Our best advice to anyone buying a new RV is this: Do not take possession on the same day that you complete the sale and walkthrough. Instead, go home, get some sleep, and pick it up the following morning.
The Big Day
After nearly seven months of waiting, we finally took possession of our brand new 2022 Airstream Flying Cloud 30FB Office last Saturday. The experience was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. We arrived at the dealership at 9:00 in the morning, expecting to be there no more than four or five hours before heading home with our shiny new silver home. We packed lunches, just in case things took a bit longer than expected, but only as an afterthought. Thank god we did, because it turned out over seven hours would pass before we’d finally pull out of the dealership and head home. By that time, we were exhausted, overwhelmed, and strung out. Daylight was running short, and we still wanted to go to a large, empty parking lot and practice backing up before attempting to park in our narrow driveway at home. That meant, on top of everything else, we were in a hurry. What could possibly go wrong?
You might wonder what took up so much time at the dealership. Well, we’re a couple of very detail-oriented people and this was an incredibly expensive purchase. Aside from the house we live in, it was the single most expensive thing we’ve ever bought. We spent a lot of time trying to strike the right balance between down payment, interest rate, and the cost of all the various dealer add-ons offered in addition to the RV itself. Did we want an extended warranty? If so, which one? What about those magic exterior and interior coatings that supposedly will protect our investment from harsh UV rays and the errant glass of red wine?
After all those decisions were finally made, it was time to embark on our official walkthrough of the trailer. I have to give our dealer a lot of credit here. When my brother in-law bought a new Grand Design Momentum a couple years ago, his dealer provided what I would characterize as a fairly “brisk” walkthrough, then “encouraged” him to take his trailer and leave. My brother in-law, however, refused to take possession until the RV was thoroughly inspected. At one point, he indicated he wanted to look at the roof. The dealer refused. Liability, they said. Fine, he replied. You go up there and inspect the roof for me. Reluctantly, the employee started up the ladder. As he did, the ladder ripped away from exterior of the RV, falling to the ground as the employee jumped away. The ladder, it turned out, had not been properly fastened to the trailer. With this story in mind, when our Airstream saleswoman told us they would spend “as much time with us as we needed” during our walkthrough, I was skeptical. But she wasn’t lying. They really did spend as much time with us as we wanted – and we asked a lot of questions. (If you’re shopping for an Airstream near Austin Texas, contact us and we’ll happily put you in touch with our sales rep.)
By the time we completed our financing, bought some supplies from the parts department, completed our walkthrough, asked all our questions, had some minor last minute issues addressed, and hooked up the truck, most of the day was gone. Mark from Keep Your Daydream has remarked that most of their accidents were the byproduct of rushing. He recommends telling yourself ‘I have nowhere to be, and all day to get there.’ This is good advice. However, in that moment, on that day, I was absolutely convinced we needed to get this trailer home, needed to practice backing up in an empty lot, and had only three hours to do it all.
The First Tow
In the weeks leading up to our purchase, Jill and I spent a significant amount of time on Google maps looking for large parking lots in the area that were likely to be empty on a Saturday afternoon. The one we settled on was an automotive auction house less than a mile from our dealership. When we arrived, Airstream in tow, we were pleased to find the lot open, large, and essentially empty. Perfect, I thought. I drove toward the back of the lot, and began a few backing and turning exercises I had seen on YouTube.
It didn’t last long. About fifteen minutes after pulling into the lot, my eye caught a glimpse of a security guard approaching. I knew immediately what was coming. You can’t be in here doing that, he told us. I’ll give you a few more minutes, but then you’ll need to leave. The clock was ticking, and now we needed to find an alternate parking lot.
Despite all the searching we had done for a suitable parking lot, we found very few viable options. Either the entrance was fenced off or there would clearly be too much traffic or too many people or it was very far from both our home and the dealership. It made me wonder where young people go to learn to drive around here. I had a couple other places written down as possible alternatives to the auction house, but none were conveniently located and all presented a similar risk of expulsion. After a few quick minutes of deliberation, we decided to try an old Sears parking lot we had seen on the drive to the dealer that morning. At least it was on the way home, we reasoned.
If there is a dividing line between ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ areas, our home in Austin Texas is situated right on the boarder between the two. Strictly speaking it’s suburban, but many of the unfortunate hallmarks of urban environments are still ubiquitous. Traffic can be very heavy. Drivers are routinely inconsiderate. Streets can be narrow and poorly maintained. Seedy human elements are not uncommon. In contrast, our Airstream dealership is about 30 miles away in a sprawling town called Buda. There, everything is wide open and less congested. So as we pulled out of the automotive auction parking lot and traveled toward the abandoned Sears, pulling a 30 foot trailer – without any sort of anti-sway apparatus – the drive became progressively more stressful. I felt like I had a target on my back as we straddled a speed of 55 mph in a 75 mph zone with heavy traffic, hoards of semi-trucks, and aggressively impatient drivers. I have no idea what trailer sway really feels like – I’ve seen videos but have no first hand experience – so every large vehicle that passed us triggered intense spikes of paranoia about potentially uncontrollable sway. Our ProPride anti-sway hitch was still at home, in a box, awaiting assembly because we had decided long ago that one trip towing directly on the ball would be manageable. After what felt like an eternity of white-knuckled driving, I said to Jill “How much further away is the exit? We’ve got to be close.” My perception of time was clearly distorted by the stress. “We still have 15 miles to go,” she told me. The rest of the drive involved a lot of deep breathing as I continuously worried about the prospect of trailer sway that never ultimately occurred. And then, finally, the exit that would take us to the Sears lot came into view. As we rolled down the offramp, and the pressure to drive at highway speeds evaporated, the tension in the pit of my stomach eased slightly. We had completed the first phase of our journey home with neither death nor destruction!
