Monday, December 13, 2021

The Best Laid Plans of Rodents and Fools Bites Me on the Ass

I know, I know, this 'best laid plans' saying actually goes "of Mice and Men" but Rodents and Fools seems more appropriate at the moment.

OK, last post had me wrapping up my delayed visit with Mom (We're both of an age where every visit could realistically be the last so leaving is never as easy or casual as when I was younger.) and beginning my escape from the threat of winter by heading on down the road to the Cabelas in Dundee Michigan.

I like to wrap up my Michigan trips by staging myself here, sort of halfway between Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Toledo, so I can start the 1300 mile trip home well away from the frenetic morning traffic and spaghetti-bowl roads of the metropolitan areas.

This particular Cabelas has several parking loops out behind the store, one of which is reserved for overnighting RV's, though, because I can, I usually choose to park in the lower loop, the one  closest to the big pond and designated for regular cars, to avoid listening to RV generators all night. (I don't mind listening to idling trucks, refrigeration units, or APU's, but for some reason RV generators running for hours on end drive me nuts. Maybe because to me they epitomize the arrogance of over-consumption.) 

The reason I wanted to get here before they closed is that my camp-chair, which gets used a lot, even when I'm not camping, is showing signs of  abuse and I thought I might splurge on a high-end chair that would be comfortable and last a good while.

Well my 'best laid plans' started to unravel right here.

You would think that getting there an hour before closing on a cold and rainy Thursday night (November 11) would ensure few shoppers - at least that's what I thought - but I was seriously wrong! On reflection I think my mistake was that I hadn't taken into account hunting season which was either here (bow) or just around the corner. (gun)

But I had been planning this stop since my favorite cousin's wedding invitation hit our mailbox, so I manned up, masked up, and went in anyway.

What an unnecessary exposure and a waste of time that turned out to be!!

As expected, the selection of camp-chairs was varied, as well as expensive, but every one of them was the same crap I could buy for less at Walmart.

Now to be fair about that crap statement, my current chair is a Walmart purchase and it has held up well considering the abuse I give it, but I'd had high expectations of walking away with a new Cabelas chair of higher quality.

Expectations that were now dashed against the rocky shore just like one of those ships broken and lost during a Great Lakes November storm. So I slunk empty handed back through the rain and dark to the sanctuary of The Van and tucked myself in for the night, hoping one of those November storms didn't sneak in before I could get out of here in the morning.

Morning came, well - at least almost morning since I'm an early riser, with no storm and I hit the road.

So far so good!

But as short as I'd have liked to trim the loose thread dogging the fabric of my plans, today that fickle bastard fate got ahold of it again and the unraveling continued.

This sunset photo was taken on a previous trip from the same spot I planned stop for the night on this trip, an Illinois rest area on Rend Lake just a little shy of 500 miles away from Cabelas,

but instead I ended up with this photo of the sunset over the Goodwill building

taken from the edge of the Marion Illinois Walmart parking lot.

You see, when I got within a mile of my planned stop, a very bucolic and peaceful place, especially for a highway rest stop, I saw the dreaded 'rest area closed' sign. This is something Illinois seems prone to do for no discernible reason so it wasn't a complete shock, but it was still disappointing.  

But, though it wasn't my first choice, at least I had a safe place for the night, and like the first day of the trip home,

the plan for the second day was to cover four more states, but this time the total distance would be a little longer, as in just shy of 700 miles, which would set me up for a final, short 3 hour run to The House.

But here's where "The Plan" unraveled so bad the shirt fell right off my back.

I was right about here when I won some sort of sick lottery and the fickle hand of the Gods reached out and dope-slapped me up-side the head.

I was still some two hundred miles short of my destination for the day, but I had gotten an early start and was making good time, skirting the edges of Texarkana up in the northeast corner of Texas early in the afternoon, when the dash lit up.

First it was the battery light, which is bad enough, but this was quickly followed by the coolant temp shooting upwards. Because I have an aftermarket gauge, a proper gauge, on this all important parameter (Why buyers don't insist on this gauge from the factory for every vehicle I don't know!) I saw it happening before the idiot-light lit up on the dash - but it made no difference. Either one of these conditions, battery or temperature, was enough to shut me down.

