I’ve spent a lot of the last year driving back and forth across and up and down the United States in that awkward quarter-life crisis period toeing the, uh, thin line between “work” and “pleasure” in a precarious economy. You’d think that by the time I moved from rural California to Iowa by myself (with my bike strapped to the top of my car, in the span of three days), I would have figured out what to do in the case of car trouble — but I was too preoccupied with surviving lightning storms (I’m Californian; I don’t even know if you can take a shower during an electrical storm) and an accidental high from gasoline that spilled on the ground and into my wooden clogs when an Exxon pump failed to shut off automatically in Arizona (I should have known better than to patronize Exxon) to prepare for potential mechanical disasters. On my last road trip, however — this time with two female friends and a kid — en route to the woods outside of Seattle, my car began eating transmission fluid, and I began to suspect that my biannual oil change alone was maybe less than adequate preparation given how often I travel by car.
It’s kind of weird that car maintenance is still so heavily gendered — and let’s face it, relying on strange men for help with one’s car is annoying at best and downright terrifying at worst — so I consulted both my car’s manual and the internet to figure out not only how to deal with my transmission, but also what else I should watch out for while driving.
If your transmission eats shit, I come to understand, you’re kind of fucked. My car had already eaten the full quart of transmission fluid added during my oil change the weekend prior, and the mechanic had warned me that one of the bolts on my transmission pan was missing (no big). I felt by the shuddering of the Subaru changing gears on the 101 North, and when I arrived in Santa Cruz to pick up my friends, I popped the hood and commenced full freakout while they loaded up the car with a week’s worth of snacks, books, tents, sleeping gear, clothes, cooking ware, etc. for our communist-utopia camping experiment on a river in the woods outside of Seattle.
While I had made a morning detour to Auto Zone for transmission fluid, I realized I had NO IDEA where to pour the transmission fluid in. It turned out that the Subaru’s manual fully neglects to mention where the transmission fluid goes in. So the (male, argh! embarrassing) partner of the partnered one of us did some quick Googling. He busted out a long funnel and reasoned out why the same tube that houses the dipstick for the transmission fluid had to be the one to pour the fluid into. He held the funnel while I poured half a quart of Dexron III automatic transmission fluid in, and we were off.
My car’s transmission might have been sketchy, but at least we had no shortage of benevolent transmissions from my friend’s daughter — the most imaginative child I have ever met — to distract us. We spent the first six hours of the drive checking the transmission fluid every time we stopped to pee, playing “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” (our self-devised addition to the game –“What would you do with your placenta?”), and joking that, as three women traveling with a kid, we were the ideal family form. This lasted us through our stops at the Black Bear Diner in Willows, California and Rock-n-Rogers Diner (because we are nerds who love milkshakes, french fries, and a bacon cheeseburger salad) in Salem, Oregon and all the way to our destination. On this trip I got really into the self-sufficiency I felt checking my fluid levels — in addition to peeing under pine trees, yelling “I LOVE OREGON!” and pulling over for emergency pastries at the Happy Donut near Myrtle Creek — without actually being, like, a dad.
Getting really into checking fluid levels
Transmission fluid should generally be checked once a month. Transmission fluid expands with temperature increases, so there are two different sets of markers on the dipstick to gauge fluid levels. For peak accuracy, my car’s manual and mechanic both recommend checking transmission fluid levels when the car is warm (between 154 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit is normal operating temperature for a 2003 Subaru Forester). If your car is cold, drive several miles to raise the car’s engine temperatures to normal operating temperature. Keep the car’s engine running with the car in Park on a level surface. Pop the hood. Sometimes there is kind of a confusing latch that you have to hit with your finger to release the hood.
Pull out the transmission fluid dipstick — on my car, the handle, unlike the one for the oil, is a hollow ring. Like the oil dipstick’s handle, it too is yellow. Wipe the dipstick on a clean rag or paper towel, then insert it back into the tube, pull it out, and wipe it again. Does the liquid reach the top of the top set of markers (two dots or notches on the dipstick)? Is it pinkish and clearish? If so, you’re in good shape. If the liquid is opaque or dirty-looking, you have something to worry about. (Do you have AAA?)
If liquid levels are below the markers on the dipstick (or so low that they’re not even showing up on the dipstick, as was the case when I stopped in Santa Cruz to pick up my friends), pour some transmission fluid in. Be careful not to overfill — a half-quart is a good amount to start with. If you end up having to check transmission fluid with your car cold, the transmission fluid should fall between the lower set of markers.
