By Valerie Coffey
A new great post on Outdoor Online from American writer and previous full-time RVer, Katie Arnold, Raising Rippers, goes a long way toward confirming that owning an RV — any RV — is an exercise in patience. All dreamers of this dream (even atheists like me) have a sort of “come to Jesus” moment in which they have to ask if all the trouble is worth it.
“Even if most of us are too attached to creature comforts to ditch everything and live on the go, our inner dirtbags like to dream we will.” — Katie Arnold
We have moments where we are decidedly disillusioned with this decision to travel full-time in our RV, like Katie and her family with their Airstream. For us, the past few weeks have held quite a few of those moments. Late on Saturday night on Dec. 21, 2014, the Beast (our 45-ft Tuscany diesel pusher with just a few thousand miles on it) suffered a complete breakdown while ascending a treacherous, icy part of U.S. Interstate 80 at nearly 8,000 ft of elevation in the Rocky Mountains. Our 2014 Freightliner engine blew a fuel line and spread an estimated 30 gallons of diesel across southwestern Wyoming while we looked for help.
Two of our college-aged sons were aboard when that fuel line started spewing. We had picked them up from their respective colleges — Virginia Tech and Clemson University in South Carolina — to drive across the country to Park City, Utah, for a ski trip on their winter break. We had grand ideas in those days!
We were behind schedule picking up the other stranded college-aged son in Salt Lake City, whose dorm had closed and required students to vacate. Why were we late? Well, our side view mirror assembly had fallen off that morning in Lincoln, NE, and needed fixing. Mitch and I had taken all Saturday morning going from one hardware store to another (a total of eight stores!), until we found the right type of screw to reattach it. After finally getting on the road at 1 pm, we were trying to cover lost ground. We had decided to drive all night to beat an impending Winter Storm Advisory that threatened to close down I-80 between Wyoming and Utah for days.
As Mitch guided the Beast up I-80 into the Rockies that night, the wind began to gust. Snow began to fall, becoming a blizzard. White ruffles of snow blowing across the road were replaced by layer upon layer of snow until only dark tire tracks remained in the right-hand lane. Trucks in their lowest gears lumbered in the right lane, slowing down our pace to a crawl. Bolder, lighter vehicles passed in the totally snow-covered left lanes. Soon we came across jack-knifed tractor trailers, one after the other…off in the median, blocking the road, creating a dangerous situation. We were anxiously caught between trying to go as quickly as possible to get over the pass before the roads became impassable, and keeping a constant slow speed so that we too, didn’t end up spinning out.
Then, in a part of the Continental Divide called the Three Sisters, where the interstate winds up and down through three remote mountain passes at 7500 feet elevation, our worst nightmare happened. A yellow check engine light came on on the dash. I got out our bag of RV manuals and began to comb through them with a flashlight to decipher what it meant.
I will never forget how when the gaseous fumes reached Mitch and I in the front, I turned around to see our two boys had already quietly pulled their sweatshirts up over their mouths in response to the fumes. They were the first to detect the fumes as the engine is in the back and they were riding behind us on the couch. They calmly informed us that something didn’t smell right.
I crawled over the bed in back to investigate where the fumes were coming from, and found the back bathroom full of blue exhaust smoke. Panic gripped me, and I yelled, “Something is wrong! We have to pull over!” But the shoulder of the interstate was covered by an unsafe blanket of snow. The white and yellow lines marking the road were obscured. We couldn’t detect where the shoulder ended and the steppe began. We waited anxiously for a safe place to pull off, but this part of Wyoming had little or nothing but snow-fence structures erected in an arid wasteland.
Then a red engine light came on! Worry and anxiety fell on us like a lead weight, but all we could do was keep driving. Finally, a sign indicated a Rest Area ahead — a safe place to pull off! But when we approached the Rest Area, the off down-hill off-ramp was covered in half a foot of virgin snow and ice. We risked careening out of control — or getting stuck — if we tried to stop, and we risked an unsafe situation and engine damage if we kept going.
We had to keep going. After about 10 miles, a sign for a Travel Plaza with 24-Hr Truck Service appeared! We pulled off and stopped under the fuel pump awning, got out, and walked back to the end of the RV. On our knees, we saw that the Beast was spraying diesel fuel at an alarming rate onto the asphalt. We ran back into the RV and drove over to the brightly lit service office.
At 11:00 pm on a Saturday night, we were relieved at our good luck in finding a technician to look at the RV! There was a guy in the bay! Alas, our relief turned to dismay when he turned us away, saying his service center was unauthorized to work on diesel engines in RVs.
We called Thor, our RV manufacturer, and they directed us to turn off the engine to see whether the fuel was still leaking. It stopped to a drip. When we turned the engine back on, the fuel started screaming out again. They gave us directions to an authorized RV service center in Rawlins, WY, eight miles further down the interstate. When we limped into the service center, no tech was available. No lights were on. The only service tech had been called out by the state police to tow all those tractor trailers we’d seen jack-knifed on the snowy interstate.
