I recently drove my 29’ Class C RV over two mountain passes in one day. I climbed from sea level to over 7000 feet, back down to about 4000 feet, back up to 7000, and finally down to 4000’ again. This is a lot of work for a six-and-a-half-ton RV built on a van chassis. And as my brakes smoked and spewed the toxic odor of burning brake pads, I realized I had a lot to learn about driving a big Class C Motor Home on mountain roads. The more I drove, the softer my brake pedal became; I had to push it almost all the way to the floor to slow down. I eventually pulled over to let the brakes cool and that helped, but it didn’t take long for the pedal to get spongy again and by the time I reached the bottom of the grade I was barely stopping at all. (You can read the whole harrowing story here). I was able to get to the bottom safely by pulling over to let my brakes cool and using low gear, but it was nerve-wracking, to say the least!
Once I was on flat land again I did research to learn what I’d done wrong to make my RV brakes overheat and fade on the mountain passes. Here is what I learned.
Know Your Route and Prepare Ahead of Time!
I’d driven my Class C RV on plenty of mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada’s, so when I glanced at the Google map and saw the squiggly lines of switch-backed mountain roads, I thought “piece of cake”. What I learned that day is that not all mountain passes are alike. Everything from the length of the grade, steepness of the grade, road conditions and weather can impact travel on mountain roads.
The Lesson: Plan your route ahead. Ask others or do research on the route before you go. My mistake was doing both passes in one day. The grades on both were very steep and very long, causing me to use my brakes a lot! I should have done one pass and rested my brakes at least a couple of hours before tackling the next one.
Safety First – Know the Condition of your RV
The one thing I had going for me that day is that I’d recently replaced my front brake pads, calipers and rotors. My rear brakes had been inspected and the drums replaced. I knew my brakes were in good shape. So, as I was mentally trouble-shooting what was causing my brakes to slide and smoke, I could deduce they were overheating. However, “to safely control a vehicle, every braking mechanism must do its share of the work. Brakes with excessively worn pads or rotors will not provide the same degree of braking power. If you are not sure about the condition of your braking system, have it inspected by qualified service center.” (Source: FMCA, “Mountain Driving: Let Your Engine Do the Work”) The Lesson: Keep your vehicle maintenance up to avoid dangerous or even deadly RV brake or engine malfunctions on dangerous roads. If my brakes had been old and worn out, a caliper had gotten stuck or I had a brake fluid leak my situation could have had a very different ending.
Use Your Motor Home Engine to Slow You Down!
You should also “shift into low gear before starting the downgrade”, advises the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA). FMCA also states, “with motorhomes, a rule for choosing gears has been to use the same gear going down a hill that you would to climb the hill. However, new motorhomes have low-friction parts and streamlined shapes for fuel economy. They may also have more powerful engines. This means they can go up hills in higher gears and have less friction and air drag to hold them back going down hills. For this reason, drivers of newer motorhomes may have to use lower gears going down a hill than would be required to go up the hill.
Usually you want the lowest gear that will keep the motorhome at or near the speed you want in negotiating the downhill. For example, if you’re going down a six-percent grade and wanted to go 35 mph, you would start downshifting and using the brakes to get to an engine rpm that will enable you to maintain a speed at or near 35 mph.”
The Lesson: I drove a stick shift for years and if my RV was a manual shift, downshifting would have been a no-brainer. But with an automatic transmission, I’m always unsure when I should shift into low gear. A rule of thumb, according to RVers Online who attended an RV Driving School is that if your “RV accelerates more than 5mph going downhill then you need to shift to a lower gear”. How helpful! I will be remembering that!!
Proper RV Braking on Steep Downgrades
RV and Motorhome brakes overheat from excessive use – or “riding”. Riding your bakes on long steep downgrades will cause your brakes to fade- or with consistent use, to stop working completely.
