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Our 2019 summer vacation out west was a dream trip full of bucket list items for the whole family. It came to a screeching halt just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico when our camper had a major breakdown. I talk about both the breakdown and becoming accidental tourists in the city that was just supposed to be a single-night stop.
I wrote about all of these experiences on Accepting the Unexpected Journey.
Music by Craig Harmann
Links to places mentioned in the episode:
One of our biggest fears when we bought our first camper and started dreaming about long trips was the big mishap what-ifs. We would see nightmare scenarios and wonder what we would do if they ever happened to us. We couldn’t imagine how we would handle it.
Then it did happen to us, in the middle of nowhere forty miles outside of Albuquerque.
Early in our marriage, as Jeff and I wrapped up our magical summer vacation tent camping our way to Yellowstone National Park and back, we finally acknowledged a potential problem. Our little Ford Focus, which we had opted to take instead of our truck because we were trying to save on gas mileage, had been riding a little rough, particularly as we wound around the tight roads that run through Yellowstone. We knew that when we returned to Indiana we were probably going to have to deal with the tire situation, we just hoped that we would make it home. We were nearly to the Iowa/Illinois border when it happened.
Bang! Thump, thump, thump.
Instead of getting home to our house in northwest Indiana, we had to ditch our tent and camping equipment and spend the night in a roadside motel while our tire was getting fixed.
The funny thing is, that’s usually the thing I don’t remember about the trip. Until we had kids, it was our favorite vacation together, one that we want to replicate with our kids. We’ve spent years reminiscing about the week we raced our way out west and back, telling our kids about it frequently enough that our son is convinced that we need to go on a family vacation there sooner than later.
Unfortunately, I needed to be reminded of that end note to our early-marriage adventure as we neared Albuquerque, New Mexico on our way back to Texas from Arches National Park.
Our drive from Moab to Albuquerque was already going to be a long day. Jeff’s ideal for a driving day is about 300 miles, maybe a little more. We were going to be pushing it at just over 360 miles. This was after several long days of hiking and late nights, which didn’t help the length of the day because we were a tired crew. All things considered, the travel day was going pretty well, until our son insisted for the second time during the trip that he had to go to the bathroom. With nothing around for miles, Jeff decided to pull over so that our son could use the bathroom in the camper. When I pulled myself into the doorway to check on our son, something smelled off. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I thought it might smell like something was burning. However, it was hot, sunny, and I didn’t see smoke or heat coming off of anything but the pavement. Besides, the camper was hot and it was possible that the smell could have just been a result of the camper being used as a restroom twice while on the road. I decided I would take a closer look at the toilet when we got to Albuquerque.
Except, the bathroom wasn’t the problem. With less than 50 miles to our destination, we heard a sudden thud, Jeff looked in his side mirror, and he pulled off as quickly as possible. We were in the middle of the New Mexico desert with no apparent town or city anywhere close.
Jeff got out of the truck. “The wheel is gone, and it tore up the side of the slide-out.”
“What?” I got out of the truck, warned the kids to stay put, and rushed over to the other side of the truck to see what Jeff was talking about. Sure enough, we weren’t just missing a tire, we were missing an entire wheel. Jeff took off down the road, looking for the missing wheel while I tried to swallow rising panic as I looked for the phone number for the roadside assistance that we had paid extra for when we purchased the camper less than a year before.
Jeff found the wheel with the popped but intact tire attached nearly half a mile down the road. A highway patrolman stopped to see what kind of help he needed and left Jeff his information. As I prayed that God would keep our family safe while we were stranded on the side of the road, a couple came up and helped Jeff bring the heavy wheel and tire back to our camper.
Then we had to deal with roadside assistance.
Our insurance company said that because it wasn’t a tire blowout and was instead a lost wheel with additional damage, it was considered an accident and we would have to pay for the tow and they couldn’t give us a solid estimate for how much it would cost. The roadside assistance that we paid for was just about as helpful as our insurance company.
Our multiple shared conversations with operators trying to help us on July 4 went something like this:
“Are you in a safe location?”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
One of us goes into a long explanation of what has transpired, then, “We can get a tire repair out of you.”
Taking a deep breath, “A tire repair won’t help. There isn’t a wheel to put the tire on.”
“Where are you located? You will have to pay for the tow but we don’t know exactly how much.” Really? I thought roadside assistance was for this very situation!
And then there was the drama of trying to explain where we were without signs right near us. We found the atlas in the truck and tried to explain where we were, just south of the Zia Indian Reservation, and near Zia Pueblo, but the person on the other end couldn’t find it anywhere on the map.
Two hours after the initial incident, Jeff decided that we could just make it to town and we would deal with it from there. Despite the fact that we were down an entire wheel, we were somehow upright, and he figured that if we drove slowly and avoided the highways we could make it to the KOA in one piece. It was better than waiting for several more hours on the side of the road while two different insurance companies failed to actually assist us.
We pulled into the campground late but still intact. We used a separate jack in place of the stab jack but we were still seriously off level, feeling like we were walking through a fun house every time we stepped into the camper. We eventually remedied the situation by getting a second jack on our second day in Albuquerque to prop up the axle, leveling us out even more.
Unfortunately, compounding our troubles was the fact that this happened on a holiday weekend. The next day, several places were still closed for the day after Independence Day. We got through to one mobile tech business, but they were only able to give us a diagnosis: broken axle. We were going to have to wait until after the weekend was over and businesses were back in the office to get answers as to how soon we would be able to get the parts necessary to get back on the road.