The few moments we spent fully stopped at the red light at the bottom of the ramp was a pleasant respite. We were just one left turn away from the Sears lot. The light turned green and I accelerated forward. A few seconds later Jill told me, “Okay, turn here.”
The turn involved driving underneath the upper level of the double decker freeway we just exited. Huge, tall concrete pillars lined either side of the road. “I can’t make that turn, it’s too tight.” I said as I kept driving straight along the feeder.
“Okay, we’ll have to find another way.”
This was not the best area of town to be making navigation decisions on the fly. The following twenty minutes were a blur as we drove though a confusing maze of streets and uncomfortably narrow turns, desperately in search of this one elusive road, while Google maps constantly barked out directions we couldn’t follow for this reason or that. Mercifully, we found a safe place to make a wide u-turn around the freeway, enabling us to enter the freeway and then immediately exit on to a street directly adjacent to the road to Sears. We were, in fact, exactly on the opposite side of the freeway from where I aborted our initial turn some twenty minutes earlier. Two easy right turns later, we entered the lot and parked. We sat in the air-conditioned truck for several minutes catching our breath, before getting out and attempting to recreate our driveway with the dozen or so collapsible orange traffic cones we had brought.
The advice I found over and over on the internet was to do precisely as we had planned: find a big empty parking lot, and practice backing up in an area where you’re unlikely to hit anything. This seems eminently reasonable, but I honestly can’t say that I personally found it particularly useful. Maybe it’s because I had some fairly recent success backing up a 26 foot boat and a 12 foot U-Haul trailer into a narrow driveway. However, I was neither very experienced at backing up trailers nor particularly expert at it, and still this form of “practice” seemed about as useful as learning to thread a needle by shoving a rope through a hula hoop.
We ultimately spent more time trying to locate that Sears lot than we actually spent practicing in it. The lot was a bit smaller than we thought, and – even though the Sears was clearly permanently closed – there was more foot and vehicular traffic than we had hoped. Further, the painted white lines demarcating normal parking spaces were visually confusing when overlaid with our orange cones. After a few very frustrating backup attempts, I threw my hands up in the air. “This is getting us nowhere. The sun is going down soon. Let’s just go home.” We packed up our cones and plotted our route to the house.
The Learning Curve
We had two choices. We could exit the parking lot the same way we had entered, or we could navigate through the lot and find an exit on the other side. I don’t recall whether the other side of the lot presented a superior route home because the mere thought of towing through that parking lot stopped further analysis of that option cold. Besides, the first option would only take about three minutes to get us back on the freeway.
I carefully navigated out of the lot and turned on to the road. The light at the first intersection was red. As we waited, the thought of getting home felt somewhat soothing. The air conditioning blared in our faces and I was aware of how hot and sticky I felt. A few moments later, the light turned green and I gently accelerated forward, moving into the inside left-turn lane. One more turn, and we’d be speeding up the freeway entrance. I saw another vehicle approaching on my right, in the outside left-turn lane. As I entered the intersection, I consciously focused on avoiding the guy next to me by closely adhering to the dotted guidelines painted in the intersection. Suddenly I heard Jill say in a tone that started as a near-whisper and rapidly rose to a strident command “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!” I slammed on the brakes and looked toward my side view mirror where Jill’s panic-stricken gaze was directed. I wanted to vomit at what I saw.
The bottoms of the massive pillars that support the upper deck of Austin’s I-35 freeway are encapsulated by a raised oval concrete slab that extends laterally perhaps three feet on either side of the pillars themselves. This slab, I assume, exists as a first level defense against errand drivers gravitating too close to the giant pillars. Looking in my mirror, I saw that both wheels on the driver’s side of the trailer had gone up and over the slab. I jerked my head around to verify directly the reality my mind initially denied. In that moment, all my senses told me that I had just smashed the side of our beautiful, brand new Airstream against one of the pillars; that I had just destroyed the thing we had waited for seven months; that I had ruined all our plans for the upcoming future; that I was now part of an exclusive club of incredibly stupid people who managed to destroy their new RV on the first day of ownership.
I immediately put the truck into reverse and started backing up, pushing the Airstream back down off the slab and away from the pillar so I could start my turn again, this time significantly wider than before. The very second I got into position and put the truck back into drive, the signal changed. All twenty feet of my truck were still within the intersection, blocking one of the two opposing lanes of traffic. I didn’t know what to do. Should I inch forward against the red light in the hope that oncoming drivers would stop and wait for me to get through? Should I continue backing up in order to get my truck fully out of the intersection? My first instinct was to carefully inch forward and pray that I avoided a collision. And if a cop saw what I did and gave me a ticket – well, I deserved it! But when I saw how aggressively drivers from the unblocked lane were accelerating past me, honking as they went, I changed my mind. I put the track back into reverse. Then, a miracle happened.
