Everyone knows that the end of school marks the beginning of summer, and with summer comes the long, hot days…and family vacations.
Now, we all likely have memorable family vacations, right?
Well, here’s one for the books, that even as an adult, I have never (and will not ever) forget!
I was ten years old. My family consisted of me, my mom and dad, and my dad’s mother (“Granny”). Each year, we would take some kind of epic vacation across the country, usually in an RV, unless we lucked out and were spoiled by a nearby Motel 6. You know…Tom Bodet? Yep, he and I kinda grew up together. But, I digress.
When I was ten, my dad acquired an 24′ Winnebago motor home. That was 1984, and at the time, I was pretty sure that 1974 called and wanted their Winnie back. Anyhow, the beast was equipped with a big block Dodge 440 cubic inch V-8, so the only thing we didn’t pass along our journey was the gas stations.
We had decided as a family that we were going to take off and go see Yellowstone National Park – something that I had always wanted to do. I love the mountains, the cool, crisp air and the wildlife.
So, as we prepared our trip, mapped out the road trip on the hand Rand McNally atlas and loaded our things into the behemoth, my dad remembered that we had not had the oil changed yet on the rig. This was important as we would be venturing over 2,500 miles in the next two weeks. Dad dutifully took the Winnie to a local gas station/full service station for an oil change. By noon, we were ready to roll, and roll out we did.
Everything was going hunky dory until we got through Colorado. It was then that my mother decided we should save some miles and take a “shortcut” that she had found on the map. Oh dear. As with any good horror movie, this is the part where the “do-do-do-do” music starts. It was ominous.
Her shortcut ended up being a very narrow two-lane winding road that tooks us about 50-65 miles through a mountain range, with the Colorado river on one side, and the constant threat of falling rocks on the other. Quite literally, there was no room to turn our rig around, so we had no choice but to forge ahead. Then, my dad noticed the fuel gauge. We we around one-quarter of a tank. Of course, I didn’t know this because I was very busy doing what ten year olds do – mastering my etch-a-sketch.
We proceeded onward on the deathly narrow road, until we came upon a sharp bend in the road (mind you, we couldn’t go over about 25 mph on this whole side trip). Just after the sharp bend, the already narrow road funneled into a one-lane SUSPENSION bridge. And no, not like the Golden Gate. In my eyes, this bridge was more like something you saw swinging in the jungles of Cambodia on the nature channel. Since there was still no chance of turning around, and it was impossible to think that we would back ourselves all the way back down the mountain, we kept moving forward. By this time, I’d put my etch-a-sketch away and had my sweaty palms and nose pressed against the large side window…watching the river rush along below. We were SO CLOSE to the side of the mountain!
Then, we came upon a sign that said WEIGHT LIMIT: 2 TONS. Awesome. With our rig, our provisions and the humans inside, we were nearing probably 4 tons or so. Then, the mirrors began to scrape at the side of the bridge on either side. There was now a car behind us, which increased our weight on the already overloaded bridge. The only thing below us was the side of the mountain and the cold, furiously rushing water of the Colorado River. As we kept moving at basically an idle, with the fuel gauge teetering dangerously low, mirrors and sides scraping on the bridge and being over twice the weight limit, the bridge began groaning and swaying under the huge load.
As a ten year old, I just KNEW this was the end. I was going to die right here on the Dewey Bridge thanks to my mother’s mad map reading skills and a glorious shortcut. Who was I going to leave my Etch-a-Sketch to? Somehow, miraculously, we cleared the bridge and was back on the narrow two-lane road…with still no where to go but forward. After about another 15 miles, we ended up in Moab, Utah…where there was literally an oasis in the mountains – a gas station.
We filled up Winnie, and promptly demoted my mother from her navigational post. I was now in charge of the map reading. Whoa Nelly!
As we thankfully headed back to the interstate towards Yellowstone, it was then that my Granny decided to have one of her infamous “spells”. My dream of seeing Yellowstone was short lived because Granny decided that Yellowstone was too cold for her fragile body at 70-some years old, so she said that we had to go to the Grand Canyon. My dad, like the good little boy he was, acquiesced. After all, who doesn’t want to keep their mother happy? Who cares about the wife and kids.
So, somewhere in Utah, we basically did a 180º, and headed towards Arizona. This really was turning into an epic journey!
After clearing the Arizona border, we crossed into Navajo and Hopi territory – reservations. What a sight to see! However, just as we were pulling through part of the Arizona desert near the Navajo reservation, something in the engine went KA-POW and then a LOT of white smoke filled the entire interior of our RV. Chugga, chugga, chugga…then silence. Winnie bit the dust right there in the desert.
This is where things got really interesting. You see, my parents traveled only with cash back then, and usually quite a bit of it. They were not ones to trust traveler’s checks or credit cards. And, with being literally in the middle of the desert with no signs of a town nearby, the only thing they could do is take out walking, looking for help.
So, just before they departed the RV, my dad pulls me over to the side and empties his pockets of all the cash he had, except for about $50 and told me to take good care of it. He and my mother left on foot to the nearest town.
As soon as they were out of sight, my grandmother, ever the encourager, said woefully, “Well, I guess this is it. We’re out here in the middle of the hot desert, broke down. We are alone and you have all the money. Now, what will happen is one of those [Native Americans] will come and knock us in the head and it’ll all be over.
That’s all it took for this ten year old. Suddenly, I was nauseous and could no longer hold my insides. I was just sure we were going to meet our demise. Granny even said so. Imagine this sight: I’m ten years old, with my lap full of money, holding my stomach, crying and rocking back and forth in the middle of the floor near the toilet. Yep. There I was.
Then, a loud noise came up behind our RV – an engine. Then, a door slammed shut. Here we go.
It was all I could do not to break out into hysterics, meanwhile, my Granny kept saying…”It won’t be long now. They’re almost here…”
Finally, while still in my all-out panic, I looked up, and my parents walked through the RV door after knocking for some time. It took them a little while to convince me to open the door willingly. They said that a nice man had picked them up alongside the road a couple of miles down, and offered to take us to the nearest garage, in which he happened to be the lead mechanic. It was the local Chevrolet dealership.
The nice man was from the reservation, and had a beautiful conversion van. He loaded up our family and took us to the dealership. The dealership was able to tow our rig into the shop, and then allowed us to camp in our broken RV overnight there in the lot, while we waited for parts to come in.
As it turned out, when we had the oil changed in Ottawa before we left town, the local station failed to look and see if the oil pan was a typical five quart or extended nine quart pan. We had the nine quarter. Unfortunately, the local shop only put in five quarts of oil, so we basically ran cross country four quarts low. The loud ka-pow noise? That was the sound of the valve literally propelling itself THROUGH the piston – through and through like a bullet.
While the dealership and the nice man worked on our RV, the nice man went out of his way to make sure our vacation was not spoiled completely. He generously gave us his conversion van to continue our journey and told us to come back in a few days and Winnie would be all ready to hit the road again.
Talk about a memorable family vacation! This stranger in the middle of the desert, picked up a stranded family AND gave us his brand new, personal vehicle to drive and enjoy while our rig was down for count in the shop.
Yes, we did see the Grand Canyon that summer, but we also saw something much more. Faith restored in humanity – the goodness and kindness of strangers. And, no one with a big stick to knock us in the head.
The Etch-a-Sketch was safe after all.