Note: These directions are for cars with an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions, from what I understand, are much more complicated. Should you have trouble with a manual transmission, get thee to a service technician!
My car’s manual recommends checking the engine oil at every fuel stop. (Who knew?!) Unlike checking transmission fluid, oil should be checked when the engine is cold; if the car’s been on, wait at least ten minutes for it to cool. Hopefully the car’s owner manual makes it clear where the oil dipstick is located. The handle is often yellow so it stands out. Again, use a clean rag or towel. Wipe the dipstick on it, then reinsert it and draw it out again, wiping it on the towel. Hopefully the oil is between the “high” and “low” marker spots on the dipstick. If it’s at the bottom (toward “low” or “add”), THROW SOME MO’. Add necessary oil to the oil container (usually has a picture of a little oil canister or is labeled “Oil”), separate from but close to the tube the dipstick sits in. Consult with your car’s manual to find out the required grade and viscosity. My 2003 Subaru Forester, for example, takes the API classification SL or SJ Energy Conserving type SAE 5W-30.
Oil turns dark pretty quickly, but should be clear when you rub it between your fingers. If it leaves dark stains, it’s time for an oil change!
You can gauge your coolant and windshield wiper fluid levels just by looking at the tanks. Other fluids, like differential gear oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and clutch fluid (for manual transmissions) are also very important but can be complicated to check yourself. This is another good reason to take your car in for service regularly.
Other things to carry if you’re going on a longish trip include engine oil, transmission fluid, and coolant, especially if your car has been at all wonky lately — not every gas station sells these things or will be open when you need them. Make sure you know what kind of oil and transmission fluid your car needs and get those. My mechanic told me that for coolant, you can use water in a pinch, so carrying an extra gallon is a good idea. But make sure you wait until the engine has cooled (I’d suggest at least half an hour, from an experience that I had driving up a hill in Utah in the summer once) to avoid the engine blasting you with hot steam when you go to pour it in. Transmission fluid is specific to the make and model of the car, so check the manual to see which type to carry with you.
I’m a big advocate of carrying extra fluids of all types — oil, transmission fluid, and water — along with my MagLite, a towel, and a swimsuit at all times in my car now. Oh, and bring a lot of drinking water for yourself, because singing along to Beyoncé and getting in spats when you’re hangry really takes it out of you.
A lot of car stuff, it turns out, is just common sense. Like, if the radiator is covered in leaves that have slipped under the hood of your car, dust them off. But some stuff — like the air filter, exhaust system, constant-velocity-joint boots (if applicable), and brakes — are important to pay attention to and may require an experienced set of eyes. Other things that may require practice to do yourself include putting on chains, checking air tire pressure, and checking your car’s battery.
Jump-starting a car, though, it turns out, is pretty straightforward: Bust out the jumper cables (hopefully you have them, or have a friend who does). Make sure the battery of the car jumping yours has at least as much voltage as yours. With both cars in Park or Neutral, the ignition off (!!!), and parking brakes on (for good measure), hook up one red clip to the positive terminal of your battery. Attach the other red clip to the positive terminal of the other car. Hook up one black clip to the negative terminal on the other car’s battery and attach the last black clip to the engine lifting bracket, an unpainted metal surface on your car that is not the battery. Start the helping car’s engine and run it at a medium speed (keeping still). Then start the engine of the car being jumped. Carefully disconnect the jumper cables in exact reverse order after you’ve successfully gotten the engine running.
If worst comes to worst, call AAA! When my friend’s car broke down in the desert in Utah, the tow-truck driver was a super nice local who even recommended an auto shop that ordered her a new radiator for her Hyundai (some Hyundais, it turns out, have plastic radiators that can melt in extreme heat, so that’s a thing to be wary of) over Memorial Day weekend. Never mind that we were trying to get out of Moab and be camping way out in the desert before the holiday weekend; instead we ended up getting a substantial amount of pool time and an intimate familiarity with red rock.
While driving across the country by myself is one of the most empowering things I have ever done. and attempting to sneak four people into a budget motel with unicorn light switches in Yreka, California for the price of two (the giveaway was that we moved the car to a parking spot closer to our room after checking in, so don’t do that) is one of my most treasured memories, being able to check my fluid levels and perform other basic car maintenance and look very competent while doing it really takes the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling to a whole new level. I’m now super stoked to learn more about my car’s guts, like its belts and fans. And make a trip to the Eastern Sierras, too.
Maya Weeks is a poet, artist, and amateur oceanographer from California. She is currently at work on a book about trash in the ocean, Left Out In Weather (leftoutinweather.tumblr.com).