The End of an Engine

This is a story that we have dreaded writing since the beginning of this journey, a story that we had hoped would never need to be written about our expedition, a story about our ice cream truck’s last mile.

Our day began early in Chicago. We had wrapped up an event the day before with some of the most insightful kids that we had talked with on the trip, and now were exploring the city. In classic Ice Cream Expedition fashion, we ended up eating deep dish pizza on the 53rd floor of the Prudential building while watching the sun set. All because of an ice cream truck.

We had a meeting scheduled with Senator Barbara Boxer on Capitol Hill in three days, so we started towards Washington DC that evening. At 10 pm on a Sunday, cars are flying past us down the interstate. As I brought our truck up to the standard cruising speed of 55 miles per hour, I watched white dashes on the road fly past and tried to think about how many more would see before arriving at Capital Hill on Wednesday. 

Around 12:30 AM I still stared at the lines disappearing under our truck. We planned to pull over and sleep in the back around 2:00 AM once we reached Toledo, but for now we push forward under the star filled Indiana sky. After more than 8,000 miles in this seat I had come to appreciate the guttural hum of 1988 diesel engine and could feel every note of the pistons vibrato pushing us closer to the East Coast. It was about five minutes later that I felt it, something in that vibrato, the hum of the engine, it just wasn’t right.

Immediately, I noticed the engine getting louder. Keep in mind there is 1/8 of an inch of ancient insulation between driver and the engine and at all times it is roughly the volume of an iPod on maximum volume – the engine getting louder is very much deafening. The others poked their heads out from the back noticing that our trucks roar has somehow increased in its volume; in that moment we all seemed to realize that something is has gone terribly wrong.

We now know that at about this time an oil line beneath the ice cream truck had blown and the entirety of our the oil in the engine was quickly discharged onto the Indiana highway. The engine roar grew louder as I struggled to find a place where we could turn off. After what felt like an hour, but was closer to 20 seconds, we found a wide shoulder to bring the truck to a halt. As I maneuvered to the edge, the engine gave a dying sputter. When the engine stops, so do the power steering and braking systems. Fortunately, this situation wasn't new, and I was able to guide the truck to the side of the highway.

Adrenaline was coursing through my veins as I sensed that something was seriously wrong. Diving out of the truck I initiated an all too familiar sequence: jump out, fall to my knees, lay on my back, and wriggle beneath the truck. I hoped to see a disconnected wire or similarly easy fix but am greeted by warm oil dripping all over me and splattered everywhere around the truck. I notice a small hose to the oil cooler that has come disconnected and realize that the entirety of our oil supply has been run dry.

Over the next hour we dodged oil dripping into our eyes as we reconnected the oil line and added all the oil left in the truck. However, when we turned the key, nothing happened aside from a sad squeal from the starter motor. The engine wouldn't even turn over. We set up the road flares given to us by a kind Indiana State Patrolman, and waited almost two hours for a tow truck to arrive.

At 3:30 am, the truck brought us to the to a Chevrolet dealership that would become our second home. Peter squeezed through the fence into the Chevrolet dealership to plug in our freezer, and we settled into the back of the truck for two hours of fitful sleep before the dealership awoke. After consultations with the mechanics, we learned that the engine on our ice cream truck had, in essence, welded itself together and will not propel this noble truck one more mile – ever.

The day was very emotional for us. We had spent every moment over the past year planning and dreaming of the adventures that this truck would bring. We spent every moment of the summer with this truck working to bring these dreams to fruition. This truck is more than a vehicle or a tool to start conversations about conservation, it is part of us. Thank you to everyone who dreamed/drove/supported us on this expedition – it has meant the world to us.

As for the end of the Ice Cream Expedition, this was not the end. It was the beginning of the end, but we resolved to do everything in our power to get this truck to Washington D.C. Although we only had two more events in our schedule, it just didn't feel right to leave this expedition on the side of the road in Indiana. Every good story has an epic ending, and this was the beginning of ours.  Stay tuned for the story of Gates Chevrolet, Rob Zombie, and how we managed to get this truck to National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC.

- Caleb