The RV Trip from Hell:  A Rite of Passage – Part 1

Anyone who has spent any time at all in an RV can appreciate this story of the RV Trip from Hell.  There is a certain rite of passage that each of us must endure in order to claim the title of “RV-er.”  Things go wrong – and not in a small way.  When things go wrong in an RV the problems range from potentially deadly to downright disgusting.  This is a story of my very first RV trip and my own rite of passage – the humorous, the frustrating, the nearly deadly, and the really, really, really gross.

How I Decided to Take an RV Trip

It had been a long time since I had had a vacation, and when a friend of mine mentioned to me that she had recently visited the Grand Tetons it stuck in my head that I’d like to visit.  I went about planning to fly up to Jackson Hole for a couple of weeks, but just before I finalized the plane reservations I decided that I wanted to do a road trip instead.  Something about missing all of the things between Little Rock and Jackson Hole didn’t sit right with me.  I had not yet taken a road trip that direction and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see lots of new things along the way.

After spending a few hours on the computer finding the cost of hotel rooms along the way, I quickly realized that it would not be a cheap trip.  Wouldn’t it be better to just sleep in the car?  If it were just me, that would be one thing but my travel companion, not being a small guy, would not enjoy that so much.

A little more thought led me to another possibility…what about renting an RV?  I made a few calls to find out about the costs, and learned that would also be pretty costly since RV rental fees are partially determined by mileage.  Jackson Hole was rather far from Arkansas, and knowing my tendency to wander far off the beaten path in addition to my complete inability to stick to an itinerary – no matter how vague, it was becoming even less likely that renting an RV would be a possibility.

When I made a comment about the high cost of mileage to one of the RV rental places, the salesperson suggested that renting a travel trailer might be a better option – provided I had a truck capable of pulling one.  As it so happened, I did.  I had just purchased a Ford F350 diesel for use in my business.  That would be more than sufficient for towing, so I told them my travel partner and I would be by later that day to select the unit we would take.

After viewing several models, we decided on one in particular that appeared to be in good shape and had more than ample living space.  The travel trailer we selected was a 31’ model.  It was more than we needed, but the layout seemed to be the best of all of the choices for our needs.  The sales/rental guy said that we had chosen the newest one that they had.  It had only been used once, he was sure to point out, by the owner of the dealership, no less.  The owner had used it for a few months as a temporary lake house and had just brought it back.  As a matter of fact, he added, the guys had just finished cleaning it.

RV’ing 101:  A Quick Tutorial

When we arrived to pick up the travel trailer we were asked if either of us had ever taken a trip in an RV before.  We hadn’t, so we got the quick run-down on how everything worked – how to turn on the propane fridge, how to hook up and empty the black and grey water tanks (where used shower/sink & toilet water are held), how to operate the slides, how 12V vs. 110V power worked, using the scissor jacks to level it and why that is important, etc.

One thing in particular that was brought to our attention was the pressure reducer and regulator that we were supposed to put on when we connected the water at an RV park.  The man giving us the walk-through mentioned that water pressure could vary wildly at RV parks.  He emphasized that the water pressure was unpredictable and often surged, causing extremely high pressure, and that such high pressure could blow out the plumbing connections in the RV.

We were given the opportunity to rent a generator, but I had just purchased a big one for my business.  I decided to use it.  It would be overkill, but I had already spent money on it so why spend money on renting yet another one?

Overall, the RV’ing 101 lesson we received seemed pretty straightforward.  I signed off on the paperwork and within an hour or so we hooked up and headed home to load our gear.

Heading Out – Squirrel!!

Stuff ready to be loaded into the RV

Stuff ready to be loaded into the RV

It took a while to get all of the stuff loaded and stored securely for being underway.  Everything from dishes to toiletries needed to be put in their proper spots to keep them from moving about as we drove.  As a result, we set out rather late in the day.

Fortunately, my travel companion was pretty easy-going and let me dictate our route.  I normally travel alone, and this is one of the reasons why.  The deal is, you can tag along and you can suggest things, but don’t argue with me.  If you don’t want to go where I intend to go on a whim, you’d best have an alternate way to get home.  (Not joking!)

I’m good at compromising at about everything else in life.  My highly erratic travel itinerary is not up for debate, however.  If I set my mind to it, I will bring to bear every fiber of my being to make it happen.  I become an unstoppable force of nature.  I will get to said random destination, “come hell or high water.” (I’m from Arkansas.  We speak in idioms.)

