RV'ing Without, BRAKES!
RV'ing Mountain Style
Nice Day for a Trip
Pam, my wife and I set out on a beautiful sunny fall day in the Smokey Mountains of Western North Carolina with our F350 truck pulling our 32-foot, 11000 pound fifth-wheel RV. A short three hour drive to another campground in South Carolina, we should be there for dinner even though we weren't leaving until noon. The three hour drive has an ominous edge to it as it sounds like the story of the S.S. Minnow and Gilligan's Island. Little did we know this wasn't going to be a situation comedy.
Current GPS technology, a gift from the travel gods, know doubt. This day would prove the exception. I didn't set the destination in the GPS right away as I knew which way to go for at least the first hour or so. It gets a bit annoying listening to the voice telling you when to turn when you already know the answer way before the turn. With destination set in the GPS for later retrieval, we waved to our friends and off on our three hour drive.
The road to Franklin, NC
Stuck 2 miles west of here with no brakes.
Anyone traveling into the Smoky Mountains soon realizes there is no easy way into or out of the area driving an RV. Those beautiful mountains surround the area, any direction is a tough hill climbing adventure. After studying the maps to find the best way towards South Carolina, I committed the route to memory and felt confident at this point. Driving southeast we should pick up US 76 just into northern Georgia then a downward run towards Interstate 85. About one half hour into the trip I turned on the GPS and loaded the destination. The green line route showed up that we were on track towards South Carolina. After another 20 minutes without seeing the turnoff for US 76 suspicion grew that we were getting lost, Pam grew frustrated trying to find our route on the map. With a touch of annoyance I mentioned that according to the GPS we should turn off towards the south very soon. She was trying to tell me that something was wrong, why were we making consistent gradual turns to the left and also a growing number of upward hill climbs. Discussion became quite testy now. Finding a pull off just big enough to hold our rig brought some relief. Finally figuring out the GPS had abandoned our easy southeast route for a more exciting northeast route towards Franklin, NC. Directly into the Nantahala National Forest! After a bunch of cussing and apologies we decided to move on and just follow the GPS route. The decision was obvious as we had no room to turn around anyhow!
RV Driving Tips
Eight percent grade
With resignation up we go into the mountains, now I am cussing the fact that my 5 mile per gallon truck is now down in third gear and is crawling up this mountain at about $2 per mile. There goes the travel budget for this trip. Cresting the peak the view at the top is breathtaking with the fall foliage. But not as breath taking as the numerous seven and eight percent hill warning signs.
Descending a mountain in a 16000 pound vehicle can be deceiving, as it isn't as simple as it seems. Setting up for the first steep hill downwards properly, downshift into third gear and stay off of the throttle, use only slight drag on the trailer brakes to control the descent. Then there is the dreaded "Steep Grade" signs that haunts any large vehicle driver. At this point only about two minutes into the descent suddenly the right front wheel started a horrific scraping sound when the brakes were applied. Now this wasn't the kind of scraping sound that you hear when the brakes need replacing, no, this was something much worse. At this point I try not to use the truck brakes too much because of the noise, and the speed starts to build up to our horror. Now the signs indicate an 8% grade ahead with runoffs. Runoffs are dead end spurs built into the side of the roadway to assist a runaway vehicle.
At this point we are just looking for a pull-off to stop this death dive into the valley below. The scraping sound is getting worse, the brake pressure is starting to fade, a sickening feeling of going beyond a safe recovery is creeping into our heads. Thankfully we are blessed with a pull-off in the roadway. A cloud of smoke surrounds us as we slow to get off the road. The smoke is thick now, and the brakes are practically gone at this point, the front wheel grinding an unmerciful symphony of metal on metal. To our surprise the pull off area has a decline to it, now I have a hard time holding the rig on this hill. Forget the parking brake, it won't hold, even full force on the truck brakes barely holds the rig. Finally by shutting off the engine and putting it into low gear and standing on the brakes it finally stopped rolling. Pam quickly puts the wheel chocks in front of the wheels and we finally stop our crisis at about 4000 feet above the nearest town.
The Smokey Mountains
We sit in wide eyed horror at what just happened, not believing quite yet that we were temporarily safe. The altitude on the GPS and the steep descent signs quietly taunt us. My wife asks me what would I have done had we not stopped? I glanced at the line of trees to our right and said "I prefer a collision with a tree at 10 miles per hour than the bottom of this hill at 70 or 80".
We really didn't know what lie ahead of us, didn't know how far this hill would go. The brakes were a mystery, so calling 911 was our only choice. The police were very sympathetic and sent a trooper up to our spot to see what could be done. He arrived after what seemed like hours. Then he agreed that we should not trust the brakes and to get a tow into the nearest town. He called for a tow truck and assured us that he would stop by later to see if we made it down the hill. I don't think that the trooper intended to scare the hell out me, when he warned me to watch out for the bears roaming around as they have been quite active. OK, thanks a lot, I don't need any more problems. I decide that this would be too much information to give to my wife.
The tow truck arrives an eternity later. We both slump in our seats, the truck is a standard size tow truck, not something that can take a truck and trailer down off of a mountain. I discuss the possibilities of what we could do, which included multiple tow trucks. The tow driver explains that the rest of the hill is only about 1 or 2 miles long before it flattens out. To my horror he suggests going down the hill in second gear at about 20 miles per hour. Reluctantly I agree if he rides in front of me just in case I lose all my brakes. He suggested that he needs to warn the traffic behind me, so they don't run into me. I said OK, but please let my wife ride in the tow truck, just in case. With a tearful hug, my wife reluctantly rides in the tow.
The brakes had cooled and the fading was gone. The scraping sound was still there, so off we went at 20 mph in second gear. The ride down was slow and uneventful, prompting a thought of why was I so worried. With the rig parked in the repair shop the horror peaked again with the discovery of the missing pin that holds the caliper of the brake on the noisy wheel. Someone was watching over us on that day, we finally breathed a sigh of relief that our ordeal was over and the repair bill was only $60.
Needless to say, our next trip into the mountains (if ever) will be met with lots of planning.
Cheers, Happy RV'ing.
- Read another exciting RV horror story about fuel planning by Don Fairchild
© 2011 Don Fairchild