After ONE YEAR (no kidding) of planning and preparation and a full week of packing, cooking and loading the camper, today was the day.
National Park Pass? Check.
Camper Hitched? Check.
8 Million Books to Read? Check.
Full Tank of Gas? Check.
With a prayer for safe travels and a cheer, we set off.
Wallet? Wallet? No check.
No prob, back to the house one more time and now we’re REALLY ready.
The first leg of our trip: SC to Memphis. So exciting to finally be on our way!
After only about TWO HOURS into the trip, we made a rest stop in Georgia. When we got out, the car seemed to smelled of gas, but we were in a gas station, so we didn’t think too much about it. Then when I cranked it back up, it started lurching when I pressed the gas. KA-THUNK, KA-THUNK.
Oh, no. What to do?
Um, ignore it, obviously.
We kept going, hoping it would magically sort itself out, but hit some stop-and-go traffic outside of Atlanta that really exacerbated the problem. There was no way to deny that something was big-time wrong with the car, and we needed to stop.
We made it to the Mall of Georgia exit (I see you, exit 115!) and into a Toyota dealership, even though we knew that there would not be any mechanics on duty on a Sunday afternoon. What to do?? I posted our predicament to Facebook and started going through my mental list of friends who live in or near Atlanta. I called my brother-in-law, whose sister lives in the ATL area, but I was not sure where. And then I also talked to my sister and started bawling.
So excited! And now so sad!
My brother-in-law’s sweet sister Dawn and her husband Reggie offered to come and help us. Her family lived just a few minutes away. Justin and Reggie tried to figure out what was wrong, and Dawn and the kids and I sat in the dealership’s customer service lounge and I tried not to freak out. The trip was de-railing very quickly!
The guys tried to fix the car themselves, but ended up inadvertently breaking a part while trying to work on it. Clearly we were not going anywhere that night and hopefully the service department at Mall of Georgia Toyota could fix it and send us on our way the next day.
Reggie and Dawn and their boys were so gracious to us. They fed us, gave us a place to stay, and let us use their car while ours was getting fixed. Their kindness was beautiful to behold, and we were all so grateful!
The next day, Justin and Reggie went bright and early to the Toyota dealership to talk to the service department. They were sympathetic and went to work, but we ended up needing about $1800 worth of repairs done. That was a shock to the system! But at least it was fixable.
Finally around 4:30 p.m. we got the van back from the mechanics, loaded, and hooked up to the camper (in a thunderstorm, no less). We decided to try to make it to Memphis and see how we felt.
Once we cleared Atlanta traffic and got on I-20, the trip wasn’t too bad. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Auburn was in the baseball super regional, so we listened to them play, which passed the time. We were going to try to spend the night in Memphis with our friends Steve and Ginger, but Ginger said her daughter was sick, and we didn’t want to risk catching anything, so we kept traveling.
Without really discussing it, we just kept going and going…we tried to stop one place in Arkansas, but there was no room in the inn. So we just drove through the night, all through Arkansas and finally saw the sun come up somewhere in Oklahoma. We stopped for breakfast at Chick-fil-A in Shawnee, OK, and Mom texted and said, “Why are you already in Oklahoma?” She had been tracking our progress through the Find-A-Friend app and was surprised to see we had gone so far!
We knew that even with all that driving, we wouldn’t make it to our campground at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon until late at night, so we decided to book a hotel in Page, AZ so we wouldn’t have far to travel the next day. One night at the North Rim would be better than nothing.
Breakdown #2 – The Sky City Casino, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
We made it through Texas and most of New Mexico. We stopped outside of Albuquerque for gas, and the van started acting up again.
Super, super frustrating.
We sat at a gas station across from a casino and Justin tried to find a mobile mechanic to come look at the car. The only guy he got only worked on big rigs, so we were back to square one. I kept texting my family:
“THE VAN IS BROKEN I AM DYING!!!”
“THE VAN IS FIXED HOORAY!!!”
It got old after a while.
We considered setting up at an RV park the casino ran, but decided to try our luck. The van cranked, and we kept heading west.
Breakdown #3 – Gallup, New Mexico
Eventually we got to Gallup, New Mexico, where we had to get off the interstate and start taking back roads. As we climbed up the exit ramp, the van started lurching as we climbed up the exit ramp. Justin got it into the gas station, the kids and I walked to McDonald’s, and Justin called a friend who was a mechanic. He suggested a possible fix and we were close to an auto supply store, so we went over there, Justin bought the recommended part and installed it. Back in business.