I managed to limp my way off the loop, through two traffic lights and into a parking lot - discovering along the way that I also had no power steering - where I was finally able to shut The Van down and hope the 240 degree temp I saw on the gauge hadn't done any permanent damage. (I don't know what happens at 250, maybe the engine disintegrates into another dimension, but according to the users manual that's the max The Van can take.)

Needless to say - and yet I'm saying it anyway - this was not exactly a pleasant couple of minutes - to be snatched so rudely out of that calm, detached, comfortable, almost meditative state that I achieve when long-distance driving, and be thrown into the tumble-dryer of a trip-ending emergency ranks very low on my fun-o-meter!

After giving myself a moment to adjust to this new reality I shuffled through the mud and trash, (I never said it was a good parking lot, but then again it's not like I had much choice.) and popped the hood.

Why I don't really know.

Ask me to design, build, and operate a $4,000,000 data-center with a couple dozen sub-contractors and thousands of moving parts - no problem, but frankly I have no business being under the hood of a vehicle.

But in this case, based on the symptoms, I already had a good idea what the issue might be. And sure enough, the serpentine belt had failed - as in it was gone, not even a little shred of it lurking there in the engine compartment.

Since it seemed most important at the moment, I first spun the water-pump pulley, yep, still works - or at least turns, reached down and spun the alternator, shifted to the other side and spun the power steering pulley, reached way down and spun the AC compressor, then reached for the - SON-OF-A-BITCH that's hot!

Yep, the tensioner pulley is frozen up solid. And while the belt was burning itself up on that it half-melted the two small plastic-ish guide rollers too.

Of course knowing this does me no damn good at all since I don't have a spare belt, let alone pulley replacement parts, in my pocket.

Texarkana is one of those natural choke-points along my route. Even though I'm frequently wandering off on other roads and trying new routes, it's a place I usually have to go through to get from here to there. I would guess that in the 40 years I've been making this trip between current home in Texas to childhood home in Michigan I've been through Texarkana in one direction or the other some 60 or more times, but other than the Red Lobster once (Back when The Wife still traveled we didn't go from here to there, rather we went from restaurant to restaurant until we eventually got to there.) and overnighting at the welcome center just inside the Texas line on I-30 a few times, I've always just passed on through.

So, not knowing anybody or anything in town, it seemed like a good time to pull out the roadside assistance card and share this trauma with someone else.

At this point the gods must have decided I could use a bright spot in my life, whether I recognized at the time or not, and the anonymous person on the other end of my roadside assistance card sent me Neeley's Towing Service.

I'll explain the bright spot a little more in a moment but for now Abraham picked up The Van and delivered us to

site A8 of the Texarkana RV Park, also courtesy of that anonymous person at the other end of my roadside assistance card, because, being a Saturday afternoon, I was stuck here until at least Monday.

So I spent the rest of the weekend twiddling my thumbs and fretting over how I was going to sort out this mess, which probably wasn't doing my blood-pressure any good, especially since I was now dividing up what little meds I had left and spreading them out in order to try and make them last.

Don't get me wrong, for a commercial campground the RV Park is a nice place with huge, clean, single-person toilet/shower rooms, an equally clean and functioning laundry room, and they gave me the Good Sam discount even though I'm not technically a Good Sam member, (I pay for the roadside service but not the membership.) but frankly I didn't want to be here!

On Monday morning, two minutes after their website said the service department opens, I was on the phone to the Texarkana Mercedes dealer. I clearly described The Van as a Sprinter and the problem it was having and they said 'Sure, bring it on over!'

Because driving there was not an option, my next call was to Neeley's Towing because - well - I didn't know anyone else in town did I?

While waiting for Abraham, the same guy from Saturday, to come drag me from campground to dealer I readied myself for worst-case by emptying my pack so I could then load it with the stuff I would need just in case I had to spend the night, or worse, in a cheep motel room.

When Abraham got me to the Mercedes Dealer it took less than 10 seconds for the service manager to shatter any little flicker of hope that had been sputtering in my belly since I called them this morning. I walked up, he glanced up, and said 'We don't work on those."


OK, I'm back. Had to take a mental-health break and walk away from writing this post for a while.

You know that "Too Soon?"question that sometimes comes after a miss-timed joke? I guess maybe writing this is too soon.

So why bother writing about it at all?

