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The alcohol eased our minds and we talked aimlessly about another successful, crazy RV travel day. The truth was, we loved it. Not every moment equally, but how else would we have ended up here, at a bar in a rural area of a small town on a cold January night?
The Road To Deming
The plan was to slam our laptops shut no later than noon. We’d then quickly hitch the truck to the trailer, race through our pre-departure checklists, and hit the road by 1:00 p.m.
Under normal circumstances, we’d never race through our departure process like it was some sort of competition. But today was different. The sun would set at 5:30 p.m, leaving us only four and a half hours to drive 220 miles and get our propane tanks refilled somewhere along the way. The idea of towing the Airstream at night freaked me out—especially on unfamiliar roads.
An unexpected break in my meeting schedule allowed me to start chipping away at our preparations an hour earlier than expected. Jill remained shackled to her laptop until the stroke of noon. The weather was clear. The winds were calm. And, thanks to a quick jaunt to a gas station the night before, the truck’s fuel tank was full. We hitched up the trailer in a single shot and reviewed our checklists three, four, five times each. Rushing counterintuitively seemed to slow us down, but somehow we managed to pull it off. At about five minutes before 1:00, we gingerly accelerated out of our spot and embarked toward Deming. We can do this, we thought to ourselves. Brimming with newfound confidence in our ability to execute on this crazy plan, we drove by Jill’s family’s place for a few minutes of goodbyes. When we ultimately passed through the park’s exit gates it was perhaps seven minutes after the hour. Nooooo problem. We said. We’ll be fiiiiine.
Thirty-five miles later, we exited the freeway in Benson, Arizona for our very first propane refill experience. Careful readers might recall that I previously said we’d refilled once back in October. That’s true, we did. However, on that occasion a friend had graciously offered to take our tanks into town and have them refilled for us while we worked. All we had to do was remove the tanks from our trailer and load them into his truck. This time, we were on our own. If you’re reading this and thinking What’s the big deal? Getting propane is easy. You’re right. It is easy. But when you’ve never done it before—and you’re on a severe time crunch—it’s a little daunting. I didn’t know, for example, that I should’ve pulled our rig right up to the propane refill station just like when you’re getting gas. Nope, I instead parked on the opposite end of the property, waaaaaay back in the truckers’ lot, and carried our two 30-gallon tanks, one in each hand, the 1,000 feet or so to the refill station. One tank, as we already established, was empty. The other one, as it turned out, was nearly full. And let me tell you, when those things are full, they are heavvvv-vy! When I finally arrived at the other side of the parking lot, the muscles in my arms burned and I was out of breath. I admit it, I felt pretty tough. But then Jill told me what an employee had told her while I was traversing the lot, straining like a red-faced gym rat: my feat of masculine triumph was totally unnecessary. We laughed, then I jogged back to the truckers’ lot to retrieve the Airstream while Jill waited for an attendant to arrive. At least I wouldn’t have to carry both completely filled tanks all the way back!
At least twenty long minutes passed after I schlepped our tanks to the station before an employee finally arrived to assist us. The refilling process took less than ten. The attendant then handed me a yellow slip. “Take that to the cashier inside,” he instructed. Jill was inside the store using the bathroom and I was neither interested in leaving our rig unattended nor in wasting any time. “Is it okay if I load up our tanks first, then pay?” I asked. “Sure,” he replied with a smile. “You look like trustworthy people.” I thanked him, and he walked away. The moment Jill returned, she yanked the yellow slip from my hands and darted back inside to pay while I finished securing the tanks. By the time we pulled out of that Love’s parking lot, all the confidence we had garnered back at the RV park had vanished. Every minute of wiggle room that we’d built into our schedule had been depleted on one measly stop.
The allure of the 3-3-3 rule taunted me as my eyes continuously flitted between the clock on my dashboard, the ETA proclaimed by the navigation system, and the truck’s fuel range indicator. We were barely going to make it before sunset. Conversation was sparse. The stereo was silent. We just drove, praying we wouldn’t encounter any traffic or need to pee for the next few hours.
