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[personal profile] sparr
I bought two buses at online auction, from the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART). I made plans with some friends to meet up in Chicago and drive them back to SF. There were some hiccups along the way, but (spoiler alert) we made it.

On Thursday and early Friday we all started to travel towards Chicago. I flew in from San Fransisco along with Z. D took a train from New York, and J drove up from Indianapolis with his friend M. I had breakfast in Chicago with Z and an old friend there. D, M, and J showed up shortly thereafter and we started driving west in the late morning.

The drive from Chicago to Des Moines was uneventful. We stopped for provisions outside of Chicago and made good time across Illinois and Iowa.

Once in Des Moines we were on a somewhat tight schedule. We went to the DART offices first. I filled out paperwork and the maintenance manager there gave me a walkthrough of the buses and their controls. We all spent about half an hour looking them over and testing various things. D was our resident mechanic for the trip and he poked at things under the hood. Sadly all of this took place after dark, so I postponed taking photos. After deciding both buses were roadworthy, we sent M back to Indianapolis with J's car. There were some contingency plans in place if one of the buses deserved to be scrapped at that point, but we didn't need them. We then went to a UPS store, where I'd had packages shipped ahead of time, and retrieved a bunch of logistical needs (mattresses, ratchet straps, 12V outlets, etc). The last stop in Des Moines was at an OReilly to get spare fluids and such, at D's direction.

After Des Moines we picked up some folks who responded to a Craigslist rideshare post that I had made. A family of five and their two dogs and 2d3 rodents. They had gotten stranded in western Iowa due to a family problem and wanted to get to San Francisco and Tucson. I offered to drop off the Tucson-bound folks in Denver, but they said they'd rather just all go to SF if I wasn't going any further south than Denver.

The next 1500 miles went by in a ~30 hour blur, trading off drivers and stopping for food and fuel and bathrooms every 4-6 hours. Along the way we discovered some mechanical problems with each bus. One was losing coolant at a manageable rate (4 gallons over the whole trip). One bus reports low oil pressure despite having apparently full oil. We also had occasional confusion about why a bus wouldn't go into gear or respond to throttle, although it's probable that we were just missing some interlock conditions rather than anything being wrong. My notes were not as good as they might have been, so it was only later that I narrowed down which bus had each problem.

As we drove through Nevada, we hit a bit of bad luck with timing. Donner Pass (the path through the Sierra Nevada between Reno and Sacramento) was experiencing freezing rain turning into snow, and CalTrans had declared a snow-chains-required condition. I spent 6-9AM calling truck stops and auto part stores and mechanics as they opened (what few were open at all on a Sunday) and in the end we found exactly four chains that would fit on the buses' ridiculously large tires. $550 later and we had the bare minimum number of chains that might get us through the pass, two per bus rather than the 4-6 per bus that might be required in certain conditions.

As we left the clear weather in Reno things got progresively worse on the way up the mountain, until we were in moderate snowfall and a few inches of accumulation at the top. At the agricultural inspection station we got a little card explaining which wheels needed chains on different vehicle shapes. There was no bus, so we decided to go with the 6-wheel 2-axle truck diagram. We pulled over along with all the other cars and trucks just before the chain checkpoint and spent ~30 minutes getting four chains installed. I learned a lot, and I think I could do them in 3-5 minutes each by myself next time, as long as I only had to do outer wheels. If I ever have to do my inner wheels, I'm just going to pull over and camp out if the storm isn't expected to be days long.

We saw a few idiots spin out, mostly people who had lied to CHP about having 4WD/AWD, or been too stupid to enable it at least. No disasters, just short delays as they righted themselves. Traffic was generally 20-35MPH through the pass, and this was one of our few chances on the trip to not be the slowest vehicle on the road.

About an hour later we pulled over again and removed the chains, another ordeal where I learned some tricks. Someone had abandoned a single chain-link tire chain for a large tire right where we pulled over, so I grabbed that. That much heavy duty chain and fasteners has a lot of potential uses, even if I don't use it as a tire chain.

We made it all the way to the bay area without further incident. Then, in the home stretch, one of the buses shut down and wouldn't restart. We got the nasty surprise that it had lost all of its transmission fluid. I drove one bus down to Hayward to drop off our Craigslist passengers while the folks in the other bus took a carshare to a store to buy fluid and fill it up. They got back on the road around the time I finished my detour, and we met up in Emeryville.

The end of the road trip proper was in the Home Depot parking lot in Emeryville. I've parked there before, and have a minor level of rapport with some of their security, all of whom are quite friendly. They seem to have no problem with overnight parking, possibly contingent on my actually doing some shopping there before or after, which I've always done.

Z caught a ride back home. I put J and D up in a nearby hotel, where we all used the shower. I left them there and went back to Home Depot. Along the way I'd started removing some of the bus seats, and that work continued on Sunday night.

Thus ends the story of retrieving the two buses from Des Moines. My next post will cover Sunday and Monday, getting the buses ready and registered at the DMV and into parking spots.
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