Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Homeless In Texas 2015

We had immensely enjoyed our extended stay in Wisconsin but now in early November, with temperatures definitely cooling down, it was time to head back to a more moderate climate.
Since we had such a positive experience volunteering at Kartchner Caverns we had signed up for a second season. And as we were expected at Kartchner by mid-November, our travel route would be unusually direct.
While our route was direct we did manage to do a bit of sightseeing with a stop at the Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park north of Kansas City. Finding the park was a bit of a challenge (one of those rare times when the GPS and Carol were not in sync). When we did find the long and winding road into the park, just before we reached the visitor center we encountered a railroad overpass. The overpass clearance sign read 12 ‘ 6”. Our RV’s height? Just over 13’. We were stymied. A five point turn around later, we had just returned to a picnic area to grab a bite to eat when the park manager pulled up. Seeing the RV he asked if were spending the night in their campground. No, we weren’t, explaining about how we couldn’t get to the visitor center and museum due to the overpass. His response? “Jump in my truck and I’ll take you!” Which he did! Talk about service! After touring the center and grounds for an hour, he took us back to our RV and we were on our way!

we did eventually make it to the visitor center
Our overnights so far had been in truck stops (free) and things were going smoothly. But on our fourth day out, just before 10:00 in the morning, about 20 miles west of Wichita Falls, Texas, on U.S. 277, our Pressure Pro tire warning system alerted us to a possible problem. Early on, we had taken the precaution of installing wireless sensors on our RV wheels to warn us of any impending doom. Like a flat tire. Actually, “impending doom” isn’t the best phrase - more like “warning - something bad is happening RIGHT NOW - pull over!”. We’d heard many horror stories from fellow RVers getting a flat tire on their RV, not realizing it, and driving miles before discovering anything was wrong. An ignored flat tire can easily shred and tear up an RV’s undercarriage costing thousands of dollars to repair. At least with our system in place, we had fair warning.
When the alarm sounded on the receiver in our truck, the scrolling message read “lost signal with sensor”. We’ve had this same warnings before which have turned out to be false alarms (usually due to a battery in a sensor loosing its charge; unable to send a signal). However, every alarm, false or otherwise, bears checking. Tom looked for a safe place to pull off the road, stopped, and got out to inspect.
Mind you, we’re entering our eighth year on the road and have never had a flat tire on any of our RV’s. We know other RVers who have had two flats on the same day. Honestly? It was probably just a matter of time. So when Tom walked back to take a look, what he found was jaw dropping. Actually, what he didn’t find was jaw dropping.

more than just a flat
The good news was that the tire wasn't flat. The bad news? It was missing. Along with the wheel, the brake drum, and, the the sensor. Also missing was some of the skirting over the wheel wells.
Tom beckoned Carol to come have a look. Gazing in disbelief at the damage, then at each other, we exchanged a few words of discontent not suitable for a family blog.

Not to panic. Where we were pulled over, we were in no immediate danger. We have road side assistance. And while our cell phone signal was weak, we managed to place a call our roadside assistance carrier, Blue Sky.
Road side assistance for the uninitiated works this way. You report an incident. They determine the closest repair option. Then you wait by the side of the road for help to arrive. It couldn’t be more simple. Yet, it turned out to be a nightmare.
The Blue Sky representative was a pleasant enough young man based in Canada. However, he, like so many other roadside assistant representatives, are basically reading off a prepared script.
One of his first questions was “Is everyone alright?”. Other than in utter disbelief of what has just happened, yes. “Are you in any immediate danger?”. No. Nothing immediate. And that was our first mistake. We should have said that yes, we are in eminent danger because we were parked too close to the highway. Come to think of it, our first mistake was trusting Blue Sky road assistance. But I digress.
Many of these roadside service companies have explicit rules and regulations as to what they can and cannot offer and still save themselves money. In other words, the best solution for them might not be the the best solution for us. All that’s covered in the fine print which we had read several times before signing on. But fine print has a way of changing…
Tom explained - and this is critical - in GREAT detail what had happened and EXACTLY what kind of tow vehicle would be needed. Specifically a flatbed trailer for our disabled RV. He also explained that our cell signal was not the strongest so perhaps texting us information might be best. The rep said that he would make some inquiries and get back to us by text or calling.

