We were Utah bound on the Monarch Pass in Salida, Colorado, the sun was low in the quiet dawn. My husband and I, and our two kids sat quietly in our Lexus GX 470, pulling a 20 foot Koala Super Lite Travel Trailer. As we began the aggressively graded ascent on the Monarch Pass, I looked out the passenger window and saw a young Billy Goat munching away on the base of the mountain.
I was gearing up for the long drive ahead of us, leaning back in the passenger’s seat sipping my coffee enjoying the breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains, when the check engine light made its silent appearance.
“It’s probably just a computer glitch,” my husband says reassuringly. Before he could get the last word out of his mouth, a sound like a bomb promulgated from underneath the hood, followed immediately by a plume of white smoke.
We pulled across traffic to one of the occasional pull offs on the desolate and rugged Monarch Pass. As quickly as our shaking hands could muster, we pulled the kids and the dog out of the back seat and put some distance between us and the car in case the engine caught fire. Now, while I have you in suspense, allow me to give you a mental picture of what we prepared ourselves for prior to our departure:
This trip was a shift in elements from a normally watery lifestyle on our 38 foot sailing Catamaran. We are used to traveling by sailboat where the weather can turn you upside down, or a faulty through hull can leave you bailing buckets of water out of your boat while shouting to the heavens, “I shouldn’t even be here!” So, how bad can an RV trip be? This was going to be a breeze. From the coast of South Carolina, to the coast of California, our new earth bound adventures would pass with ease and grace in our unwitting imaginings (while the star spangled banner plays ruefully in the background). Any calamities that might befall us on the road couldn’t hold a candle to the stresses of trying to keep everyone alive and safe on our boat where anchors drag in the middle of the night and motors die in the middle of the open water.
I mean, if something goes wrong in an RV, you’re not going to sink… right?
Minutes passed silhouetted in the forefront of a beautiful chilly sunrise nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
Oh, I should mention, we have no cell service.
As the smoke dissipated, we put the kids back in their car seats, and ran through our options. My husband, Adam, is a gifted jack of all handyman trades, and can tackle just about any mechanical emergency. But a smoking car on the side of the road was beyond his scope. It didn’t take us long to rummage to the bottom of our empty bag of choices here.
At least in this crisis we weren’t surrounded by a watery death trap like so many times on the boat.
As I stood on the left side of the road pull off, a monstrously huge RV captained by a white haired dinosaur veered dangerously close to our broken down Lexus. I was starting to realize the vulnerability of our situation.
Speaking of good samaritans. (Was I speaking of good samaritans? If I wasn’t, I feel like now is a good time). Doesn’t standing on the side of the road next to a smoking car with two kids and a dog qualify us for some kind of “are you okay?” shout out the window or a pull over from one of the many cars that passed us by?
The minutes ticked on as the cars enshrouded us in carbon monoxide. All of those drivers were lining up in a sad and sorry ‘state of the world’ mental picture that was rapidly accumulating in my mind.
“Is anyone going to stop and help us?”
The sun was beginning to heat the asphalt as it made its way over the mountains above us. It went from cold to hot in a matter of minutes. Still no cell service, but my restless tendencies had me obsessively checking my phone in case any new cell towers had been installed nearby in the last, oh, five minutes or so.
Between the rising temperatures and the derelict drivers, we were feeling utterly exposed.
As anxiety began to entwine it’s fingers around my gut:
An old van pulls up and a middle aged long haired hippie walks straight out of a rainbow gathering, (literally), and yes, Rainbow Gatherings are still a thing. He saunters up to our engine with the lit butt of a marajuana joint hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a minute he might crawl inside, but he stopped at the radiator cap and started working some magic. His hands looked like they were born and raised inside of a car motor. No introductions necessary. After some tinkering and diagnosing he started to explain to us what we needed to do to get rolling again, at which point, he dropped the radiator’s cap spring into the radiator. He looked at us directly and said: “well, now you’re Fucked.”
The sun is really heating up right about now.
Luckily, our Rainbow Gathering Samaritan had another card up his sleeve. A phone, with cell service!
I got AAA on the phone, and when the dispatcher asked me “is everyone in a safe place” I answered with a resounding “NO!”.
They sent a tow truck driver our way, or did they..?
Our Rainbow Gathering fun loving hippie went on his way since he couldn’t give us a ride with our kids and car seats.
A police officer showed up in a truck, because he heard AAA chatter over the dispatch radio. He had a cell phone but no service. “Don’t you have a satellite phone or something?” I asked. Nope.
We had no way of knowing when AAA would make their appearance, so we opted to get the kids somewhere safe while we waited.
The logistics of transporting the two kids with their car seats in a loaded down police vehicle left us mentally drained and physically exhausted
And the logistics of AAA were even worse.
They will only tow your vehicle if you are with it. But they won’t tell you when they will tow you. And anyone who has ever used AAA knows that it will probably take forever. The police officer shuttled us to the nearest convenience store at the top of the Monarch Pass, the Monarch Crest Gift Shop. We all shuffled into a little corner of the shop with two cumbersome, crumb filled car seats, one dog, one hamster, one baby, and one toddler.
Insert long, exasperated sigh here.
The next 4 hours look like this: We still have no cell service. We use the landline at the gift shop while AAA gives us the runaround like a barrel race at the rodeo. The gift shop doesn’t want us to ‘tie up their phone lines” (even though they have call waiting) so Adam intermittently uses the tram to get to the top of the mountain where he would occasionally get one bar of service so AAA can continue giving us the runaround.