The Lesson: The goal for safe RV and Motor Home driving on mountain roads is to keep the brakes cool enough to keep working. You can do this by letting up on them for 3 seconds for every 1 second of application. (Source RVersOnline.org)
What to Do if Your Brakes Overheat
If you’re driving your RV or Motor Home down a hill and notice smoking, burning brake odor and/or brake fade, pull over as soon as you are able to do so safely and let the brakes cool. Turn off the engine and test the brake pedal if, after sitting a while, the sponginess disappears and the brake pedal becomes firm again, most likely your issue is brake overheating. It’s best to let your brakes cool completely before getting back on the road; that could take an hour or more depending on weather conditions.
Overheating your RV brakes can cause permanent damage to your pads, rotors and calipers. If you do overheat them, it’s best to get them checked out by a brake service center as soon as possible.
Do you have any RV driving safety tips you’d like to share? Or how about a scary story to share? Leave your comments below!
AAA has lost my business forever. I don’t know what kind of crap they pulled with me, but when I was stranded on the Interstate on a Sunday afternoon with transmission fluid spewing out of my RV, they abandoned me. That is unforgiveable.
On February 27, the day I bought Tilly (Click here to learn about her name), I signed up for AAA’s premier roadside assistance- I KNEW, with an older RV, I would need it! I signed up online and within a couple of weeks my shiny new card arrived in the mail. In April, I got stuck in a tight spot and called them. The AAA tow truck came and pulled me out. I paid nothing – everything was covered. No problem.
Fast forward to last month. I’m sitting on the shoulder of I-5, 115 miles outside of San Francisco, with white smoke and transmission fluid spewing from poor Tilly. It was the day after the awning blew off in a terrible storm in Weed and, as you can expect, I’m at my wits’ end. “Here we go again,” I tell myself… the RV-Lemon saga continues… “Don’t panic, that’s what AAA Roadside Assistance is for! It will be alright. Everything will be fine.”
WRONG! Because, remember, the universe freaking hates me!
The operator tells me, “Ms. Higgins, your account says it’s valid until February 27, 2017, but it shows that it’s inactive. I’m not sure why that is. Would you mind holding while I contact member services?”
Great, now what? “Yes, of course. Thank you,” I reply curtly, trying not to panic.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…
After what seemed like a million tick-tocks, the operator comes back. “Ms. Higgins. It seems your account is inactive because of an issue with our payment.”
WAIT. What??? “An issue with my payment? What kind of issue with my payment?” Ok, losing my cool here…
“I don’t know ma’am; I’d be happy to transfer you to member services if you like.”
You have got to be kidding me. I was gritting my teeth and clutching the phone to my ear, trying like hell to not dump all the frustration of the past couple of days onto her, “O. Kay.” Deep breath, slowly, deliberately, in a terse and very measured voice, “If. There. Was. A. Problem. With. My. Payment… then how… was I able… to get service… TWO MONTHS later-in April???”
Truth be told, I’d gone through this with them in Joseph, Oregon when my starter died, but I got off the phone before it was resolved, because I walked to the mechanic quicker than they could figure out the problem. I was kicking myself; I never called them back. I just never got around to it. I figured it had to be a glitch in their system. How could I not be covered? I had a card. I had service two months after I signed up. They have my email address and phone number; they never communicated that there might be a “problem with my payment”! How can that happen?!?
“I’m not sure ma’am. That shouldn’t have happened. I’d be happy to transfer you to member services and they can explain.” The operator seemed to forget that I was on the side of a busy Interstate on a Sunday afternoon, with big rigs jolting me as they zoomed past, and red fluid flowing like a river of blood from underneath my rig… She seemed to forget, I was not in the mood for corporate shenanigans.
Trying extremely hard not to scream expletives at her (we both know I can swear like a sailor) and reminding myself, “you get more bees with honey than vinegar. Be nice and maybe she’ll feel sorry for you and send a big blue and yellow truck to come to your rescue.” Slowly, and using every ounce of self-control I spat, “IF. For whatever reason. there WAS a problem with my payment – though I don’t know how, since I used the service two months later AND you never notified me of a problem – and I pay today, can you tow me?”
“No ma’am there’s a 48-hour waiting period.”
Of course, there is!