Within about half an hour I had already found our first major detour.  Instead of going directly to Wyoming, we would first go north to South Dakota.  Why? Because when I was reviewing the map of the US, my eyes drifted across the state of South Dakota and I saw Badlands National Park (squirrel!).  I had always wanted to see the Badlands – as in since grade school.  It was one of the things on my bucket list.

Here I was with the open road before me and something I wanted to see merely inches away from our original destination.  Those “mere inches” translated into about 9 hours of extra driving time, but that mattered not.  This bucket list item was within my reach, and I was going to go and claim it (come hell or high water).

Night #1:  Our First Problem

Owing to our late start, we didn’t make it very far – just inside of the southern Missouri border.  We had heard that you can often stay in Walmart parking lots overnight if you are RV’ing, and not wanting to pay $40 for a few hours at an RV park, we decided to give it a shot.  After a bit of searching, we found a Walmart not far off of the freeway and pulled over.

We still didn’t quite have a handle on the things that ran off of 12V and things that needed 110V.  After testing out a few things we determined that we needed to run the generator for a while to get some 110V power.  There wasn’t anyone around to be bothered and we were well away from the store at the back of an empty parking lot, so we decided to fire up the brand new generator for a few minutes.

It started right up and went into a nice humming rhythm.  We looked around to see if anyone seemed to take notice.  Nope.  Realizing that no one could hear us, we plugged in and went inside to use our glorious 110V power.  We tested several things, but they still weren’t coming on.

drained battery

Our phones and laptops weren’t charging, so that was a pretty sure sign that we weren’t getting the power we needed.  Maybe there was a switch or something we were supposed to throw that they had not mentioned to us.  We looked around, but could find no such critter.

We went back outside and checked the connections and everything looked correct, but clearly the power wasn’t making it to the inside of the coach.  We decided to plug a hair dryer into the generator directly to bypass the cords leading into the travel trailer.  Still no joy.  Even though we didn’t have a voltmeter with us (bad idea) we knew that the generator was malfunctioning.  Something was not converting its output to electricity.  We were just running a loud, stinky motor.

We’d be out of the 110V power that we needed that night, but there was a Home Depot just down the street so we decided to try to swap it out there the next morning.  We had bought our generator at a Home Depot in Little Rock, so hopefully they would be able to locate the sales record via serial number or something.  Naturally, we didn’t have our receipt with us, so it would be a crap shoot as to whether or not we would be successful in exchanging it.

Our Second Problem:  The Smell

No sooner had we gone to bed that night than I was overcome by the smell of what most certainly had to be the toilet.  The stench was powerful, to put it mildly.  To make matters worse, I have the nose of a bloodhound.  So, what my travel companion could barely make out was causing me to gag.

We were sure to keep a few gallons of water in the black tank as we had been instructed by the dealership.  Supposedly this was so that the fumes would not climb the pipe into the toilet, releasing a foul odor into to the inner sanctum of the travel trailer.  Clearly, it wasn’t as effective as we had been led to believe.

For the life of me, I could not understand how people chose to live with this smell.  Was my sense of smell was getting even more sensitive?  My travel companion could smell it a bit, but his nose was always clogged, so it didn’t bother him very much. I decided that this was going to be a very long trip.

Exchanging the Generator

We met with a very nice manager the next morning who empathized with us and was able to determine that we had indeed just bought the generator at a Home Depot.  Sweet!

While he was willing to make a swap, there was a small problem.  Of course.

Our generator was a brand that was not distributed to the Home Depots in Missouri.  They apparently had a totally different distribution channel than the one in Little Rock.  Crap.

After much pleading on our part, explaining that we HAD to have this for our trip, the manager had mercy upon us.  He made a few phone calls and got approval from corporate for him to accept the return.  In exchange, we agreed to get a nicer model to make sure he had a bit of profit to help ease any costs he might encounter returning it.  Owning a retail store, I was aware that this can be a major hassle and may have some cost involved – especially with such a large, heavy item.  He greatly appreciated the offer to upgrade.

The brand new generator for the RV loaded up and ready to go.

The brand new generator for the RV loaded up and ready to go.

All loaded up with a nice brand new and working generator, we continued our trip north.  Once again we didn’t get very far because we had spent quite a bit of time sorting out the generator issue.  Also, it is exhausting driving a big rig – much harder on the driver than driving a car – and we were both pretty tired.  Needing a good solid night’s sleep, we opted this particular night to stay in an RV park in northern Missouri.  We pulled in, got our power and water hooked up, put our slides, opened all the windows and hatches to vent the odor out and prepared to make dinner.