Meanwhile, a Texas Department of Transportation worker pulled up behind us. He turned out to be the best help we had all day, over time offering names and numbers of places to call to share with our roadside assistance representative sitting thousands of miles away in Canada.
We assumed our AWOL tire and wheel to be laying alongside the road somewhere behind us. The kindly DOT worker retraced our route - twice - to see if he could locate them since we would need them at some point. Alas, no luck. To this day, our wheel and tire are sitting  somewhere out in the west Texas scrub, perhaps now serving as a nest for wildlife. We like to think it’s being put to good use for someone or something.
By now we’d received a few texts from Blue Sky. One was that a tow vehicle had been dispatched and would be on scene in about 45 minutes to an hour. Hooray! 

During our conversations with the DOT driver we learned of possible repair options. The town of Seymour, some 20 miles up the road, had a repair shop. So while we waited for Blue Sky to call back, we called the shop in Seymour. The phone number was no longer in service. The DOT driver using his phone confirmed as much. We passed this on to Blue Sky via a text. Plus, we’d learned of a few RV dealers back in Wichita Falls, again through the DOT driver and with what little connection to Google we could muster, found contact phone numbers. Wasn’t our Blue Sky rep supposed to be running these leads down? Apparently not.

still waiting
We eventually contacted both RV dealers directly. Neither would be able to perform the kind of repairs we suspected we would need - like a new axle. No sense hauling the RV some place that couldn’t do the work, only to have to haul it somewhere else. What next?
One of the RV dealers had suggested we try a truck and axle repair shop just outside of Wichita Falls. We called and by golly, yes, they could do the repairs but they’d have to first see the RV to determine what parts would be needed. Made perfect sense to us. We shared all this via text with Blue Sky.

So now we had a place for the RV to be taken…once a tow vehicle showed up. We told the repair shop we would probably be there by early afternoon. They said call if that changes but otherwise, no problem.
Speaking of the tow vehicle - where was it? It had been over two hours. We texted Blue Sky. Their response was, “Do you want us to call to see where it is?” We took that to not be rhetorical and responded with a definite affirmative.
Blue Sky phoned back to say that the wrecker was coming from a location based roughly 50 miles east of Wichita Falls AFTER it had finished working at an accident site. Were there not any large tow services in Wichita Falls twenty miles away? It would be another two hours before it reached us. As you can imagine we were not amused.
To while away the time, Tom hiked back a mile and a half looking for our errant wheel and tire or any sign of the damaged skirting. No luck. Just a vast landscape of thick Texas scrub with the sun beating down.
Strangely, considering we were pulled over on a four lane road, no emergency vehicles had passed (state patrol, sheriff, etc.). Had we been speeding? You bet they'd find us. However, a pickup truck towing a small trailer going in the opposite direction did stop. It turned out to be someone selling electric brakes for RV’s. Had our axle not been damaged he had everything we needed to get us back on the road in his trailer. We appreciated his kindness. He left his business card with an offer of a major discount should we ever want to convert our RV brakes to electric. Well, it was nice to have someone to chat with for a bit.
By 2:00 p.m., FINALLY, a tow truck arrived. Just one slight problem. It was a tow truck. To tow our disabled truck, not our disabled RV. After all the detailed information we had given the Blue Sky representative about needing a flatbed trailer, he had apparently told the wrecker company that our truck - not our RV - was disabled. And that our truck was being towed behind a Class A coach (which we could still drive). With the initial promise of a tow truck within an hour’s time, and now this, we were pretty torqued off. Were we ever going to get off the road?
The tow operator immediately recognized that a flatbed trailer was needed. He got on his radio and ordered one. But, it would be another hour (maybe two) before it arrived. Meanwhile we called the repair shop to tell them we wouldn’t be arriving until late in the afternoon. Not a problem. But would close their gate at 5:00. Call if it worked out to be later; that they would make alternative arrangements for storing the RV overnight.
Before the tow driver left, we got the direct number of the towing service. When it got to be about 4:00 p.m. and still no flatbed, we called the tow company. Apparently, due to some heavy rains, the primary road to get to where we were from where the flatbed was located was closed. The driver was having to make a lengthy detour. But never fear, he’ll be there.
And so we waited.