“I’m very sorry ma’am.” She didn’t sound nearly sorry enough and I was barely able to get off the phone without completely going off on her.
This is no time to feel sorry for yourself. Get yourself together.
Finding a Tow for a Class C RV Isn’t Easy!
I googled tow trucks. The first two places I called were too busy to come and get me. Really. Too busy to even TRY to help me…
The third would have cost me $600 (I was trying to get towed 60 miles to where my car was stored). But he told me to call Sander’s Heavy Towing, out of Williams – the town closest to me. Sander’s wasn’t too busy to send a truck and it would only cost $175.
Within an hour I was sitting in the passenger seat of the big white tow truck with Capone on my lap, pulling into the yard of Harper’s Auto Repair in Williams CA. The owner, Dave just happened to be there and he and the Tow Truck Driver (forgot his name, let’s call him TTD) greeted each other like old friends. After explaining that my transmission busted, TTD and Dave laughed and joked about fun stuff while I impatiently brooded over my shitty luck. Dave said I could stay in the yard, behind their locked gate (which he’d leave unlocked so I wouldn’t be trapped inside).
TTD backed me into a spot in the cluttered yard, and before leaving, gave me his cell number in case I needed a ride to town. The tiny center of Williams was about two miles away- and it’s not much of town. With a population of 5,123, its claim-to -fame is being an Interstate rest-stop with half a dozen authentic Mexican restaurants (there’s a heavy farm-worker population), a tourist trap hotel and restaurant called Ganzella’s, a couple local hotels with names like Stage Stop Inn, and your usual Interstate fare: fast food, convenience store gas stations, a Motel 6, a Ramada and a Traveler’s Inn.
Breaking Down and Living at a Garage in an RV
TDD pulled away, Dave left and dummy-locked the gate and there I was, behind a cyclone fence in a gravel lot that smelled like old grease, in Bumfuck California; 60 miles from my car and my California “home” base. For neighbors, I had train storage containers, old cars that didn’t run anymore – and several that probably did – old campers and industrial-looking ‘stuff’ strewn about.
Ok, this is part of the adventure! I’ll make the most of it. Look at me getting through my first breakdown and sleeping at an auto repair shop! I tried to console myself: “I knew this day would come, and here I am… dealing with it!” Look at me making lemons outta lemonade! Kum-fucking-baya!
I ate dinner and then Capone and I walked around the acre-sized yard, noticing a full bright moon and an eerily cloudy, moonlit night. I got out my camera: at least I can practice my nighttime photography.
Monday morning: I was anxiously peeking out my RV window at 7:45, waiting for them to open shop at 8am. I gave them exactly 7 minutes to get settled before walking into the shop and introducing myself to the first guy I saw, who happened to be the service manager, Brent. He was expecting me; Dave had already called him. Brent said he didn’t want to wake me, so was going to give me a few more minutes before knocking on the door. I appreciated that, but I’d been up for two hours. Let’s get going…Fix the rig so I can get back on the road! My anxiety was working in overdrive, unlike my transmission.
While Brent got all my info, a mechanic grabbed my keys and hopped in to drive Tilly onto their one-and-only heavy-duty rack. She wouldn’t budge. They filled the empty transmission with fluid. Still, she refused to budge. The transmission was locked up. I killed it. (Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you the part where I tried to save $175 and drive the 5 miles to Williams. I made it about a mile before the big old rig just wouldn’t go anymore… so back to the side of the Interstate we went, calling Sander’s Tow back, admitting defeat: “Yeah, I didn’t make it. I’ll need you to come and get me after all.”)
They pushed and pulled Tilly onto the rack and started poking away. The transmission pump was “shattered” Brent said. That’s what caused the whole mess and the transmission to lock up; something about air and fluid and seizing parts. His lengthy explanation went in one ear and out the other: just tell me how much it will cost, how long it will take and when I can get on with my life!
When I asked Brent if I killed it by trying to drive to Williams, I never got a conclusive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Or at least I didn’t hear a conclusive ‘yes’. So, I’m going with, ‘no’. “You need a new transmission – if we can even find one for that truck,” Brent confirmed my biggest fear, but what my gut already knew. I’d known the transmission would need to be replaced – eventually. It didn’t have a low gear, and it slipped a couple times… I just hoped “eventually” would be a year or two down the road.
