The Saga of the RV Trip from Hell Continues…

*Cue Star Wars theme music*

When we last left our heroes on the RV Trip from Hell, they were just recovering from having driven down a road that thrashed them around like a dragon in a Chinese street festival (see Part 2) in their first ever RV trip.

The Random Gate

Later that day, we were passing through southern Montana on our way to Glacier National Park.  We had stopped briefly in Billings to pick up some necessary supplies.  It was getting far colder than I had anticipated because there was a cold front blowing down from Canada.  I needed a thicker comforter!

It was my turn to rest while my travel companion drove, so I pulled out my trusted Lonely Planet guide book and started reading about the area as we started out of town.  I came across a description of a cave with ancient paintings that was very nearby, so I routed us to go see it.  It wasn’t too far off of Interstate 90, so we figured it would be a quick detour.  It was a bit late in the day, but we figured it would be early enough to get a quick peek.

We turned off the interstate and onto a highway.  Within a few miles we saw the two-lane road that supposedly would lead us to our destination.  We turned onto it and began heading the last few miles to the caves.  This would be a nice side trip, I thought to myself.  It was not at all far off the beaten path and it was something that we could pop in and out of fairly quickly.  That would put us back on our intended route in maybe an hour and a half or so.

I was paying careful attention to the signs as they appeared.  When I saw a sign for the park, I noticed another bright yellow sign attached to it.  The bright yellow sign indicated that there was no RV access to our destination.  A sign just ahead of it by about 30 feet stated that there were no turnarounds past this point.  I yelled for my travel companion to stop and pointed wildly at the sign.

No RV Access Sign

Oh, thanks. Now you tell us.

The truck and travel trailer came to rest in the middle of the street.  Fortunately, there was no traffic on this road.  The next few moments would have made priceless video footage, had we have had a dash cam recording our actions.

As if we were synchronized swimmers in the Olympic Games, we both blinked hard, and then blinked again at the sign in utter disbelief.  We each paused a moment in solitary thought.  We slightly turned our heads towards one another, and raised our eyebrows as our gazes met. 

Then, as if we were in some bizarre choreographed seated-in-a-truck version of Swan Lake, each of us craned our necks around in opposite directions in search of a place here where we could turn around.  Realizing simultaneously that we were f*cked, our heads spun back with precision to stare directly at one another with worried gazes.

When time and space returned to normal, we continued looking around us.  There may be nowhere to turn around an RV up the road, but there was nowhere to turn around at this point either.  Nice going sign people.  I made another mental note on my official “Sign-Making People Who Must Die” list.

We had no option but to continue forward.  Our truck was about 20’ long and our travel trailer was another 31’.  Without at least a driveway or shoulder on this two-lane road, it would be nearly impossible to turn around.

Surely, there would be a driveway or road we could back into in order to point ourselves in the other direction.  We would simply have to find a suitable location and detach the trailer while we took the truck to see the cave paintings.

We continued on a bit further, but there were no roads, no driveways, no nothing that we could use to redirect ourselves.  Worst case scenario, we agreed, would be that we would have an awkward time maneuvering at the park entrance.  It may be tight, but we were pretty competent by now with maneuvering the trailer in tight spaces.  We’d manage.  With no other side roads or driveways, the drive for the caves would be our only option.

And then we saw it.

Dead ahead of us was a cattle gate blocking the entire roadway with a very unfriendly sign that proclaimed “ROAD CLOSED: Park Closed – No Unauthorized Vehicles Past This Point.”

Well, shit.

Road Closed Sign

This is in the top 10 most dreaded things to happen in your RV. I still have nightmares about this sign.

Doing the Impossible:  Turning Around

Reality briefly shifted back to the Olympic synchronized swimmer motif as we both stared and blinked at the sign in disbelief.

Really?  If you were going to close the ENTIRE road, you should put up a sign at the point where people turn *onto* the road to let them know not to turn onto it in the first place!  Furthermore, if you are going to advertise your attraction as located down said road and “turn here,” this would be a PRIME place to let potential visitors know that there is no turnaround for RV’s at your location.  My official “Sign-Making People Who Must Die” list was getting longer.