The sun was fast approaching the horizon as we exited the freeway and proceeded down a desolate section of New Mexico’s highway 549 toward our final destination, the D.H. Lescombes Winery & Tasting Room1. There was virtually nothing in sight as we scanned the roadside for any indication that something as civilized as a winery might be nearby. For miles, lonely power lines draped along the street seemed like the only sign of human activity. A creeping anxiety welled up inside me. Could we have entered the wrong address in the nav system? We’re going to be absolutely screwed if we entered the wrong address. Meanwhile, the navigation system blurted out instructions that seemed inappropriately cheerful.
“In one mile, your destination is on the left!”
“In half a mile, your destination is on the left!”
“In a quarter mile, your destination is on the left!”
“Your destination is on the left!”
“There it is!” Jill shouted. I saw it too, but the navigation system was wrong. A dirt median prevented the prescribed left turn. “You have arrived!” the nav system cheered as we zoomed passed the winery’s driveway. I removed my foot from the accelerator, drawing the ire of the dirt-covered, lifted pickup behind us. A quarter mile down the road, we spotted a break. I continued slowing and we watched as the dirty pickup changed lanes and sped past us. We now had the road to ourselves as far as we could see in either direction. With only a scant few seconds to debate taking the turn versus continuing along in search of a better option, we quickly agreed: take it! I slowed to a crawl and turned as widely as I could, careful to avoid exceeding our hitch’s turning radius, then accelerated hard down the road in the opposite direction.
Less than two minutes later, we pulled into the winery’s parking lot. It was an enormous dirt parcel set directly in front of the winery’s main building. Five or six other RV’s were scattered about in various positions and orientations. We drove straight to the rearmost area and parked with the “utility side” of the Airstream facing away from all the other RV’s. We’d need to run our generator and didn’t want to unnecessarily ruffle any feathers. Satisfied with our location, we fired up our trusty LevelMatePRO and found that we were perfectly level. Jill and I breathed a synchronized sigh of relief as I turned off the truck for the last time that day and we laughed at the craziness of it all. The abrupt silence that followed was refreshing.
The day’s tension morphed into a giddy euphoria as we meandered toward the building’s entrance, in no hurry whatsoever, propelled only by the biting wind. By the time we reached the door, only the tiniest sliver of burnt orange sun remained above the horizon. Before long, the entire landscape would be blanketed by an opaque darkness.
The other patrons, curious about the new arrivals, collectively turned their heads in our direction as we stepped out of the cold. A young, blonde waitress with sharp facial features and a broad smile greeted us. We explained that we were Harvest Hosts members who would be staying for the night. She asked us to fill out a form, told us we could park anywhere in the dirt lot and, thankfully, said we were free to run our generator. (It’s a quiet one, right? she whispered. Definitely, I whispered back.) She then invited us to take a seat at a table, which we declined. We’d be back in an hour, we said, after eating dinner in our camper.
We returned to the Airstream, brimming with the sort of ecstatic jubilance that’s spawned from long, adrenalin-filled drives racing against an impending sunset. I cranked some 80s country music loud while Jill pulled leftovers out of the fridge. We danced and laughed like we were on a date. I then made my way back outside to retrieve the generator from the truck. A stiff, cold wind reminded me that the temperature would plummet down into the upper teens that night. I wheeled the generator to the “street” side of the trailer and pressed the electronic starter. A second later, it roared to life and I connected it to our trailer. It was indeed one of the quietest generators on the market, but it was not particularly “quiet”—especially in a remote area with little ambient noise to mask the engine’s rumblings. There were perhaps five other RVs in the parking lot for the night. None had generators running. I walked to the rig nearest us and told myself that the noise from our generator was unlikely to penetrate the neighboring RV’s walls. When I got back to the Airstream and opened the door, a warm glow spilled out from inside along with the enticing aroma of our microwaved dinner and the sounds of George Strait. I forgot about the generator noise and stepped inside.
