A loud, incessant beeping from our tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) alerted us to a “fast leakage” from one of our trailer tires. The narrow, back-country roads of the South didn’t offer anywhere to easily get our 50-plus feet of truck and trailer off the road.
After turning on our emergency flashers and driving slowly, we finally found a place we could pull over to assess our situation and let the vehicles behind us pass. The faulty tire was on the driver’s side. We couldn’t change it in this spot as we were blocking a road.
We had only 3 miles to our destination for the day. Could we make it if we nursed the tire along? Although the TPMS said we had a fast leak, the air pressure wasn’t decreasing rapidly. We decided to try to make it to our stop, watching the tire pressure slowly go down along the way.
Oasis in the Forest
As we pulled onto the gravel drive leading to our stop, the tire pressure steadied at 40-something. Mind you, these are 80 psi tires. Smiles flashed across our faces as we approached the property of our Boondockers Welcome host and saw a concrete pad for us to park on.
It’s much easier to jack up our 17,000-pound fifth wheel on a flat, stable surface than it is on a grassy area off the side of the road. We know from experience.
The host greeted us and helped Bob get Tagalong into parking position, leaving enough room for us to get the flat tire off and put the spare on.
Work Must Go On
We don’t usually relocate during the work week, but we had made an exception this time. Bob got busy loosening lug nuts, and I lowered the spare tire from its stowage spot under the trailer. Leaving him to make the tire change, I set up my camping chair against a nice green background of trees to attend a Zoom meeting for work.
Fortunately, temperature and dirt don’t show through video calls. Someone in my meeting said they wanted to be where I was, based on the inviting background. Little did they know I had sweat dripping down my back from the 80-plus degree humid weather.
With the tire changed and my call ended, I helped Bob detach the trailer from the truck and try to level Tagalong. The auto-level function errored out before the job was complete. I left him to troubleshoot while I joined another call.
When that meeting concluded, I found Bob sitting on the steps inside the trailer with the air conditioning on but no slides open. The button to open the living room slide, which allows us to get to the kitchen and office, didn’t respond to being pushed. Bob suddenly remembered an app on his phone allows him to control trailer functions. He succeeded in opening the slide from the app. Whew!
The other slides opened with the buttons on the trailer control panel, and we set up our home for a five-night stay.
Leaks and God’s Providence
Google Maps showed a Goodyear tire shop about 20 minutes away. Bob called and found out they could replace a tire stem. That’s where the leak happened. That’s also where it was when we had a flat tire last year: in the stem. Both incidents must have been a result of the tire pressure monitors attached to the stem.
We headed to the Goodyear store, dropped off our tire, and went to get groceries. We returned to the shop to find our tire fixed and ready to be picked up. And the price? Only $3.47!
On the surface, this event looked like a terrible inconvenience and frustration, but it served as a reminder that God consistently watches over and provides for us. From the flat tire happening 3 miles from our destination and being able to make it to our stop, to the concrete pad, trailer slide, Goodyear shop, and amazing price, we were — and are — extremely blessed.
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The small town of Junction, Texas, on Interstate 10 doesn’t have a whole lot to offer on the surface. But its population of 2,500 maintains the county’s shipping and marketing center for livestock, pecans, grain, wool, and mohair. Perhaps more importantly, the municipality marks the intersection of the North and South Llano rivers.
Nestled behind the town is an expansive wildlife refuge for turkeys, deer, hundreds of species of birds, and more. The 500-plus acres constitute South Llano River State Park, which includes 58 campsites. That and the campground’s location right off the interstate attracted us to it.
Because the park is in a hollow, our phones had weak reception. I feared we wouldn’t be able to stay since internet access is imperative for me to do my day job. We rely on mobile networks for that.
We raised our 25-foot cell signal booster antenna with hopes that it would improve our reception. Sure enough, it picked up and amplified a T-Mobile signal 10 times, securing our stay.
The next morning, we awoke to find our faucets not working. The levers turned on and off, but no water came out. The 23-degree low temperature froze the water in the hose connecting the campsite spigot to Tagalong.
Because we have a four-season coach, we knew our fresh water tank and pipes were OK. So, needing water to make coffee, we switched to using our internal water tank. Problem solved — at least temporarily.
A couple of hours later, Bob went out to check the water connection and blew ice chunks out of the hose, freeing the blockage. He reconnected Tagalong to the campground water source, and the issue was solved. From then on, he disconnected the hose from the spigot before bed to keep it from freezing again.