Had either of these suggested signs been present AT THE BEGINNING OF THE ROAD, we would have found a temporary place for the travel trailer, unhitched it, and just gone to visit with the truck.  Something tells me that I have a bright future in the career field of sign making, owing to the sudden number of vacancies – assuming that I am good at disposing of bodies and don’t wind up in the penitentiary first.  Maybe I shouldn’t have put that in writing.  Hmmmm…

We got out of the truck and surveyed the area.  There was only a small shoulder on one side of the road.  Turning around here would be extremely problematic at best – that is, if we could even do it at all.  We walked back up the road a bit looking for a bit wider shoulder somewhere, but there was none.  This was going to be our only option and we would have to make the best of it.

On our way back from our scouting mission, other cars were coming down the road and stopping behind our rig.  Perhaps they couldn’t see the gate and thought there were people in the truck who had just randomly decided to stop in the middle of the road (I’ve heard it happens along this particular stretch).  We politely told them to turn around because the road was closed.  They were all quite rude to us – as if *we* had chosen to close the road.  My sympathies immediately went out to them in their tiny little vehicles that could easily make a 3 point turn in order to go the other direction.

Once we had waved that round of people in tiny cars away, we backed up our rig a bit and scooted as far to the right of the road as we could.   Fortunately, there was a large-ish shoulder on the right-hand side of the road right before the gate.  I presume that we were not the first people to have to turn around here.  Unfortunately, the shoulder was bordered immediately by a fence, which meant that when we went to back up we would have to be very careful not to hit it.  Likewise, the left-hand side of the road did not have a shoulder only had a couple of feet of gravel along the side before it dipped off into some tall grass and another fence.

A Quick Lesson in Backing Up Trailers

The best way to explain this scenario to someone who doesn’t back up trailers is to say that you should imagine yourself moving a wheelbarrow.  The wheelbarrow is the trailer, and you are the back end of the truck.  In normal motion (simulating pulling a trailer down the road), you would be holding onto the wheelbarrow normally, but you would be walking backwards.

Now, imagine you are walking backwards with this wheelbarrow down a narrow hallway when you suddenly reach the end.  You have to execute something akin to a 3 point turn to get out, but there isn’t enough room. 

Turning around the trailer

To help you better envision the problem, I’ve created some helpful diagrams. Surprisingly, I didn’t major in art. 😉

It takes a whole lot of backing up and going forward in order to get the front wheel of the wheelbarrow (representative of the back end of the trailer) past the point where it is perpendicular to the hallway.  If your original direction (towards the dead end) were designated as 12 o’clock, then in order to make the turn, the front end of the wheelbarrow (back end of the trailer) would have to cross the 3 o’clock point.   Once past that point, you could swivel the wheelbarrow in a couple of moves and return from the direction in which you came (6 o’clock).

Back to The Story

We got as far to the right as we could go and began to make a left turn.  Naturally, we didn’t get very far into the turn before the angle between the truck and the trailer got too small, risking swiping the front end of the trailer with the truck bed.  Thus began the series of maneuvers to swing the forward wheels in the opposite direction in order to begin pointing the back end of the trailer more perpendicular to the road (trying to get it to the 3 o’clock point) instead of inline with it.

We backed up as far as we could without hitting the fence with the passenger-side back corner of the trailer. We inched forward again.  Rinse, repeat for a good half hour or so.

Millimeter by millimeter, we managed to get the back end of the trailer nearly to the 3 o’clock position (probably closer to 4 o’clock).  That was simply as far as we could make it turn.  It would have to do.  Our truck was still facing in the 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock position and couldn’t complete the turn due to a lack of space.

Turning a travel trailer around in the middle of the road

Turning our travel trailer around in the middle of the road. RV’ing 101 at the dealership did not cover this skill.  This photo is taken standing at the closed gate.  Truck is pointing about 11 o’clock and trailer back end is at about 4 o’clock.

We unhitched the truck and repositioned it facing more towards 8 o’clock (like in the diagram below).

Completing the turn

Here’s the truck once we repositioned it to pull the trailer in the opposite direction (towards 6 o’clock).