First came the relief of arrival. Then of a satisfying meal. Now it was time to complete the holy trilogy with alcoholic beverages. We again traversed the barren parking lot, this time armed with coats and beanies to defend against the wind, and re-entered the tasting room. The same blonde waitress greeted us from across the room and yelled cheerfully for us to sit wherever we wanted. The room was relatively small and I’d guess maybe ten to fifteen other thirsty guests were present. It had a rustic vibe, but was either newly built or very well maintained. A larger room for group tastings was down the hall and occasionally we’d see folks walking back and forth between the two. We sat at a small, round, bar-height table that required us to hoist ourselves into the chairs that accompanied it. To my right, and Jill’s left, was a large unlit fireplace decorated with gray river rock. A couch sat in front of it where a couple took turns rocking an infant in a stroller. They interacted with employees and customers with an ease that made me think they must either work here or own the place. After a brief wait, the waitress arrived to take our orders. We both opted for flights*. Three of the available wines were sparkling—which I love—and since the flight included four selections, I doubled up on one of the sparkling options. I got lucky because that one was my favorite by far and I ended up ordering another full glass of it. The waitress delivered it in a champagne flute filled to the brim and ice cold. It tasted crisp and faintly tart in way I that found irresistible. By the time we’d left, I bought an entire bottle to take with us.
As we drank, increasing numbers of people filled the room and the cacophony of chatter rose conspicuously in volume. The alcohol eased our minds and we talked aimlessly about another successful, crazy RV travel day. The truth was, we loved it. Not every moment equally, but how else would we have ended up here, at a bar in a rural area of a small town on a cold January night? It was yet another random, interesting place that we would likely have never known about—let alone experienced—if it weren’t for our RV.
Even half drunk, I couldn’t shake the nagging anxiety that our “quiet” generator would disrupt our fellow travelers’ sleep. I originally thought I’d run it into the night in order to keep our batteries topped off for as long as possible. I guessed it would run until maybe 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning before running out of gas. As we laid in bed, I stared at my phone instead of drifting off to sleep, searching online for answers. What was the etiquette for running generators late at night where people were camping? Would our stock AGM batteries run the furnace all night long? How quickly would our pipes and tanks freeze at thirteen degrees below freezing?
“Try to forget about it,” Jill told me from the other side of the bed, bundled up like a burrito. “None of the other campers are very close to us. You said yourself that the closest one probably can’t even hear it from inside their trailer.”
Unfortunately, the more I read online, the more I felt like we were naughty campers who, come morning, would be vulnerable to contemptuous, disapproving stares from the other RV dwellers. Running generators late at night seemed universally condemned while reports of fully-charged AGM batteries having enough power to run an Airstream furnace fan all night long were mixed. Throwing my covers aside, I put on a jacket, grabbed my headlamp, and went outside to turn the generator off. When I got back, I turned the furnace temperature down to 55 degrees and slithered back under the mountain of blankets on our bed. The noiselessness was soothing. My anxieties about freezing pipes drifted away and I finally fell asleep.
My brain felt heavy, like it was encased in lead. My eyes were open but all I saw was black. I struggled to comprehend the nature and source of the repetitive beeping noise.
“What the f— is that!” I muttered, sitting up.
Jill sat up now too. “I don’t know,” she said with a groggy exasperation. “Is is the smoke detector again?”
I stumbled out of bed, only awake enough to know something in the Airstream was sounding an alarm, but it wasn’t the smoke detector.
I followed the noise toward the center of the trailer where I found a flashing blue display that read “E3”. “It’s the refrigerator,” I groaned back to Jill. Desperate to mute the incessant beeping as immediately as possible, I held the power button down until the refrigerator powered off. Silence, once again, filled the area. With one eye still closed, I turned 180 degrees to face the battery level indicator on the opposing wall. It read eleven point something. I was too tired to register anything beyond that the batteries were very low and that probably made the refrigerator angry. I killed the lights and fumbled back into bed. “I’ll figure it out in the morning,” I told Jill. My heart was still racing like I’d just been robbed.
In the morning, our phone alarms alternated on and off like two angry birds chirping at one another from across the yard. One more snooze, we’d lie to ourselves. Eventually, after about six snooze cycles each, we peeled ourselves out of bed. The hours following our little midnight jolt were largely sleepless and now our collective exhaustion made us susceptible to another giant lie: we’ve got plenty of time.
