MacGyver’s Xmas Tradition, A Miracle

Christmasville Road, Jackson, Tennessee

Three days before Christmas, miles in our eyes, we stopped for a shower, and got quite a surprise.

I hit the starter, to resume our sojourn, and from under Black Beauty’s skirts, billowed smoke, a toxic burn.

MacGyver's Xmas Tradition, A Miracle

Off of Christmasville Road in Jackson, TN.

In trucker terms, our Christmas miracle would only have been better if Santa had crawled OUT of Black Beauty’s exhaust pipe. That would have explained the black smoke because we had no inkling of impending doom when we pulled into the Spokane, Washington Petro last Thursday, shutting down for five hours for a much needed shower, our first in several days!

This is our fourth Christmas on the road, our third as Owner Operators. We’ve discovered, in hindsight, that we have a Christmas tradition. Each year we’ve received a Christmas miracle.

Our first year, Christmas 2009, Black Beauty developed a drinking problem. It started with pre-holiday tippling around Thanksgiving and by Christmas she was guzzling a gallon of engine coolant every day. It took us almost a month to realize this was out of character and she needed rehabilitation.

Miraculously, the Wise Men delivered us to the shop in Portland, Oregon, without the aid of a tow truck, for $5,000 in repairs. Surprising how a huge repair bill can be a relief.

Last Christmas, our girl developed violent hiccups, refusing to shift gears, clunking on the downshift for no apparent reason. We spent two nights in the New Orleans Hilton, less than a $100 a night on the Hilton Diamond plan, and Black Beauty was outfitted with a transmission repair on warranty.

This Christmas, we were heading to our best week of the year, 5,000 paid miles enough to cover the emergency installation of two molar crowns into this Black Beauty owner, leaving enough money to start filling the kitty for our annual Medi-Spa trip to Bangkok, Thailand. Visions of pampering head-to-toe, massages, mammograms, eye glasses and beach villas dancing before us.

We had headed west from Medina, Ohio, hammer down (well, at 58 mph that is), 48 hours to Washington State, along the way we snagged a return load, Washington to Tennessee.

We hit snow in Montana, which delayed our delivery arrival. Our first Christmas miracle occurred when we arrived at the appointed gate eight minutes after it closed. The security guard was walking away with his empty lunch box. He told us to call main security and see if they could get us in, otherwise we would have to back up down the narrow winding driveway to return to the street and drive around the complex to another gate. Seconds later he returned.

“Here’s your Christmas miracle,” he said. “You have all your paperwork so I’ll eat the 15 minutes overtime and check you in.”

Whew! Only people who have backed up a 70 foot, articulated vehicle on a tree-lined, single lane road can truly appreciate our relief. Receiving was waiting for us. We were escorted to an unloading ramp, and in another miracle, another employee escorted us to the hard-to-find exit gate.

Our return load was to pick up on Thursday, the 22nd, but the shipper wanted us to load ASAP, which was fine with us. We arrived a few minutes before closing and we were quickly loaded giving us four days to travel 2,400 miles, enough time to do the route twice. We had plans for a leisurely, sightseeing drive across the country.

First, we went to the Seattle Travel America (TA) truck stop for some trailer repairs. The reflective tape on the back bumper had flaked off, a DOT violation, this was our first chance to fix it. And we were worried that the tread on one of the trailer tires was below the legal minimum of 2/32nd and it had a bent rim.

Repaired, MacGyver fueled and headed off to Spokane. Showered, we settled down for a few hours on fresh linen, his favorite 450 thread count sheets.

Thursday morning, five hours later, logs updated, ready to go, I turned over the engine. It coughed, it choked and it rattled, an old lady’s raspy throat, plugged by years of tobacco-induced flem and in the Westcoast mirror, black smoke pouring from under Black Beauty’s skirts.

Turn it off, shouted MacGyver from the bunk.

Yesterday she was in top form. “I don’t know if I should be infuriated or relieved,” MacGyver said while were waiting for the Cummins Christmas elf, the mechanic who would, we hoped, diagnose the problem.

