For the past four days, I was unexpectedly stranded in Las Vegas.
Trying to work at the Palms food court
My unwanted “staycation” began early Monday morning. Though I was still wiped out (and truthfully, a little hungover) from the Tecopa Takeover last weekend, I had an appointment with my mechanic in Vegas — so that he could address the suspension issues that were causing my 4Runner to list precariously to one side, and also causing my tires to wear unevenly.
I knew this was going to take awhile, since he was basically re-doing my entire suspension — his hunch was that one of my rear springs had given out, so the plan was to have him take off my old Icon shocks and springs, and replace them with the Bilsteins he had ordered last June.
Shipwrecked in Death Valley last June
(You might remember me kvetching about this earlier this summer — I was stuck in Death Valley for all of June, waiting for the Bilstein kit to come in. One of the springs was on backorder…and it took so long that I ended up just having my Icons rebuilt again, because I didn’t want to wait around all summer for the Bilsteins! But I felt morally obligated to have the Bilsteins installed eventually… since my mechanic said could not return them.)
Let me stop here for a minute to say that I have LESS THAN ZERO INTEREST in suspension, shocks, and car stuff in general — it has been completely against my will that I have been dragged into this mess. I don’t want to think about any of this — I just want to roll around the desert and explore remote, hard-to-reach places, and make videos about them!
Exploring a very remote plane crash site in southern Oregon
But, the reality is, getting up these extremely rough and rocky canyons, and along these bumpy washboard roads, does take a toll on a vehicle. Off-roading is not a poor man’s hobby — unless, that is, you are mechanically inclined and have your own welding/fabrication shop (in which case you are almost certainly not poor).
When I first bought my 4Runner, I had no idea what I was doing. It’s a long, crazy and very interesting story — but back in 2017 a viewer gave me a bunch of money to buy a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Having never been the recipient of a gift like that, I felt compelled/obligated to go out and buy the biggest, beefiest off road rig I could find — to live up to this viewer’s expectations.
At that time, my sister had already had her 4Runner for several years, and she loved it — so I figured I’d get one of those. But when it came to extras, I had no idea — I just knew that it had to look big and beefy!! The dealership must have seen me coming from a mile away, and they ended up selling me my current ride — which happened to be lifted, with fancy Icon shocks.
At the dealership in 2017 with my brand new 4Runner
Again — I have LESS THAN ZERO INTEREST in suspension, shocks, and car stuff in general!! I just figured what they’d sold me looked big and beefy enough for my purposes — and it was! I’ve driven this 4Runner all over creation (and then some) for the past 6 years, and it’s been great.
The only issue I’ve had has been with the shocks — they start to leak every 30,000 miles or so, which means I have to go into town and get them rebuilt, which usually takes awhile and isn’t cheap. Meanwhile, my sister and my friend Scott (and other viewers who drive Toyotas) have been on my case to get rid of the fancy rebuildable Icon shocks, and just get Bilsteins — another brand which, though not rebuildable, are said to be far more dependable (and come standard on many Toyotas).
My old Icon shocks
So that’s why I had my mechanic order the Bilsteins — peer pressure and confusion. My mechanic himself (Andrew at Trusted Imports in Las Vegas, if you’re interested) advised me that, with the amount and intensity of off-roading that I do, even the Bilsteins are going to leak. But the consensus among the very vocal pro-Bilstein camp is that they will leak much less frequently.
ANYWAY, sorry for the long-winded backstory — but that’s where I was on Monday: taking my rig in to get this weird suspension issue corrected. Andrew was going to put on the new Bilstein kit, and hopefully that would fix everything. Fingers crossed!
Whenever I go into Vegas for anything more involved than a simple oil change, I always pack an overnight bag — just in case! You never know with car repairs, and since I live 85 miles away from my mechanic’s garage, it seems sensible to be prepared.
Day 1 of working at Starbucks in Vegas
So I dropped off my car bright and early Monday morning, and headed over to the closest Starbucks to edit a video while the work was being done. Halfway through the day, I took a break from editing to go over and shoot another video about the weirdly abandoned-looking Rio hotel/casino — I wasn’t sure if it was still open or what, so I figured I’d do an investigation, since it was within walking distance.
Right around then, Andrew called me to say that the repairs were going to take longer than expected — he suspected the weird listing/leaning of my car wasn’t actually due to the springs at all, but rather the KDSS (Toyota Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System). I don’t fully understand what this is, but if you’re interested enough to have read this far, then you probably know anyway. Either way, this meant he had to order a spacer kit to level out the KDSS, and this would mean leaving my car in the shop overnight — and that I might have to stay a second night, too.