Night #2 – Troubleshooting the Smell

As we prepared for bed and closed up the windows, I was overcome again by the putrid smell of feces that made our travel trailer smell like a stinky outhouse.  I absolutely *had* to figure out what was causing this smell right then and there.  It had to be fixed immediately or we would have to go home.

There was no way I could spend two weeks in this rig.  It was so bad that I was considering sleeping in the truck this particular night.  Frankly, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t handle what millions of retired couples dealt with every day.  Maybe they were so old that they couldn’t smell it and this is why it was mostly only old people who RV’ed long term.  It seemed to be a reasonable hypothesis.

Although we had been told that the tanks had been emptied and flushed at the dealership, a claim that I no longer believed, we hooked up the waste hose and drained what little waste was in the black tank.  We flushed the toilet a number of times and drained it again.  The smell did not go away.  In fact, it seemed to intensify.

We opened all the windows, hatches, and the door and let the travel trailer air out – again.  Then, using my bloodhound sense of smell, I nauseatingly tried to sniff around and locate the exact origin of the smell.  Perhaps, I thought, we were assuming it was the toilet and the problem was actually elsewhere.  That would explain why our efforts to drain and flush the black tank had not made any difference.

On all fours, I crawled around the travel trailer, sniffing every crevice and corner – opening every cabinet and even sniffing the sink and shower drains.  Nothing.  Then, I came to the toilet.  Still on hands and knees, I sniffed around it – above, behind, beside, and down at the base where it connected to the floor.  The odor was coming from here.  There was no doubt about it.

RV toilet - note the flap covering the drain that prevents waste and odors from coming back up into the RV. To flush, you push the lever on the side down with your foot. This opens the flap and activates the water flow.

RV toilet – note the flap covering the drain that prevents waste and odors from coming back up into the RV. To flush, you push the lever on the side down with your foot. This opens the flap and activates the water flow.

In the dim light of the bathroom fixture, I tried my best to look in and around the toilet for any evidence of leaks.  Maybe there was a crack and it was in the floor or something.  I couldn’t see anything, and the floor (fortunately) was not wet.  Finally, I got a flashlight, put up the seat, held my breath, and stuck my head as far as I dared down in the bowl to get a better look.

I depressed the lever to open the flap which allowed the toilet contents to fall down into the tube which led to the black tank.  I couldn’t really see anything.  I moved away, came back, and repeated the process.  This time, instead of looking straight down, I looked sideways as best I could.


It was really hard to see because of the angle, but around the top rim of the opening to the tube that led to the black tank, leading back up under the bowl from the opening, there was a space.  It’s hard to explain, but the best way to describe it would be to tell you to imagine a sink with the drain removed.  If you stuck your fingers through the drain hole and tried to close your hand, you would feel the underside of the sink.

Now, imagine that the drain pipe for the sink was attached, but was much bigger than normal – say about 4” in diameter.  As such, it would not join the sink at the drain opening, rather it would join the sink about where your fingers could reach when they were stuck through the drain and folded back.  That is how the drain pipe for the toilet joined the bottom of the toilet bowl.

In the space around the opening in the bottom of the toilet going upwards (yes, upwards around the bowl) to where the drain pipe met the bowl, was a ton of compacted toilet paper and feces.  How in the world did all this stuff get stuck up under there?  Did gravity stop working at some point and I didn’t get the memo?

Only in retrospect can I piece together what must have caused this.  The previous inhabitant, who was the owner of the RV dealership as you might recall, literally must have not emptied the black tank until the waste climbed up several inches into the bowl.  I presume that he must have driven it back to the dealership intent on dumping it there so as to save a $5 dumping fee elsewhere.

Driving the travel trailer around would have churned everything up and allowed toilet paper and feces to rise up to this area.  It was also clear that he wasn’t using any type of digesting enzyme because this toilet paper and poop were quite solid.  Furthermore, due to the location of the impaction, flushing the toilet would have had no effect on removing it. This is because the water would have no reason to go anywhere but down (unless, of course I did miss that gravity memo).  There is literally no other way this waste could have climbed back up under the bowl during regular flushing.

So there the waste sat, putrefying and waiting for me to remove it.  This wouldn’t be a pleasant job, but least I had found the problem.