Many of the reviews we had read before arriving at South Llano River State Park made mention of the large number of armadillos at the campground. We saw one amble across the road as we entered (like the armadillo we saw near Dallas last year) but, other than that, the creatures eluded us. Other campers told us they had seen them — even at our campsite.
The next day, while walking on one of the park’s many trails, a rustling sound caught our attention. We turned our heads toward the noise to see an armadillo rummaging through the meadow for food. They dig insects and invertebrates out of the ground to eat.
Fascinated, we stood and watched the animal for probably at least 15 minutes, amazed that it didn’t seem afraid of us. It didn’t seem to sense us at all. As it turns out, armadillos are nearly blind and deaf. They rely on their powerful sense of smell to lead them to each meal.
Later that day, the persistent barking of the dogs at the next campsite pulled me out of my work. I got up from my desk and looked out the window to see what the fuss was about: an armadillo rooting between our two sites.
After those first two encounters, we saw numerous armadillos throughout the park and never lost our fascination with them. We even watched one burrow its way into a hole beneath a tree trunk.
Maybe if you live in Texas or another area where they’re prominent, you just find them ordinary — or a nuisance. Their digging tears up yards and gardens. But for a guy from Massachusetts and a gal from Arizona, we were mesmerized.
More than 2,000 miles after getting Tagalong new brakes in Michigan, the parts still lacked some stopping power. That presented a dangerous proposition every time we traveled down a freeway.
We arose before dawn the day before our scheduled exit from the armadillo haven and hit the road in an attempt to reach a San Antonio brake shop that specializes in Dexter trailer brakes when it opened at 8 a.m.
We hit rush hour traffic. Rush hour traffic is never fun. When towing a 42-foot fifth wheel in an area you're unfamiliar with, it’s pure awful.
Thankfully, we made it to the place. Expecting the shop to keep the trailer for much of the day, we had planned to disconnect Gulliver and head into the city. But the mechanic at the shop looked at and adjusted our brakes right away.
A half hour later, we drove to a truck stop for a relaxing breakfast after a stressful morning, grateful for our time in Junction, Texas, for our new friends Kenny and Margaret, for not falling victim to another killer cardinal encounter, and for gripping brakes.
An incessant beeping shocked us out of our slowly waking slumber. Normally, that sound would indicate we had run out of propane. Since we had just topped our propane tanks a couple of days earlier and not used much, we knew that couldn’t be the case.
I crawled out of bed, threw on my robe, and stumbled to the bathroom to find a flashing light and the source of the unwelcome noise. Our energy monitor indicated we had depleted all of our battery power.
When we had arrived at our first travel stop, an overnight stay with no hookups, Bob plugged the coach into itself. It’s a means he rigged to run our power outlets and appliances off our batteries when we’re off the grid. We flip our power converter switch off so the batteries don’t try to charge themselves, which wouldn’t work anyway.
We had used that electricity to run some lights, microwave our dinner, and watch TV before bed. It shouldn’t have been enough to drain our 510 amp-hour batteries.
Before we had set out on our travels, I had switched the refrigerator control to the electric/propane option, thinking it would run off propane until we plugged into shore power.
Because the trailer was plugged into itself, Tagalong thought he was connected to a traditional source of electricity. As a result, the power-hungry refrigerator ran on electric rather than propane energy and drained our batteries.
That meant we didn’t have enough juice to run our water pump. And that meant we couldn’t flush our toilet.
We donned warm clothes and braved the freezing temperature (it was literally 32 degrees) to walk across the expansive dirt lot to the building at our rest stop — only to find the doors chained closed. Crossing our legs and eating a cold breakfast would have to do.
Fortunately, the sun had just started to peek over the horizon, offering hope of charging our batteries through the solar panels on our roof.
The battery draining incident was only one of many mistakes we made in our first day back on the road after five months stationary. We’re definitely creatures of habit. After getting out of the habit of moving every week, we forgot a lot of the necessary steps.
For example, we had to relearn that we need to make wide turns and allow for extra braking time when towing our 42-foot fifth-wheel trailer. We also had to refresh our memories about the importance of scouting our stops ahead of time using Google Maps to ensure we could safely get in and out — and reading a map correctly for proper navigation. I led us the wrong way into a fuel stop, which is a big deal when semi-trucks are coming at you.
Listening to Mike Rowe’s soothing voice in his “The Way I Heard It” podcast reminded us not to be in a hurry and not to worry about the people behind us.