Oh, lord, here we go again. “What do you mean IF we can find one???”
“Well, I don’t know that we can get one for a truck that old. Or how close we can find one,” Brent replied.
A million terrifying thoughts went through my mind in a split second. What if they can’t find a transmission? What if it can’t be fixed? What if Tilly is broken for good? Where will I live? Will I be able to sell her? Could I live in my car? Oh NO. What will I do? Dear Universe: whatever I did in a past life to make you insist on shitting on me in this one. I’M SORRY!!! OK???. Really, I mean it! UNCLE!!!!
Brent said he would get to work right away to find a transmission, “Don’t worry. I’ll do my best.” Somehow hearing “don’t worry” from of a man I’d just met an hour before, calmed me a little. I plopped down in one of the stiff cold lawn chairs in their very garage-like waiting room with concrete floors, an Arrowhead water dispenser with a stack of red keg-beer cups next to it and a table cluttered with coloring books and crayons, The Bible, a copy of the Constitution and Guns & Ammo magazines – for the adults I presumed. They graciously gave me their Wi-Fi password and I got to work while I waited for news from Brent.
Within a few hours Brent came back with the news. He found solutions! A brand-new transmission shipped in from the east coast, $4700; a rebuilt transmission done out of Sacramento (50 miles away), $3700 – with a nationwide Napa service warranty. A thousand dollars is a thousand dollars. I went with the rebuild. “Three days,” Brent told me, “to pull it, send it to “the guy” and re-install it. We should have you back on the road by Thursday” he said.
Well there goes the money I was going to save as my emergency fund from the sale of my car. But at least I had the money and theoretically, I could be back on the road in a few days! (I know how these things go, I wasn’t holding my breath!) I’ll believe it when I feel the rumble of the road under my butt and smell my black tank wafting in the breeze!
I wasn’t about to sit around the garage for 3 days, so I set out to get my car. There is no UBER in BF California, so I texted TTD and asked if he would give me a ride. “Sure, I have the day off and nothing to do. How about if you just fill up my tank and I’d be happy to drive you?”
“Awesome!” And within an hour he came to pick me up. The car was a Mercedes that could only take premium and apparently, his monster-sized tank was bone dry; my good-Samaritan ride cost me $57. Beggars can’t be choosers: I was grateful for the ride.
A couple hours later I returned to the shop in my car. Tilly was still on the rack, still in the process of pulling the transmission. Apparently, my RV is like the heaviest truck or RV ever – they had a hell of a time pushing/pulling it onto the rack – so there was no way they were taking it off. No yard camping for me tonight – I get to sleep IN the garage! Woo-hoo another adventure. Just Capone and me and the smell of old oil, exhaust and grease! Look at me living the dream!
My circumstances weren’t ideal, but I went to sleep that night, in the eerie creaky garage, full with gratitude. The kindness that two strangers had shown me that day; Dave letting me – a stranger – stay in his garage and TTD taking 2 hours out of his day to drive me to my car, gave me solace and even a little happiness. Kind people make me happy!
Getting a New (Rebuilt) Transmission for My RV
Tuesday morning: I was mobile and had no desire to sit around the garage for 3 days. I drove 115 miles to San Francisco to visit one of my oldest and dearest friends. I lived in San Francisco when I first moved to California 28 years ago and fall in love with The City all over again, every time I cross the Bay Bridge. Spending 3 days “living” there again; walking the hilly city streets, breathing in the foggy sea air, basking in views of the Bay, drinking rich, smooth espresso, eating mouth-watering vegan Indian, Mexican and Mediterranean food, all within a few blocks of her flat, and catching up with my friend almost made all my RV troubles fade away.
