The Long and Winding Road…

Well, here we are. Maine. What a place to breathe a sigh of relief. What air to breathe in! After the most harrowing trip I’ve ever taken we made it to Maine without major incident, though it seemed disaster was always lurking behind the next corner.

I had to take Charley to northern California to pick up our trailer which has since become know as Max. Before 10AM I’m usually about as useless as a VCR head cleaning tape; but I was up at 6:00AM and on the road by 6:30 that first day, Friday April 29th. I drove all the way to Nevada City, CA to pick up Max. The cinder block under the tongue jack had crumbled and I had to scrounge old wood cuttings to make a system to get the tongue jack high enough to couple. Once that was done I piloted Charley’s tow ball under the hitch with no one to help guide me. Next I had to finish the rigging to make the tarp cover all the necessary bits (our spare lumber and windows) while NOT covering the unnecessary bits (the uncovered wheel wells, which would have shredded the tarp in the first day). It took three hours and every bit of my wits to finish the job. And all this was before I could even try hauling Max with Charley for the very first time, to say nothing of making the two hour drive to my first night’s stop. But before I could hit the road for the last leg of the day I had to check the electrical connection.

I hooked up the connector and (with the help of pieces of cinder block on the brake pedal) checked all the electrical functions. My heart sank a little when everything worked except the turn signals blinked fast like a bulb was burned out. This is what happened on the first test trailer; one that we could never get the trailer brakes to work on.

So I tested the trailer brakes and… nothing. Nada. It had been a terribly hard push and I had another hard two hour push in front of me as well as five more days of nigh interminable driving after that. And I had no brakes. I knew it was impossible to try to repair the trailer brakes with any hope of keeping on our schedule. I also knew from test-pulling a 2,000 lb trailer with no brakes that Charley was perfectly capable of stopping the trailer given sufficient following distance. After talking with Dani on the phone, I felt there was no other choice but to soldier on with no trailer brakes and simply be VERY careful along the whole trip. Not that I was planning on being careless at any point…

With much trepidation I pulled onto the highway with a 30 mile drive to Donner Pass. As I drove over the pass angry clouds rolled in and I got hit with a blizzard. Thankfully I made it to the pass before it could freeze or they could enact chain restrictions. As I descended on the east side of the pass the blizzard gave way to a hail storm that reduced visibility even more with ever-increasing mists. Visibility was so poor, the descent by most vehicles was conducted at about 40 mph. Once off the mountain things cleared just in time for sunset. But as I hit Reno a torrential downpour started. I didn’t want to drive at night at all. With the delays I was now driving in the dark in a downpour through the downtown Reno freeway system trying not to cause or become the victim of any wrecks. Eventually I made it to a truck stop in Fernley, NV.   After 16 hours of pushing across 600 miles I finally got to curl up for a few hours sleep in the back of Charley.

The next morning I headed out at first light and, now that I could see the trailer in my mirrors I saw my rigging job was not holding up. In the first 30 miles I had to pull over to the side of the freeway four times to keep adjusting and adding to the rigging system. Not a lot of fun given it was freezing and not everyone moves over for vehicles stopped on the side of the freeway. But fourth time was the charm and I didn’t need to make any adjustments until I stopped to joyously greet Dani in Evanston, WY that evening.

It was getting late and I did not want to drive at night, but we decided to keep pushing for Rock Springs per our plan. Onward we headed through the dark and against a nasty headwind that limited Charley to 55 mph. Eventually we made it but, to our dismay, the truck stop was full so we had to find the local Walmart to crash in. We limped on to the Walmart, parked and settled in with some reheated soup for dinner before passing out. Another day, 14 hours behind the wheel and another 670 miles done.

Again we were up at first light and on the road. Charley was still fighting headwind and struggling to maintain 60 mph. The fifth and final bit of re-rigging happened that morning and, thankfully, everything held after that. Early on into the drive my radio died in spite of having just put fresh batteries in it the previous evening. I replaced them at our first stop.