Communication always plays a role in traveling together, and we had to relearn some pointers for success in that area as well — namely, speaking up.
We had a much better second day of travel and arrived at our destination safely. We’re sure to encounter more lessons on our journey. For now, we’re happy to have new scenery and a fresh outlook for the adventures that lay ahead.
See how far we've come in two years: 5 Lessons Learned on the First Leg of Our RV Journey.
As with a sticks-and-bricks home, our fifth wheel requires annual maintenance. Since I had a day off work, we decided to address some items.
Seeing Is Believing
Midway through our travels in 2021, Tagalong’s backup camera stopped working. It comes in handy not only for backing into camping spots, but also for changing lanes on the freeway, letting us know if we have enough clearance from another vehicle given our length.
Our RV driving school instructor would be proud we learned how to change lanes successfully without relying on the camera, instead using our rearview mirrors and shadows. We learned how to park the rig without the camera too. But we thought it would be nice to have that extra visibility back.
We tried a new cord, but that didn’t solve the missing picture issue. So, we ordered a new camera monitor. We had to pair the new monitor with Tagalong’s side cameras first. After a few tries, the monitor recognized those cameras, so we moved on to the rear camera. But it wouldn’t connect no matter what we did.
RV forums informed us we needed to check the wiring behind the camera — no easy task considering the camera is 13 feet off the ground and our onboard RV ladder is a couple of feet to the left of the camera. Fortunately, we travel with a 16.5-foot telescoping ladder.* Bob climbed that, and I hung off the onboard ladder. He removed four small screws, and the camera came right out.
Only then did we see that the wire connection for the rear camera had jimmied loose during travel. Bob pushed the connection back together and replaced the screws to hold the camera in place. The monitor recognized it, and the camera appears to be back in working condition.
Pump It Up
We hit the one-year mark for greasing Tagalong’s wheel bearings So, we closed our slideouts and connected the trailer to Gulliver, believing that to be the safest approach.
I crawled under the trailer to put our new 6-ton bottle jack* to use (after our failed jacking experience in Michigan). Recovering from cataract eye surgery, Bob had doctor's orders to avoid heavy lifting. I got Tagalong’s starboard side rear axle high enough for the rearmost tire to spin, a necessity for a grease job. Bob connected his grease gun to the wheel, and we tag-teamed rotating the tire and squeezing in grease.
With that tire done, we lowered the trailer and repeated the process three more times for the other wheels.
Pleased and exhausted after a job well done, we disconnected Gulliver from Tagalong to put our house back together. Remembering our leveling troubles from October, we made sure to raise Tagalong’s nose higher than level before pressing our Lippert Leveling System’s auto-level button. And, to our relief, the rear jacks descended and leveled the trailer front to back like normal. Even better, the middle stabilizing jacks came down to add stability.
Our campsite slopes down on the trailer’s port side. The middle stabilizing jack there reached its maximum height before the trailer considered itself completely level. It looked level enough, so we deemed the job done and moved inside the trailer.
As we walked around in the coach, however, it became increasingly clear the auto-leveling system had a better grasp on true level than our eyes did. Water in our sink pooled port-side. My office chair, on coasters, drifted downhill.
Morning came, and we attempted to fix our unevenness — with all four slideouts open, something we’d never tried before. With three slides on the low slide, our efforts failed, only making the situation worse. It was a Groundhog Day deja vu.
Bob had to leave for an appointment, so I got a leg workout keeping my chair at my desk. After Bob’s return, we again attempted a fix, but this time with the slides closed. Still no luck — although we did succeed at getting more level than we had in the morning. Bob left to work at the B-25 maintenance hangar, and I got back to work.
At the end of my workday, we attacked the problem in earnest. Bob researched a solution and learned how to reset our auto-leveling system. We tried that. It didn’t seem to work right away, but we kept at it. After an hour, we completed our project, confident we had finally reached true level and our leveling challenges were behind us.
In the process, we learned our jack motors are just fine and formed a new plan of attack for getting level when we relocate to future sites.
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After our run-in with the authorities in northern Arizona, we relocated to the greater Phoenix area so Bob could pitch in on the annual heavy maintenance for the B-25 WWII bomber at the Commemorative Air Force. Being in the Valley of the Sun also provides ample opportunity to catch up with family and friends in the area.