Friday afternoon: Of course, the transmission didn’t get rebuilt on time. So, they pushed the “on the road” date to Friday. I reluctantly left my friend and the city I love, Friday at 12:30 for my long drive back to the garage – and my Rig!!! Four and a half hours later (thanks to Bay Area Friday traffic), just as I exited I-5, a few miles from the shop, my phone rang. It was Brett. The new transmission wasn’t working. Of course, it’s not. I wasn’t even surprised. Welcome to my life.
It was installed, but on the test drive, it wouldn’t automatically shift into gear and it started in 3rd (or something like that). And of course, they waited until 10 minutes before I was due back to tell me this. If I’d known earlier, I would have stayed in The City, but I wasn’t about to turn around and drive back.
It was Friday. Another 3 nights in the yard (they moved me outside!). At least I had power, WI-FI and my car.
STRANDED in a Broken Down RV: Week #2.
Monday and Tuesday: testing and troubleshooting. Their testers were kicking back codes that didn’t make sense. They called the transmission guy and another Ford transmission expert to help. “It needs a new PCM (the transmission’s computer),” Dave tells me. They order a new PCM
Wednesday: I couldn’t take it anymore. I was about to explode. I felt anxious. Angry. Trapped. I wanted my home back. I wanted to get back on the road! I wanted open space and peace and quiet.
I drove 40 miles to escape in a movie (The Accountant – a disappointment: too violent). It was too hot to leave Capone in the car, so I leashed him up and walked up to the popcorn counter to buy my ticket, like he belonged there! The mood I was in, I mentally dared anyone to challenge that I needed him to keep me sane. And they must have sensed it, because even as he pulled on the leash to grab every piece of popcorn that fell to the floor from my overflowing bucket, the staff just stood by and said nothing.
I returned to the shop at 4:00 hoping for good news. I didn’t get it. The PCM solved one problem, but it still wouldn’t shift right. Dave said the guy who did the rebuild needed to tow my rig to his place in Rancho Cordova, 70 miles away! I was about to cry. Really. How much can a person handle? I try to be optimistic but then this shit happens, time and time again, it can be hard to not feel like the universe hates me. HOW can this keep happening?
“B…b..but. Where will I live?” Dave offered up his 5th Wheel that was parked in back, until my RV was running again. “Rancho Cordova isn’t safe,” he said, “and the guy won’t let you stay in his garage.”
Ohmyfucknggod! Oh, ok, Universe, so I’m just supposed to forgive and forget you shitting all over me because this man, who doesn’t know me from Adam is being so helpful and kind?? Well it won’t work; It’s not enough!
“But before we do that, I’m going through it with a fine-tooth comb. I want to make sure we didn’t miss something, before I send it back to him. Because if he finds the problem, you’ll have to start all over and he’ll treat you like a new customer and it could cost you a lot more.” He and his mechanic were there until 9 that night working on it, while I worked inside. That’s the night the monster-sized spider came to visit me.
I heard happy “YES’s” coming from under my hood. I ran out to see what they were celebrating. They found the problem!!! Oh, praise the universe! I will be free, free at last… Not quite, I was cautiously optimistic…
They said they needed one more part and one more day and I should be ready to go. “We’ll see.”, I thought.
Thursday. Waiting for a part…. I was out of water. My black tank was getting full. I needed a shower. I went to a hotel.
Friday. SUCCESS!!! The tranny was shifting on her own!!! By 1:00 they were done! Dave took me for a test drive to teach me what to listen for in case the transmission acts up again. I noticed the difference immediately – so THIS is how my transmission is supposed to sound? A gentle purrrr, not a rough high-pitched ‘whir’. The RV has always run rough and loud, so I never noticed it was revving high on the freeway (I don’t have an RPM gage).
The problem? What caused this whole mess? A blown fuse. Yep – a freaking FUSE.
Since early in the summer the fuse for my radio, speedometer and odometer kept blowing. I’d keep changing it out. I even had the bright idea to replace the 15-amp fuse with a 20-amp – my thinking was, more amperage would mean less blowing! (I now know how dangerous that is.)