yes - this is just before backing up
Just after 5:00 the flatbed arrived. Tom had wondered how the RV would be loaded onto the flatbed…and that’s when the real fun began.
First of all, with a wheel and tire missing, the RV was leaning to one side. And it wasn’t going to be a question of us simply unhooking from the RV and the RV being winched onto the flatbed. No. The RV would have to be backed onto the flatbed. And Tom, with the flatbed tilted to a ridiculously steep angle, was the one to do the backing.

Carol couldn't stand to watch
Backed up our RV into some challenging spots relying on the truck’s outside mirrors was nothing new. However, the width of the flatbed trailer left less than an inch to spare on either side. One false turn of the wheel and our RV - our one and only home - would tumble over. Just a bit of stress involved. In fact, Carol couldn’t watch.
With the truck in four-wheel drive (thank goodness we had that), inch by inch, foot by foot, and with the guidance of the experienced flatbed driver, Tom backed the fifth wheel onto the flatbed.
front legs down - then it had to be tilted level
As long as the flatbed was, there wasn’t room for both the truck and fifth wheel so at some point, the fifth wheel had to be disconnected. This meant first powering down the front jacks of the RV to enable lifting it high enough to disconnect from the fifth wheel hitch. Normally an easy operation on level ground…but now, the fifth wheel was steeply angled. With the RV front jacks almost to their maximum extension, the flatbed operator first set in place some cursory tie downs and wheel chocks to keep the RV from pitching forward. Only then could Tom disconnect the RV.
With our truck safely out of the way, the driver then tilted the flatbed back to a level position and finished leveling and securing the RV with more chocks and straps. Once secured, there was just one more thing to be determined: the total clearance from the top of the highest point on our RV (the air conditioner shroud) to the ground. On the RV roof, the driver extended a measuring tape to Tom. It turned out to be less than an inch shy of sixteen feet.
So why measure? Well, have you ever noticed the wide range of highway overpass heights? Most will not accommodate anything 16’ tall or higher. And along the route we needed to take, there were several overpasses with lower clearances. It would require taking an exit ramp then reentering the highway using the on-ramp thus bypassing a low overpass.
Another Blue Sky screw-up. The flatbed driver had been instructed to drive the RV to an RV dealer in Wichita Falls. We had already explained to Blue Sky that nether of the RV dealers could do the repairs. We had also given Blue Sky the address of the repair shop but like so many other messages that day, the message didn’t get passed on correctly. The driver wasn’t totally sure about where the repair shop was located but Tom had the address in our GPS. We would lead the way in our truck.
Earlier we had called the repair shop a third time to let them know we wouldn’t make it until after they locked their entrance gate. No problem. They kindly made an arrangement with a business across the road where we could safely drop our RV for the night. We would come back in the morning and tow the RV across the road to the shop. Even with the RV leaning to one side, towing a short distance wouldn’t be a big deal.

