Other VanOrden Posts

Monday, August 27, 2012

I Wonder if any Trip on the Alaska Highway Goes Smoothly (pun intended).

The best thing to remember when making a major move is “be flexible”.  It may be good to have contingency plans just in case things don’t go as planned.  We did have some backup scenarios in mind but never thought of the possibility of our motorhome developing problems within 200 miles of our departure from Eagle River Alaska on our 3000 mile journey to our new home in Idaho. 

Fortunately we had both Good-Sam RV Club and AAA backup and were able to get help when our motorhome overheated just 4 short miles outside of Glennallen Alaska.  I am pretty sure they saved us almost $2000.  Thank you to all who have been part of Good-Sam RV Club and never needed their services. We had been stranded outside Glennallen before and knew how pricey towing and repairs can be in this little place literally in the middle of nowhere. 

The nice lady I talked with at Good-Sam was very kind and comforting but didn’t quite understand the distances associated with Alaskan travel.  She also struggled with the reality that not many towing companies in Alaska can deal with a 39’ Class A motorhome.  She finally found Webb Towing from Anchorage who could come out to our location and tow us back to the few repairs shops that can handle large Workhorse truck frames.  It’s like working on a bus. 

After Jeannie (woman in distress) made a few calls to see if we could get someone close to come out to haul our tow dolly to a safe location off the highway for 50 bucks, a nice fellow, owner of the Caribou Inn in Glennallen came out with his pickup truck and backed up to the front of our motorhome and started hooking up a large tow strap like he thought he could haul our entire 60 foot convoy (motorhome, tow dolly, and Camry) to safety off the highway. 

I rushed out to tell him a tow was on the way and all we needed was to get our dolly to safety since the tow company wouldn’t be able to take it back to Anchorage with the motorhome.  He looked things over and then said his truck could get us the quarter mile to the closest off road parking at a roadhouse and sure enough it did.  Next time I buy a pickup it will be one of those big Fords since I know they are as tough as the advertizing says.

He didn’t want to take my $50 but I insisted.  He told us to enjoy the sunset over Mount Drum and went on his way.  Alaskans prove themselves again as the nicest people when an emergency arises. 

We settled into the motorhome to wait for the tow truck while contemplating our strategies for adjusting our travel plans.  Three hours later at 1AM the largest tow truck I had ever seen pulled up behind our RV.  The driver turned on his flood lights and hooked up his winch and slowly pulled us onto his tilted flatbed while I stirred the RV backwards without power since the engine wouldn’t start.  It just barely fit and took us about 45 minutes to get set and chained down before the driver takes off toward the Wasilla Chevy dealership. 

We are tired but have to get to Wasilla to talk with the dealership repair shop about the motorhome problems, and we really would rather stay at one of the nicer motels in the Valley rather than in Glennallen so we hit the road south. 

I am driving the Camry while Jeannie and our daughter Amara follow along in a new Mazda 3.  About 20 miles outside Palmer I am driving along the serpentine forested road and see a huge momma moose and her young baby come out of the brush to my left only a few yards in front of me.  Since they are on my left, instinctively I steer right and pound down on the brake. 

Earlier I reminded Jeannie to be very careful watching for moose as we drive the winding road back to the Palmer/Wasilla area.  Hundreds of moose are killed every year by vehicles on Alaskan highways. The enormous size of an adult moose makes it extremely dangerous for those driving cars since it is like hitting a horse.  An impact takes out their legs while the bulky body catapults right over the hood and peals back the wind-shield and roof of the vehicle.  It can and occasionally does kill front seat occupants.    

In 19 years of driving all over Alaska I have never come close to hitting a moose.  I consider myself very fortunate since I often drive during late dark hours on icy roads due to late evening meetings.    But then Alaska had one more trick up its sleeve.  So here is the rest of the story; when I swerved right the momma moose picked up speed rushing forward across the road.  The next thing I knew I was laying against the left hand front window of my car.  I had stopped abruptly. 

The Camry rolled ¼ turn onto its side by going off the road up onto a small uphill embankment.  No airbags deployed.  I seemed to be OK, so I stood up on the driver side-window and opened the passenger side door so I could escape onto the top of the car which was now the passenger’s side.  The only injury I seemed to recognize was a tweaked right ankle, probably from the impact while still jamming down on the brake pedal. I jumped down and carefully surveyed the situation.  Seeing no dead moose, I guessed momma and baby made it safely into the woods. 

By now a group of good Alaskan helpers stopped to give assistance.  A group of six good sized men rolled the car back onto it wheels.  I got back in and they push while I drove it back onto the road surface, and again we were underway. I lost the driver’s side mirror and sustained a few dents but the car still ran well. 

Here is my wife Jeannie’s account from her perspective as she came upon the rolled car:     

The RV breakdown and the drive back to Wasilla 7/29/2012 by Jeannie Snow VanOrden

It had been a harrowing day, an exhausting evening, not to mention a grueling week.  Once the motorhome was in the hands of the very competent tow truck driver I breathed a small sigh of relief and looked forward to getting to the hotel in Wasilla and getting a good long rest.  Ralph went ahead of us, my daughter Amara and I, in her new Mazda. 