Normally, when we set up the trailer, we get it situated and then press a button for it to magically auto-level itself. We did that like normal, but we kept getting an error. Tagalong would start to level but would quit before reaching that point. So, we tried again. And again. And again.
We had stayed at the same RV park last year and not encountered this problem. We couldn’t figure out why Tagalong couldn’t get his equilibrium.
The Doctor Is In
After two hours of the 90-degree sun beating on us, leaving us dehydrated, we finally enlisted the help of a park host. He recommended we give the leveling motors a rest and then slowly raise the trailer’s front legs, a little bit at a time. To do that, we needed to isolate the controls for the six stabilizing jacks.
Our Lippert Components auto leveling system has buttons for up, down, auto-level, retract all, and hitch height. The up and down buttons only control the front two stabilizers. A phone app lets us control the back and middle sets as well. But we needed even more control in this situation.
Bob crawled inside the storage compartment we affectionately call the cellar and played with the leveling system wires to get the rig to do what we wanted. We used a level to manually bring the trailer to a level state inch by inch. Much to our surprise, it worked.
Things Aren’t Always as They Appear
Relieved, we considered the job done and set up, connecting to electric, water, and sewer. When we went to open our stairs to get inside the rig, they hit the door frame, indicating we weren’t quite as level as we thought. The slideouts also resisted as we pushed them open. And, from the road, the trailer looked off side to side.
After the fiasco we had gone through to set up our rig in this location, we decided to leave it. After a few days like that, however, Bob worked on getting Tagalong more accurately level. And he succeeded in less than a half hour’s time — and even reprogrammed the Lippert system to know what level is. Now, the trailer looks and feels level.
We learned something vital in the process. Apparently, the nose of the trailer is supposed to be higher than the tail before attempting the auto-level feature. This came as news to us as there have been a number of times we didn’t follow that practice. Now we know.
Wanting our leveling challenges to be completely behind us, we face a dilemma:
Relocating every week or two makes for a lot of ups and downs for the jacks and their motors. Do we want to risk not being able to get level while boondocking in the middle of nowhere next year?
Our present location affords us the opportunity to receive a package of parts and the time to do the work to change out the motors and jacks. Bob has the mechanical know-how to complete the job. Perhaps that’s what we should do. The verdict is still out.
For now, we’re happy Tagalong is over his vertigo.
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That truth should have been enough to clue us in when we decided to set up camp in a parking area near an off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail in a national forest in northern Arizona. But it wasn’t.
We had scouted other potential camping spots in the area, but because we arrived on a rainy day, most were muddy. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck again.
After searching for and not finding any no camping signs in the OHV staging lot, we set up Tagalong in the deserted area. Its gravel-topped, mostly level surface offered a welcome alternative to the muddy spots.
A Knock at the Door
We experienced two days and two nights with no problems, other than a few cows inspecting our digs on their way to the rain-made water holes near us. Then on the third day, a Game and Fish truck arrived. It stopped at the bulletin board we had examined for no camping signs, so we didn’t think much of it. We had seen other cars pull up to the bulletin board too.
The game warden proceeded to another area a few yards away, where a vertical white “sign” stood. From there, he relocated to park directly in front of our rig. Then, a rap on our door announced his presence. The officer informed us we couldn’t camp in that location.
Bob explained that we didn’t see any signs stating we couldn’t. The officer pointed out a very faded one standing at the other end of the parking area — not near the prominent bulletin board full of pertinent information. He and Bob had a cordial conversation about trailers and hunting, and the officer graciously gave us until the next morning to find a new campsite.
On the Hunt
We closed Tagalong’s slideouts and hopped in Gulliver to scout a new location. The game warden had told us about some good spots on the other side of town, about a half hour away, that would have room for our big rig and offer the cell service needed for me to work successfully. We checked them out and seriously considered relocating to that area.
As we headed back to Tagalong, we decided to search more in the vicinity where we had already been parked. After all, it was closer to our longtime family friends, Neil and Leanna, who were the main reason we were in the area at all. To move to the other side of town would kind of defeat the purpose of our stay there.
We drove down another forest road and found a decent site, absent of no camping signs, that looked promising. But once again, it seemed too good to be true. We realized that since we would be in a pullout area off the road, we would still technically be on the road. And we didn’t want to get another visit from the game and fish officer, even though he was very nice.
So, we explored another site a short distance from Tagalong’s current location. Ironically, it was the first spot Neil and Leanna had shown us when we arrived in their neck of the woods. That day, the site had been quite muddy — and occupied by cows. This day, however, the sun had been out and dried much of the mud.