a sight most RVers don't want to see
Owing to how the RV had to be maneuvered onto the flatbed, the tow vehicle was now parked facing oncoming traffic. We drove our truck to the opposite side of the road (headed in the correct direction) where we all waited for a break in the traffic to allow the flatbed an opportunity to get to safely drive against the wrong way to a median crossover 500 yards up the road. How strange to see our RV being transported in such a fashion.
With the flatbed now directly behind us, we saw just how much the RV was leaning to one side. We knew it was tied down and yet, going around a corner a bit too fast might tip the RV completely? And what a fine mess that would be. We wondered if that might be the best thing. After all, we had full replacement RV insurance.
Our GPS directions were fine but they couldn't anticipate overpasses. Coming to one such overpass where we could exit but with no on-ramp to renter, we pulled over to discuss it with the flatbed driver who fortunately, by then, realized how to get to where needed to be. Still, there was this one overpass with a posted 16’ clearance to negotiate. We held our collective breathes as the driver slowly, ever so slowly, lined up on the center of the overpass and eased under. With less than an inch to spare, he made it.
When we finally arrived Texoma Trailer, Body and Welding, the sun had set. However, finally a bit of good luck - we found shop's the gate was still open. A few of the workers had stayed late to work on a go-cart for one of their kids.
So now, in near total darkness (save for a few yard lights), the flatbed was tilted down as Tom backed up in the dark - and with the hitch at a severe angle - re-hooked the RV. Hooked up, unstrapped and chocked free, Tom ever so gently towed it off the flatbed and put into a temporary parking spot.
Upon our request, workers were able to string together several lengths of electrical cord so we could leave our refrigerator running (we had just stocked up on groceries the day before). Promising to return first thing in the morning, we grabbed a few belongings out of the RV and spent the night in a local motel, realizing that for the very first time since we began our “homeless” lifestyle, that we were now actually “homeless”.
The next day we were back at the truck repair shop at first light. Over the course of the morning it was determined what Tom had already feared - it would require a new axle to get us back on the road. Inquiries were made as to availability. In the end, a custom axle had to be ordered. The estimate was that it would take up to two weeks before one could be built and shipped. Two weeks?! And this didn’t include the time it would take to install it (although, they said it would only take a day once they had the axle). We also needed a new wheel, tire and sensor. All of these would be worked out through our Blue Sky insurance adjuster (completely different from Blue Sky roadside assistance). But for now, we had to find a place to live for however long it took to repair the RV. And staying in Wichita Falls wasn’t an option.
Before we left, we moved the RV to the rear of the repair shop and connected it to a 20 amp service, enough to keep the refrigerator running. We exchanged contact information with the crew at Texoma. We grabbed some clothes, electronics, a cooler with some food, and anything else we thought we would need. By early afternoon, we were headed west to Lubbock where we would spend the night in a motel.
As we were pulling onto the main highway headed toward Lubbock our phone rang. It was a supervisor from Blue Sky road assistance asking if we would like to take a survey about our experience with Blue Sky. Really, really awful timing on their part as we were still fuming over having been stranded for over 7 hours. We let her know that the actions of the representative we had dealt with were completely useless, and that we, using whatever resources we could muster, pretty much helped ourselves. Was there “anything we could do to make it up to us”? OK, since you asked, how about covering our room stay at the  motel the night before? Well, no. She wasn’t authorized to cover that. It’s not their policy. But how about some "gift certificates for meals at a restaurant"? Thanks but no thanks. A free meal would not in any way square everything. In fact, we considered the offer insulting. And that was the last we heard from Blue Sky Roadside assistance. They did, however, eventually cover the cost of towing so we’ll give them that. On second thought, though, all the money we’ve paid Blue Sky road assistance over the years? We could have easily paid the towing expenses out of pocket and still been dollars ahead.

our saviors, Paul and Frank
Recalling what our dear friends, Frank and Paul, had once offered a room in their Las Cruces home if ever we needed one - we called and they said yes, by all means! As we already had a late start to the afternoon, we opted that night to bed down in a Lubbock, TX hotel but we would be arriving at their place in the afternoon of the next day.

dripping springs
Frank and Paul were marvelous hosts and we made the best of our stay exploring more of historic Las Cruces (an easy walk from their house), a revisit to Dripping Springs Natural Area, potluck meals, plus some of our favorite local Mexican restaurants. We also discovered the newly relocated Las Cruces restaurant, Cafe de Messilla. Great for breakfast/lunch and the owner, Joyce Zimmer, is a real sweetie! Other RV friends we met during our first stay at Sunny Acres RV, Paula "Pinkie" Hansen and her husband, Dave, had purchased a home in Las Cruces where we all spent an evening getting a grand tour while socializing over a home cooked meal.