No problem! I was already at the Rio, ass-deep in my exploration of what the hell was going on over there, so I figured I’d just book a room for the night and make that part of the video. Because of the weird state of the property, rates were super cheap — only about $68 including taxes and fees. Why not?
Snooping around the dilapidated-looking Rio hotel-casino
So I hiked back over to Andrew’s garage, about a mile away, got my overnight bag, and then hiked back down Flamingo Road to check in at the Rio — with a pit stop for a to-go order at Wahoo’s Tacos across the street (and side trip to Walgreen’s next door for some wine.)
The nice thing was, when I checked in at the Rio, the desk agent recognized me from YouTube (he said he was a fan, haha) — and upgraded me to a better room. Come to find out, the reason the Rio looks so weird and abandoned is that they are in the middle of a huge remodeling project — a new company bought the property from Caesars, and they are in the process of juicing it up. So this awesome front desk clerk upgraded me to one of the newly remodeled rooms, which turned out to be really nice!
I should note that I usually stay in real fleabag motels when I’m traveling — I’m on a budget, so as long as there aren’t any bedbugs, I’ll stay just about anywhere. And this room at the Rio was like the Ritz, by my piss-poor standards!
It was like the Ritz!
Anyway, I spent a very comfortable night editing videos and washing my hair with the nice, filtered city water (the water out here in Death Valley comes from a well, and is so full of minerals that my hair never seems to feel clean). And in the morning, I called the front desk to see if my buddy was working, in the hopes that he could extend my stay a second night without my having to change rooms. Alas, he wasn’t — so I had to gather all my things and schlep them down to Starbucks, and wait to check into a new room at 3pm.
(Yes, I could have paid to stay a second night in the upgraded room — but I’m on a budget! I already knew I was facing major car repair bills, so I figured I’d better just book another cheapo room on Orbitz. Which I did, and when 3pm finally rolled around I was able to check back in and finish working.)
Meanwhile, I should note that I was trying to edit videos — and I like to add background music to my videos, which is hard to do unless you can work in total silence. You want the background music to be very subtle, but it’s hard to gauge the audio levels when there’s crappy pop music blaring from speakers all around you! This is why I don’t like working at Starbucks — it’s OK for simple rough cuts, and answering email and writing blog posts and stuff like that where you can just blast white noise through your headphones. But if you’re trying to score background music, Starbucks is very frustrating, because of the music they play. Even though it’s usually low-key schlock like Norah Jones and lite jazz…it’s still very distracting!
Why is Beyoncé shrieking everywhere???
But the casino was even worse! After struggling to edit at Starbucks for a few hours, I headed back to the Rio, thinking I could find a quiet nook somewhere — WRONG!!! The insufferable, hysterical shrieking of Beyoncé blasted throughout the resort, everywhere. I ended up going all the way back into the convention area, where it was blissfully, mercifully quiet — and found a spot where I could sit on the floor and work in peace…until a security guard came along and rousted me out. Apparently I wasn’t allowed to sit on the floor in the convention area, working — not sure why, but I guess trying to hear your own thoughts is prohibited in Vegas. (They prefer to keep you in a state of confusion, so you don’t think about stuff like “house advantage” or “Why does this Bud Light cost $12?”)
By then, it was almost 3pm, so I was able to check into my new room — which, since my front desk buddy wasn’t helping me out, was one of the old un-remodeled rooms. Whatever! It was still nicer than 99% of the fleabags I’ve stayed in — and it was QUIET! No Beyoncé screeching!
So that was Tuesday night. Again, I spend the night editing — even having to go across the the street to Walgreens again, to buy a cable to connect my phone to my laptop (I hadn’t expected to be gone 2 nights, so hadn’t brought everything I’d need to edit a second video). It was definitely the most boring night anyone EVER spent in Vegas!
All I ever do is stare at my laptop, editing!!
But I woke up feeling pretty good on Wednesday — surely, today my car would be ready, and I could head back out to the blessed desert. Again, I packed up all my gear and schlepped it over to Starbucks, to sit and edit and wait for word from Andrew — but then the bad news came: the work was done, but it needed to be aligned…and the alignment shop was way behind schedule.
Now, I usually just go to Pep Boys for my alignment…but according to Andrew (and to my friend Scott), they aren’t very good. There’s a place in Vegas called Arrow that’s supposedly much better — but they’re always booked up for weeks in advance! Because of this, I always just go to Pep Boys…which might be the cause of some of my woes, if the menfolk are to be believed. Either way, there was no way Andrew was sending my car anywhere other than Arrow!
And…because they’re always so busy, I had to spend a third night in Vegas. Arrrgh!!!!
