with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

If It’s Going to Break Down, It Will Invariably Happen in a Small Town On a Saturday Night

Graphic of working on car in snowIt never fails. In fact, you can count on it. If it’s going to break down it will invariably happen in a small town on a Saturday night. Every time. The corollary is that it the greater the hurry you are in, the longer it will take to get the parts.

Shredded tire from our trailer, photo by Lorelle VanFossenWe’ve traveled 60,000 miles since December of 1996 and this is the story of our life. You know all those curls of tread alongside the highways? Well, we’ve donated to the cause. Leaving the beautiful Buffalo National River in Arkansas, only two hours from Tulsa, Oklahoma, we were anxious to see family after five months on the road. Hearing a train noise, Lorelle looked in the side mirror to find our 30 foot fifth wheel trailer driving on three wheels. The fourth one was banging along the highway, absent of tread. We were already using our spare, and the tire it replaced hadn’t Brent repairs the shredded trailer tirebeen fixed yet. Of course it was 4:00 PM on a Saturday. We put on the leaky tire, filled it with air and limped to a Wal-Mart for tire plugs. Even with a plug, the leak continued and we stopped every few miles to add more air. We arrived in Tulsa six hours later.

Driving the Alaska Highway, we over-prepared and planned for just about any contingency. Almost to the Alaska, we started to relax. Big mistake. We arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon, on a Saturday afternoon. Sure enough, the truck started making weird noises and losing power. We informed the campground hosts that we were there for the weekend and not just the night as planned. Eight o’clock on Monday morning found us at a service station with a burned up transmission.

graphic of a car liftArkansas, Alaska, and even in South and North Carolina the rule holds true. In South Carolina the front leg gears on the trailer gave out on a Friday night as we were trying to leave. We thought our luck had changed until the repair shop informed us it would be six days before the parts would arrive. The part arrived on Thursday and was installed on Friday with plans to leave early Saturday morning. Friday night brought grinding noises from the back wheels of the truck. Instead of traveling to the next state or exploring the famous Saturday markets and old downtown Charleston, we spent nine hours waiting for rear brake repairs. Two weeks later, on Friday afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina, Brent came rushing into the trailer announcing a favorite folk singer of ours, Christine Lavin, was performing in Winston-Salem. On route, the truck overheated. Two hours later, after taping up a hard-to-reach water hose, we gave up and returned home. This time we spent another Saturday in graphic of a truck under repairanother repair shop for six hours replacing water hoses and a water pump. A week later we were back in the same shop on a Saturday fixing the hole they put in the radiator.

The stories go on and on. The truth is, if it is Saturday afternoon and you want to be somewhere, the odds are against you. So what can you do?

Never do anything when you are in a temper,
For you will do everything wrong.
Baltasar Gracian

Planning for a Breakdown

Brent inspects the oil and water in the truck engine, by Lorelle VanFossenThere are no right or wrong ways to handle an emergency or breakdown. Getting upset and yelling at your family, though, makes the experience more unpleasant and doesn’t change a thing. When you break down, everyone with you is as disappointed, frustrated and angry as you are. How you respond to the situation impacts their response. Take a moment to catch your breath and make the best out of a bad situation.

Part of making a plan for breakdowns is to be prepared. What do you need in case of an emergency and what should you bring with you? Think of how everyone can pitch in to help. By preparing ahead of time, everyone knows what to do and the stress level drops. Here are a few tips:

Spares and Backups
Carry spare tires, batteries, fan belts, light bulbs. If it can break, bring extras. We must have 5 flashlights. At any one time, only one will work and that is the one we can’t find. Extra batteries are always in need for the dead flashlights we do find. Have some kind of backup system. We have a generator for power outages. We carry bicycles for enjoyment and emergency transportation. We carry extra radiator hoses, clamps, battery cables, fan belts, light bulbs, and all kinds of things frequently replaced. Think of all the parts you may need, especially the hard to find items, and make sure you are well stocked up.
Carry Tools and Repair Supplies
Duct tape, electrician’s tape, hammers, and screwdrivers; bring all the tools and devices that will help you to either fix it yourself or at least hold it together until you can get help. Duct tape has rescued many a traveler. Nothing is more fun that tearing a hole in your trailer siding. In that case, duct tape held us together until we could get it repaired.
Assign Responsibilities
Since you know trouble happens, make plans. Who will walk for help? Who will stay behind? Who will put out the flares or warning signs? Who will direct traffic? If you understand how you work together, each person will have their task and be calmer. When everyone has something to do, all feel involved and a part of the solution, calming tempers and smoothing feathers.
Make Patience an Art
graphic of a car being repairedBe willing to wait. You don’t have much choice. We’ve spent hours in the dull waiting rooms of service stations, tire stores and repair facilities. When they are close to a mall or movie theater, we walk around or see a movie. Otherwise, we always carry books and magazines to read, or bring our laptop to get work done.
Make It Fun
Knowing that trouble happens and having a plan, find something to make the experience enjoyable. Getting stuck in a freak snowstorm in Denver, the truck was buried under four to six foot snow drifts. When the storm cleared, we played in the snow and built a giant snow sculpture, attracting neighbors up and down the street. Stuck in Whitehorse, we road our bikes through town and found the library, spending the afternoon reading and researching on their free Internet connection.
Carry Extra Funds
If you can find a willing repair shop on a Saturday or Sunday, odds are they want cash. Be ready with traveler’s checks or cash, enough to get you out of trouble. Tow truck drivers, unless you have a good insurance program, will only take cash. You never know when you will find yourself in a ditch.
Check In
If you are stuck somewhere and people are waiting on you or if you can’t keep your campground reservation, let them know. Caught up in the drama of the trauma, you may forget you have a responsibility to not let them worry about you.
Everyone Wants to Help
Sometimes it seems like your breakdown is the most exciting thing “to happen around here in ages.” Everyone gathers to watch. You may be grateful for their help, but too many helpers can slow down the job and raise tempers. Thank them and be kind, no matter how much you want to swing a tire jack at them. If you are a watcher, stand back and only give advice when requested.


Graphic of a help signAt some point, you have to trust people. Most people are more than willing to help. On the Alaska Highway during another breakdown, help arrived before we even slowed to a stop in the form of a young man on his way to a military station. Brent went with him to the nearest town 20 miles away and Lorelle took the opportunity to get some work done in the trailer. After numerous people stopped to offer help, Lorelle finally put a sign in the window that said, “Don’t stop! Thanks, we have help!” It didn’t stop them from stopping out of concern and eagerness to help, but it made her feel better.

People who travel the highways and byways often think the same thing when they see someone in trouble: “That could be me.” We’ve experienced and witnessed incredible acts of kindness and courage to save a stranger on the road. Remember that life on the road can be the best of times and the worst of times. How you handle the problems can make the difference in how successful and relaxed your adventure is.


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