So, I changed the fuse four or five times, until it wouldn’t take one anymore; it would spark and blow out before I even got it all the way in. So, without a working speedometer, there was no signal to the CPM telling it was time to shift gears. Apparently, since the fuse blew, I’d been driving without a 4th or 5th gear. All my freeway driving: 3rd gear. THAT’S what broke my transmission. THAT’s why my engine always felt super-hot under my legs even on cool days. THAT’s why it seemed loud and sluggish, even after putting in a new catalytic converter.
It was a goddamn fuse.
But at last my transmission was repaired (and while it was there I had an oil change, tune up, new U-Joints and new engine mounts: no more high revving, clunking or clinking!) Two weeks, and $5400 later, I was driving out of the yard!
I decided to stick around through the weekend to drive the hell out of it to make sure nothing broke again. I wanted to stay close to the shop that did the work and knew the history- rather than head to Nevada and risk breaking down in the middle of the desert and having to start all over again.
I went back on Monday for one more test drive with them- everything was working great!
But I couldn’t leave just yet – I was still waiting on client invoices that were now 2 weeks past due… (nothing was going my way that month!)
It was another week before I could be set free of the Bay Area. Three weeks of stress, hustle and bustle, traffic, crowds, and sensory overload. It took me about a week of decompressing alone in the national forest to start feeling ‘normal’ again. It’s been two weeks since I left, the RV is running great and I’m finally feeling free again.
When you Live in an RV Repairs and Maintenance are Critical!
THE MORAL OF THIS RV LIVING STORY: DO sweat the small stuff! If I had had the fuse checked out right away, maybe I could have prevented all of this! Sure, it may have cost a few hundred dollars to tear apart the dash and find the problem, but that would have been nothing compared to the THOUSANDS and WEEKS I spent getting a new transmission.
When we live in a mobile home, we can’t take anything for granted. I learned that I have to take better care of Tilly and not ignore the little things. This isn’t just a car- this is my home!
I had a great time in Joseph Oregon and learned that when my RV, Big Bertha speaks to me, I need to listen! Here’s how I handled a break down while living in my RV.
I’d been hanging around Joseph and Enterprise Oregon for three days waiting for my General Delivery mail (client checks!) to arrive from my UPS mail forwarder in California. My friend Bob left for Salt Lake City Saturday and I’d been enjoying being alone and free to wander, explore and do a little stealth camping in town (Bob doesn’t do stealth camping!).
Stealth-Camping in Joseph, OR
After one night at the community center in Joseph and one at a little league field in Enterprise (another small town, 6 miles from Joseph), I was ready to go legit – even if that meant doing without internet for a night. I went back to the Hurricane Creek National Forest Campground where Bob and I had stayed our first night in Joseph. It’s just a few miles outside of town and for $6 I got a pretty, wooded campsite along the creek, in a remote setting. And even more importantly, the peace of mind knowing I wouldn’t get a knock on my door in the middle of the night.
I got to the Joseph post office around noon on Monday (after doing laundry at the small (and expensive) laundromat a couple blocks away), hoping that my third visit would finally produce my mail. The tiny post office parking lot and side street were full so there wasn’t any place big enough for my RV to park (I don’t fit in a regular parking spot and take up about 4 spaces sideways). I ended up on a side street and stopped in front of an old farmhouse where an elderly lady and (who I assumed to be) her caregiver sat in lawn chairs on the plush green grass in the shade of an apple tree, escaping the mid-eighties heat (the first hot weather eastern Oregon has had in weeks!).
As I pulled my RV to a stop they stared at me and a wave of self-consciousness engulfed me; I realized I shouldn’t have parked there. Even though I was on the street, it was her street- and I was kinda sorta blocking her driveway. I wouldn’t be surprised if she grew up in that old farmhouse and remembered Joseph before the post office moved next door and the fancy art stores, cafes and gift stores cluttered the main street that used to be her backyard. I jumped out and ran over to the other side. “Is it ok if I park here for just a minute while I run into the post office?”, I pleaded.
The frail elderly lady stood up and with waning authority in her voice, said, ‘yeah, but just a minute – and no more!”