Yeah - I've just been asking myself the same thing - But the truth is, even the best life isn't all silk-sheets and fresh-strawberries. Once in a while it's potholes and wet-farts.

In order to be honest and not twist this blog into a Halmarkish 'life-is-all-roses-and-hot-apple-pie' parody of my real life, I have always tried to include the wet-farts, even when they are of my own making. (see my attempts at rebuilding hydraulic cylinders on the tractor or the time I got my ass handed to me on my first attempt at the Dog Canyon Trail.) Besides, there are good people involved in this incident that deserve special recognition.


So it turns out Mercedes of Texarkana, sitting right there on I-30, a busy trucking route between Dallas-Ft. Worth and all points east, as well as being located in a hub city for the otherwise rural corners of four different states, can't be bothered, and I quote the service manager, "to sign the contract and pay $20,000 for the large tools necessary to work on Sprinters". He informed me that I would have to take The Van to Shreveport to get it fixed.

By the time I slunk back to the wrecker Abraham, who because of his local knowledge was pretty skeptical of this dealer actually doing anything for me in the first place and had been kind enough to not to drop The Van right away, despite Neeley's being extraordinarily busy this Monday morning, was on the phone to his dispatcher and next thing I knew I was at the Neeley yard-office being offered a seat and drinks while they sorted out how to get me the 80 or so miles to Shreveport. (Abraham's truck was a little light to be dragging The Van that far.)

After a while I had recovered enough to look up the number for the dealer in Shreveport but about that time Terri, the dispatcher, bottle-washer, and pretty much the glue that keeps Neeley's running, (My impression anyway.) called out from her office asking me if I'd talked to the Shreveport dealer yet. At which point she looked up the number and personally called the dealer for me.

Now to put this into context, as one of the family, Terri, who is mama-bear to all her drivers, constantly looking out for them, is pretty much on call around the clock for this family owned towing service and Neeley's had just come off a record weekend in terms of number of call-outs and so far this morning - it wasn't yet 1100 - she had fielded an additional couple dozen calls, so it's not like she was just sitting around. She was, in fact pretty much run off her feet.

But she still took the time to call the dealer for me and confirm that they could do the repair. Then she asked what kind of time-frame I would be looking at.

TWO WEEKS? To replace a belt and a few pulleys? This was so ridiculous that Terri made a unilateral decision and hung up on them.

Shame on Mercedes Shreveport, and Mercedes USA as a whole! They actively promote the Sprinter to small businesses, the local plumbers, florists, and caterers, but how are these people supposed to survive with this kind of inadequate repair network and ridiculous turnaround times?!

Back in 2010 when I bought The Van I made no bones about the fact that I would have preferred a Ford Transit instead, for exactly this reason. Unfortunately Ford hadn't yet brought the Transit to the US at that time and Dodge was in the process of getting out of the Sprinter business in favor of their own Promaster line, which also wasn't quite on the US market yet.

Anyway, drained of any residual hope I might have had left, now I have visions of spending 12 hours on a Greyhound to get home then another 12 in a couple weeks to get back to pick up The (finally-repaired!) Van but, in between her real work, Terri was still working the phones on my behalf and soon hooked me up with Forza European Auto Repair right here in Texarkana.

Because they would have to order parts (from Houston since they gave up on trying to order parts from Shreveport) it would take until tomorrow to complete the 3-hour repair, (You hear that Shreveport?! Three hours!) and yes, they very graciously said I could stay in The Van on their lot while we waited on the parts.

Not only did Terri save me from a really expensive long-distance tow, she also saved me two weeks and a two-way bus trip. She mothered me, some broken-down stranger briefly passing through her busy life, the same way she mothers her drivers.

But almost before I had time to properly thank her Alan was loading The Van up onto his roll-on truck (Remember, things were pretty hectic at the tow-yard and Abraham was already off on other calls by now.) and we were headed to Forza. (Holy Cow! Alan has a nice truck and all but even with The Van on it the suspension is harsh - with a capital H-A! That poor guy is going to end up with his kidneys shaken down into his boots!)

While Alan, with no drama, one-time-and-done professionalism, dropped The Van into the very tight space that had been cleared for it, one that he could only approach at an angle, the people at Forza, in addition to letting me stay in The Van on the property overnight, told me exactly what they would do, when they would do it, and how much it would cost - then they turned around and did exactly what they said they would.

