Fifteen years ago, as Jeff and I wrapped up our magical summer vacation tent camping our way to Yellowstone National Park and back, we finally acknowledged a potential problem. Our little Ford Focus, which we had opted to take instead of our truck because we were trying to save on gas mileage, had been riding a little rough, particularly as we wound around the tight roads that run through Yellowstone. We knew that when we returned to Indiana we were probably going to have to deal with the tire situation, we just hoped that we would make it home. We were nearly to the Iowa/Illinois border when it happened.
Bang! Thump, thump, thump.
Instead of getting home to our house in northwest Indiana, we had to ditch our tent and camping equipment and spend the night in a roadside motel while our tire was getting fixed.
The funny thing is, that’s usually the thing I don’t remember about the trip. Until we had kids, it was our favorite vacation together, one that we want to replicate with our kids. We’ve spent years reminiscing about the week we raced our way out west and back, telling our kids about it frequently enough that our son is convinced that we need to go on a family vacation there sooner than later.
Unfortunately, I needed to be reminded of that end note to our early-marriage adventure as we neared Albuquerque, New Mexico on our way back to Texas.
Our drive from Moab to Albuquerque was already going to be a long day. Jeff’s ideal for a driving day is about 300 miles, maybe a little more. We were going to be pushing it at just over 360 miles. This was after several long days of hiking and late nights, which didn’t help the length of the day because we were a tired crew. All things considered, the travel day was going pretty well, until our son insisted for the second time during the trip that he had to go to the bathroom. With nothing around for miles, Jeff decided to pull over so that our son could use the bathroom in the camper. When I pulled myself into the doorway to check on our son, something smelled off. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I thought it might smell like something was burning. However, it was hot, sunny, and I didn’t see smoke or heat coming off of anything but the pavement. Besides, the camper was hot and it was possible that the smell could have just been a result of the camper being used as a restroom twice while on the road. I decided I would take a closer look at the toilet when we got to Albuquerque.
Except, the bathroom wasn’t the problem. With less than 50 miles to our destination, we heard a sudden thud, Jeff looked in his side mirror, and he pulled off as quickly as possible. We were in the middle of desert in New Mexico with no apparent city anywhere close.
Jeff got out of the truck. “The wheel is gone, and it tore up the side of the slide out.”
“What?” I got out of the truck, warned the kids to stay put, and rushed over to the other side of the truck to see what Jeff was talking about. Sure enough, we weren’t just missing a tire, we were missing an entire wheel. Jeff took off down the road, looking for the missing wheel while I tried to swallow rising panic as I looked for the phone number for the roadside assistance that we had paid extra for when we purchased the camper less than a year ago.
Jeff found the wheel with the popped by intact tire attached nearly half a mile down the road. A highway patrolman stopped to see what kind of help he needed and left Jeff his information. As I prayed that God would keep our family safe while we were stranded on the side of the road, a couple came up and helped Jeff bring the heavy wheel and tire back to our camper.
Then we had to deal with roadside assistance.
Our insurance company said that because it wasn’t a tire blowout and was instead a lost wheel with additional damage, it was considered an accident and we would have to pay for the tow and they couldn’t give us a solid estimate for how much it would cost. The roadside assistance that we paid for was just about as helpful as our insurance company.
Our multiple shared conversations with operators trying to help us on July 4 went something like this:
“Are you in a safe location?”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
One of us goes into a long explanation of what has transpired, then, “We can get a tire repair out of you.”
Taking a deep breath, “A tire repair won’t help. There isn’t a wheel to put the tire on.”
“Where are you located? You will have to pay for the tow but we don’t know exactly how much.” Really? I thought roadside assistance was for this very situation!
And then there was the drama of trying to explain where we were without signs right near us. We found the atlas in the truck and tried to explain where we were, just south of the Zia Indian Reservation, and near Zia Pueblo, but the person on the other end couldn’t find it anywhere on the map.
Two hours after the initial incident, Jeff decided that we could just make it to town and we would deal with it from there. Despite the fact that we were down an entire wheel, we were somehow upright, and he figured that if we drove slowly and avoided the highways we could make it to the KOA in one piece. It was better than waiting for several more hours on the side of the road while two different insurance companies failed to actually assist us.
We pulled into the campground late but still intact. We used a separate jack in place of the stab jack but we were still seriously off level, feeling like we were walking through a fun house every time we stepped into the camper. We eventually remedied the situation by getting a second jack on our second day in Albuquerque to prop up the axle, leveling us out even more.
Unfortunately, compounding our troubles was the fact that this happened on a holiday weekend. The next day, several places were still closed for the day after Independence Day. We got through to one mobile tech business, but they were only able to give us a diagnosis: broken axle. We were going to have to wait until after the weekend was over and businesses were back in the office to get answers as to how soon we would be able to get the parts necessary to get back on the road.
Yesterday was a series of phone calls and emails while Jeff was trying to work from the camper and I was trying to keep the kids entertained in Albuquerque. We’re dealing with warranty issues, automotive shutdown (which happens at the beginning of every July), the additional money for staying parked in one spot, the general desire to get home, and a potential storm moving into Houston.
Honestly, the week following the best vacation ever has been testing our resolve, but I’ve had to put everything into perspective. Our family is safe. We got to our destination with all living members in one piece. A 6.4 earthquake had just hit Southern California (with another stronger earthquake to occur the next day), one friend had just learned that his dad has cancer, a coworker’s daughter was in the hospital, yet another coworker was coming out of surgery for appendicitis, and still our family was safe. Jeff spends a lot of time on camping forums and he saw a handful of situations similar to ours and their outcome hadn’t been nearly as positive. It wasn’t our worst nightmare. Our worst nightmare is a catastrophic accident that destroys our camper, our truck, and endangers our lives. Our situation isn’t great, but it could be so much worse. This is what we keep telling ourselves as we sit here in Albuquerque waiting for news, waiting for all of the pieces to finally come together, waiting to be able to return home.
We’re just praying that we can keep our whole family together and do that sooner than later.