Stuck on the Interstate in my RV
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!