Before we got on the road, Ralph repeatedly warned us to be alert and watch out for moose.   “That’s all we need.”  I thought.  And given the odds so far I figured we were past our full measure of bad luck for the day.  The road from Glenallen is long and full of frost heaves and in the twilit darkness, boring.  Amara and I conversed and listened to lively music from her mp3 player to stay awake. 

We flew past all the little lodges, campgrounds, gas stations, and deserted roadhouses and reached the descending and winding home stretch outside of Palmer: a steep descent on the left side, muddy embankment on the right shoulder, and dense dark woods all around.    As we came around a bend in the road I saw a strange configuration of red lights on the right shoulder: red lights in a vertical line. Then out of the gloom I realized it was the rear end of a car sitting on its side brake lights aglow.  Cars in front of us were slowing and stopping.  The clear outline of a spikey bicycle rack on the vehicle’s roof materialized out of the gloom and the terrible realization hit me.  I cried out loud;

“Oh no, that’s Ralph!” #!@#**#@$#$$$$$.  No profanity just utter desolation rang through my aching head: visions of a dead Ralph and car.  Thank goodness we had Amara’s car as a spare.

A moment of denial washed over me, “No, it can’t be.  It just can’t be!”  But it most certainly was Ralph in our Camry. 

Amara pulled over and stopped.  We jumped out of the car and made our way toward the Camry in time to see Ralph poke his head up and out of the passenger side door.  People around us murmured their dismay, how worried they had been about moose, and how it could easily have been them in that predicament. 

The men in the group were galvanized into action.  Once they realized that Ralph was not hurt, they scrambled all around the car to evaluate the situation, and more quickly than I could have imagined possible had the Camry back on four wheels and pushed out of the muddy shallow ditch that ran along the embankment.

No bloody moose in the road, no bloodied Ralph, no air-bags deployed no disabled engine.  The driver’s side door was difficult to open and had a few new scrapes and a dent but miraculously the car started up and we were able to continue on our way into Wasilla where the kind people at the Grand View Inn in Wasilla let us check in at 8 a.m. to finally get a good day’s sleep.

Back to Ralph's Account:

At 6AM we arrived in Wasilla about as pooped as we could be.  The Chevy dealership was locked-up with chained gates at all entrances.  The driver and I look for a way to get in so we can offload the RV.  No luck, so he calls Good Sam to tell them our dilemma and his hourly price for standing-by until someone comes to open the gates. 

The nice woman on the phone asks if he can just leave it in an adjacent parking lot (Wal-Mart) for a few hours until the dealership opens.  He kindly explains why that would be more difficult since the dealership doesn’t have a truck large enough to haul the motorhome into one of their bays for diagnosis.

Just then a lady shows-up to work early and opens one the gates, but quickly locks it again.  I hustle over to speak to her and find out she has come early so she can wash her own personal truck.  I ask if she would be so kind as to allow us to offload the RV.  After a little persuasion, she agrees and before long our task is complete. 

We rested up for a day and waited for the prognosis on our motorhome.  We are told it is probably just a water-pump and the sophisticated computer systems in our modern land yacht shut down the engine so damage would be kept to a “minimum”.  It will take two weeks to get the parts and complete the repair.

Since we had a family trip to Lake Powell booked for August 14-20th, we have to get on the road south.  We decided to rent a U-Haul to carry all our stuff from the motorhome and tow the Camry and two days after originally planned we are heading down the Alaska Highway once again toward the lower 48.  

Seven days later we arrived at our new home in the country outside Boise Idaho.  But one last challenge confronts us.  Our household goods are in a 20 foot long barge container arriving in Seattle soon.  So I flew to Seattle and caught a taxi over to a local Penske truck rental to get a 26 foot diesel truck so I can transfer the boxes and furniture for the 500 mile trip to Idaho. 

This approach saved us thousands of dollars over direct shipment to Idaho, though logistically difficult and very hard on my old body.  I hired two friendly Hispanic guys at the local Home Depot parking lot for the morning and we made our way to Northland Services at Pier #115.  I paid just over $2200 for the container shipment from Eagle River to the dock.  I paid my moving helpers very well while returning them to the Home Depot and was on the road toward Snoqualmie Pass by 11AM.  Try to avoid driving a truck on Seattle Highways during the day if at all possible. 

Ten hours later I pulled the Penske truck into our new home’s driveway and was so pleased to be home with Jeannie and Amara.  Mission accomplished, flexibility stretched to the max. 
A few days later our new life celebration began with a trip to Lake Powell for a week with our immediate family.  We watched our six grandkids saying things like “this is the best day ever” as they jumped off the slide into the warm lake waters. 

I wonder if any trip on the Alaska Highway goes smoothly.  Now Jeannie and I have to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives, besides the basic retirement regulars; Grandkids, Golf, and Gardening.  Keep posted.