not exactly sure what we would have done if we had broke down where we didn’t know anyone. My step-sister, her kids, her husband, and his mom all live in West Asheville. We had been based there for our week in Asheville already, so it was an easy place to get towed back to. The big tow truck barely got us back into the driveway on the little dead end street, but it felt like we were home.
I was a little scared, as I didn’t have the money to fix Edna. I spent the next week calling shops, researching online, waiting to hear back from rebuilders, and feeling a little overwhelmed with the uncertainty of it all. If I had to drop the tranny, I wanted to make sure it was rebuilt, and rebuilt well with some of the updates it needed (updated pump, center support, updated planetaries with steel housing, etc.), as well as a heavy-duty torque converter. Throughout my searching, I didn’t feel like the shops and rebuilders I was talking to either knew my transmission and what it needed, or could be trusted, and/or had the time to squeeze Edna in. At first I was really trying to find a shop that would let me be part of the rebuild, or at least removal and installation, with a potential work-trade option. The most helpful mechanic in this regard was Shane at the Organic Mechanic. As a fellow school bus owner, he was potentially willing to share his shop and found one of his mechanics was maybe interested in helping out. Even though it didn’t work out in the end, I am really glad places like the Organic Mechanic exist.
Probably one of the best things that came out of this breakdown was the forced stay at my stepsister’s place. I hadn’t seen her 5-and-a-half year old for 3 years, and had never met her 2 year old. It was super sweet to get to know these kids. We skateboarded, played in the back yard, watched Dino Trucks, and I even tumbled them around in a cardboard box. Meanwhile, they were snotty-nosed and sick, which meant that Ally and I got sick. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Kelan, Link, Donna, Oliver and Aether provided the space for Edna, food, and most of all community for us to feel at home with as we sorted out Edna’s transmission. It was hard to say good-bye.
I finally settled on a rebuilder in Mooresville, NC – about 130 miles from Asheville. I could get the first 100 miles of tow for free and $4/mile after that from AAA. But when I called AAA this time for a tow, they said they couldn’t do it because it was a bus, not an RV. I explained that Edna was registered as a motorhome, and that they had towed, and offered tows to me before, and that the only reason I have AAA Plus RV is for this vehicle. I was so close to not getting a tow, but I finally spoke to a supervisor who made it happen. ADVICE to other school bus owners: don’t tell AAA it’s a school bus, tell them it’s a motorhome (make sure it’s registered that way and you wont be lying).
The whole drive from Asheville to Mooresville was a little nerve-racking. Edna was loaded up ON TOP of the truck, making us near the legal height limit (13.5 feet). Her weight and size was making the truck bounce and sway. I was worried she would smack a bridge, or maybe topple over and fall off the truck, sliding down a mountainside and tumbling like a tin can. But alas, we made it to Mooresville without a hitch. We dropped Edna off at Outlawed Transmission, in the heart of NASCAR country, and then were picked up and driven back to the homestead we had been staying at in Efland, NC by our friend Ari.
After receiving an offer from a friend to do a fundraiser back home on San Juan Island, I decided to throw a simple photo of Edna getting towed on Facebook and Instagram with a request for donations. This was a big moment for me. I don’t accept monetary tips or donations while serving tea, nor have I actively sought out money from people online (other than a donate button on my website). I have always had a preference for non-monetary and non-calculated interactions, where people interact and share simply because they want to see each other succeed (this would be the definition of traditional human economy). Relationships are the highest form of currency in this paradigm. So, for me to go onto the internet and ask people for $3500, this was big. But, wow! Within 24 hours, my community had raised almost $2200 dollars, and by 36 hours we had raised all Edna needed. It was nearly $100 an hour for 36 hours. Dang!
I believe that in a society that values money above all else, this was a way for people to show how much they value the tea bus. Even though I want to encourage a society that values other things just as highly as (if not more so than) money, I do live in a monetary world. Yes, my ideal would be to build a mutually beneficial relationship with a transmission mechanic, but I just wasn’t in the space to do that. If I had been back west, where I have a much larger community, it may have been another story. One of the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses in money is its ability to maintain and transfer value regardless of time and space. Although in general, I believe that money usually disconnects us from the things we use and consume, in this circumstance, it was a blessing to have people from all over the country (and even abroad) donate something of value so easily.
The transmission was supposed to be done Monday. I arranged to borrow a car from our hosts. On Sunday, the mechanic told me he needed another day. On Tuesday, he told me his torque converter (TC) guy brought him the wrong TC, and Edna wouldn’t be done until Wednesday evening. On Wednesday, a woman I had never met, but who had been following the tea bus for a few years came from Greensboro to give us a ride 2 hours to Charlotte to get Edna. 10 minutes after she got there, the mechanic texted and said his TC guy had a death in the family and he needed another day. On Thursday, Edna was finally going to be ready, but our ride to Charlotte (a friend of a friend) ended up have brake issues on her drive to come get us and ended up at a shop getting her brakes replaced, and didn’t have time to bring us. Wow!
Finally, Randall got home to the homestead, and Ally and I got a text from the mechanic saying Edna was ready! We drove Randall’s truck to Charlotte and there was Edna! The mechanic showed us her old worn clutches and bands, and we chatted about the rebuild. A mechanic friend of mine told me the original quote of $2600 was going to end up being much more (incidentals, taxes, etc), but it ended up being spot on, which was great. Despite the pushbacks on finishing the job, I appreciated this integrity on the mechanic’s end of things.
TECHNICAL: Edna now shifts like a charm. I will (finally) be putting in the right numbered tooth gear in the vehicle speed sensor (VSS). Edna has always shifted early, and the speedometer has always said she’s going faster than she is. Through the years I’ve finally figured out it’s because someone put a transmission from a vehicle that had a 3.55 gear ratio rear end in Edna, who has a 4.10 ratio rear end. The output shaft on the E4OD trannies have either 7 or 8 teeth machined into them to drive the VSS, depending on the read end’s gear ratio. I searched and searched and finally found a 23 tooth gear for the VSS, which should now make Edna shift at proper speeds, as well as make her odometer correct.
Edna’s rebuild also gave her updated steel-housing planetaries, a triple-disc billeted torque converter, and the final pieces for the pump from the Transgo Tugger HD2 shift kit I installed in the Fall. I have faith that it’ll run for many, many more years.
The transmission cost ended up being a little less than I originally thought. The total costs including tows, gas, and other miscellaneous things came to about $3000. I’ve asked for and received the blessings of my donors to put the remaining $500 into my bus fund, which will likely go into rebuilding Edna’s motor one of these years. Thank you!
I take great pride in my life for the amount of control in which I feel like I have on a day-to-day basis. Yet, in these past few weeks, I was amazed at how many things went wrong that I had absolutely no control over: the transmission dying, AAA not being able to find us a tow, many flaky mechanics, the death in the TC guy’s family, and many failed rides… I read an article about the unexpected elements of living in a vehicle. In general, I feel like I anticipate the unexpected and prepare for it. But this recent run of bad luck reminds me of a couple things: (1) That there will ALWAYS be unknowns (and often, when it rains, it pours), and (2) that with community, bad luck can be overcome, and in fact can make the overall situation better.
And I have my community to thank!