I like to hear of other people's adventures in their Buses and the challenges they faced travelling off-road Baja style. If you've got a story, short or long, e-mail it over and I'll put it up for all to share. If you're worried about spelling and all that stuff, no big deal it just adds to the style.
Just tell it like it was and make sure there is some reasonable Bus content.
Here are the tales I've recieved so far, many thanks to the adventurers
Tire terror in Baja by Matt QuilterUnpassable Pass by Steve Blackham A Redneck Campfire by Joel Sell Volksworld Not a story but Baja Buses makes Volksworld :)
Tire terror in Baja (I made up the crap title, not Matt) by Matt Quilter
This is the story of a Baja trip I took in 1991 involving many flat tires, pilot error, bad mojo, much McGivering, and general craziness---in short, a tale of human pathos in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere. A little background---I was dragged kicking and screaming on a two-week motorhome trip with my pop and my uncle to Mexico in the early '70's. We drove to Mazatlan, took the ferry to La Paz, and came back on the newly opened trans-peninsular highway. At the time, I thought that I was way too cool for this kind of lame excursion, but after I shut up and quit complaining, I was totally sucked in and couldn't wait to go back.
My pop, being weeks ahead of his time, had bought our first VW in 1953 while stationed in Florida (a used '51 standard model, probably about the 700th one imported). Later, we had a '59, a '64, a '58 bus (briefly), a '61 Porsche Super90 (still around, rusting away), and finally my late '71 bus (bought in '76), which took me on countless Baja adventures for the next 20 years.
Some cars are more than just people movers or cargo hauler.. Everyone at some point has owned a car with soul, one that was a part of great moments of their lives. I'm not sure why I sold my bus (I've since bought another, a '77 Westfalia), but the bottom line is, in over 350,000 miles, I never had a catastrophic mechanical failure on the road, and it never nickel-and-dimed me. It was dead stock except for the muffler and a Mexican 34-PICT, and it was usually loaded to the tits with either amplifiers or camping stuff. I took it places where I had no business going without 4WD, but it always brought me home.
Sometime in the '80's, I had the bright idea to buy a used set of rims and mount tires just for use on Baja trips. I had never actually had a flat tire, but I wanted the biggest tire that I could possibly get on the car, for both ground clearance and extra flotation in sand. I ended up putting 225/75/14 Michelins on the rear, which fit with a few mm to spare, and 215/75/14's on the front. I decided to install tubes, so I could lower the tire pressure WAY down without worrying about breaking the bead. For a few years, this worked out really well. With these big-ass passenger tires lowered to about 8-10 lbs., I could roll over just about anything, and frequently did.
Alas, in hindsight I think it was my careless storage of this set of tires while not in use (basically, I just threw 'em in the backyard) that led to this particular misadventure.
Around '84, I heard of a very cool-sounding spot on the gulf while reading a great book called "Offbeat Baja" by Jim Hunter (affectionately referred to by us as "Beating Off in Baja"). The spot was San Francisquito, about 85 miles south of the Bay of L.A. At the time, the only passable way to get there besides a plane was the old route through El Arco (where I managed to turn my car on its side in the middle of nowhere, but that's another story).
When we finally got there, it was as fabulous as advertised, and we've gone back many times since. We were delighted when they cut a new graded road a few years later from Bay of L.A.---85 miles of glorious gravel and washboard---by Baja standards, an excellent road, passable to almost any vehicle (except after the terrible floods of '92, when we tried and failed, and found a dead guy's truck---but that's ANOTHER story).
We'd driven the new road several times, and this particular trip was my third or fourth with my new set of tires w/tubes. My partner on this trip was soon-to-be-former-brother-in-law Joe, and we were meeting another group that was a day ahead of us. We drove the 500 or so miles to the Bay of L.A. without incident. About 25 miles off the pavement we encountered another vehicle coming the other way (the only other car for the next 2 days, as it turned out), and stopped to ask about the fishing. We left the car running, as it had failed to start at the last gas station (my only encounter in that car with Hot Start Syndrome---it never happened again). As we were about to leave, someone said "You have a flat tire". Sure enough, the right rear had gone flat as we were BS-ing.
