When Shit Goes South on the Road
In the face of unexpected pitfalls, you learn that it’s not about the problems you encounter—it’s how you deal with them
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Since the day we purchased Artemis, the Airstream, people have repeatedly told us that trailers are second only to boats when it comes to repair costs and maintenance headaches. The day we picked her up, a hose clamp came loose, which sent water trickling from the fresh tank and the previous owner scrabbling beneath the shower to stanch the leak. “If you’re not a handyman, you will be,” he said, once he’d stopped the drip. “There’s always something to fix.”
Almost two years later, we’ve had a few issues, but nothing that seriously slowed us down. Until last week.
We’ve spent the last few weeks flying around the country for work, so picking up Artemis where we’d stashed her in Santa Fe felt like a homecoming. Jen was lucky enough to draw an elk tag in the Gila Wilderness this year, which meant we were in store for some quiet camping and dark skies. All we had to do was hook up, drive south, find a site, and relax. We got about halfway through that list before plans rattled apart.
On the 20-mile dirt road into the Gila, Jen, who was driving, slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the truck. “We’ve got a problem,” she shouted. A dark trail in the dusty New Mexico roadway led away from Artemis from the fresh water tank, which had sprung a leak. By the time I’d circled the truck and reached her, Jen had her pinky jammed like Hans Brinker in a hole where the plastic drain nozzle of the tank used to live. A kicked-up rock had sheared it clean. About that time, a rancher drove by and slowed. “That’s you wasting all that water, huh?” he said. “Trail goes back for miles. Gallons and gallons of water wasted.”
The rancher drove away, and Jen and I hemmed and hawed and yelled at each other briefly. We didn’t know what else to do. Without fresh water, the hunt—and our quiet time—was over before it began, but we had no spare plug and no apparent fix. Then, with nothing else to do, Jen kept the leak plugged with her finger, and I rooted furiously through the cabinets in the trailer. Eventually I fashioned a duct tape plug for the main leak and whittled a twig to fill the lower pinhole. With a couple of layers of duct tape overtop—and a few more passersby to remark on our plight—the flow was down to a drop or two a minute. Problem mostly solved.
A friend once told me to never quit an endurance race before a good night’s sleep, as sunlight and rest bring clarity. The same holds true for Airstreaming.
The campsite we’d scoped in advance was occupied, which meant we had to drive around washboard dirt roads looking for a place to stay. Pushing a 23-foot trailer in and out of rutted two-tracks isn’t easy, and all I could think about was getting somewhere to stop our fresh water hemorrhage. Meanwhile, it had started to rain.
Three more sites we knew were occupied, then we nearly stalled on a steep pitch of slippery mud roads as we headed up to a place we’d seen but never scouted. Jen gunned it, Artemis swayed like a willow in the wind, and fortunately we made the top of the hill to find an open—and lovely—campsite.
The fun wasn’t over. When I spun the propane knob to fire up Artemis, the hiss of leaking gas lead to a couple of rotted-out gaskets, which meant no heat or hot food. I steamed for a minute or two as cold rain throbbed on my bare head. Then, inside the trailer, the weather-beaten roads had twisted a closet hinge so brutally that the wood panel door lay on the bed, clothes strewn like flotsam. In the cold, gray of the fall evening, with nothing else to do, Jen and I poured a bourbon and discussed our hasty, early morning retreat. Without fresh water and fuel, and in the pouring, frigid rain, Artemis seemed like nothing more than an unwieldy tent. With real services three hours away, it seemed we’d have to pull out at dawn.
A friend once told me to never quit an endurance race before a good night’s sleep, as sunlight and rest bring clarity. The same holds true for Airstreaming. Dawn cast away the clouds for a flaxen sunrise, which seemed to clear my head. I’m still no handyman, but I managed to reinforce the fresh tank till it no longer dripped, use copious wraps of electrical tape to choke down the fuel leak to a trickle, and duct tape the closet door shut so it was out of our way. None of it was pretty, but it did the job. No need to drive hours to town and abort our plans.
Jen managed to find and take an elk a few days later, which means we’ll eat well for the year to come. As important, we realized that, with a bit of ingenuity, problems in the field can be solved in the field, at least temporarily. When there’s no Home Depot around the corner or handyman to call, you make do. Three days after we arrived, the fresh tank was still two-thirds full and the propane was running fine. The lesson: don’t panic when things go south; just sleep on it, and then start improvising. Also, we’ll carry spare tank drains, hinges, propane fitments, and extra duct and electrical tapes from here forward.
Even after Jen finished the hunt, we stuck around for more quiet time. We even witnessed the blaze of Orionid meteors three black dawns in a row. After we left the Gila, there was a brief moment when I thought, “Duct tape works fine. Problems fixed.” Then, on Jen’s prudent urging, I pointed Artemis toward the nearest hardware shop.