A picture is worth a thousand words, but only if you know the story behind the picture. This picture doesn’t tell the whole story.
We were pulling a 5,000 pound travel trailer with a Chevy 1500, south on I-77, through the Appalachian mountain range. Under nominal conditions, this isn’t a problem.
What happens when the conditions aren’t “nominal?”
It was a beautiful day in March. A little chilly, but sunny and clear. We hitched up and rolled out by 8 AM.
We stopped for coffee and breakfast, still excited for the journey ahead.
Around noon the check engine light came on. The truck had run fine so far, but then we were traveling the relative flat terrain of Southern Michigan and Northern Ohio.
I pulled off the highway and made a phone call.
My first call was to my Dad.
“We’re going to be late. My check engine light is on.”
“Did you check that the gas cap is on tight?”
“Of course I checked the gas cap,” I said as I checked the gas cap. It was on tight.
I also called my mechanic. I hate calling him “my mechanic.” It sounds demeaning. Here’s a guy who’s willing to answer my call and troubleshoot my car over the phone, on a Saturday, when he wasn’t working.
“How’s your oil pressure?” he asked.
“It’s low, I think.”
“It could be the oil sending unit sensor. If that’s the case you could risk the drive and just get it into a shop on Monday.”
He sounded more confident than I felt.
Three hours later the oil light turned on and started beeping. I’m not a car guy and that’s my problem, but I know when the oil light turns on you’ve got a major problem. I pulled off the road near an auto shop and checked the oil. It was fine. I talked to the guy at the auto shop. He agreed it was probably the oil sending unit.
“You just have to put up with the beeping until you get it fixed.”
We can do that. Just turn up the radio.
Four hours later ….
We couldn’t turn up the radio loud enough.
The sun was setting. The sensor alarm was driving me crazy. It wore me out and made me anxious along with my wife and son. We decided to do something we’d only ever heard about – Parking Lot Camping.
My wife called Wal-Mart because they always allow anyone to park overnight.
Except for the one in Nitro, West Virginia. They said no.
We ended up at the Lowe’s in the same strip mall parking lot. I asked the young woman running the service desk if we could part there.
“Oh, yeah,” she smiled. “People do it all the time. I’ve even done it.”
Smiles and high fives all ’round.
I can now tell you that sleeping in a parking lot overnight is disconcerting at best.
The next morning we hit the road. No engine light. No oil light. No annoying alarm beeping.
For the first 10 minutes.
After that it all kicked in again, but now we had an added bonus. We are now deep in the mountains of West Virginia. The mountains are taller and the inclines are steeper. The truck started having trouble making it to the top. A few times I didn’t think we’d make it over. I got these images in my head of the truck and trailer coasting backwards down the mountain.
We got the off the highway and found a gas station in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. I pulled into the parking lot with an abandoned, broken down building on one end and the gas station on the other. I had no idea what to do. A gentlemen in the gas station offered to come out and take a look. There was nothing he could do, but it’s pretty cool that he was willing to help.
The decision to keep going was getting harder, but we thought if we could just get through the mountains maybe things would be better.
We kept on and things just got worse.
Around noon we pulled into a travel center and stewed for three hours. It made no sense to keep going forward. The truck needed to go to the shop and we were over 400 miles from home. If we did take it to a shop, where would we stay in the meantime? Turning around and going home meant another day of fighting through the mountains and that maddening alarm.
My wife was the voice of reason and we came up with a plan. There was a shop in Bluefield, West Virginia and a campground in Northfork, Virginia. All we had to do was make a 90 minute drive to the campground. The woman at the campground gave us directions.
“Don’t plug it in to your GPS until you get past Exit 1,” she said.
“Got it,” I replied and we were on our way.
And I went the wrong way.
The final test was a harrowing drive up Windmill Gap McComas Rd.
There were turns so tight I had to use both lanes, but the road didn’t have two full lanes. One shoulder was the mountain wall, the other was the valley. Some inclines were shallow and others abruptly got steep enough the truck bogged down. A pot hole caught the tires of the camper and I saw the trailer tip towards the valley.
When we made the last turn and saw the sign for the Ashland ATV Resort we all started breathing again.
I related the story to the woman who checked us in.
“Did you wait until exit 1 before using GPS?” she said.
Nope. I went the wrong way.
Shortly after that we parked on our site and set up the camper for the first time.
Set up went well, except for me running into the awning arm and getting knocked on my butt.
Ashland wasn’t our destination, but I loved being nestled in the mountains.