The thermometer read 20° outside and 55° inside. That seemed to indicate that the batteries had survived long enough to power the furnace blower throughout the night. I pressed the battery level indicator button and it still read in the low elevens. I told myself I should write down the exact number, but the thought slipped my mind as quickly as it had entered. I turned to run the water in the kitchen, then in the bathroom. The pipes had not frozen. Relieved, I filled our kettle with water and put it on the stove. While I waited for the water to boil, I sat down and googled “e3 error norcold refrigerator”. The answer was just as I suspected: low DC voltage. It never occurred to us that the fridge might be fussy about the voltage coming in from the battery. And it definitely never occurred to us that low voltage to the fridge would trigger an alarm.
The sleep deprivation and sub-freezing temperatures outside slowed our movements and clouded our thinking. We had 250 miles to cover, needed gas, and had to dump our sewage. It could have been the easiest day ever. But we lollygagged and dawdled and by the time we departed the winery the question wasn’t whether we’d be late to Airstream of New Mexico, it was ‘how late would we be?’
The Pit Crew
How could we have done this to ourselves two days in a row? I fumed as we drove. Of all the days to slow roll our departure, this was one of the worst we could have picked. Every few minutes, I’d look down and see that I was driving 77, 78, 79 miles per hour. Shit, I’d think as I eased off the gas until it dropped back down to a more reasonable 70 or 72. The knot in my stomach tightened every time the ETA on the truck’s nav system lost another minute. Naturally, it assumed that one would be driving at or above the speed limit, and we were averaging at least 5 mph below it. Take it easy, man. Driving eight to ten miles per hour faster isn’t going to save you much. We’ll get there when we get there. Five or ten minutes later, I’d look down and once again see a bigger number on my dash than I expected. Shit…
As Jill mapped out our path to a truck stop with a dump station, we lamented the decision to stay at a Harvest Host the night before. We should have stayed at an RV park with sewer hookups. We should have gotten up earlier. We should have left earlier. Damn it! The more tightly wound I got, the more I noticed that my comfort with driving at higher than normal speeds had miraculously improved. At one point, as we approached a car ahead that was driving slower than us, I seriously considered doing what we see other drivers doing all the time: making a sudden lane change just to dodge a slower driver without—god forbid—sacrificing even a smidge of our own velocity. And I hate it when people do that. After that, I took a long, deep breath. “I have to stop beating myself up for this situation and accept that we might be late. We might not even make it to the dealer at all today. I don’t want to drive like an asshole and make the situation worse by causing a wreck.” Jill voiced her concurrence and I leaned back in my seat, trying to loosen up by mentally enumerating all the various means I’d employ to avoid being in such a stupid situation again.
Jill saw it first. Right as we pulled into the truck stop, she zeroed in on a cardboard sign etched with fat permanent marker. In handwriting reminiscent of a 5th grader, it read “dump station out of order”.
Oh the foul language that escaped our lips! Of all the days, of all the times, we had to pick the one dump station that was out of order. How does a dump station become ‘out of order’, anyway? It’s just a pipe that drops wastewater into a septic tank. Gaahhh! We don’t have time for this!!
I pulled the trailer over to a far corner of the parking lot so we could stop and reassess. Jill pulled out her phone and found a Love’s with a dump station that wasn’t too far out of our way. Airstream of New Mexico closed at 4:00 p.m. The soonest we could get there now was 2:45. We called Christina—our contact there—and let her know of our latest delay, then headed back to the freeway.
Although Love’s truck stops are almost universally very nice, some can get exceptionally busy and crowded, making them challenging to navigate. Impatient truck drivers pressed for time whip their enormous 18 wheelers around with an ease most people barely have with four-door sedans. Even with our 3/4 ton truck—which is not small!—and thirty foot trailer, we always feel like a fly on those big trucks’ windshields when we pull into these stations. We never know exactly what to expect at any particular Love’s until we get there. More than once, we’ve aborted our approach when the diesel fuel lanes looked like a bumper car rink. This time, however, we caught our first break of the day. The station was smaller than most and relatively quiet. Even better was the unusually ideal location of their dump station, which was a good distance away from the fueling islands and provided a long, straight runway that made it easy to align our sewer line with the dump inlet.
