The Kindness of Strangers Got Us Back on the Road
by Douglas Van Bossuyt, Oregon Crew
On the day after Thanksgiving as we turned off of the highway and into the lonely gas station, I suddenly lost brakes and a huge cloud of white smoke billowed out of the rear passenger fender. I killed the engine and used the E-brake to bring the truck to a stop in the gravel lot next to the gas pumps and in front of a chain link fence surrounding a boat storage facility. I jumped out with a fire extinguisher while my spouse Heather hopped out with her own extinguisher. The smoke had cleared enough that I could see there was no fire but there was oil dripping out from the brake drum assembly and flashing to smoke and steam as it touched bare metal. Something was seriously wrong.
Earlier in the day, we had headed east from Kanab,Utah toward Lake Powell and some of the most remote 4×4 trails in the Lower 48 States. Our little Toyota 4runner was buffeted by strong headwinds along the way. We were used to going everywhere slowly after driving a little Toyota with a 22RE engine generating 100 horsepower on a good day for a few years. At the former site of the little community Pariah, we pulled over to read the information signs and stretch our legs. The wind was blowing clouds of dust across the dry and barren mesas and canyons of southern Utah.
Back in the truck, we pressed on for Big Water where the last gas station on our route for about 300 miles was located. With the extra jerry cans strapped to the rear swing-out tire carrier and on the roof rack, we could carry about 30 gallons total of fuel. From my calculations, we would have a comfortable margin of reserve fuel to reach Green River almost exclusively on 4×4 trails. The back of the 4runner was loaded down with camping gear, enough water for two weeks in case of a breakdown in the desert, plenty of freeze dried food and some fresh food in a fridge, and a few hundred pounds of spare parts and tools. Short of a catastrophic failure or a serious accident, we were prepared for a solo expedition across the vast remoteness of southern Utah.
Our beloved adventure truck now sat forlorn next to the chain link fence, still issuing puffs of smoke from the rear passenger fender. After many tens of thousands of miles of service, the axle bearing suffered a catastrophic failure. The drum brake had locked up as well and the combined heat of the failed axle bearing and locked drum brake caused the axle seals and the brake piston seals to fail, sending differential and brake fluid onto the hot metal. Just 45 minutes before, there had been no indications of a problem. The truck was running well. Somewhere along the way, the drag from the headwind had switched to being drag from the failing axle bearing and drum brake. Had the axle bearing held up another hour or two, we would have been miles down a 4×4 trail with only our satellite transponder to call in help if we had a problem.
Big Water, Utah is a small town close to the border with Arizona. A mix of retirees, part-time residents, and young families call this small, spread out town home. It was the day after Thanksgiving and no one was at the gas station. The big boats that ply Lake Powell during the summer were all pulled up and stored for the winter. Many families and retirees had left town for the long weekend to visit family and friends. The part-time residents were for the most part gone for the winter. It was just the two of us, our broken truck, and a couple gas pumps.
After the rear axle assembly cooled off enough, I jacked up the truck and disassembled passenger hub assembly. The axle bearing came out in chunks – most of the rollers were missing or broken. The drum brake was fused to the drum. These were parts that I did not normally carry because they rarely failed. Furthermore, the rear axle bearing on Toyota trucks is pressed onto the axle shaft and often requires a press to remove.
I attempted to remove the bearing using a few shade tree mechanic tricks to move on the axle half shaft. The metallic clangs of me slamming the axle half shaft onto a wooden block on the small concrete pad around the gas pumps echoed off of the stored boats and the side of the shuttered gas station convenience store. It was no use – the failed axle bearing would not budge.
An older smartly dressed retired gentleman pulled up off the highway and came over to talk with us. He offered to help in any way he could and suggested we call the auto parts store in Page, Arizona to order parts before the store closed for the day. The man gave us his phone number and insisted we call if we needed anything during our unexpected stay in Big Water. In over an hour sitting next to the gas pumps and the trailered boats, he was the first person we had seen.
I called the parts store in Page and after a long conversation with the parts counter, they figured out that all of the parts I would need were available in Flagstaff and they could have the parts by the next morning. We were very lucky because this parts store only got parts in once or twice a week and this being firmly Chevy country, no one stocked Toyota parts.
An old beat-up pickup ambled onto the gravel road that ran by the gas station and in the direction we would have taken onto the remote 4WD roads to the east. The pickup slowed and pulled off to the shoulder. A crusty desert dweller emerged from the cab in a swirl of cigarette smoke. The man looked as if he had stepped directly out of an Edward Abbey book right down to his dusty work boots. He sauntered over to where we were resting in the shade of the truck and inquired if we needed any help. Parts were ordered, I explained, but I needed a big press that could handle an axle half shaft to take the old bearing off and put the new bearing on. The man said that he thought a marina maintenance shop nearby might have a big enough press and that one of his relatives worked there during the summer. If we still needed the press the next day, we could come down the gravel road to his trailer down the way and he would see what he could do.
The man drove off down the road in a swirl of dust. We weighed our options and decided to pitch a tent next to the truck in the gravel by the chain link fence. While a tow truck could have taken us to Page where hotel rooms were available, I would have had to reassemble the rear axle enough to allow a wrecker to drag the truck up onto a flatbed for towing. With how trashed the bearing and the brake drum both were, I doubted my ability to put the truck back together without fresh parts.
The sun sank low in the west and a few lights in the desert flickered on as the little town of Big Water got ready for a leftover turkey and pumpkin pie slumber. We cooked dinner on our camp stove and sat in our camping chairs as the stars came out overhead. A Navajo Express semi truck lumbered by on the highway headed to the depot in Page. It was at this point that we discovered the bathroom outside the gas station was locked and shut down for the winter.