We hooked up Gulliver to Tagalong and relocated to the spot, thankful to still be camping for free. (A state campground in the area wanted $70 per night.)
Camping with the Cows
Ear-tagged cows roam the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in northern Arizona. They wander around, grazing on plant life, drinking from puddles, and chilling in fields. Evidently, we had crowded their territory when we set up our second campsite. And they let us know.
I watched them through our bedroom window as a couple of them rubbed their heads on Gulliver’s frame, looking for itch relief. When Bob heard they were near the truck, he opened the trailer door, and they bolted. He shooed the stragglers away to discourage them from hanging out with us.
The next morning, I spotted eight cows a few yards from our front door. When I opened the door to deter them from lingering, they just stared at me. As soon as I closed the door, they went back to their grazing. And then they moseyed on.
The cows were harmless, and we got along just fine. Their presence added to the wilderness ambiance of the site, which was farther off the main road and much quieter as a result. We were able to take advantage of hiking trails in the area and run our generators to charge our batteries without annoying anyone.
Although it got off to a rough start, our first solo boondocking experience in Tagalong, without Tom and Molly, turned out great.
One of the most important considerations when setting up an RV is how level the parking area is. We can take measures to prop up one side of our trailer or the other, but front to back is a different story.
Most RV refrigerators don’t work properly if the rig is more than 3 degrees unlevel. How do we know that? We had to look it up when we found ourselves 3 degrees off level while parked at our daughter Megan’s house in Tennessee.
When we arrived at our destination near Peoria, Illinois, to catch up with an old classmate of mine I hadn’t seen since high school, we kept that fact in the back of our minds. Wendy and her husband, Ted, invited us to moochdock on their property after reading about moochdocking on our blog. Wendy had warned me the property was sloped, but she sounded confident we’d be able to get mostly level.
After an hour of maneuvering in and out of different areas on the property, we finally settled on the most level spot: smack dab in the middle of their 80-yard-long driveway.
Knowing we’d need space to jockey into position, Ted and Wendy had moved their vehicles to the grass toward the front of the property before we arrived. But I’m pretty sure they had planned to move the cars closer to their house after we got settled. Because our home took up a chunk of their driveway, that was out. They were super gracious, though, to allow us to take over their driveway for a week.
How We Get Level
Once we get our rig pretty level side to side using our LevelMatePRO* device, we detach it from the truck, extend the middle and rear stabilizers and put pads under them, push a button, and watch the magic happen as the trailer levels itself using its Lippert Components automatic leveling system.
First, Tagalong levels front to back and then side to side. If the automatic leveler is unable to get level front to back, it flashes a red light and stops the whole procedure. And we’re stuck.
The problem? We can’t be more than 10 inches lower in the front than we are in the back before starting this process or the rig can’t level itself. With a nearly 42-foot-long coach, that’s not always attainable, which was the case at Ted and Wendy’s (and at Megan’s earlier in the year).
In this case, however, our LevelMatePRO confirmed our rig was pretty level front to back. (Tagalong tends to raise the front a little above level.) But, because the coach didn’t consider itself level, the middle stabilizers didn’t descend to the ground to stabilize the rig side to side.
When we experienced a similar situation at Megan’s, but on a larger and scarier scale, we purchased some Camco Stack Jacks* to prop under the rig to add some stability. Those came in handy in this situation. We also secured our tripod stabilizer in place to add more contact points with the ground for even better support. And, we always use X-Chocks* between the two tires for an added layer of stabilization.
After overcoming the leveling challenges, we set up our home for the week and caught up with Wendy and Ted. They taught us a new card game: a variation of golf. Instead of playing with nine cards per player where you try to get the lowest score, we played with four cards — for 18 rounds: the front nine and the back nine. It’s a much faster-moving game that quickly became part of our nightly routine while there.
Friends in Low Places
Ted and Wendy live on a beautiful piece of property in a farm country hollow. Because it’s a hollow, it’s not subject to severe storms such as tornadoes, but neither does it have superb internet or cellphone access. Knowing Wendy successfully worked from home, I hadn’t thought to ask about that before our arrival.
People in the area rely on DSL for their internet. DSL uses phone land lines to carry data, so it’s always on. Unfortunately, speeds can fluctuate, making it a less than ideal option for remote work. The connection made for decent internet most of the time, but it didn’t work so well for my Zoom meetings. (Ted and Wendy have issues with it on occasion, too.)