At this point I should mention that all those years of never having a flat had given me a false sense of security---I had a pretty good stash of spare parts, and okay tools, but nothing tire-related, not even a cheater bar or a decent lug wrench. Plus, I had committed the unpardonable sin of letting tire shop weasels put on my off-road tires without instructions to hand-tighten the lug nuts. The sumbitches would NOT come off. The guys in the other car took pity and lent me a decent lug wrench, but it was still a major hassle. On top of this, not only was my spare questionable, but it was for my street tires, a 195/75/14.
There was no way I could put this tire on the rear with a 225, so I decided to take off one of the front 215's and put it on the rear, put the spare on the front, and deflate the other 225 a little. It turns out that my car originally came with that step-up deal that mounted under the sliding door in the jack points. Naturally, it had been sheared off years ago (how many of those have you seen still on a bus lately?), leaving a chunk of metal clogging up the front jack hole. It's one of those things that you always mean to fix someday, maybe next Tuesday, but by now it was a permanent part of the car. No problem, I'll just use the other front tire.
Then I made a really bad decision. Reasonable caution dictated that I should have followed the other car back to the Bay of L.A.and bought another tire, but all we could think of was yellowtail or cabrilla for dinner. Besides, lots of people use this road, right? Anyway, we were dirty and hot from changing tires, and didn't feel like an extra 3 hours of dicking around, so off we went.
Top speed on these kinds of roads is maybe 20-25 mph, unless you're in a macho rig, and the ride is so unbelievably rough that you swear that every nut and bolt on the car will eventually fall off (like the ones that held my steering column to the dash). The sensation is not unlike driving with four flat tires, but imagine our surprise when we looked out the window and saw that the other rear had gone flat. At this point, I began to commence being in the grip of a Serious Fear. We were exactly halfway there, it was high noon and 95, and our fishing vacation had hit a serious snag.
With the engine still running, I got out the compressor and tried pumping up the first flat (we couldn't find any punctures in either tire, and hadn't yet figured out that the problem was with the tubes). It seemed to hold air, so we decided to put the other good front on the rear, and then put the first flat back on, with the idea of pumping it up every few miles. Well, we forgot about those pesky lug nuts, frozen in place by the impact wrench from hell. By this time, the inside of car was completely trashed, with tools, chairs, tackle boxes, boat stuff, food and junk everywhere.
Naturally, my tools and spare parts were buried under mountains of camping stuff, but we did find a can of liquid wrench, a tire patch kit, and a spare inner tube! The only way that we could get the lug nuts off was to soak them with liquid wrench, beat on them with a hammer for a while, and then stand on my crank-type lug wrench and jump up and down on it while hanging on to the gutter with your fingers. The jack would go about one inch into the front jack hole, but somehow we got the car off the ground and the tire on, and were seemingly ready to roll. Everything worked swell for about 10 minutes, at which point my jive spare shredded into a sickening spaghetti of rubber and steel cord. As we got out and looked in disbelief, the other tire on the front wheezed and went flat.
I shut off the engine, and it was as silent as a tomb, except for those huge buzzing wasp thingies. We couldn't say a word---it was unbelievably hot, the flies were out, there was no shade, and we were 40 miles from anything. The best we could do was to get something cold from the ice chest, set up the beach chairs in the 6 inches of shade by the side of the car, drape wet rags over our heads, and brush away the flies.
We really expected that someone would come along. This was a pretty well-travelled dirt road. We knew that there was a fish camp ahead (abandoned, as it turned out), and San Francisquito always had a few visitors. After about three lonely hours , we figured that we at least ought to attempt some sort of fix. We took inventory: We had three flats, but two of the tires seemed to be okay. We had a tire patch kit, and a spare tube.