Somewhere around Laramie a cop pulled Dani over in Roz for “following too close.” This was, of course, by design to preventing people from getting between us and, since I didn’t have trailer brakes there was no way I could stop faster than Roz. Unimpressed the cop said he would let her off with “a warning.”

The climb over the Rockies was arduous; Charley was often stuck going uphill at 30 mph. But eventually we made it and crossed into Nebraska. When my radio died a second time I concluded it was actually defective (it was a free hand-me-down from a friend). Now we were stuck only having cell phones to communicate with, which is a royal pain, to say nothing of being potentially unsafe. Still we managed to safely make port in York, NE. It was about 80 miles short of our original goal, but we had a hard 13 hours in covering 650 miles that day and figured we could make it up later. Another night in a truck stop in a sleeping bag in the back of Charley and we were off again at sunrise.

The next morning contained the one sublime experience I had on the trip. As we headed east into the sunrise, crepuscular rays pierced through the thick, golden clouds. The night’s rain had washed all the fields and trees; they glistened with emerald light. I was starting to get comfortable with the trailer and was actually relaxed and making good use of the armrests for the first time on the trip as Charley seemed happy to cruise along as 65. As I sipped on my delicious coffee Time is Tight by Booker T & the MGs came on the stereo… Everything was perfect.

Until we entered Iowa. The roads around Council Bluffs were horrendous. As we made it farther east the freeway was generally good but frequently had tremendous divots around bridges in the bottom of valleys. Hitting one particularly nasty one elicited a huge CLUNK that came from Charley somewhere behind and below. The clunking became something that now frequently accompanied the worst jars. I became pretty nervous. Everything felt fine; nothing had changed except the noise that was now occurring. We pulled over and I inspected every mount I I could on the underside of Charley. Nothing seemed out of place or damaged. Since I couldn’t feel any issues, I decided to keep moving forward trying to minimize jolts. I’d just keep an ear on the issue moving forward.

Iowa gave way to Illinois and, making it past Chicago in the afternoon rush hour, we entered Indiana. Indiana took insane advantage of the weary traveler. To all you states who charge on your tollway by the axle: go to hell. Going for three 7,000 lb axles over two 10,000 lb axles may save you money in your trailer build, but it costs you a lot more in the toll booths! Indiana also takes the cake for having the worst condition tollway in existence. I had to pay $32 for the privilege to drive my trailer across the state on a road that was not fit to drive on. At least other states have the decency to actually maintain their tollways!

We pulled off at another truck stop outside Fremont, IN having 13 hours on the driving clock and covering over 700 miles. Not wanting to keep taking risks communicating by phone, I bought a new set of two-way radios at the truck stop. I would have done that the night before but we only needed one radio and the last truck stop only sold them in pairs. Even though we didn’t need a pair, that was all this stop carried and I didn’t want to have another day without working radios. After the tradition “spit bath” with wet wipes, a change of clothes and a fresh application of homemade deodorant (which has vastly outperformed every commercial deodorant I’ve ever used), we turned in for another early start.

The next morning we happily left Indiana and its shitty roads behind as we crossed into Ohio. At first it was quite nice. The farmland was pretty, traffic was light and the roads were in great shape. Reflecting on Toledo being the home of Max Klinger in the TV show MASH, we engaged in something probably never done before: a MASH trivia contest via two-way radio as we flew across the interstate. The fun was not meant to last, however. As we passed Toledo the air pollution became intolerably acrid. We put the air systems on recirculation and carried on. The roads became increasingly deteriorated until well after Cleveland. After that the roads got better but became subject to a maddening progression of construction zones. I’d rather have have a long run with a 55 mph speed limit than what they did: 55 mph construction zones 1-4 miles long each separated by a 70 mph zone 0.5-2 miles long. When you’re trying to maximize fuel economy that variation is brutal. Add insult to injury that the vast majority of the construction zones contained no construction personnel or activities.

