Gremlins in the Hinterland

This thing.


I’ll say it, Check Engine lights suck.  They do.  Your brakes go, you replace your brakes. Cracked windshield? Repair it. But Check Engine? Vague cause, even vaguer potential fix, and can lead to the worst sort of bloviating when seeking opinions on them. 

Once again I’m getting ahead of myself though, let me back up.

We drove down the mountain out of Park City and into western Utah’s desert, which is as desolate and unappealing as the eastern half of the state is spectacular.  The last stretch of I-80’s traversal of the state, just before reaching the border town of Wendover, takes you across the Bonneville Salt Flats, of land speed record fame.  The name says it all – miles and miles of flat salt. 

I don’t want to strike the wrong tone here, though – it’s an interesting drive in its own way, through a unique part of the country. Unavoidably, though, if you start in Utah and head toward points west / northwest, you are going to find yourself in wide open, empty territory for at least a day, no matter which route you choose.  Here’s the one we chose.

Most folks, I would suspect, opt to put the pedal down and make this drive “the long one” in order to blow through Nevada, but we’re mostly over long drives.  If there’s nothing compelling us to hurry, then six hours or so is about as much as we try to do.  So we chose Winnemucca as our midpoint overnight stop.

Winnemucca was ok.  Here’s a pic, which about covers it. 

The exceedingly friendly and aggressively sunburnt campground host informed us that we had just missed his famous tri-tip, of which he had grilled several pounds for the campground’s residents on the 4th.  I was actually bummed we missed that; it sounded tasty. 

There was also a dirt racetrack at the adjacent Humboldt County Fairgrounds, at which some event was sharing its noise and bright floodlights with us.  But it wasn’t enough to keep us awake.  We crashed early and left in the morning.

One thing that was surprising about the drive was the extent to which Nevada, at least along I-80, was greener and more populated than expected, and eastern Oregon was more empty than expected.  To an extent I knew this from driving Bend-to-Boise last Fall, but this particular quadrant of Oregon I had never seen, and it is easily the most wild and empty region we’ve yet traversed.  Tacco remarked that we could be in the Scottish highlands.  Probably a bit less green and craggy though.  Regardless, it was worth seeing.

But that Check Engine light.

So if you’ve been with us here since the beginning, you may remember that this is not the first time it has reared its yellow head.  It illuminated in August 2017 while crossing Reservation land in Montana, and caused enough concern for me to pull over and do a little quick research.  After determining that it was almost certainly nothing of concern, we pressed on, only to have it extinguish a few days later. 

One of the problems with a Check Engine light is that even if the underlying condition clears, the light will stay illuminated for three “drive cycles,” which are essentially complete drives of reasonable length.  Normally, in a car, you can easily do three drive cycles in a day.  For us, we tend to drive for 4-6 hours at a time and then stop, sometimes for days.  So one Check Engine light that’s telling us about something that the computer sensed for a second, could theoretically stay on for a couple weeks. 

It becomes hard to take seriously.  Being in aviation, I’ve become hard-wired not to ignore warning lights, so this was especially difficult for me.  It would illuminate, stay on for a while, and then at some point at a gas stop or getting underway I would start up Davista and note that the light was out again.  This cycle played itself out no fewer than a dozen times over the past year, and what’s more, we’ve had three routine maintenance visits since then, and told the mechanic about it each time, but were assured that it’s nothing.  “Probably just a loose gas cap.” 

Well.  Somewhere between Wendover and Winnemucca it started flashing for about 30 seconds, which is where stuff got real.  Having never seen it flash before, I pulled over to investigate, and discovered that a flashing Check Engine light, unlike a steady one, means one thing only, and that’s an “active misfire” situation.  In other words, one or several cylinders are misfiring, right now.  The operating manual’s guidance in such a situation is to take it in ASAP for service, but if that’s not possible, to “drive moderately” until it is possible.  And to look out for excessive temperatures under the floorboards, as the catalytic converter, among other things, may dangerously overheat.  Not what you want to hear in the middle of Nevada.

Here’s what was strange though, it didn’t feel like it was missing.  I’d like to think I know what a missing engine feels / sounds like, and I noticed nothing.  Hm.

The next time it started flashing, I looked down at it and got distracted enough between looking at the light and feeling/listening for misfires, that I remained in the right lane and blew by one of Nevada’s finest as he was finishing up writing someone a ticket on the shoulder.  Seeing his angry / flabbergasted hands-thrown-up-in-the-air gesture in my rear view mirror made my heart sink, and his rush to his patrol car and quick sprint to my tail with lights ablaze to pull me over confirmed my feeling.  First ticket in Davista.  Actually it’s my first moving violation in as long as I can remember – at least 20 years.  Good times.

The Check Engine light continued to flash intermittently, without apparent rhyme or reason and for durations varying from 5 seconds to about a minute, for the rest of the drive to Bend.  It was extremely disconcerting. 

At some point post-Winnemucca I decided that it was time to buy an OBD2 Scanner so that I could plug into Davista’s computer brain and see for myself what was going on with the light. We stopped at the next population center to do so.  If you’re thinking that this is something I should’ve bought prior to the trip, then I wholeheartedly agree.  But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

The scanner informed me that our engine’s #2, 4, 6, and 8 cylinders were misfiring.  Frequently.  Well, shoot.

The troubleshooting side of me that had spent hours, by necessity, attempting to solve airborne maintenance puzzles in the 1960s-vintage P-3 back in my Navy days kicked into high gear and immediately told me that something wasn’t right – that four separate cylinders don’t fail randomly and simultaneously, and that this data coupled with my not feeling anything resembling a misfire pretty much screamed that we had a sensing problem, not a misfiring problem.  But the pragmatic side of me kicked in, too, and told me that not only do I not know squat about truck engines, but that this particular truck engine was under warranty, and therefore the fix was essentially out of my hands. 

We pulled into Bend with the check engine light still on, having flashed dozens of times between Winnemucca and our destination.  Each time I wondered whether this was the time that would culminate in a loud bang and thick black smoke pouring out of our dead engine. 

Fortunately it never came to that, but I was a frazzled upon our arrival.  The plan is to forget about it for now, and enjoy Bend, yet again, while celebrating Firebolt’s 9th birthday.  We’ve rented a house for her birthday weekend and have a surprise visit from my parents on tap.  Gremlins can wait.

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