By this point I was running out of everything — supplies, patience, clean underwear! Remember, I had brought an overnight bag — but only with enough stuff to get me by one night! Thankfully I’m not too snooty, and was able to wash my chonies in the sink. And even more thankfully — the room rates at the Rio were still sub-$70. Keep in mind, the big Formula One race was starting in a couple days, and room rates were set to skyrocket — if I didn’t get out of here by Thursday, I’d be in a real bind!
My second (un-renovated) room at the Rio
Even more awkwardly, by this time I’d already posted my video about staying at the weird-ass semi-abandoned-looking Rio…so when I went to check in, I took my hat and sunglasses off, just in case anyone recognized me this time! But no one did, and I spent a third uneventful (but lonely and frustrated) night in Vegas. WAY longer than I had planned on being there!
When I woke up on Thursday morning, I half expected Andrew to call me with more bad news — I had sort of prepared myself mentally for the prospect of having to spend a fourth night. If room rates were too high, I had already decided to beg my friend Scott to take pity on me, and let me sleep on his couch. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but at least I had a plan. So, I schlepped all my gear back to Starbucks again, and sat down to wait.
Working at a Starbucks in Fresno in 2021
Here I must stop and say a few words of gratitude to the viewers who have sent me Starbucks gift cards in the past — though I don’t drink caffeine myself, and try to stay away from the sugary stuff, I do end up working at Starbucks a lot while traveling, and I have to at least buy a decaf or something to justify my stay. Having a gift card was a huge blessing to me in all of this — I already knew I’d be paying out the you-know-what for the car repairs, and now I had three nights in a hotel, on top of it! So at least I got free coffee, and I appreciated that immensely.
Anyway, thankfully I didn’t end up having to stay a fourth night — Andrew called me before noon, and I was able to go over and pick up my newly repaired, newly leveled out rig — with the brand new Bilsteins shining in the wheel wells. HOORAY! After all these years of people yelling at me to “Just get Bilsteins!!!”, I finally have them.
YES, the total bill ended up coming out to $3018.18….but I felt that was fair, considering the amount of diagnosing and problem-solving Andrew had to do. In the end, he didn’t end up having to level out the KDSS — just putting on the new Bilstein springs seemed to solve the problem. My front lower control arms also needed replacing, and there were some bent and broken bolts in the shock mounts that needed fixing/replacing. When I went to go get my overnight bag on Monday evening, I saw my rig up on the lift, and got to walk underneath it and see for myself how thrashed it is — you can definitely tell I’ve done a LOT of off-roading the past 6 years! So, I’m not really surprised it cost $3k to get everything taken care of.
Looking at my undercarriage
And the reality is….this is a car I’ve been driving for over 6 years now, with over 180k miles on it — and a lot of very rough miles! So, these kinds of repairs and expenses are going to become more and more frequent, I’m afraid.
I don’t want to stop exploring remote, hard-to-access places — that’s like my main raison d’être! But as a non-mechanically-inclined person, with no mechanic boyfriend riding shotgun (in fact, usually with NO ONE riding shotgun at all)…I sort of feel like I’m riding on borrowed time. Eventually, I’m going to suffer some kind of catastrophic breakdown in the middle of nowhere…and it’s not going to be pretty!
OF course, I do travel with a Garmin InReach satellite device — so if I ever find myself in a jam, I plan to text my sister with my GPS coordinates, and then have her post something on my Facebook page asking for help (I made her an admin on my personal page). But it would be a huge pain the ass, and a huge inconvenience for all involved — I really don’t want to have to ask for help like that!
So….when all is said and done, I think it just may be time to start thinking about buying a new 4Runner.
I know, I can hear you now — “But Toyotas run forever! You should be able to get at least 300,000 miles on that engine!” But that’s the engine.
The rest of the car is a different story!
I just want to travel around forever, without worrying
Truthfully, I’ve already noticed a reluctance on my part to go deep into the backcountry like I used to, these past couple of summers — because I’m worried about the reliability of my rig, and my total incompetence regarding field repairs. And I hate being held back by these worries! As odious as I find the prospect of buying a new car….I think that may be the most practical route, for someone like me, in the position I now find myself.
Of course, I like the idea of learning to fix my rig myself — but that’s unrealistic. It already takes all my mental capacity to research these locations, read up on the history, figure out the route, travel to the sites and shoot and edit the videos, on top of everything else I have to do — I simply don’t have the time or bandwidth to learn to be a mechanic, on top of it all. I need a car I won’t have to worry about…you know?
Me and my new Bilstein shocks
Anyway…I’ve just bought myself some time with these new Bilsteins. But eventually, I have to figure out the smartest plan of action — and these were the thoughts I’ve been having the past few days, as I was trapped in Vegas.
What do you think?