The ridiculous construction zone patterns continued into Pennsylvania. But at least in Pennsylvania actual people were actually working in the construction zones. Before madness could set in we mercifully hit Buffalo and things took a turn for the better. The terrain (eventually) flattened out in pretty, bucolic farmland. The construction was sensibly arranged and executed. The upstate New York drivers tend to be quite considerate and skilled. A most welcome change from the shit show that is the drivers in most states east of the Dakotas.  We came to rest in a dirt lot outside a truck stop in Fultonville, NY. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of it.  Yet another 13 hour drive and 620 miles down. We bedded down for our final push.

The next morning we headed out under a rainy sky. We hopped back on the tollway hoping to make it past Albany before the morning rush hour traffic choked the roads. We succeeded and eventually made it to the Massachusetts border. Thank you New York for charging far less than Indiana and Ohio on your tollways and actually having them (for the most part) in MUCH better condition!

The rain came down much harder as we entered my least favorite state in the union to drive in: Massachusetts. Most states are chock full of unskilled and/or inconsiderate drivers. I feel particularly qualified to comment on this being from Idaho where some of the worst drivers in the country are mingled with some of the worst drivers from California moving in. But on Idaho roads trouble comes in the form of ignorant and oblivious drivers. In Massachusetts they take the eastern aggressive and inconsiderate driving techniques to a new level. They are just plain rude and frequently dangerous.

There was really only one dicey spot on that drive that involved mountains, very impatient commuters, one uncooperative trucker, copious amounts of rain and rooster tails coming out of Max’s wheel wells. But we all survived without incident and, thankfully, from that point on the rain subsided. Entertaining ourselves with radios we continued to pass the miles until we paid another exorbitant toll and crossed into New Hampshire – we were getting close!

We crossed the border from New Hampshire and felt a surge of relief:

Wooooohoooohooooohooooo!

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“The way life should be.” Rolling through beautiful, wooded hills with nary a billboard in sight and only moderate traffic on the roads, this certainly was a rolling reprieve from the drudgery of the past five days.

We allowed ourselves one splurge and subsequent delay regardless of our desire to be done: St Joes! The best damned breakfast sandwiches on the planet and tremendously good coffee from Seacoast were something we could not refuse; especially since we didn’t know when next we’d be near one of our favorite establishments in the country!

Break over, we hit the road and continued towards Augusta where we had to leave the interstate and take to the country roads. This had me nervous because the one thing we had avoided so far on the trip was stop-and-go traffic off the freeway. Add to that the fact that Maine is far from flat.

At the first stop, I noticed an unusual herkiness to the ride that wasn’t there before. It was also present when starting off, but during the cruising it wasn’t there. I had no idea what to make of it and we were within 40 miles of our destination. The lack of trailer brakes was especially lamentable going down hills approaching traffic lights. At one point I couldn’t make a stop and had to blow through a red light. Thankfully I did it before any cross traffic had a chance to get moving and there were no cops to rightfully ticket me for it.

I counted down the miles one by one while dodging oncoming traffic on one side and mailboxes on the other. The trailer may only be 8 feet wide, but on twisty roads that girth becomes hard to manage because it’s so long. The herkiness was there at stops and starts, but thankfully there were not too many of them. We moved on and on and eventually…

We found our home port. We pulled into Dani’s parents driveway slowly but with much whooping and hollering: WE MADE IT!!!

After an amazing welcome and countless sighs of relief we could finally relax. Our final day clocked in at merely 8 hours behind the wheel to make the final 410 miles. After six days and more than 3,700 miles we were finally in Maine. Beer was in the fridge and a shower would soon follow; I hadn’t had one since the night before I left Boise! But first things were first. Cheers!

P.S. We quickly diagnosed that the herkiness and likely some amount of clunking was due to the fact that the trailer hitch ball retaining nut was just one turn from falling completely off the shank! Tragedy could have befallen us, but didn’t. We were lucky. How long had it been loose? The misadventures with respect to towing inspired me to write this article: How Not to Tow a Trailer. A n00b’s guide to avoiding the common pitfalls in towing.

 

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