We attached our 25-foot cellphone booster antenna to the side of Tagalong, which helped some, but not a lot. After facing torturously slow speeds for a couple of days, I packed up my laptop and went to a local library to get through my workday. It’s nice to have options, and we’ve learned to roll with the punches and be flexible as a result of our RV lifestyle.
It’s All About People
Our leveling and internet troubles have all been worth it to get to see friends and family across the country we haven’t seen in months or years — friends like Ted and Wendy.
After leaving their place, we met some more wonderful people as part of Boondockers Welcome who quickly became friends. We spent a night at their expansive farm on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin.
Upon our arrival, seven Great Pyrenees dogs greeted us, along with their owner. Also known as livestock guard dogs (LGDs), the pack we saw only represented half of the LGDs on the property whose job is to protect the cattle and sheep from coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions.
Our hosts invited us to join them for dinner in the small town. Over spaghetti and wings, we chatted about their farm, their Boondockers Welcome experiences, and our lifestyle. They plan to sell the farm and become full-time RVers.
A short drive the next day afforded us a super relaxing morning. We sipped coffee outside while reading and taking in the views around us, feeling extremely blessed at the experiences we get to enjoy and thankful for the best travel day ever.
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It should have been an easy brake job. Bob had all the parts to replace the trailer brakes and the mechanical know-how to get the job done. The problem was trying to lift all of Tagalong’s 17,000 pounds to get the tires off.
Bob had successfully jacked up the trailer before to grease the axles. We had hooked it up to Gulliver for better stability and carefully raised Tagalong’s back end. Bob had also succeeded in lifting Tagalong when we needed to change a flat tire.
When Bob attempted to lift Tagalong this time, however, I received a text message while working across the street at my cousin’s house: “I broke the trailer. Come see.”
Thoughts flooded my mind as I made the short trek across the street. “Oh no! That’s our home!” “At least we’re with family and have time before we plan to journey on.” “That’s more good fodder for the blog.”
Jacking the Trailer: Take 2
The pressure of Tagalong’s weight against the jack ended up breaking the welding joint of a metal beam spanning the trailer’s underside. Fortunately for us, the farm mechanics were having a slow day, and one of them had time to re-weld the joint on our trailer.
After that, Bob tried a different method for his second attempt at raising the trailer. To make up for the gap between the jack and Tagalong’s main structural I-beam, he used an 8-inch section of a 6x6 beam. As the beam took on Tagalong’s heavy weight, it couldn’t stand up under the pressure and split in two pieces, rapidly dropping the trailer back down. Thankfully, Bob stayed safe during that ordeal.
The difference between this time and the previous successes of lifting the trailer had to do with the ground. Here, we started from an uneven rather than level surface. Plus, it had rained recently, which only complicated matters by making the ground softer than normal.
We decided not to attempt the brakes a third time but to get professional help. Because Bob had planned to do the work, we had all of the parts. That meant we’d only have to pay for labor. A local place about 10 minutes away offered the service we needed but had a reputation for not getting to jobs quickly. We wanted to be homeless for as little time as possible.
Dropping off your home is an eerie and humbling feeling. And this time, we left Gulliver too. We reminded the shop techs they had everything we owned, and then we watched one of them drive our earthly belongings away, leaving us with the clothes on our backs and a few things we had taken to my cousin’s house.
It brought me back to the age of 10, when I stood with my family as we watched the mobile home we had lived in for a year drive down the street and out of our lives. We had rebounded from that short time of homelessness just fine, so I had hope Bob and I would rebound from this one too.
A Blessing in Disguise
One day at the shop stretched into two. Bob got a call notifying him that our trailer would definitely be ready for pickup by the end of that second day. But a subsequent call informed us of a new discovery. The shop successfully changed the brakes and the wheel bearings, but the trailer brakes still weren’t grabbing. A larger problem loomed, but the techs wouldn’t be able to troubleshoot it until the following day.
This explained the problem we first noticed when leaving our daughter Megan’s in Tennessee. The electric trailer brakes didn’t grab like they should — a huge safety issue. We were able to increase the grabbing power of the brakes and stop when needed, but this new discovery confirmed the brakes themselves weren’t at fault. Rather, the issue lay with the wiring or a connection.