We turned off the engine and spent the night with one eye open, bandanas and sheets pulled up around our noses and mouths, parked in the frozen dirt parking lot of the service center while the storm raged. Gusts of 60 mph threatened to rip off the mirror we’d just fixed, not to mention tip us over, and there was no question of opening our slides. The wind was so fierce that the snow didn’t have a chance to land; it swept past the flat dirt ground until it hit something — a wall, a stack of tires, a pump — and grew into a drift.
The four of us tried to sleep in the freezing, toxic, smelly RV with the generator running, which is not designed to keep the RV comfortably warm in a blizzard. Richard, my 6-ft 5-in son, slept on the couch, which couldn’t be fully extended with the slides in. Mitch’s 6-ft 1-in son Garrett, slept in the passenger chair, reclined and turned sideways with his feet in the captain’s chair. The passage to our bedroom was narrowed down to a 10-in space between the refrigerator and the wall. The temperature inside the RV approached 50F as we turned off the lights to try and rest. At least we had plenty of blankets, even though the foot of our bed was cinched up tight to the cabinets. We will never forget that sleepless night, holding our breath with every gust of wind, and not wanting to breathe at all anyway, lest we inhale the fumes of burnt diesel fuel that now emanated from every square inch of our home.
The next day, Sunday, the service center tech diagnosed our RV with a busted fuel-line. But the part couldn’t be ordered until Monday, and wouldn’t be received and installed until late Tuesday. We drove our busted RV a half mile to the nearest KOA RV park, which was predictably deserted and empty at 9000-ft of elevation in December. The owners greeted us warmly, and forgave us for spewing fuel on their camp roadways. At last we could hook up to shore power, which meant heat!
That evening, after much deliberation, we decided to pack up our tow car and get the four of us to Salt Lake City, where our third son — and precious long-awaited days of skiing — awaited us. We left behind skis and poles, cramming our belongings into the compact coupe. We said goodbye to the RV, and drove off at about 5 pm, in the dark. The roads were extremely icy. It took nine stomach-clenching hours to drive the four hours to our destination in Utah.
Garrett and Richard aren’t likely to ever forget the experience, and are possibly scarred enough to never visit our moving tiny home again (although we really, really hope they’ll come back). They definitely took in a few lungs-full of diesel fuel, and may have PTSD for years at the slightest whiff of the stuff.
Although Katie’s article is themed about the decisions you must make with children aboard, the other message that resonates with me is about soldiering on for the sake of adventure. We got to the stranded kid a day late and he was fine. We skied and boarded the best ski areas of Utah on Christmas week, and completed the day’s drive to Las Vegas to enjoy an amazing New Year’s Eve party.
And a few weeks later, after two weeks being “homeless” with the RV in the shop for a long-awaited appointment to address another 30 items that required parts (only a handful of which will actually get done), it is still worth it.
Because at this moment, we are happily recovered to our tiny home, the boys are back in their college homes, and the diesel smell is abating (a nice visit to a truck wash and a soapy spray up her rear end did wonders). Today, we’re working on our laptops and looking forward to time in the gorgeous heated pool and hot tub here at our RV park, LVM Luxury Resort, in Vegas this weekend.
This is an exciting development considering many of our nearest and dearest are suffering below-zero wind chills and shoveling ice-encrusted snow off their sidewalks and cars. We can swim in a heated pool without ice forming on our hair? Sign me up! Heck, we left our front door open this evening! We might even watch our outdoor TV again! We might even pack away our gloves and winter coats.
No. No, on second thought, it’s better to pack away the flip flops and not tempt the weather gods.
Anyway, here’s to following your dreams! Happy January 2015!
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January 13, 2015 at 7:33 pm
When the house on wheels break it can be tempting to forgo full-time RVing. I would say, hang tough. On a few occasions, we camped in service bays will repairs were done. I like to think of this as ‘unusual places we’ve parked’, Best wishes for a great 2015.
January 14, 2015 at 2:30 am
Thank you so much! The more we talk to experienced RVers, the more we see our experience is normal for the first six months. I wouldn’t be too proud to sleep in the rig while it’s in a service bay — it’s still home no matter where it is (and I love your attitude that it’s just an “unusual place you’ve parked.”
John Henry Whitmire
February 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm
It sounds like a great adventure. I often debate between a sailboat and a RV. Maybe both at different times. Have fun , if you are ever in Pawleys Island , S.C. There is a wonderful state park called Huntington. Then stop by The Hammock Shops and say hello. All the best.
February 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm
Thanks for checking us out! Yes, I always say both! Do both at different times and let me know the pros and cons of land v. sea! I would like to take up your advice about SC. Have a nice trip back home. –Valerie