As night fell, we were deep in the back country of east Arizona. I was eagerly anticipating a restful night at the Sleep Inn & Suites in Page, actively imagining a long, hot shower in the morning. I still had on my church shoes from the day before because I had forgotten to leave out another pair when we left home. I couldn’t wait to put on some flip-flops.
Justin stopped again to get gas, and when we tried to start it again, it wouldn’t even crank. The battery was dead. Was it the alternator or just the battery? Who knew?? All we really knew is that we had been driving for about 27 hours straight at this point and something was about to give.
What we didn’t know is that we were just getting started.
Breakdown #4 – Ganado, Arizona
That’s right, folks, for those of you keeping score at home, we have broken down four times in the last 36 hours.
There were a lot of people (and a disconcertingly large pack of stray dogs) at this gas station.
When Justin popped the hood to check the battery connections, a guy on either side of us volunteered their help.
Both of them checked the voltage and there was some polite dissent about what was actually the problem, but both agreed that our best bet was to drive back up the hill we just came down and try to make it to a hospital.
One guy also mentioned there was a Presbyterian church that might let us stay there for the night. He gave us a brief charge with his battery booster and off we went, following the other guy (our new best friend Nathan, though we didn’t know at the time how great he was because he kinda looked a little sketch) with our headlights and a/c off to conserve battery life to the hospital.
Driving with the headlights off scared me a good bit. At this point I think it was around midnight, but I had definitely lost track, so maybe not. We get to the hospital complex, the security guard on duty tells us we can’t park in the hospital parking lot but we can park right outside their security fence and they will patrol routinely so we should be safe.
I’ll just go ahead and say this place looked super sketch, and Justin did not feel comfortable with the security guard’s plan. Our friend Nathan starts driving around looking for the church and we sit, running out of options and battery life.
As we try to leave the hospital complex, the van dies again. (I’d call it Breakdown #5, but at least we were already off the main road.) The timeline for me gets a little fuzzy at this point, but I remember another man stopping to help. He had been at the hospital with his wife who had been bitten by a dog. His name was Jones and his wife’s name was Francina.
Jones chats with Nathan under our hood while Justin calls AAA and USAA to see if anyone can come tow us. Justin keeps forgetting where we are and Nathan keeps telling him the name of the town.
Jones re-opens the battery/alternator debate with Nathan and then a mentally unstable man in a tow truck (not even kidding) comes and demands that we move the van (!!!!) because it is in a dangerous place. He offers to tow us but we are not entirely comfortable with this option. He tells Nathan to move his car (parked in front of the van with jumper cables) so he can tow us. We decline his offer to tow but use the small charge we got off Nathan’s car to move the van a little bit farther off the road.
So there we are – no one can tow us (AAA is still trying to figure out exactly where we are, USAA isn’t even answering their phone), the van is dead, we’ve been awake 34 hours, we are in the middle of Nowhere, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, and any chance at a vacation is dwindling before our weary eyes.
This is when the kids look at us and realize we can no longer make decisions. We seriously do not know what to do anymore.
Jones leaves and Nathan and Justin go again to look for the church. The kids and I hang out in the van. While Nathan and Justin are gone, Jones returns and says his church has a mercy ministry home where we can stay about 45 minutes away. While we are talking to him, Nathan and Justin (and – surprise! – Nathan’s wife, who has been in the car all this time and I just now realize it) return and say that the security guard has said we can stay in the parking lot because Justin happened to tell him that he was a Presbyterian pastor and a lady named Linda? Louise? (whom Justin woke) gave permission.
Who knew Presbyterian minister were the magic words?
At any rate, Justin swings the car around, we limp back onto the hospital grounds and park the camper and get to work cranking it up.
Funny story: Jones’ wife had assumed that the camper was just a massive trailer that we used to store all of our extra clothes and vacation belongings, so imagine her surprise when it transformed into a place to sleep!
Nathan (and his sweet, quiet wife whom I finally got to meet) leave, Jones and Francisca leave with a promise to come back in the morning with a battery from one of his cars, and we head off to the hospital lobby to use the bathroom and brush our teeth before finally
I think I could have slept anywhere. It hurt to think we had a hotel room (with showers! and electricity!) sitting empty in Page while we slept in a hospital parking lot, but there was no reason to dwell on it.