Since the travel trailer wasn’t quite perpendicular to the road, we couldn’t just pull straight forward as it would have jackknifed, leaving us stuck.  So, a few more backwards and forwards maneuvers were required to pivot the back end of the trailer slightly past the 3 o’clock position – in the direction of 2 o’clock.  Once we had it past that point, we were able to pull it straight forward.

“Free at last. Free at last.”

Well, perhaps quoting MLK here is a bit of an exaggeration, and a complete misuse of context, but it felt really good to be back on our way, even if it was on the RV Trip from Hell.

Now, having survived a “generator” that would not generate, a toilet issue that I wish I could forget (see Part 1), driving a volatile bomb around for several hours, having driven on unmarked roads clearly not meant for RV’s to travel that thrashed us around like a dragon in a Chinese street festival (see Part 2), AND having had to turn around about 50’ worth of vehicle on a two lane road, THIS had to be the last test we had to pass, right?

Nope.  Not even close.

Warm Milk

We found a suitable location to park that evening around nightfall, and having been thoroughly exhausted from our encounter with the road closure gate and the significant amount of driving we had done that day, we opted to munch on chips and whatnot to save the hassle of cooking.  I think I was also purposefully avoiding the stove. I just had no energy to prepare real food.

We went to bed that night exhausted, but full of great plans to see Glacier National Park the next day.  Another day, another Bucket List item to be checked off.

When we woke the next morning, I prepared my standard morning brew of “wake the dead” strength coffee.  I reached for my soy milk in the fridge, and I realized immediately that it was warm.  Not good.  I’m not afraid of food poisoning anymore since I’ve had about every possible gastrointestinal ailment you can imagine – bacillary dysentery, typhoid, salmonella, giardia, etc. (See the Digestive Fiascos section of this blog)

I’m not totally immune, but it has to be pretty serious to give me much problem.  I made my coffee and drank it without a second thought.

A few hours of refrigerated food being warm wasn’t going to make it inedible for me, but that was a different matter for my travel companion who did not posses the same steel gut.  He had IBS, which meant he had severe digestive issues even when eating the most sanitized foods.  We had to get this fixed ASAP, because there was no way we’d get back home before Christmas (it was September) if we had to stop for bathroom breaks for someone with IBS and food poisoning.  Fortunately, we are both very mechanically inclined people and aren’t intimidated by having to troubleshoot equipment problems of this nature.

A note on propane fridges:  In propane cooled refrigerators, the heat from burning propane raises the temperature of a contained ammonia solution which rises up in the form of a gas.  As ammonia expands, it causing a cooling effect much like what happens when you release compressed air from a can.  The cold produced by the evaporating ammonia is then used to cool the contents of the fridge.  Here – I made you a pretty diagram below.

How a propane fridge works

The secret innerworkings of a propane fridge – or therabouts.

After a bit of investigation, which meant pushing the power button and then the other button on the front of the fridge that switched the fridge to propane mode, we waited to hear the sound of igniting propane.  All we heard was a clicking noise – probably the electric ignition.  Since there was never a whooshing sound that would mean that it had fired up, we determined that the propane was not igniting.    We tinkered and fiddled with the fridge, but we could not for any love of God or money make the propane ignite.  It didn’t seem like the propane was even flowing because we couldn’t smell it.

After about an hour (or more) of trying everything we could think of without aid of a manual (we were not in a cell area with data access), we called the dealership.  Fortunately, the guy on the other end of the phone was competent and walked us through a manual re-lighting procedure that required a bit of disassembly of the vent pipe.

All-in-all, this wasn’t that big of a deal, but it was yet another thing that went wrong.

Problems with fridge?  Check.

As a precaution, we decided to throw out my travel companion’s food for fear of further upsetting his delicate stomach.  That added a bit of cost to our trip since it all had to be replaced at our next stop, which, being in the middle of nowhere meant things cost about twice what they would have in a city supermarket.  At least I could still eat my food.

We pressed on.

Having survived a “generator” that would not generate, a toilet issue that I wish I could forget, driving a volatile bomb around for several hours, having driven on unmarked roads clearly not meant for RV’s to travel that thrashed us around like a dragon in a Chinese street festival, having had to turn around 50’ worth of vehicle on a two lane road, dealing with a malfunctioning propane refrigerator that wouldn’t cool, surely, this would be the last of our issues.