Well, let's break one of the good flat tires off the rim and see what's what. How hard can it be? We hammered on it, jumped on it together, threw boulders at it, swore at it, but we couldn't break the stinking bead! At last, in what was one of my few good moments, I jacked up the front, took off the spaghetti spare, and lowered the disc brake rotor onto the tire right next to the rim. Worked like a champ, and after a few more tries, we had the bead broken and the tube out. It then became apparent what my poor storage had done---moisture had seeped inside the tire, causing little rust spots on the inside of the rim which attached themselves to the tube, making brittle patches that eventually cracked and leaked air.
We pumped it up with the compressor, and found at least two leaks, along with other funky-looking patches. So, we had a spare tube, and a patch kit with some sort of glue in it, so we just needed to patch one tube. We had a plan! The first thing that went wrong with our plan was that the spare tube for some reason was missing the insides of the valve stem. No problem, we'll use the one from the shredded-wheat tire. It was then that I REALLY wished that I had one of those $.99 valve-stem tools---we couldn't get the sucker out! At long last, using a pair of mini vise-grips and the tweezers from my Swiss army knife, we got it loose and installed it in the spare tube. We then noticed that this tube was for a different size tire, but we weren't about to sweat the small stuff. We stuffed the tube into the tire, but had a hell of a time getting the valve stem to stay put while we pumped it up---it kept slipping back inside the rim. We finally clamped it with the mini vise-grips, but couldn't quite get enough exposed stem to make a good seal with the compressor nozzle.
We managed to pump in about 20 lbs. of air, and things were looking up, til we noticed that the tire had not come close to expanding itself fully onto the rim. We couldn't get any more air into it, so we tried lubricating the bead with dish soap and bouncing it as hard as we could to see if it would seat itself. After several tries and a few rebounds off our shins, we decided that at least it was SORT of round, and didn't seem to be leaking, which was a good thing. All that was left was to break the other tire, patch one of the tubes, and see if we could roll. We put the jack in the clogged front hole and eased it off the ground. It was while my bro-in-law was pulling the wheel off that the bottom of the jack point gave way, the jack slipped out, and the car crashed to the ground, imbedding the brake rotor in the gravel.
It was getting dark, and we couldn't imagine what else could go wrong, so we decided to break the other tire, patch the stupid tube, set up the tent somewhere, and deal with the rest in the morning. I got the patch kit and took out the unopened tube of glue. When I punctured the tip, all that came out was air---the thing was completely empty! Momentarily, it appeared that our plan was circling the bowl, until I remembered the patch kit for my boat (one of those inflatable Zodiac knock-offs). It had to be the same sort of glue. I finally found it---about a third of a tube of old and pretty stiff rubber cement-like stuff. With one rotor in the dirt, we jacked up the other side to break the bead on the tire. At that point, we knew that we had to cannibalize one tube to patch the other, so with great trepidation, we cut one up, made patches, glued and clamped them as best we could, and tried to sleep.
The next morning, we inflated the tube a little and it seemed to hold air. Cool! We knew that we could use a Mexican jack on the front (that's where you dig a hole under the wheel), but the ground was like cement. It was then that I discovered that if you crank up the car as far as it will go in the rear, the front will raise just enough to get the wheel on. Hot damn! We were in business! We felt like real tire pros by now, and found that if you slightly inflated the tube, it was easier to get the valve stem through the rim. This was fine until Joe tore a 3" gash in our freshly patched tube with the end of pair of pliers while trying to stuff it inside the tire. I really wanted to pull a Fred C. Dobbs on him, until I remembered that it was my poor judgment that got us into this mess in the first place.
