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Zapped! The long tow

August 31, 2010—With an apparently fried engine computer, Skylark wasn't going anywhere. I'd scheduled a tow to the nearest repair facility, but it wasn't until a few days later that I realized Skylark's immobility had another consequence: I couldn't dump my tanks.

Now, I can normally go three weeks between dumps, though I need to refill my freshwater tank after about 16 to 18 days. And fortunately (if you can apply that word to a lightning strike), the incident happened the day after I arrived at El Vado Lake State Park, so I had just filled up with water, dumped the gray and black tanks, and had almost three weeks to stay before the rangers would kick me out.

Still, the prospect of my shower and the toilet backing up wasn't appealing, so I started using the campground bathroom, which was only a short walk up the road, in order to stretch my time. At night I'd pee in a bottle (a special one set aside for that purpose), then carry it to the bathhouse in the morning and empty it into one of the toilets.

I spent the days until the wrecker was scheduled to arrive checking as many systems as possible to find what needed repairing. For example, there were dozens of fuses to check in several different locations: at the converter panel, under the dashboard, and in the engine compartment. I checked each one with my handy Radio Shack multimeter and wiped its prongs with DeoxIT contact cleaner for good measure. Surprisingly, the only one I found blown was the one for the dashboard stereo. Replacing it didn't bring the radio back to life, though.


They're coming to tow me away, ha-haaa

(with apologies to the 1966 novelty record)

When the day rolled around for the tow, I called Coach-Net to confirm... and got a nasty shock: they told me I was going to have to pay the $478 cost out of my own pocket. It turns out that Coach-Net, like AAA and other such services, only covers mechanical breakdowns—flat tires, burst radiator hoses and the like—but they don't cover accidents, and they consider lightning to be an accident. That's not unreasonable, but it was a very unpleasant surprise. If this ever happens to you, you probably don't want to call your emergency road service and say "My vehicle was struck by lightning and now it won't start." Just say "My vehicle won't start."

Fortunately, it turned out that my Progressive insurance policy includes coverage for towing, regardless of cause. (If you don't have this clause on your policy, I recommend adding it. It's quite inexpensive, and can save you from a major towing bill!)

After confirming that Progressive would reimburse me for the 106-mile tow into Colorado, I set about preparing. Ordinarily, I can be ready to move out in fifteen or twenty minutes—I'm not one of those RVers who has to put away a bunch of things before moving the rig—but I'd never had this rig towed before, and it seemed as if there were a zillion things to remember. I was very grateful for the moral support of my friends Chris and Frank Williams, who reminded me of things I might otherwise have forgotten and generally helped keep my head from exploding.

I moved Alix's food and water dish and litter pan into the back of the car, since she'd be riding with me. I moved my 12" laptop Macintosh and my "get-away pack" into the passenger's seat. I keep this large backpack crammed with clothing and necessities for a week, including items like spare cell phone and iPod charger cables and a book to read in case I get bored. When the truck showed up, I was flustered but ready.

The driver, Joey, was a lifelong Chama resident and knew the local roads very well... which was good, because the route I had picked out with Google Maps was not the best one, as it turned out. I was glad to defer to his expert knowledge of the area. Joey hooked up to Skylark, lifted the front wheels off the ground, and off he went, with me following in the Fit. We did make one stop: he was kind enough to let me dump Skylark's tanks before we left the campground. I felt a lot better knowing I wasn't going to run out of room while I was getting repairs done! Then we headed north into the mountains.

Towing Skylark

The trip took us through Chama, over a wonderfully scenic 10,000' mountain pass into Colorado, and on up Rt. 17. Alix, who only rides in the car once a year to get her checkup at the vet, was unhappy and made her feelings plain in a series of heart-rending yowls. I could have put her in her carrier, but I hated to "put her in jail" for a nearly three-hour drive, so I let her wander around the car, only forbidding her to go under my seat. Although it wasn't a hot day and I had the air conditioner running full blast, she soon began to pant from stress.

Alix panting

I did my best to comfort her, and after fifteen or twenty minutes she did calm down. She wedged herself into a narrow crack behind the passenger's seat, where she felt safer, and stayed there for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, she would probably have been less anxious (and been safer!) if confined to her carrier. I won't make that mistake again.