And a Partridge in a Pear Tree…

The closer we got to Glacier National Park, the more the temperature dropped.  Part of this was due to increasing elevation, part of it was due to heading a bit further north, and part of it was that cold front coming down from Canada.  I was glad that I had purchased that heavier comforter when we went through Billings!

Around Great Falls, Montana we saw snow appearing on the ground.  It was just a dusting, so it wasn’t exactly something that would hamper travel. 

Dusting of snow outside Great Falls, MT

A hastily snapped photo of the dusting of snow outside of Great Falls, MT.

We stopped to grab some grub at a local cafe and I found myself realizing that I may not have packed enough warm clothes for this trip.  I did have warm clothes, but not a lot of them.

Freezing on our Lunch Break at Great Falls, MT

Freezing on our lunch break at Great Falls, MT.

After lunch we continued on our route, seeing more and more snow as we went.  It was also clear that it was getting much, much colder.  We were pretty beat from all of the things that had gone wrong on the trip up until this point, and as such, we decided to splurge a bit and paid for a night to stay at the KOA campground that was located immediately adjacent to the eastern side of Glacier National Park.   

Upon checking into the KOA, the staff member on duty informed us that our vehicle was too big to take over the Going to the Sun Road.  Well, drat, again.  So much for that route.  We would have to unhitch and go it alone in the truck.  At least we had that option – and at least we found out before we were on the mountain pass with nowhere to turn around.  Surely we would not make such an obvious mistake again after our encounter with the cattle gate outside of Billings.

That Awful Sinking Feeling

We located our site in the RV park and backed into it.  We chocked the wheels to the travel trailer and began lowering the trailer jack.  The trailer jack is what lifts the tongue of the trailer off the hitch ball which is attached to the truck.  It does this by extending a leg down to the ground that is then lengthened by turning a crank.  The more you crank, the taller the jack leg becomes, and eventually (hopefully), your trailer tongue is raised above the hitch ball so you can pull your truck away from the trailer.

The pole on the trailer jack should have a flat foot on the bottom which gives it a sturdy platform with which to push against the ground and raise the tongue of the trailer as you crank.  Ours, of course, was no longer there.  My guess was that this was due to the RV dealership owner’s “tender-loving” treatment of our trailer prior to us renting it.  (Remember, this is the guy from Part 1  who caused the toilet fiasco that I’m still trying to forget.)  Instead of a foot, at the bottom of this jack was a hollow steel pole – much like a metal fence post that has been sliced in half.

To compensate for our lack of a foot, the dealership had provided us with a crappy wooden block to place under the jack.  By “crappy,” I mean that the wood was very lightweight and the corners of it were chamfered, giving them a rounded surface instead of the hard 90 degree angles one would find on, say a 2 x 4.  Not only was it a crappy block, but it was only a few inches tall when placed on its widest (and most stable) side.  As if this block weren’t already crappy enough, there were bolts sticking out two sides of the block rendering those sides useless as flat surfaces.  One was on the large flat side and the other was along the narrow side.  (I made a mental note to add the folks at the RV dealership as honorary members of the “Sign-Making People Who Must Die List.”)

To be fair, the dealership did point out that there was a wooden block in one of our compartments to help us get the height we needed to raise the tongue off the hitch ball.  They just failed to mention the fact that we had no other option but to use it, as without it there would be no way the jack would be tall enough.

Eager to get disconnected and set up for the evening, we cranked away to lower the jack leg.  When it was close to the ground, we stuck the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides underneath it.  [Is anyone else hearing in their heads: “twenty-seven 8×10 color, glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us”?  No?  Must just be me.]

When the jack pole lacking a foot made contact with the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides, we kept cranking.  We cranked until it wouldn’t crank any more, but it was not enough to leverage the tongue up off of the hitch ball.  The truck was sitting a bit higher than the wheels of the trailer, so our barely sufficient crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides just wasn’t going to cut it.

We looked about for other options.  There were none – no rocks, no boards, no anything that we could use to increase the height of the block.  *Sigh*

If we were going to drive the Going to the Sun Road tomorrow, we had to separate our truck from the travel trailer, but it didn’t look promising.  In retrospect, we probably should have gone to the office to see if they had something we could borrow.  Regrettably, that was not what happened.