My guardian angel came in the form of an ambulance driver who happened to have a front row seat to this entire dramatic episode – at the front of the lane that was blocked by my truck. Precisely at the moment that I heard my transmission thunk into reverse, I saw the light bar on top of the ambulance flash to life as its driver proceeded to merge at an angle into the adjacent lane, blocking all traffic. My entire body flushed with goosebumps and gratitude with the realization that I could now complete my turn without dodging traffic. In order to clear the pillar and its surrounding slab, I had to pull so far forward that the front passenger-side tire on my truck went over the sidewalk on the other side of the intersection. But with thirty seconds of maneuvering we had made it! I accelerated down the feeder while Jill frantically waved ‘thank you!’ to the ambulance driver and I tried hard not to hyperventilate.
The singular, overwhelming thought pulsing through my mind as we drove away from that intersection was we have to pull over right now and inspect the damage. Jill directed me through a series of turns until we happened upon another large shopping center where we could stop. In one motion, I unbuckled my seat belt, put the truck in park, and leapt out of the cab to see what I had done. Jill’s repeated verbal assurances that no, I did not hit that pillar and yes, you really did stop in time failed to convince me. Even as I carefully scanned every square inch of the Airstream’s surface, running my fingers up and down its skin, failing to find so much as a hairline scratch, I distrusted my senses. I must have hit it I told myself, despite the fact that such an impact would have caused catastrophic – and undeniable – damage. At some point, I put my face in my hands still vacillating between relief and nonacceptance.
One of the habits one must develop when pulling a trailer is thinking not only terms of your ability to get in to a tight area, but also how you’ll get back out again. As we gathered our wits and prepared for the final leg of our journey, we realized that in our desperation to get in to this parking lot we didn’t adequately think about how to get out again. I paced up and down the length of our rig, assessing which path offered the least resistance. A left turn, around a cluster of parked cars followed by a wide right turn around a concrete island seemed our best choice, and offered a chance for some navigational redemption. As we set out, the acute stress I’d felt the entire drive settled into a dull numbness, much like after a night of insomnia.
Less than a minute later, we had rounded both turns successfully and were back en route. The lesson we took from the “learning curve” – now permanently etched into our brains – guided us as we safely maneuvered around the parking lot’s obstacles: Never lose sight of where the trailer tires are headed!
A dark orange sun hung low in the sky as we pulled up in front our house. The Airstream felt enormous against the backdrop of our neighborhood. The cars lining the street seemed like toys. All our neighbors had known this day was coming, and I had worried this moment would create a circus. But on this particular Saturday evening, the street was quiet. We had perhaps an hour of sunlight left as I began reversing the trailer. I threw out all the collective wisdom regarding the “best way” to overcome the mental gymnastics required to correctly back up a trailer, and my approach yielded surprisingly good results. When I needed the trailer to go left, I said – aloud – “I need the trailer to go left. Therefore I need to turn the wheel right.” When I needed the trailer go right, I stated the inverse. I then acted on the declaration, while actively suppressing my impulse to do the opposite. Maybe I’m an outlier, but this tactic felt less unnatural than other, more commonly prescribed techniques. With Jill’s shrewd guidance, we had the Airstream fully parked in our driveway within all of twenty minutes. I shut off the engine of my truck for the last time that day, and immediately went inside and poured myself a glass of gin. Jill ordered a pizza. We then sat inside the Airstream at the dinette – eating and drinking – and marveled. Just marveled. How different would this moment have been had I hit that pillar?
When I relayed our story of the “learning curve” to my brother in-law, he told me the best advice he could give anyone who is soon to take possession of a new RV is to not take possession the same day as the sales transaction and walkthrough. Instead, go home, get some sleep, and pick it up the next day. If you are new or inexperienced with towing large trailers, I think this is especially good advice. I only wish he’d given us this advise before I nearly destroyed our Airstream. (Or maybe he did, and it just didn’t register?) Regardless, I hope that our tale of near-catastrophe will resonate with other newbies like us.
So I definitely wish we had towed our Airstream home the morning after the sales transaction, when we were well-rested and traffic was light. I also wish I hadn’t focused so stubbornly on finding an empty parking lot to practice backing up. In retrospect, I think that was a huge waste of precious time. For me, at least, it was much easier to “practice” on the real thing: A driveway I was intimately familiar with, a street I’m comfortable on, and clear, obvious obstacles like trees and fences instead of white painted lines and orange cones. Of course, everyone is different, but I would never unequivocally tell newbies to start in a parking lot.
Next up is getting our ProPride hitch installed so we can take our new toy out on a trip!
May 20, 2022 at 7:52 pm
Nice reminder to stay focused and not revisit lessons learned from personal experiences out there
July 19, 2022 at 12:42 pm
Ah…let the games begin! Best of luck and learning to you both…PACK IT AND PULL IT!!!