“Ok, thank you very much. I’ll be right back.” I ran into the
post office, got my mail (yay! Finally!) and anxiously hoisted myself into the driver seat of Big Bertha, ready to take off. Idaho, here I come! As much as I’d enjoyed my stay, it was time to hit the road.
Excitement fluttered as I basked in my freedom… nothing like the beckoning open road…. CLICK, CLICK…Oh noooo… I turned the key again. CLICK. CLICK. NO!!! Not here! Not when I’m intruding on an old lady’s peaceful day. I turned the key again. Nothing. Just the same empty, loud CLICK. CRAP!!!
The panic was hitting me like pebbles before a rock-slide: oh shit, what am I going to do. How much will THIS cost? Where will I stay while it’s getting fixed? How will I get out of this old lady’s way? NO! NO! NO! I want to go and I just got my money and now it’s already gone…!
I reigned it in before the panic-boulders fell and crushed me. My inner calm, rational, let’s-just-deal-with-this self took over: It’s ok. You can handle this. You knew, when you bought an old RV shit would happen. You said that would be part of the adventure! Remember???
Ugghhh. Me and my damn adventures. Maybe for once, it would be ok to take the easy route!
The panic began to slide away and was replaced by gratitude: at least it happened in town and not at the campground where I was miles from town with no cell signal – or someplace even more remote.
My First Breakdown and a Full-time RVer
Ok, let’s figure this out.
Maybe the battery connections are loose again. I hopped out and popped the hood. Once they saw me do that, the elderly owner of the house and her caregiver stopped being annoyed and became very helpful. The frail old woman walked toward me and I noticed a blank look in her eyes as she mumbled incoherently. I hoped it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, it’s such a sad disease… She stood next to me while I fidgeted under the hood (as if I knew what the heck I was doing) and suddenly became coherent: “Why don’t you put it in neutral? Neutral. Put it in neutral. Did you try to put it in neutral?”
I had no idea what that would do, but what the heck- I had nothing to lose! I hopped in, slipped it into neutral and turned the key again: CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. Well, it was worth a shot.
As I climbed back out, the old woman’s caregiver was on her phone yelling something to me from her lawn chair in the shade. As I walked toward her, I wiped the sweat from my temples, it figures, it’s been a pleasant seventy degrees the whole time I’ve been here now I have to deal with this in the heat! I was dressed for fall, not Indian Summer.
The caregiver was telling me that there are two auto repair shops within a few blocks. “You can walk, they’re close.” She yelled to me, apparently not realizing people carry cell phones these days. While the elderly lady mumbled, “did you put it in neutral? I’ve had many cars die on me over the years, but I’ve always managed to get them started by putting them in neutral…” I thanked her, wondering if she was suggesting I try to jump start my fourteen-thousand-pound RV! I mixture of gratitude and sadness overwhelmed me; oh, the memories she has – and has lost.
Before trying the local auto repair shops, I called AAA – I paid for the premier service, so why not try them first? I got through in a few minutes and was put on hold for ten. And then a new operator came on and I had to start all over again – and she put me on hold again. Patience is not one of my virtues, so while on hold with AAA I walked the 3 blocks to Alpine Auto and talked to Peter, the owner. After explaining that I was stuck behind the post office and that I suspected it was the starter (it starts slow when hot and drags at times. I’d had a feeling it was on its way out), he closed up shop, grabbed the mechanic’s version of the doctor’s house-call bag and headed over. Wow, you gotta love small town service! The AAA operator came back while I stood in Peter’s lobby – “Never mind, I already got my own mechanic, thank you very much.” I curtly told the her. Apparently there’s an issue with my account – something I’ll have to deal with later…
Peter did some testing under the hood and then crawled underneath Big Bertha explaining that if it is a bad starter, we may be able to get it to started by hitting it with a mallet. That’s my kinda fix!!! “Ok, let’s try it!” I was enthusiastic and hopeful!
Once positioned he yelled, “ok, give it a try” Click. Click. And then music to my ears, her engine sputtered and whined into motion. “Yay!!!” I was practically jumping out of my seat in relief! But the relief evaporated as Peter explained it was a temporary fix and that it may not start once I turned it off. I needed a new starter.
