Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They Can't All Be Good

As days go, these weren’t very good ones.

I had decided to stay a fourth day in Cafayate, a quaint little town at the north end of the Argentine wine country. Even though it is early in the summer here, the mid-day temperatures were already breaking a 100, and I was perfectly content sitting by the pool drinking the regional white wine specialty, Torrontes.

When Monday rolled around I decided it was time to get back in the saddle, besides, the wine was only going to get better the closer I got to Mendoza. I stopped in the town plaza on the way out of town to get some money out of the only working ATM. After waiting 20-minutes in line I inserted my card, and waited for my cash. I reached for the cash door when I heard the clicking of the cash counter roll out my bills. With my hand suspended in front of the drawer, the screen flashed “Transaction complete. "Would you like another transaction?" “Where the hell is my money?” That was almost $250, or 900 pesos’. With people waiting, I crossed my fingers and re-inserted my card and asked for a lesser amount. It worked.

Once on the road, I headed south. I had pavement for the first hour, then rocky, sandy roads thereafter. I was able to average about 35-mph on the dirt, so the roads weren’t too bad. As it approached noon, the temperature was climbing, and the winds were getting hotter. One hundred and thirty miles into the day, I was doing all right. I had Mick and the boys trying to take my mind off the questionable ATM transaction - it would be days before I would be able to get back on the internet to see if I was charged. Out of nowhere, I started to hear a “clicking” coming from the engine. I pulled over, paused the iPod, and listened. Sure enough, there was a loud knocking coming from the valves – like the engine was low on oil. I knew that was impossible because I had just topped off the engine before going out onto the Salar (salt flats) in Bolivia, a week earlier, and had checked the oil level several times since.

I turned off the engine, removed helmet and earphones and put the bike onto its side-stand. I bent down to look into the BMW’s oil view window to check the level. Nothing was there. I waited a minute to see if the oil needed to settle back down into the pan, but with the bike leaning toward the same side of the view window, I knew that the window should be displaying solid black. What the hell was going on? I looked around the ground to see if oil was dripping from anywhere. It wasn’t. Then I noticed that my right boot and pant leg were covered in fresh oil – “UH OH”. I held my breath and slowly walked around to the right side of the bike “OH, MY GOD” The entire right side of the bike was covered in oil, absolutely drenched. The driveshaft housing, the brake rotor, the rear brake, the pannier, everything from the right cylinder head and back was dripping of oil. I noticed too that one of the four outer cylinder head bolts was also sticking out about two inches more than it should’ve been. Apparently, for the last mile or so, I had been unknowingly dumping oil like a drunken tanker captain. I was speechless, and slightly sick to my stomach, but I instantly knew what had happened.

Standing there, my bike’s engine now as dry as the desert air -I was screwed! I did have an auxiliary oil canister strapped to the back of one of the panniers, but I had used all the reserve oil in Bolivia. I looked at the map to see how close I was to the next town. (Luckily, I had bought a new detailed map of Argentina at a bookstore just two days again. It listed almost every little village, and told you what roads were paved, which were dirt.) I flagged down a young kid on a dirt bike and asked him how far to the next available place to get oil. “About 30-minutes.” I was close. I tried driving slowly, turning off the engine and coasting on the down the hills, but I couldn’t take the hideous noises and the risk of possibility of causing permanent damage to the engine. Besides, the bolt kept vibrating back out of its hole, allowing even more oil to pump out.

I killed the engine and put it up on its center stand. I had only one option- I had to plug the hole and get some oil into the engine before moving another inch – end of story. I took off my jacket and dug into my tools and spare parts, looking for something that could be used to stuff into the leaking hole of the cylinder head, while at the same time keeping an eye out for passer-bys.

The first to pass was a newer small truck. The truck passed me by, but then stopped and reversed. It was three young women - I then understood why they had hesitated to stop. I approached the driver’s window, but made sure I left a non-threatening distance between the car and me. They didn’t have any oil but signaled that a town was close by. They were nice, but I wasn’t catching everything that they were saying. I bid good day.