Unlike our propane adventure from the day before, an attendant came out almost immediately to open the dump station for us. She was a plump, cheerful woman with gray hair pulled back tight into a pony tail and wore small, circular eyeglasses. “Hi there!” she greeted, waddling toward us. “I assume you’re the one’s who need the dump station?” She flashed a wry smile, clearly enjoying asking the obvious question. We laughed, and said yes. She bent over and used her key to unlock and remove the shackle that kept the metal dump station cover in place. “Technically, I’m supposed to stand here and wait until you’re done so I can put this lock back on,” she told us. “But you look like trustworthy people, so can you just put the lock back on before you leave?” We assured her that we would and I privately chuckled, amused by the same complement by two different truck stop workers in as many days.
The Airstream would be sitting idle for at least a month, so we wanted to do a thorough flush of the black tank. This, of course, required time that we did not have—but we did it anyway. As the minutes flew by, I wondered what we’d do if Airstream of New Mexico was closed by the time we arrived. If only we’d stayed at a RV park with sewer hookups. If only we’d gotten up earlier. If only, if only, if only…
We were a mere 40 minutes away from the dealer when we finished dumping and returned to the freeway. Our ETA now was a quarter after three. We called Christina again to let her know. If she was becoming impatient with us, she hid it well. Her demeanor never once deviated from its sanguine default.
My breathing was deep and measured as I made a deliberate effort to remain calm. Every few minutes I’d take one of my hands off the steering wheel and rub them on my pants to remove the accumulated sweat. The closer we got to the heart of Albuquerque, the heavier traffic became. Drivers were increasingly aggressive. My heart was racing when we finally saw the exit sign for Juan Tabo Blvd. It was 3:15 p.m. and were still five minutes away.
At 3:21—less than 40 minutes before their closing time—we crossed the threshold into Airstream of New Mexico’s parking lot, profoundly relieved, but unsure what would happen next. Christina had expressed a strong preference for us to arrive at least two hours before closing time. Would they turn us away? Tell us we’d need to return on Monday because they were closed on Sundays?
What we found instead was a small group of employees, including Christina, hovering near a chainlink fence, eagerly awaiting our arrival. They excitedly waved us toward them, like they were our own dedicated pit crew. One employee pushed the gate open while Christina approached my window with an ebullient smile and some quick parking instructions. They had every reason to be annoyed with us, but we detected not even the slightest hint of irritation. Once we parked, the employees swarmed our Airstream. Christina, armed with a clipboard, reviewed our long list of repair requests. Another employee drained the fresh water tank and then expeditiously winterized the trailer for us. Miraculously, the delivery of our Airstream was completed inside of 30 minutes. I then handed the keys to Christina who told us to take our time as we frantically transferred loads of our belongings to our truck.
At about ten minutes after 4:00 p.m. we swallowed hard and waved goodbye to our Airstream. The truck felt like a jack-in-the-box that would explode as soon as we opened any of the doors, but we had made it.
The Last Mile
After dropping off the Airstream, we drove two hours to a Super 8 motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico where we crashed for the night—hard. The next morning we ate an unsatisfying breakfast of low quality sausages, waffles, biscuits and the like, compliments of the motel, then vacated our room and headed for Austin. The 600 mile drive was long and tedious, but we continuously reminded ourselves that it could be worse—we could be stuck in Albuquerque, forced to wait until Monday to drop off the Airstream. Instead, we were headed home and our beloved trailer was in the capable hands of Airstream of New Mexico.
Seven weeks later, we reclaimed our Airstream on our way back from a ski trip in Vail, Colorado. All the repair work had been completed well before that time, but our schedules prevented us from returning to Albuquerque any earlier. When we arrived at Airstream of New Mexico—on time this time—Christina walked us through all the work they’d performed. To fix the leak, they removed and replaced all the seals from the rear half of the roof. Of course, there was only one way to truly verify that the leak was fixed: subject it to a severe rainstorm or two.
As of this writing, two and a half months have gone by. We’ve now encountered at least half a dozen storms that included torrential downpours, one of which forced us to pull over and wait it out.
Not once has even a drop of water penetrate our roof.
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