Had Bob succeeded in changing the trailer brakes, we would have presumed the trailer was good to go. We wouldn’t have attempted to use the brakes until hooking up the trailer to Gulliver and leaving for our next destination. So, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that we ran into so many issues with trying to change the brakes.
The techs replaced a small section of faulty wiring and, after three days, we got our home back. This whole experience left us with immense gratitude — for our safety, our home, Ethan who welded the beam back together, my cousin Debbie's hospitality in our time of homelessness, and the professionals who discovered, troubleshot, and repaired the source of the problem. God is good.
We never thought we’d get stuck … especially in a state campground. But, after trying to maneuver into our Traverse City, Michigan, campsite from a very narrow road, we decided to attempt a different approach.
Bob pulled into the empty site across from us and tried to back Tagalong in from there. As he did, Gulliver’s dually tires dug into the soil until they were spinning but not moving the truck. We excavated some of the soft sand, put wood planks in front of the tires, and tried again. They still didn’t grab.
Desperate, we replaced the planks with firewood we had brought with us from our previous stop to build a platform in front of the tires. Still no traction. We were so stuck that we needed help to get out.
Campers tend to be friendly, helpful people, and the campers in Traverse City didn’t disappoint. Bob found a guy with a Ford truck who was more than willing to try to pull our Dodge Ram and trailer out of the sand. We only needed a tow strap.
Another camper on a bicycle stopped — mostly because we were blocking the road, but also because he wanted to watch. He said he had a tow strap and zipped off to get it. After he returned, the guys hooked the strap between the front of Gulliver and the back of the first guy’s truck. That did the trick and pulled our truck up out of the soft sand. Whew!
We attempted once again to back into our campsite. And, once again, we got stuck in the same soft sand. By now, a third good Samaritan, Ernie, had joined the party and offered to pull us out with his GMC 4x4, wanting to show up the Ford — and eager to keep the cyclist from going to get his Toyota.
The GMC, like the Ford, succeeded. But we still couldn’t get into our site without our tires digging into the sand.
A New Tactic
Ernie recommended we unhitch the trailer and reposition the truck to where it would be out of the sand before reconnecting. That would mean we’d have to connect to the trailer from a side angle rather than directly in front of it, something we’d never attempted. But Ernie, who had a fifth wheel about the same size as ours, had done it before. What did we have to lose?
We unhitched, leaving our trailer sticking out in the road, and Bob moved Gulliver. To prevent another tailgate mishap with the trailer in tow, we removed the tailgate. Reconnecting the truck to the trailer at an angle worked and enabled Bob to pull Tagalong forward — away from the super soft sand — and get enough running room to back into our campsite. What a relief!
I would have been happy just to leave the trailer right there and set up camp. But, to prevent getting stuck again when leaving, we realized we needed to finagle Tagalong for an easy getaway. So, Bob moved the truck forward and backward time after time after time to get our very long trailer situated just right to give us the best chance at success.
More than two hours after arriving at the campground, we finally parked in our campsite and unhitched from the truck for the week.
4 Lessons Learned
After our frustrations died down and we were able to evaluate the situation, we realized four valuable takeaways:
1. Always carry a tow strap.
When we purchased Gulliver, we purposely got him without four-wheel drive, thinking it unnecessary and not wanting to spend the gas mileage for a nice-to-have. We didn’t regret that decision until this day. Similarly, we didn’t think we had any use for a tow strap.
We’ve since ordered a heavy-duty tow strap and will pick it up at our next location. If we ever find ourselves in a similar situation to this one — and we hope we never do — we’ll be better prepared.
2. Check the soil before parking.
We had no idea the ground we were attempting to drive on would completely give way, but we could tell by looking it was soft. Next time, we’ll get out and assess the terrain closely before attempting to pull our 17,000-pound trailer onto it.
3. Think outside the box.
Sometimes, to find the best solution to a problem, you have to look at the situation from a different angle. Taking the advice and experience of our friendly camping neighbor, Ernie, we learned to look at our fifth wheel kingpin and hitch at a different angle — and realized we don’t always have to square the truck to the trailer to connect it. After all, the kingpin is round.
4. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool.
No one wants to be the campground entertainment, those campers everyone stops what they’re doing to watch. But that’s what we were that day. One couple even got their lawn chairs out to enjoy the festivities.
We looked like newbies rather than full-time RVers who’ve been on the road for more than a year. Our pride got in the way, resulting in embarrassment. And that only added to our frustration throughout the parking ordeal.
