“By the Lord God I promise to take the fleet out, and through the grace of God, bring it safely home again.”
– James Clavell, “Shogun”
Day 5: Wednesday, Sept. 7: It was the last thing we wanted to see on a long-distance ride: The equivalent of a “check engine” light on the Vespa’s dashboard.
It’s the fuel injector warning light, a cheery little orange disc on the left side of the dash. It flashes once as Linda is struggling to back the scooter out of a deep gravel driveway in Swanton, Ohio.
We were attempting to find the house of Don Lee, a good friend and colleague of mine from Sandusky Register days. The Garmin Nuvi GPS told us we were close, but I overshot and we ended up using the driveway to turn around.
Linda tells me about it at Don’s house, but says she only saw it once. The light is connected to the scooter’s fuel injection system that delivers fuel to the engine. If the system fails, the engine shuts down.
“Keep an eye on it and let me know if you see it again,” I say.
We roll north into Michigan on U.S. 23 enroute to Frankenmuth when the Orange Signal of Death flashes again, just once, outside of Ann Arbor. I’m flying wingman behind her, as usual, so I follow to the breakdown lane when she pulls over. It’s afternoon rush hour and cars are rocketing by as I try to figure out what’s wrong.
I can’t, so we agree to get off the highway to someplace safer. We find a BP station and fuel up. After some discussion, we agree to continue to Frankenmuth, where I’ll hunt for the nearest Vespa dealer.
The nearest Vespa dealer. Vespas are exotic Italian machines and I have no idea where we’ll find one. It’s the same problem I feared while running Endurance, my BMW GS; the support network can be mighty thin.
But we get to Frankenmuth and once online I’m relieved to learn Michigan has more than a half-dozen Vespa shops. This allows me to sleep.
Next day, I start making phone calls early. The first is to our Vespa mechanic at Modern Classics on V Street N.E. back in Washington. I describe the problem.
“Oh, that is not good,” the guy says. He gives me a few scenarios, suggests I find a Vespa dealer with a diagnostic computer, and says, “You really should get that checked out.”
I call Traverse City. “Well, I guess you could bring it here, I could try and fit you in,” the guy says hesitantly. “I may not have the parts you need, though.”
I call Grand Rapids. “I’d say bring it in, but my computer’s not working,” the guy says.
I call Dearborn. “We have a Vespa mechanic, but he only works Tuesdays and Thursdays,” the woman says. Today is Wednesday.
I call Lansing. “Sure, bring it in,” says the guy. “We’ll see what he can do.” He says his name is Brendan, and I tell him he’s my new best friend.
Our mission navigator estimates it’s 90 miles from Frankenmuth to Lansing. We have reservations in northern Michigan that can’t be broken without losing fees, so Frankenmuth to Lansing to tonight’s destination of Tawas City will mean a long 260-mile day for us, plus whatever time we have to spend in Lansing.
I insist the Vespa be checked. We’re riding north into Ontario, Canada, and we plan to arc around the northern shore of Lake Superior. While it’s not the Dalton Highway in Alaska, it’s still fairly remote, and we won’t find any Vespa dealers on the Trans-Canada. It’s irresponsible to do otherwise.
So we ride to Lansing and find Full Throttle Motorsports, and Brendan, a young, optimistic, competent guy, soon has Linda’s scooter hooked up to his computer. In less than an hour, he has a verdict.
“It really doesn’t look too serious,” he tells me. “It looks like the fuel injector is getting a slightly higher charge from the voltage regulator – not all the time, just once in a while.
“I can’t tell if it’s the injector or the regulator. Could also be two wires are crossed and affecting the voltage sometimes.
“But you should be okay.”
I tell him where we’re going and emphasize the remoteness. “Will we get another 2,000 miles out of it?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, “Easy.”
I thank him profusely and ask how much I owe. “No charge,” he says, “You’re on the road. Glad to help.”
I collect Linda from the showroom floor and we prepare to leave, but I go back to the Service desk and give Brendan a $20 bill. “Dude, you saved our ride,” I say. “At least buy yourself some beers on me. Please.” He laughs and says thank you. And we ride away.
For the next 13 days I will think about his diagnosis and he proves to be right because the Orange Light of Doom never reappears, not once, for the rest of the ride. I will marvel at this every day as the mission progresses.
Late that night it begins pouring rain as we approach Tawas City. We and everything on the bikes get soaked. We pull all our stuff off the cycles and spread it out to dry, an explosion of wet gear across the damp motel room floor.