The holiday season is a time for reflection, and for appreciating the gifts that we have. It was in this spirit that we drove back from a wonderful, warm winter day at Rumbling Bald, to our lovely little 70 ft^2 home parked at the Walmart. Our good friend Will, an Asheville native, had just arrived, and a feeling of generalized happiness and bonhomie was felt by all.
In particular, Vikki and I had been thinking back to the beginning of the trip, when a fiasco of strep throat, transmission failure, and weekend business closings left us stranded in a hotel parking lot and made us question the wisdom of leaving the real world in the first place. But the next months – nay, years – proved to us that shit happens, and if you can weather a shitstorm, there’s sunshine and lollipops on the horizon. Indeed, and by way of foreshadowing, we hadn’t had a major issue with Bert since then.
Back at the Walmart, we decided to hitch up and depart before the Minions of Sam Walton decided we’d worn out our welcome. Thankfully Will’s parents were kind enough to invite us to park at their house and use their shower, an offer we find hard to resist. Besides, meeting a friend’s parents for the first time is always an interesting experience; it’s like instant insight into your friend’s psyche.
So there we are, enclosed in Bert’s steel cage and bouncing merrily along I-26 East, with everything we own in tow. My nervous habit when towing the trailer is to check the sideview mirrors, because one time I did so just in time to watch the left tire explode in a shower of sparks, and it’s best to avoid such unpleasant surprises. This time, I was hoping to see all systems normal, but instead noticed a suspicious smoke-like presence, like I needed a smog check or something. Because it was dark, it was hard to tell what was happening.
Vikki’s intuition told her I was concerned, and she asked what was wrong. I mentioned the cloudy smoke, or smoky cloud, that we were emitting. Maybe it’s just dust? My tone of voice reassured neither of us.
Minute by minute, the cloud got worse, and I began hunting for a pull-off. Keep in mind that it’s dark, and all I can see in the mirror is billowing smoke, getting thicker and thicker. You’d think the engine would lose power, or be making a weird noise; you’d think the gauges would be going nuts. Nope…if you asked Bert what was going on, he’d be like, “chillin’ bro, how are you?” Of course, there is no shoulder on the freeway, so we can’t just pull over there and see what’s up. The next exit is a mile away.
The longest mile in the history of distances finally passed and we pulled off the road. At this point, the truck reeks of gasoline, and there is smoke coming through the vents. Yeah, the inside-the-cab vents. We immediately get out. There is fuel pouring onto the ground. I walk to the back of the truck. The front of the trailer is covered in diesel. We have a massive fuel leak. The smoke? Well, you know when you put some oil in a pan and turn the stove on, but then forget about it until you notice a bunch of smoke coming from the pan? It was that, but with an engine block and diesel instead of canola and stainless steel. [I’ve since done some research. The exhaust from the engine, which is what spins the turbo, comes in at about 800 degrees F. The fuel pump is right next to the turbo, and was leaking onto it. The autoignition point of diesel, that is, the temperature at which it will spontaneously combust without a source of ignition, is somewhere between 410 and 490 degrees. That we didn’t burst into flames appears to be fortunate.]
So now what? Obviously we need a mechanic, but it’s Friday night. Even though the Ford dealership is less than a mile away, doing anything involving an assembly called “the ignition” seems unwise. So, like all good Americans with slightly over-protective parents, I call AAA Roadside Assistance and explain the situation. The situation, they tell me, is that the truck is covered, but the trailer will cost mucho moolah to bring with. I could, they said, upgrade to an RV policy, but it wouldn’t be effective for 7 days. I told them to send a tow-truck and we’d figure it out.
The smoke subsides, and we spend the next 45 minutes waiting for Dale to arrive. Dale has a flatbed and a belly. For the city-folk reading this, he also has a country accent. I tell him that we need the trailer taken to a friend’s house, but the truck taken to a repair shop. I tell him the truck’s covered but the trailer isn’t, but I might be able to get another friend to borrow a truck and pull the trailer. He asks if we live in Asheville. I tell him sort of; we live in the trailer.
Dale is impressed that we are traveling, living the dream, seeing the country. He tells me I should not have told AAA about the trailer, because he can tow it for half of what they’d charge. And the Ford dealership? Why are you taking it there, he asks.
You know they’ll break one off in ya…
So we come up with a plan. We tell AAA that we are instead taking the truck to a different shop, run by a friend of Dale’s who promises to look at the truck the next day. We tell AAA that someone else is coming to take the trailer. Then we unhitch and load the truck onto the flatbed, and drop it at the shop. Dale asks if we have a lock on the camper shell, since much of our lives are in there. I say we don’t. Dale helps me push the truck so its backed up against the wall of the shop.
During the ride back, Dale tells us about his 30 years as a repo man, a past life in which he made a lot of money, got shot twice, and that ended when he got addicted to crack cocaine and went to prison for 6 years. He says he’s reformed now, and gets his kicks from helping people. He sounds very sincere. He tells us about his own trailer, a 14 foot ’79 Shasta that he’s restoring so he can take his girlfriend camping.
We pick up our trailer and drag it 11 miles north to Will’s parents’ house, and Dale is rattling off ideas for how we can get out of our predicament. Dale is praising our adventurous spirit. Dale is telling us how he and his cousin trade work favors, on the condition that he stays clean. Dale is double-checking that we have contacted everyone we need to contact. We arrive, and Dale makes a point of shaking Will’s hand before we figure out where the trailer goes. Thankfully, there is plenty of driveway.
So Dale drops the trailer, we chock the wheels, and he unhitches. After giving me his card and making sure I can get in touch with his mechanic friend, it’s time to settle up. He asks us to throw out a number. We say $40. He accepts. We feel like we’ve dodged a bullet.
The next day, I try to call Rodney, but I have somehow lost the number. I call Dale, and he joshes me a bit before giving me Rodney’s number and asking that I also call him back to let him know how it goes. Rodney answers, and tells me that it’s a fuel leak and an easy fix. Not cheap, but at least easy.
On Tuesday, after a short and incredibly brisk session at the Bald, Will dropped us off at Rodney’s shop to pick up the truck. Dale had called Rodney a genius with anything diesel-related, so we figured we were in good hands. Rodney is 27, and mostly works on massive diesels, the type you find under the hoods of farm equipment and semis. When we arrived, he demanded that I take Bert around the block a few times so that I had my peace of mind. Clearly, he understands the bond between a man and his truck; he drives a pickup that makes Bert look like a Radio Flyer wagon. He patiently explained where the fuel was gushing from, how the parts should work, and what he did to fix the problem. Also, it’s Christmas eve, so we talk about our Christmas plans.
We hitched up the trailer, said a big thank you and goodbye to Will’s family, and headed south to Chattanooga. On the way, I thought I heard a weird noise coming from the turbo, like it was leaking exhaust or something. I called Rodney, who patiently walked me through checking the hose clamps and seals, and when I was satisfied that everything looked fine, I thanked Rodney for his time. I was about to wish him a merry Christmas, but before I could he asked me if I would do him a favor and call him when we got to Chattanooga to let him know we were okay. We made it fine, and Bert’s running like a big red champion.
And that is how a near disaster turned into the best tow truck experience and best mechanic experience we’ve ever had.