We patched the tube again, not knowing if a hole that size could even be repaired. While the glue was drying, I decided to take another crack at getting more air into the other tire, which, while not very round, was still holding air. With the vise-grips clamped on the valve stem, I knew that I could get more air in the tire if I could just get another fraction of an inch of clearance. I took a look at the end of the compressor nozzle. The tip was made out of hard plastic, and if I could somehow shave a 16th of an inch off of the end, it might seal better with the valve stem. With award-winning stupidity, I took a file to the tip of the nozzle, took a few strokes, and watched it crumble to pieces in my hand. My bro was ready to do the same thing to me that I was going to do to him, but I lied and said that I could fix it. I didn't exactly fix it, but I glopped the tip back together with the last of the rubber cement and left it in the sun to dry.
It was about noon, and it was becoming apparent that if we were going to get out of there anytime soon, it would be up to us, as nobody was coming to help. (We tried to signal a plane, but they ignored us---pretty sure that they saw us, too). It was crunch time---we put the re-repaired tube back in, and tried to pump it up. We could get in about 10 lbs. of air before the glue on the compressor tip would bubble and blow out. We put the tires on the car as-is and lowered the jack. One had about 20 lbs., the other 10, and neither was expanded onto the rim, but they were holding air! We had about 40 miles to go on the most punishing kind of road. We threw our stuff in the car, I fired it up and put it in gear. The car rolled! Sort of. It was like those cars at Toon Town in Disneyland with the offset wheels.
We galumphed along at about 5mph, lurching and yawing, but we were moving! I stopped after a bit to try to put in some more air, but the valve stems had disappeared inside the rims. We had done everything that we could think of---we either kept rolling or stopped for good.
The stress of trying to drive that slowly while listening to each agonising rotation of the tires is unbelievable. These poor turds couldn't possibly hold up. You literally have to turn off your brain and go somewhere else, which I did for the next five hours, until I looked up and saw the little group of San Francisquito cabanas in the distance. With about 2 miles to go, and on softer roadbed, the last of the air seeped out of tubes. Making yet another big mistake, I said the hell with it, and drove the rest of the way on the rims. We had made it, but I ruined my beautiful Michelins.
It was almost dark, but we were safe, and we had cabrilla and ceviche for dinner.
Epilogue: So, how do I get home? I destroyed my tires, trashed my rims, and we were at an outpost with little or no services. The caretaker of the place at the time was a fabulous guy named Pepe, who told me to relax and enjoy my vacation, and that he would think of something. Que hombre! The next day, he said to hop on the back of his ATV. We rode up the beach towards the mysterious owner's house. There, in a field with a few other junk cars was......a VW bus! No engine, but four round tires! I inquired if the tires and rims might be for sale, and Pepe winked and said that this indeed might be possible. We negotiated a price over some ceviche and Pacifico, and the next day, three wheels and tires were stacked neatly next to my bus.
In a fitting coda to this whole bollocks, it turns out that the other bus was, you guessed it, a '68 or '69. Right tires, wrong rims!
It was not a total disaster, however, because I found out how they change and mount tires in the middle of nowhere. I truly believe that the Mexicans can fix anything, and I can only hope to someday be that creative and resourceful, but this process must be seen to be believed. This version was a three man operation. First, they beat my rims back into shape with a big hammer. Then, they greased the bead of the tire, set the rim on a slight angle on the ground, got a running start and took a flying leap with tire in front of them and popped it onto the rim. Then the real fun began. One guy dribbled gasoline into the tire with a rag, while another connected a tank of compressed air to the valve stem and cracked it open a little. The third guy stood by with a burlap sack, while the first guy lit a match and chucked it at the rim. Blammo! The tire spins about 6 feet in the air, and the guy with the burlap sack beats out the fire. Awesome! I checked the pressure with my tire gauge, and it was so far off the scale---it must have been over 100 lbs.
I made it home with no further problems, and drove around on those tires for another few months. If you've made it this far, many thanks for reading. It was fun to actually try and recall everything that happened---I'm sure I left some stuff out. By the way, for the next trip, I bought 5 bulletproof LT 28.5/14 off-road tires. They work okay, but the sidewalls are much stiffer, and they don't float over the sand as well when deflated. I didn't put in tubes.
Matt Quilter, November, 1997