Let’s count our blessings. We didn’t shut down somewhere in the Seattle area waiting to get loaded, where we could have broken down and been forced to pay a huge towing bill and forfeit the load. We didn’t stop at the Rest Area 30 miles out of Spokane, like we considered, and broken down and faced a huge towing bill.

We broke down on Thursday. Thursday morning, in Pacific Time, not Friday afternoon, when may places are closing pre-Christmas, or Christmas Eve in the middle of nowhere or Christmas Day with no fix in sight.

We were parked at the Petro in Spokane, Washington, next to their shop. There are fewer truckers around, but the mechanics are still on the job.

MacGyver ran through the possible causes. He changed the fuel filter, he added one gallon of our Shell Rotellat synthetic oil. He checks the oil everyday, the engine burns almost no oil, but today we are down. He topped up the engine coolant.

He starts it again, the engine is running a little smoother, but still rough, the black smoke continues to pour out of the exhaust.

“The last time I saw black smoke like that it was the EGR valve,” my-artist-husband-turned-diesel-mechanic told me authoritatively. We were immediately onto our friends Eddie and Salena, who have much more experience than us, for long distance support and back up.

We were a half mile from Cummins dealership, the engine repair shop. The mechanic at the Petro — who refused our $10 tip for helping us with the troubleshooting saying it was Christmas — said it’s time to call Cummins in.

Cummins had a few suggestions. Could be the turbo, an injector, maybe a stuck EGR valve – all big repairs. A mechanic arrived in an hour, as promised, he plugged his computer into our truck, he removed the hose to the turbo and the hose to the charge air cooler — all big expensive parts — and we limped down the road to the shop.

MacGyver's Xmas Tradition, A Miracle

The Cummins Technician plugs into our truck.

It turns out we were felled by a freak of a nature. An unusual weather pattern that had been hanging around the Spokane area. Frigid air, about 13F degrees, mixed with excessive moisture. When the dense fog cleared, we saw that ice had coated every blade of grass, twig and branch individually into a spectacular white filigree pattern.

it had also foiled our foam Fleet Air Filter, which installed last November has improved our fuel mileage almost a half mile to the gallon by allowing better air flow.

The foam filter allowed the moisture through to the engine — where a paper filter could have wicked up some it — then it froze inside the charge air cooler cutting off air to the engine.

Once in the warmth of the Cummins shop, the frozen moisture melted, drained away, the mechanics checked all the systems and approved her fit for travel.

“It’s the best $239.14 I’ve ever spent,” MacGyver said as he put the truck into drive and gently pressed on the hammer, taking us out in the brilliant sunshine.

Be Safe out there.

Merry Christmas.

4 thoughts on “MacGyver’s Xmas Tradition, A Miracle

  1. I love good news! You had me pretty built up on you having a major problem. I don't know much about diesel engines, but do remember driving a couple of Dodges that had carburetor icing problems and have heard of small plane engines icing up. Hope you ended up having a nice East Coast Christmas.


  2. Great news indeed ! I thought the story was leading toward a dark and expensive ending, thank you spirit of Christmas for the" diesel miracle Noel "I always pay close attention to these scenarios as well, I am not mechanically inclined, nor really interested in vehicle mechanics, what I am interested in is saving money, and being able to rescue myself. I'll bank the ice/moisture/air filter situation to memory.Hope your both doing well.


  3. Gil – we ended up having a New York City Christmas in Jackson, TN, which is to have Chinese food and see a movie. We found a great little restaurant walking distance from the Pilot, Jiang Jin and again, amazingly, walking distance from the Pilot, a movie theatre where we took in Mission Impossible and we liked it.Gary – driving 180,000 to 200,000 miles a year, there are almost no small problems, as we say in our tractor – the shit just never ends. Whenever the bill comes in low, or there is a warranty fix, it is a miracle. Almost everything starts out looking like a big problem, black smoke, coughing engine.The story on the filter was news to us. We also keep "memos to self" on things we hear from other drivers. Schneider taught us enough about the truck systems to hopefully get to a shop before something breaks down. But as Owner Operators it's imperative to know your truck and how things work, you might not walk to work on it yourself, but knowing your trucks helps to know if something is a big or little problem and what can be done to trouble shoot. It saves money and that's money in your pocket.


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