We all have hard days we can learn from. Perhaps our experience will help someone else in the future.
When leaving on an RV journey, it’s vital to know the condition of your rig. If anything’s in need of repair before you depart, it will more than likely be in need of greater repair if not addressed before hitting the road. This is a lesson we learned early on, and it has certainly helped us keep tabs on our rig and fix issues before they ballooned.
The TV antenna on our roof is an excellent example. Unfortunately, when we left Louisiana in haste to stay ahead of unpleasant weather, we failed to notice our leaning antenna. We did observe that the antenna direction controller inside the trailer didn’t stop like it should have, but we didn’t look further into it. From outside, we could see that the antenna faced the proper direction, so we considered it good to go.
Looking back at pictures from right before we left, however, the issue was apparent. And it likely wouldn’t have been the big problem it became the following morning had we addressed it right then.
Thankfully, we spotted it before we completely lost the antenna off our roof. If that had happened, it would have left a gaping hole for rain to get into and cause all kinds of damage.
Electric Cord Cover
We don’t only walk around the trailer before setting out on a trip, but we also check things every time we stop at a gas station or rest area, just as truckers do. At one fuel stop, we discovered our electric cord cover had completely blown off our rig somewhere between upper-state New York and Massachusetts. We ensured the security of our electric cord, which was all we could do, and continued on our way. We ordered a replacement cover delivered to our next destination.
Our walkarounds have also led to the discovery of protruding and missing screws on the skirting around the trailer. Sometimes, retightening is enough to keep the screws in place. Other times, that fix is a short-term solution that has to be reinforced with tape. When tape fails, we have to completely replace screws with nuts and bolts to keep the screws from drilling their way out.
Why do screws protrude? Every time we drive the trailer anywhere, it experiences an earthquake that shakes and rattles everything in and attached to it. The vibrations of tires hitting the road — especially bumpy roads — is enough to slowly push screws out of their tightened positions.
Brake Cable Connector
Another walkaround saved us from losing our emergency brake cable on the trailer. One end of the cable is secured to the underside of the trailer overhanging the truck. The other end attaches around the fifth-wheel hitch in the bed of the truck so that if the trailer becomes disconnected, the trailer brakes will be applied.
Once again, protruding screws allowed excess movement of the brake cable connector attachment on the trailer. We spotted the issue and were able to fix it with larger screws.
Tonneau Cover Clips
When not towing, we cover the bed of our truck with a Tonneau cover. When we are towing, the cover folds four times to expose the hitch in the truck bed. The cover came with straps to secure it open, but they were made with subpar quality. In other words, they really didn’t hold the cover in place to keep it from flipping closed.
We replaced the original straps with some Velcro straps that wrapped around U brackets, but the new straps gave out during travel. When stopped at a Cabela’s parking lot for an overnight stay, we headed into the store on a mission to find a replacement for the Velcro straps.
We rigged a solution with straps that attach to a locking carabiner clip, and we added some pyramid-shape hardware to the truck cover to secure the clips in place. We haven’t had any trouble since.
As you can imagine, a walkround won’t reveal troublesome noises on a rig. Having bought new shoes for Tagalong in Tennessee, we were fortunate to be backing up the trailer in a Walmart parking lot before heading north to our next destination. I say fortunate because if we hadn’t been backing up, I wouldn’t have been outside the truck to help Bob and heard an awful grinding noise on our rig, indicating something clearly wasn’t right.
Bob thought maybe the brakes were at fault. We switched places so he could hear the noise. Megan helped us pinpoint its side of origin, and we quickly homed in on the problem: Part of our trailer skirting was rubbing against the new front, driver-side tire.
“Did Discount Tire do something wrong when installing the new tires?” we wondered. Perhaps the tech had jacked up the rig in the wrong place. Whatever the cause, we clearly had an issue that needed addressing before our 600-mile journey.
Upon closer examination, we learned some screws were missing to attach the skirting to the trailer frame. We always travel with lots of tools, so Bob quickly remedied the situation, securing the piece to the frame and away from the tire so we could get on our way.
We thanked God for watching out for us. If we hadn’t been trying to back up in a parking lot, we wouldn’t have discovered the issue until much more damage had been done to our new tires.
Pre-travel walkarounds have saved us from many incidents that could have inflicted serious damage to our rig, our truck, and even ourselves. The importance of that practice cannot be understated.
This is the travel blog of Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong. We live on the road full time, enjoying all the adventures that come our way.