Part of every responsible overlander’s tool kit includes a spill response kit in case of an oil leak on the trail. A key component of our kit is a package of puppy pee pads used for when puppies haven’t quite been potty trained yet and need something to catch accidents. At this point in the story, I’m sure the reader can see where this is going… yes, those puppy pee pads are useful for more than just puppies! And I’m so sorry for whoever had to empty the dumpster next to the gas station the next spring.
Only once or twice during the night did a car pull into the gas station or a truck go down the gravel road. Each time, I woke up, waited, and listened to see if we might have trouble. I could hear the car that stopped at the fuel pump pinging as its engine cooled after a long, hard drive across the desert while the driver pumped fuel and coughed. The car drove on into the night toward Arizona. The pickup that went by slowed as it passed us and turned down the country western radio station. I listened for a long time as the rusted out rattling exhaust and crunching gravel faded into the distance.
The next morning was cold and bright. Another bright, sunny day hung on the horizon to the east. The smartly dressed man from the day before came by as we finished breakfast and asked if I wanted a ride into Page to pick up the parts. I gave Heather our emergency satellite transponder and instructions on what to do in case I didn’t come back. The man and I rode the 25 miles into Page and the parts store. We pulled up just as the store opened its doors and walked inside as the parts counter opened for business. My parts had arrived and the guy at the parts counter was quite curious about who would need all of these parts for a Toyota pickup on the weekend after Thanksgiving. After a few stops to pick up supplies the smartly dressed man needed, we did the drive back to Big Water and the truck.
While I was gone, several people on their way from their homes in the farther reaches of Big Water heading to Page for jobs, breakfast, or groceries stopped and talked with Heather about our situation and if there was anything that they could do to help. A few had seen us from a distance and wondered what we were doing camping in a gas station parking lot. All were friendly and were concerned with our well being.
The smartly dressed man dropped me off and gave me directions to his house in case I needed to borrow any tools or needed any additional help. I left the new parts with Heather and walked down the gravel road to the trailer where the man with the beat-up pickup lived. The man and I discussed my situation while he called around to several of his relatives and friends to try and locate a press large enough to handle my axle half shaft. Finally after striking out in Big Water, he told me to hop into his truck and he’d take me to Page to try and find a shop that had a large enough press and that was open on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
We went around to the auto repair shops in Page and found them all closed for the holiday weekend. The tire shop that was open didn’t have a large enough press to accommodate the entire axle half shaft. The machine shop that the parts store recommended was closed for vacation. After coming so close to repairing the truck, it was beginning to not look promising that we would make it back home to Colorado in time for work on Monday.
On a hunch, the man took us all the way across Page toward the Navajo Generating Station and out into the industrial area where a row of scrap yards, heavy construction and industry businesses, and Navajo Express’s repair facility are located. Every business in the entire area was closed and shuttered for the weekend except for Navajo Express where a pickup was sitting idling outside. The door was open so we went inside and found three guys working inside catching up on some maintenance that one of the tractors needed before it could hit the road again.
Two of the guys were Navajo Express employees while the third was the son-in-law and former employee of one of the Navajo Express guys who was hanging out to talk with this father-in-law during a visit home. The guys were only too happy to help after we explained the situation and soon the axle half shaft was setup in a big 50 ton press.
The axle half shaft flange began to deform under the load of the press but the bearing would not budge off of the shaft. It acted as if it was fused in place likely as a result of the extreme heat it had endured during its death throes. The press went up to its maximum working load and very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the bearing began to move on the shaft. Suddenly the bearing gave up its fight and smoothly slid off the shaft, releasing 50 tons of pressure with a loud pop. The Navajo Express guys were surprised that it took so much force to remove such a small bearing.
We cleaned up the axle half shaft, installed new seals, and pressed on the new bearing with ease. Things were starting to look up. I thanked the Navajo Express guys profusely and offered to pay for their time but the only asked that I help out someone else in their time of need.
Back in Big Water, the man with the beat-up pickup dropped me off at our 4runner and went back to his place to grab a few jack stands and tools that he thought I might need. He came back just as one of his friends arrived who happened to work on cars for people around town. Together, the three of us reassembled the axle, installed the new brake shoe and drum, bled the brakes, filled the differential with fresh fluid, and got the truck ready to head back out on the road. During our re-installation, we discovered that there was damage to the rear differential gears which scuttled any hope of continuing into the vast wilderness of southern Utah on this trip.
The job done, the man with the beat-up pickup and his friend headed down the road to the trailer to celebrate Saturday night with a few other residents of Big Water. Had it not been for the very kind residents of Big Water, Utah and the employees of Navajo Express working overtime, we would not have been back on the road only 24 hours after breaking down. In retrospect, we were extremely lucky to break down where we did.
After the truck was repaired, we high tailed it back to Colorado with the knowledge that our rear differential was on borrowed time. Over the next several weeks, I found a full floater kit to switch my rear axle from a pressed on bearing to the same conical bearings that the front axle uses. I also had a new differential built up and installed both onto the truck. The next time I have a rear bearing failure, I will be able to easily field service the rear axle anywhere I go.
While Trails Off-Road highly recommends against traveling on 4×4 roads alone, we often prefer going on our own and being full self-sufficient. It is a risk that we understand, prepare for, and accept. Even the best prepared convoys of overlanders can have mechanical failures that can’t be addressed on the trail. In this case, we were lucky to break down in such a kind and caring place. If you are going to break down somewhere, Big Water is a great place to end up.