How NOT To Fix This Particular RV Toilet Problem

We had only brought one set of dishwashing gloves for connecting and disconnecting the waste hose, and I wasn’t keen on sticking those into the poop in order to dig it out by hand.  I decided instead to use our hose to try to flush it out by directing the stream a bit sideways.  My thought was that even though I couldn’t get to all of it, I could get to some of it and the added lubrication and weight from the water would cause the impaction to fall into the black tank.

This would be a two-person operation.  We couldn’t connect our hose to the sink, so we had to connect to the spigot outside and run the hose through one of the windows.  My travel companion would be positioned outside at the spigot and I would handle the business end of things.

Seeing as how I was much smaller than him and the fact that there wasn’t a lot of room to work, I would be the better choice.  I’m not a terribly squeamish person, but cleaning up someone else’s poo is never fun.  If it would fix the problem, then I’d take one for the team.

Being in such a cramped space, much like an airplane bathroom, I needed both hands to hold the hose in the right position since it only barely reached the toilet.  The dim light above was woefully insufficient, so I stuck my flashlight in my mouth to help me better see where to aim.  It wasn’t easy holding the flashlight in my mouth due to it’s size.  It wasn’t one of those tiny MagLites that is about the diameter of your finger, nor was it the size of the old-style hand-held flashlights of the 1980’s.  It was somewhere in between – say about the size of a thick beer bottle neck – maybe a bit bigger.

Fortunately, the flashlight had some sort of rubberized grip on it so I was able to grab ahold with my teeth to steady it.  I yelled out the order to my travel companion (who is a little bit hard of hearing, and who was far away and outside) to give me 5 seconds to prepare and then to turn on the hose.

This is where things went horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.

Kneeling there beside the toilet, flashlight in mouth, hose at the ready, I felt the hose shudder to life as a sudden and tremendously forceful blast of water, something akin to a small version of a fire hose, burst forth.  It spewed in an uncontrolled manner at my target of toilet paper and feces, proving in all its might that Newton’s Third Law was, indeed, still true.  (There was apparently no memo sent out reversing Newton’s Third Law of Motion.)

“For every action,” Newton stated, “there will be an equal and opposite reaction.”  And so it came to pass that the toilet paper and, more importantly, the feces were dislodged from their resting places and launched with equal and opposite force back in the direction of the stream of water – at my face…and gaping mouth, which being held wide open by the flashlight, prevented me from immediately snapping it shut.

Spitting out the flashlight and doing my best to redirect the mini firehose in any direction other than at the fecal matter which was now dislodging and beginning to fall rapidly down the drain, gagging and spitting, I yelled at my travel companion to shut off the hose.  Either he wasn’t paying attention or couldn’t hear me over the ensuing chaos, or both – I’m really not sure what was happening on his end – but, the hose didn’t shut off.  It continued to spray in every possible direction as I wretched and heaved.

In between heaves I tried to call out again in vain, but the mini fire hose continued to spray.  I tried as best I could to direct it in a manner that neither reflected poop at me, nor sent water spraying all over the bathroom, but nothing worked.  Finally, I thought to release the opened flap at the bottom of the bowl to solve the poop problem, so the only place to aim was directly into the bowl.  This would have been fine if the pressure weren’t so strong.  However, in this case, the force of the water mimicked the parabolic shape of the bowl and sprayed out around the rim in every possible direction, soaking me and the entire bathroom.

I continued my attempts to yell to shut off the water, and after what seemed a small eternity, the ever-so-soon-to-be-ex travel companion turned off the hose and wandered casually into the rig to check on my “progress.”

What he found looked something akin to Ground Zero after 9/11.  Water, feces, soaked wads of toilet paper, and some vomit now covered every surface of me and the tiny bathroom.  What I would give now for a picture of that moment – him in utter disbelief and me, enraged, soaked, covered in feces, and puking.  It’s one of those moments that is only funny in retrospect.  I’m sure that time will come, eventually.

When he finally managed to find his voice, he muttered something or the other about how the guy at the RV place must have been right about it being a good idea to use the pressure reducer.

I’m not in the RV manufacturing business, but I’m pretty sure that this particular RV must have been built with scraps left over from the space shuttle program because I went nuclear – yet, the RV did not incinerate.

We cleaned up the mess and put on the pressure regulator.  This time, *he* was assigned to the business end of the hose until the job was complete.  Meanwhile, I waited 45 minutes for water to heat for me to take a shower.  Surely, I thought, this would be the last misadventure we would have on this trip.

Not quite.

Tune in tomorrow for the next episode of “The RV Trip from Hell”.