Instead, my travel companion decided that he could use the block, but would have to turn it on its side – meaning the only other side that did not have a bolt. Doing so would about double the height we had in order to raise the tongue off the hitch.  It seemed logical. Although far from ideal, the downward force of the tongue should hold the block in place.  We decided to try it.

We cranked the jack back up, turned the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides onto its long side – the one without the bolt, and began cranking the jack leg down onto it.

It worked!  The tongue now stood about an inch higher than the hitch ball, so my travel companion got in the truck and drove it forward.

As you can well imagine, something went wrong.  The ground that appeared to be gravel was actually more dark gray colored sand.  For those of you without structural engineering degrees, sand is not the most stable of substrates upon which to apply downward force.  Predictably (had we had realized we were on sand), the trailer jack slipped off of the wobbling rounded-edged block, which somehow miraculously remained standing. The hitch leg that resembled a sawed off metal fence pipe, driven by the massive weight of the forward section of the travel trailer, went straight into the ground – as in, it sank to the hilt.

sunken trailer jack

Our sunken trailer jack. Note the bolt on the top and right-hand sides of the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block.

By this point, I was pretty sure that I was repaying some sort of karmic debt for something I had done in a past life.  Perhaps I was making a karmic down payment for all of the people I planned to bump off on the “Sign-Making People Who Must Die List.”

Really?  We can’t have one single day in which something major doesn’t go wrong?

Somehow we had to get this jack back up out of the ground and eventually, we’d have to get the tongue high enough to get the hitch ball back under it. 

Winding the sunken trailer jack back up out of the ground.

Winding the sunken trailer jack back up out of the ground.

Again, we looked around for possible answers to our conundrum.  If we had thought about asking at the office for help by this point, our shame would have prevented it.  Plus, it was pretty late and they were likely closed anyway.  Fortunately, the park was almost completely empty, so we did not make complete fools out of ourselves publicly.  (That’s why I’m writing this travel blog!)

The grand scheme we came up with to reposition the trailer into its correct position involved using the four scissor jacks that were mounted to each of the four corners of the trailer.  Mind you, these are meant for stability purposes only, but it was all we had.

Through much creative maneuvering, we were able to get the jack out of the mud, and lift it up far enough to shove the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides back underneath it – this time placing said block on the larger, and more stable side – the one without the bolt, of course.  With that, we called it a night.

When we awoke the next morning, we saw that it had snowed more overnight. This led to the closure of the Going to the Sun Road past a certain altitude.  So, we set out with our truck and we saw what we could see before preparing to head out for our next still-yet-to-be-determined destination.

Me in Glacier National Park

Me somewhere in Glacier National Park. There was a ton of fog that day, so we had very few pictures that were worthwhile. 🙁 Guess I have to go back!

Back at the KOA

We were able to manage to get the trailer reattached to the truck by utilizing the scissor jacks on all four corners of the trailer along with what minuscule leverage we could get off of the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides.  Our celebration was brief as we realized that a pretty thick fog had rolled in and visibility was next to nothing by the time we were ready to leave.  We would just need to drive extra slowly and take our time.

Kudos to us.  We had survived another trial on the RV Trip from Hell.   By now, I was past the point of asking myself if this was our last test to pass in the RV’ers Rite of Passage.  Having survived a “generator” that would not generate; a toilet issue that I wish I could forget; driving a volatile bomb around for several hours; having driven on unmarked roads clearly not meant for RV’s to travel that thrashed us around like a dragon in a Chinese street festival; having had to turn around 50’ worth of vehicle on a two lane road; dealing with a malfunctioning propane refrigerator that wouldn’t cool; and now having had the front end of our trailer planted like a tree in the sandy grounds of the KOA because of the crappy, lightweight, rounded off wooden block with bolts on two sides provided by our RV dealer in the absence of a proper jack foot, I could only wonder what would be next.

Knowing that our next trial by fire could only be less than a day away, we punched in our oh-so-recently-decided-upon destination of Yellowstone and headed off very slowly into the dense frozen fog.

Freezing Fog in Glacier National Park

Freezing Fog in Glacier National Park

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of The RV Trip from Hell: A Rite of Passage.