Carol, Tom, Chris, Robyn
that four letter word
shoveling the four letter word
Realizing we still had lots of time before any repairs would take place, and not wishing to overstay our welcome, we made arrangements with Carol's son Chris and his family in Dillon for an early Thanksgiving. After five days in sunny Las Cruces, we drove the 600 miles non stop due north to Dillon.We can may really good time when were not towing.
Crossing over into Colorado and approaching the back range of the Rockies, we started seeing that four letter word we try to avoid - snow. During our stay we got to experience over 20 inches of fresh snowfall and the joys of scraping ice off the windshield. No worries though. It was wonderful to hang out with the Chris, Robyn, Callie and Carter, share an early Thanksgiving dinner,  enjoy local foods (oh, yes, the Mountain Lyon!), winter scenery (it really is quite lovely in short bursts), birds at the feeders (rosy finches!), and simply forget our axle woes for a while.

Brown Burro - Fairplay, CO
When word finally came from Texoma that our axle had arrived, we loaded up and drove straight south, at first, on a very snow covered Highway 9 through Breckenridge. We didn’t stop until we were out of snow in Fairplay (breakfast at the Brown Burro Cafe). We broke our 800 mile drive up drive up with an overnight in Amarillo. This allowed for enough time for the axle work to be completed and yet be put us within easy striking distance of an early arrival at the repair shop with hopefully, the result of being back on the road the same day.
Indeed, the RV axle was in place and we were roadworthy once again. However, they could not locate a new wheel to match the one that went missing. We would have to rely solely on our spare tire. Tom had already found a source for a new wheel online and once back at Kartchner, would order one. And since we had purchased our RV tires in nearby Sierra Vista, Tom would also order a tire from that source - again. As for a new tire sensor, that too could be ordered online once back at Kartchner. We have to say, the guys at Texoma were first rate. They went out of their way to make us feel welcome and finished the work when they said they would. If you're ever in need of truck or axle repair anywhere near Wichita Falls, the guys at Texoma won't let you down. As for now, though, we were just giddy to have our home back!
Picking up where we left off, our journey to Kartchner Caverns State Park continued with three overnights. After settling up our account with the repair shop, and by the time we’d left Wichita Falls, we had just enough time to make the just over 200 miles to an RV park west of Lubbock before nightfall.
Our next planned stop was Las Cruces. It would be a long pull for us with over 350 miles but we could also take scenic highway 70 through the Lincoln National Forest and the town of Ruidoso, NM we’d heard so much about. After a breakfast stop at Pena’s Cafe (an excellent stop if you’re down that way) we pulled in late that afternoon at our favorite Las Cruces RV park (second to Frank and Paul’s place, of course) at Sunny Acres.
Because we had sustained some body damage to the RV during the flight of the tire and wheel, we needed, for insurance purposes, to get a repair estimate. The one and only RV dealer near Kartchner Caverns was RV City. We’d not heard very good reviews about their body shop but still, we needed some kind of estimate to turn into the claims adjuster (even if we didn’t have the work performed at RV City). This required spending a Sunday night at nearby Tombstone Territory RV Park which would give us time to swing into RV City (which wouldn't open until Monday morning) before pulling into Kartchner Caverns.
Up to this point, the claims adjuster - plus our excellent insurance broker in South Dakota - had seen to paying for almost all the work so far. The only out of pocket expense for us was a little over $20 for a new wheel bearing. We were also reimbursed hotel expenses associated with the accident. And because there was still work to be done at a later date to be determined, the claim was left open for future body work and any future hotel stays  while the body work is being done. They also eventually covered the cost of a new wheel, tire and sensor. We did finally get the body work done in WI after our 2016 summer stay - but that story is best left to a future blog entry.
After getting our body work estimate from RV City, and without further incident, we rolled into Kartchner Caverns State Park, happy to be off the road for a while and looking forward to another season of working the cave tours.

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