I found an extra tire valve for my tubeless tires that would work to fill the hole. I would have to carve the cone shaped rubber piece at it’s base before it would fit, and of course wait to see it if it would hold up to the vibration of the dirt roads. Thirty minutes later, another car. This time, a couple in their later thirties with a 4 to 5-year boy in the back seat of a new Peugeot compact. They had no oil either, but they were eager to help. The man stopped an approaching pick-up truck to ask for directions. They were obviously visiting the region, and didn’t know the specifics of the area. Argentine Spanish is much different than what I am used to so I was even slower than normal to understand what all he was saying, but what I gathered was that while I was asking him to please drive to town and buy some oil for me, he was offering to drive to town to buy some oil for me.

I had plenty of time to finish carving up my rubber plug, and it stuffed into the hole the best I could. I then started to repack the bike. After everything was put away I went to strap down my duffle bags. While tightening down the straps, the plastic buckle of the Rok strap shattered. The bags then had to come off and I emptied out my one pannier to dig out my back-up strap. (My head was boiling at this point – I should have been wearing a hat.) The buckle on this strap was already compromised from previous use. Everything packed; I went to tighten the strap. It too blew up too! Maybe my recent rush of adrenaline had given me superhuman strength? If so, it was unwelcomed and not helping my cause very much. At this point, I was kicking up a lot of dirt and screaming some choice words. Again, I unpacked and packed, now using a strap that the BMW dealer in Ecuador had given me to strap down my spare tire.

Soon after securing the bags for the last time, the Peugeot pulled up. They had bought me two liters of 40w oil. He wouldn’t take any money from me. I was so thankful, I had already forgotten about the busted straps. I had now been out in the hot sun for over two hours now, and it was time to get out of there. I thanked them over and over again, and repeatedly patted my chest over my heart with my right-hand. I think the guy was afraid I was going to start trying to kiss him if he didn’t get out of there when he did. I so like good people.

Not trusting my current state of luck, I cut my day short and got a hotel an hour away in the next town. I bought some liquid dish soap and a heavy duty scrub brush and cleaned up my riding pants. I wiped down the bike and filled up the engine with oil. The plug seemed to be holding.

Nothing beats a new day for starting fresh, eh? It was a slightly overcast day, actually getting a little cool as I followed the road up and out of the valley’s floor. Skynyrd now had the task of helping me to forget the prior day’s events. An hour into the day, I was feeling better. Everything considered, it all worked out pretty well. The only solace in the whole matter was that I had created the problem – the bike didn’t fail me, I failed the bike. It wouldn’t happen again.

The vibration caused by driving on the rough dirt roads can cause nuts and bolts to vibrate loose. Therefore, it is important to go over the bike every once in awhile and check for loose nuts and bolts, before things start falling off. The night before leaving Bolivia I had checked some of my usual weak spots. The right valve cover bolts had been loose several times before, sometimes quite loose. However, this time I had obviously tightened them too much, fracturing the one bolt that eventually broke free on the dirt road and allowed all the oil to blow out. So, I screwed up. I was now on my way to Mendoza where the bike would get serviced and all would be well again.

I wish I were making this next part up:

Of course the next day, I could not stop looking down at my right boot, making sure it was still dry - that the plug was still holding. About an hour into the morning I happened to look down to see if my new Che pin was still attached

to my jacket’s left pocket. It was then that I happen to notice some splatter spots on the left breast of my jacket. “Those aren’t from yesterday?” I slowly swiveled my knee out of the way and looked down. “ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! MY LEFT BOOT AND PANTLEG WERE COMPLETELY SOAKED IN OIL. I pulled over in absolutely disbelief. Not believing what was happening, or what I was seeing, I walked away from the bike speechless, and “took a moment”.

The oil cap had simply come off somewhere along on the road. So once again, I was spewing oil “like a tanker captain on a bender”. All the oil from the engine had now exited from the left side of the engine, within 24-hours of exiting from the right, and it was all completely unrelated. This time I had plenty of oil and a back-up oil cap, but as Dino would’ve said, “Oh, ain’t that a kick in the head!”