So, I drove to his shop and parked on the edge of the grassy yard of the hotel across the street. Without turning off the engine or locking the door (you can do that in small towns!) I went into the front office to explain my situation and ask if I could park there overnight. The lady at the desk seemed a little reluctant, but said yes! I’m amazed at how nice people are! I think I’ve lived in big cities too long!
By 2:00 the next day, the new starter was installed and I was looking forward to being on my way… oh, wait. NO. Peter told me my brake fluid was extremely low and my brake pedal was too spongy. “You’re going to Lewiston?” he confirmed, “have you ever been on that road?” I told him I hadn’t, “It’s very steep, and narrow and windy. I don’t think all of your brakes are working. I’d get them checked before driving on that road, it’s dangerous. There have been fatalities… There’s a Les Schwab in Enterprise…”
Ok, Ok. I did kinda notice my brakes seemed ‘off’ the other day when my RV skidded in the dirt and came to a bouncy, soft top. And yeah, now that I think about it, I’ve been moving my seat further forward to reach the brake pedal because it’s going so far to the floor. Oh – and the brake light and rear ABS lights have been on for months -OOPS!
I’ve been checking my fluids regularly, but I never checked my brake fluid because the front brakes were replaced when I bought the RV (I know because when I test drove it they were metal on metal). I figured the brake fluid had been filled and would still be full. It never dawned on me there might be a leak!
On to Enterprise I went… I started to feel like I was in some warped version of an old CCR song and I sang as I drove, “Oh Lord, stuck in ole’ Oregon again..” Whatever it takes to get through the day!
Les Schwab in Enterprise was as awesome as Peter from Alpine Auto in Joseph. They got me right in, did an inspection, told me it looked like a leak on one of the rear wheel cylinders and gave me a best case scenario quote (about $150) – and worst-case quote ($700 or more). After two hours I was out of there with a new brake cylinder, a brake pedal that feels super-sensitive and a bill on the better side of ‘best case scenario” – just $200.
All in all, it was a great day! I no longer have to worry about my starter or my brakes (Les Schwab did a visual inspection and everything else looked good!) and the bill for the day was only $550! I couldn’t ask for much better than that!
So here is what I learned about RV Maintenance and Repairs:
Don’t take anything for granted with an old RV: Before my RV Living adventure, I’d been driving a 2006 Toyota Avalon that I bought brand new. I diligently had routine maintenance done and I knew that car inside and out. Big Bertha is OLD and worn out and I have to assume it wasn’t maintained properly. So that means when I suspect something isn’t working right, I need to get it checked out right away.
Pay attention to the little things! I was on my way to a very steep, narrow and harrowing route in a 14,000-pound vehicle with bad brakes. It dawned on me: if my starter hadn’t gone, I could be dead right now. Dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. I’d ignored the ABS light for months thinking, “oh, it can wait, my front brakes are new- who needs ABS anyway?” (yeah, I really thought that). And, when my brakes skidded, it didn’t’ register. I will now pay attention to everything and not take any chances.
I’m driving a huge, heavy vehicle! When my ex-husband became a truck driver, he had to pass a test to learn how to drive a big rig. And every time he got in that rig he had to do a pre-trip inspection to make sure everything was in working order. Vehicles that big can be deadly when not handled or maintained properly. While my Class C RV may not be a big rig, it’s no passenger car either. Proper RV maintenance is not only important to keep it running, but to keep me -and others on the road safe!
Routine RV maintenance is critical – Checking all my fluids regularly, getting oil changes and tune-ups, checking tire pressure and tread and getting brake inspections are things that I will now be diligent about.
Peace of mind is priceless. Little by little I’m learning more about the condition of my RV by taking care of problems as they arise. For $550, my RV starts right up with no dragging, my ABS and brake lights went off and now I know my brakes are in good shape. Even if it had cost $2000, it would have been worth not having the nagging worry I’ve had for five months!
I think I’ve learned my lesson: my old reckless, “it’s all an adventure” days are behind me.. well for today anyway!