The cashiers casually inform us that:
“Sometimes it takes days for AAA to tow a car around here”.
Oh My God.
Are you serious.
Will we just have to sleep here on the grungy dirty mite infested carpet of your store all night? Or will you kick us out in the freezing cold?
Panic ensues and the gift store attendants start to give me the stink eye and tell me that I’ve been using the phone too much. I’m tying up their phone lines.
You know how many times the phone rang while I was there? Zero times. None. The phone rang ZERO freaking times.
The next time Adam took the tram to the top of the mountain, he called a tow company to tow both our Lexus and our Travel trailer.
We forked out the 800$ for the tow, which AAA never reimbursed us for, even though we have travel trailer tow insurance, gold policy coverage for the car, and basically the best AAA plan you can get in case of an emergency such as this.
Thanks AAA. Thanks a lot. I hope you find a nice cozy place to spend eternity in the 9th level of Dante’s inferno.
While we waited, the crotchety cashier at the gift store gave me the bad news: I was officially banned from using their phone.
“We’ve been plenty helpful to you all and we don’t want you tying up our phone lines anymore.” Ouch.
Tears began to stream down my face. Emilia, completely unaware of the drama and sunny as ever, was showing her hamster ‘Squeaky’ to everyone in the store. Leave it to a toddler to turn a crisis into a hamster show and tell.
Like it or not, we were stuck in the gift shop, and they were going to close soon.
What the Heck were we going to do.
Just then, a tow truck driver appears. Enshrouded in angelic glory.
Money talks, People, and AAA is about as helpful as corn on a fishing line.
Adam left with the first tow truck driver to get the broken down RV.
The second tow truck driver walked into the gift shop, asking around for a stranded woman and two kids…
Yep, that’s me!
He turned around and looked at me with a menacing stare.
I thought our day was over and I could finally relax, but instead, I got to work loading up the two car seats, the dog, the hamster, my two kids, and then my nerve wracked self all the while this .. person… stood with his hands on his hips breathing down my neck, watching me with his menacing stare. I said a little prayer to the serial killer gods that this man wasn’t going to murder us in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve never come across such cold and wordless hostility in my entire middle aged life.
We made it to the RV where Adam was waiting with the first tow truck driver, and I ran over to him and whispered that we had to switch tow truck drivers because “I’m pretty sure this guy wants to murder me.” Adam is a black belt, and I am a nothing belt so it’s a no brainer.
I got in the other tow truck and the driver immediately commenced to shower me in unbidden apologies for his boss’s behavior.
I told him I was just relieved that his boss didn’t really intend to murder me.
We made it back to Salida, back to the kind and welcoming embrace of Riverside RV Park.
We sat back for a few more days and recovered from the mental exhaustion of the last 12 hours. I ran on Salida’s breathtaking greenway for miles and miles, and did some roller skating with my rock star toddler, Emilia.
Adam went fly fishing in the Arkansas River, one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country. We each got to cleanse ourselves of the drama in our favorite ways.
I have a few takeaways from this calamity on the road. One of them is a common theme that comes up between myself and the naysayers amongst my friends and family who denounce our ‘dangerous’/adventurous traveling lifestyle. I will try to keep it short, but really, I could write an entire book about it.
Perceived danger versus real danger:
In our sailboat, everything feels very unstable, and if you’re a control freak (like myself) it’s an uncomfortable place to be. The RV trip definitely feels safer in our perceptions of reality. But what is truly safe?
Well, here’s a statistic I like to throw out there, to avoid the judgmental criticism that accompanies our snorkeling adventures.
You are actually more likely to die by falling coconut than by a shark attack. Are you going to wear a helmet everytime you walk under a palm tree? No? Then suit up, because the reef is calling and snorkel adventures await!
The real statistic that matters here is driving fatalities. Sailing might feel dangerous, but statistically, it’s far safer than being in a car. In fact, for most of us, (even fun loving adventurers like ourselves) driving in a car on the highway is probably the most dangerous thing you will ever do in your long years on this Earth. Don’t believe me? Ask your insurance agent, I did. I even made a pie chart of things that actually kill people to try and quell some of the judgement. Does it help? No. People who live in fear will probably stay that way, not because their fear is rooted in reality, but because they aren’t. There is no better way to stay in a made up story of what you want your world to look like, then by letting fear keep you inside, in a place that feels safe. We could die today or tomorrow, doing something that looks or feels ‘dangerous’, but in reality, we are more likely to die from a cheeseburger at Mac Donald’s.
The Second Takeaway:
A satellite phone. Because it can’t hurt. We came across more places without cell service on this coast to coast journey than we did traveling down the InterCoastal Waterway on our sailboat from North Carolina to the Florida Keys.
The Third and last Takeaway: If you see someone in distress, ask yourself if helping them would put you in any danger. If the answer is no, then do the altruistic part of your brain a solid, and help a fellow human out.
Think about it when you see an old hitchhiker in the middle of Utah on a dangerous summer day walking down the road miles from any gas station with an almost empty water bottle in his hand (yes true story, and yes we helped him). Statistical side note: I tried to do some research on the dangers of picking up a hitchhiker, but what came up instead were the dangers that the hitchhikers face. They are the ones in danger, and the ones that face the most violence. Not the people picking them up.
Food for thought!