The next day included a series of phone calls and emails while Jeff was trying to work from the camper and I was trying to keep the kids entertained in Albuquerque. We're dealing with warranty issues, automotive shutdown (which happens at the beginning of every July), the additional money for staying parked in one spot, the general desire to get home, and a potential storm moving into Houston.
Honestly, the week following the best vacation ever tested our resolve, but I’ve had to put everything into perspective. Our family was safe. We got to our destination with all living members in one piece. Jeff spends a lot of time on camping forums and he saw a handful of situations similar to ours and their outcome hadn’t been nearly as positive. It wasn’t our worst nightmare. Our worst nightmare is a catastrophic accident that destroyed our camper, our truck, and endangered our lives. Our situation wasn’t great, but it could have been so much worse. That is what we kept telling ourselves as we sat in Albuquerque waiting for news, waiting for all of the pieces to finally come together, waiting to be able to return home.
The unfortunate reality was that we had to turn a planned one-night stay into a four-day mini-vacation.
Summer is blockbuster time, but we intentionally left for a vacation away from it all just when some of the most anticipated films of the summer came out. On our first stranded day, after getting a couple of items that we needed to accommodate our situation, we took the kids to see Spiderman. The levity of the film helped us temporarily forget that we were stranded, and we headed back to the camper for a game of mini-golf at the KOA and a late dinner of hot dogs before making decisions for the next day.
Our second full day was just more of the same. We played some mini golf, the kids played at the playground and swam, we waited for news that never came, and then we took the kids to see Toy Story 4, which again offered some much-needed levity while also hitting a little too close to home.
By the end of our second full day in Albuquerque, we were getting a little concerned. We knew the city for two things: the balloon festival and Breaking Bad. Unbeknownst to us, Jeff still had the Waze on his phone set to taking us around highways, necessary when we were limping our camper into town but not necessary once we were "safely" parked. This meant that we were seeing all of Albuquerque, not just the charming old city that is meant for tourists. It didn't help that on our way home we experienced a desert thunderstorm with a downpour that surprisingly temporarily rivaled rains we frequently experienced in Houston. Hamburgers would have to wait. We ordered Dominos and called it a night.
By our third day, we decided it was time to become tourists. We started with heading to Los Pollos Hermanos of Breaking Bad fame. We figured we needed to eat lunch anyway, so we might as well make that a stop. Interestingly enough, Los Pollos Hermanos is actually Twisters, a New Mexico fast-food franchise that sells Mexican and New-Mex fare. While it took us to the outskirts of town and we had to wait for a while for our food, it was really good and well worth the stop. Judging by the number of people taking pictures inside the restaurant, we weren't the only ones making a fan pilgrimage while in town.
Next on the Breaking Bad fan list is a stop in Old Town Plaza to visit The Candy Lady shop, where they sell bags of actual prop candy from the show. Our arrival in Old Town Plaza finally revealed the charming Albuquerque that the travel guides promote. It reminded us a lot of Old Town Santa Fe, which makes sense since they are both New Mexico cities founded around the same time. Our initial stop in Old Town was quick; we had plans to visit another NPS site and the timing window was tight.
Since Petroglyphs National Monument is quite literally in Albuquerque, we decided that it was worth checking out. Besides, the prospect of another Junior Ranger badge was enough to convince the kids that maybe being stuck for a couple of days wasn't that bad. We picked up trail guides and Junior Ranger books and drove the fifteen minutes to Piedras Marcadas Canyon, which is located on the backside of a more upscale and newer Albuquerque neighborhood. It was interesting to hike a trail showing up to 400 petroglyphs created between 400 and 700 years ago by the ancestors of today's Pueblo people and other native groups traveling through the area. The fact that these drawings in volcanic rock are so well preserved on the edge of a residential area is unreal. While this isn't a side trip that we would have normally intentionally put into our trip itinerary, it was a cool addition to our passport books and the kids' Junior Ranger vests, even though it was a race to the finish to make sure they got their books done in time before the visitor center closed.
We headed back to Old Town Plaza, shopped for pottery and jewelry made by local artisans, and generally enjoyed the atmosphere. If we had to become tourists, we were going to make the most of it. Since it was Sunday night, most things were closing by 6, but it was ok. We still got a good taste for what was in the area and since our son had found something that he really wanted in The Candy Lady shop and nothing else would suffice, I knew the kids and I would have to make a return the next day while Jeff did his best to work from the camper.
Our last full day in Albuquerque was a mix of figuring out our situation, Jeff trying to work, and me trying to entertain the kids away from the camper. We headed back to Old Town so that we could get our son's desired souvenir, ate a quick lunch, and then headed over to Explora, the hands-on children's museum in town. It was fairly cheap (they even gave me a teacher discount) and it kept the kids entertained for a couple of hours before we needed to head back "home." It was a really fun place to visit and well worth the side trip.
Our last decision was to leave the camper in Albuquerque and drive through the night straight to Houston. It was a long haul and we hated leaving it behind, but with a window of several weeks before repairs were complete, we didn’t have much of a choice. Eventually, the company and the repair shop agreed to drive it to us in Houston.
We didn't want to become accidental tourists in Albuquerque, but we eventually found the charming side of the city and enjoyed it while we were there. While we would have preferred to have been on the road, it is a worthwhile stop for those who are driving through. It wasn't in the plan, but we got to extend our vacation just a little more before making the final decision to go home.
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