By the next afternoon The Van was in working order again and I was back on the road, almost exactly 72 hours after the dash lit up and - well, dashed my plans. I drove out of town with a big ol' sigh of relief and a grin so wide it was splitting my face in two. (No offence Texarkana!) But I didn't try making it home that night because rut had deer dashing all over the roads (wouldn't it be nice if, like deer and Vulcans, us humans had a short and predictable rut and behaved sensibly the rest of the time?!) and driving in the dark just wasn't worth the risk of killing a sex-crazed deer or banging up The Van, so I went as far as the Sun allowed then tucked myself into a safe spot for the night.

But I was very glad to finally make it home the next morning and start getting caught up on my meds!


Lessons learned:

  • Breaking down on the road sucks! Of course I'm not very likely to break down in the driveway am I?
  • Despite what the news-feeds would have you believe, there are a lot of good people out there. We may not ever know their names, or even hear about what they're doing, but, despite what the misbehaving celebrities and politicians we're always hearing about would like you to think, it's not them, but rather it's those unsung, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring people that actually grease the skids and make our communities work. -- There was the woman in the motorhome next to me that wanted to make sure I had enough food for the weekend. -- Ronnie of the campground that, just as I was being towed out of site A8 on Monday, roared up in his golf-cart to let me know that if I needed anything, anything at all, like maybe a ride somewhere, (apparently Texarkana has no ride-sharing services.) all I had to do was call him. -- The drivers of Neeley's Towing - and yes, everyone of them that I met was big and burly, but despite the impression those so-called reality towing shows might cram down your throat, everyone of them was also very professional and kind. -- The competent people at Forza that did exactly what they said they would when they said they would. -- And a special mention for Terri of Neeley's who went way above and beyond and made this experience so much better than it might have been.
  • Oh - and I should always carry extra meds with me no matter how short I plan for the trip to be, because chances are, sooner or later I am going to get bit on the ass again.



  1. I'd send Terri of Neeley's some flowers or boxes of Russell Stover caramel chocolates. See what happens when you are within sniffing range of the hounds and the dog but don't stop to visit them? Kharma's a bitch they say. (joke) Glad things worked out so well.

    1. Yep, she's a real road-angel.

      And all this occurred while I was trying not to be a stalker and before you plastered your address all over the net! So sorry, hounds and dog, that I didn't get to run around inside the fence with you.

  2. It's frggin' AMAZING isn't it?! How kind people are...or can be.

    A great story well-told!

    1. Yes, it is amazing, but it's also kinda sad that we are amazed when we personally encounter good people since, despite evolution favoring the vicious, the bully's, and the greedy, good people are actually fairly common and are all around us all the time.

  3. As a diesel van camper (ProMaster) with warning msgs popping up unexpectedly while on these long-distance drives, I can identify with your hilarious story! Especially the part about trying to find a freaking Dodge dealer that will work on ProMasters (very few), and then finding one that will let me sleep there overnight!!! I could hug them! I'm ready to give up my diesel emissions system however :( thinking I'll wait for an electric van someday.

    1. At the time I bought The Van I had no choice about the engine but, even though "diesel" has that faintly macho sound to it that most guys can't resist, the reality is that as a recreational driver instead of a commercial driver I won't ever be able to use up the extra longevity of the diesel engine within my lifetime. On top of that, ever since diesel and gasoline prices flipped places many years ago - and show no sign of every flipping back - the extra fuel economy doesn't quite make up for the extra cost of fuel.

      I love The Van but for peace-of-mind I'm seriously thinking of downsizing to a vehicle that is dirt-common and can be fixed in any little po-dunk town in the US - and as a bonus, has 4-wheel drive to get me farther from the "madding crowd"

      And just to let you know, many years ago when my Dad first saw our property, and it's rather long driveway, he said "Oh, you're going to have to put in an asphalt driveway!" Well 20 years later we are still perfectly happy with the original gravel "construction" driveway. (No weed fabric under ours, I just mow it once a month.)

  4. I'd love to stick with my "gravel" driveway but the city of Salem requires "paved" driveways so that stone driveway so when the home is built, I'll comply. The major reason I got diesel was to easily climb steep roads and tow (my horse trailer at the time); but depending on my old-age issues (new hip coming up soon) I may or may not be towing again. Happy Holidays :)