Once we were over the pass, Joey took the 7% downgrades very slowly, and I had to drop into second gear for long stretches, but I didn't mind—better safe than sorry when you're towing something as big as Skylark. We got to Town & Country Ford in Alamosa just at 5:00 p.m., in time for me to sign in and hand them my printed list of what needed to be done. (I always do this with mechanics, to avoid any misunderstandings.) They were scheduled to start work the next day, and were gracious enough to let me stay in the rig in their parking lot that night.

The next morning I handed the keys to the Ford service manager, packed my gear and Alix back into the car, and drove across the street to the Alamosa Super 8 motel, where I reserved a room for the night. Their housekeeping staff was still at work, so I drove to the Walmart up the road and parked in the corner of the lot. With the MiFi in my pocket providing a wireless internet link for my iPod Touch, I spent a couple of hours answering emails, reading my usual daily websites, and feeling very smug and high-tech. Alix explored the car for awhile, then curled up in back, looking wary but comfortable.

Super 8 motel room

Back at the Super 8, I checked into my room. I'd paid a $10-per-stay pet surcharge, so I didn't have to sneak Alix into the room. She began to explore, and I set up my laptop and got back online with the motel's free wireless connection, sending out an email update to my friends:

I'm now installed in room 101 of the deluxe Alamosa Super 8 motel. My room's luxurious appointments include a bed, a table, two chairs, two lamps (one with no bulb), an air conditioner, several electrical outlets, and a stain on the rug near the door that looks as if maybe someone's dog threw up there. And the room's crowning glory: a picture-perfect view of the take-out window of the Wendy's next door, about twenty feet away. How I love to sit and watch the parade of cars and trucks roll past, pausing only long enough to pick up their bags of greaseburgers and sodden fries.

OK, I'm deliberately making it sound bad. ;-) To be fair, there's also a TV, a one-cup coffee maker, a small, slightly cool refrigerator, and a very small microwave oven. The room is generally clean. And the wifi connection is fast... it only took me 12 minutes to download that Mac OS update that I'd struggled for hours with previously.

Also, it's fast enough to use internet radio, and I found a very nice all-Baroque station. The speakers on this little five-year-old PowerBook are tinny, but it's better than nothing. (I never installed any music on it, because there are only 12GB free on its pitiful 80 GB hard drive.)

Alix is still exploring the room, but she's used her litter pan once, which is a good sign, and she hasn't been complaining. I guess she figures this is better than being cooped up in the car.

I haven't been in a motel since the night I stayed in one while some mechanic in Wyoming was working on Gertie. If I thought about my surroundings, I'd be depressed. But I'm treating it as an adventure... and as long as I'm going to be reimbursed, I guess I can't complain too much. I drove around town a little, but the only movie theater seems to be closed, so there isn't much to do from my point of view except read. No word from the Ford dealer yet... I figure if I don't hear anything by 4:30, I'll walk over there and ask.

One more fuse

Around 4:15 the dealer's service desk called to say that Skylark was ready. I'd been prepared for the worst, figuring it might take them days to fix the engine and whatever else was wrong. But it turned out that the engine computer was just fine—the only problem was a blown fuse. But I checked all the fuses! Not this one. The invoice said it was "FUSE F2.8", and I later learned that it was a "fusible link" (basically a fuse disguised as a wire). This part isn't documented in the Ford owner's manual, and I wouldn't have had any idea where to look for it... nor do I have a replacement in my sizable collection of spare fuses.

The total bill for repairs came to $100 even, plus $21.38 for an oil and filter change and tightening up my emergency brake. My god, these folks were actually honest! I had walked in there convinced that I had a bad engine computer (and told them so), and they could easily have replaced that plus the fusible link and hit me with a bill for $500 or more. Instead, they did only what was necessary and charged me a pittance. They even let me dry-camp for two nights in their parking lot. If you ever need work on your Ford (or Ford-based motorhome), I recommend Town & Country Ford in Alamosa, Colorado.

Still in a state of shock, I went back to the Super 8 motel, collected my meager belongings and my cat, and checked out. It wasn't until I closed the door on that dingy room that I realized just how much I had not wanted to spend the night there! I stocked up on groceries, had supper, and turned in, grateful to be back in my snug home.

Heading for the hills

Next morning I hitched up the Fit and drove 50 miles southwest to a Forest Service campground that Mike Sylvester had suggested: Elk Creek. Skylark ran like a dream, Alix was happy to be home again, and I was marveling at my good luck in getting out of Alamosa so quickly and cheaply. I found a lovely pull-through site and settled down. Next on the agenda: coach repairs by Mike.

Elk Creek
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