MURDER HILL

The Trip No One Should Have to Travel!

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April 17, 2012 - May 1, 2012:


Our journey from Robertsdale, Alabama to Le Roy, New York was not a fun trip. It was super stressful and even frightening at times (Julie says terrifying!), but it was not all negative. Sometimes, when experiencing negative events in our lives, we get our best opportunities to see the goodness in others. This trip was full of negatives, which I will explain. However, it was also awesome in terms of the number of really decent human beings who went out of their way to help us. I will also introduce you to some of these people. I did not get everyone's name and there were many people, such as managers, waiters, waitresses, and clerks who were just doing their jobs, but were doing it in a way that helped to cheer up an otherwise gloomy trip. I can only think of two people who were negative on the trip, the one who flipped us off as he went by our slow moving caravan and the one who blew his horn when we crossed over to exit across two lanes of traffic where I-85 entered I-65 and we had to use those entrance lanes to get to our exit. Even though he was a quarter mile back, I guess he felt we should have missed our exit so he could pass on the right, rather than having to slow down or change lanes himself. Both of these characters I put down to typical poor drivers and will think only of all the good people we met.


A little bit of background:


We drive a 1995 GMC Suburban K1500 which is the designation for its half-ton four-wheel-drive truck frame. It is the only vehicle I ever special ordered and it has served us well for 17 years racking up more than a quarter million miles. "Betsy," or "The Beast" as some have called her, came to life in February 1995. Its body is starting to show her age with some noticeable rust spots (It is, after all, a New York vehicle that only saw a garage for a few winters), but mechanically it has been well maintained. In fact, everything in the drive train has been rebuilt or replaced except for the transmission, the drive shaft, and the rear axle, although that was removed last fall to replace the seals.


Our travel trailer is a 2006 Kodiak, which is a 27 foot "bumper" (trailer hauled behind the bumper as opposed to a fifth-wheel trailer). We have been traveling to the South for the winter (making us official "snow birds") since I retired in September 2010. The trailer is our retirement home and Julie and I live in it year round with our two Miniature Schnauzers (which makes us "full timers"). The Suburban is our only means of moving our "home" and, by the time we reached Sunday afternoon, April 22nd, we were convinced her useful life, at least for hauling the trailer, was over.



The details:

 

April 17, 2012:                        [Odometer 257441]    We left Azalea Acres camp ground around 10:00 AM, headed North. After maybe an hour or so into the trip, the truck started to buck and cough a little, similar to what happens with dirty gas. A while later we started to have problems climbing small hills. The further we went, the more problems developed. The car started to have greater trouble climbing hills; many we took at 45 mph. Acceleration was non-existent. Somewhere along the way, we lost air conditioning and resorted to open windows. I also noticed that the Battery (alternator) gauge indicating needle was just at the top of the red indicating we were not generating much electrical current from the alternator.

 

[Odometer 257597]In the early afternoon, we pulled into a Flying J truck stop just south of Montgomery, Alabama. We had only traveled 156 miles, but were almost out of gas, and we have a 42 gallon gas tank. We had averaged only 5 miles per gallon; normal gas usage while hauling the trailer is 9-10 mpg. We decided to stay for the night, even though it was early. Then we got on the Internet and started searching for car repair locations. There were no GMC or Chevy dealers without going into the heart of Montgomery, which I was not willing to do with the trailer attached. We called a company called McGriff Auto Service to see if we could get an appointment to bring the car in the next day. Instead, Keith, their chief mechanic, after determining where we were located, volunteered to bring his analyzer to the truck stop that evening on his way home. When he arrived, he determined that the clutch on the air conditioner compressor was trying to seize up, which was causing the serpentine belt to slip. This made sense considering the loss of A/C and the low current output. We made arrangements to bring the truck into his shop the next morning. He gave me detailed driving instructions and told me he would have a place ready where we could park without having to unhitch.

 

April 18, 2012:                        The rain that started while Keith was looking at the Suburban continued all night and was still around in the morning. This was an important factor in our first high-adrenaline moment of the trip. As we were coming down a slight hill to a Tee intersection with Maxwell Boulevard, where we had to stop, the truck and trailer combo did not want to stop because of the combined weight and the rain-slicked road. I locked up the brakes on both the truck and trailer (ABS on the truck is not working) but luckily was able to stop before sliding into the intersection. Because of the way I have the electronic brake controls set for the trailer, the trailer brakes always engage slightly before the truck brakes, which helps keep us in a straight line, especially useful in such panic stops. (As anyone who pulls a trailer of any kind knows, it's amazing how many people will pull out right in front of us – so they won't get stuck behind us – never bothering to think about the distance it takes to stop 6 tons of combined vehicle, thereby requiring some rapid deceleration. Hard braking stops are nothing new, but always scary, especially when the roads are wet.)

 

[Odometer 257613]Once we were safely parked, Wayne, one of the mechanics, replaced the A/C compressor. He also replaced the spark plugs, which were worn, the spark plug wires, two of which had their insulation burned from contact with the manifold, and the air filter. We left feeling all was well with the world, only to have some similar lack of power problems on the first hill we came to.

 

Here I need to mention another of the unnamed good guys we met. I missed a turn as we were heading out and wound up on I-65 South instead of North. We immediately exited but, in trying to get back on (you can't just pull a U-turn hauling the trailer), we got lost in some not-so-nice areas of town. We stopped next to a city worker who immediately scoped out the situation and asked very pleasantly with a great big smile, "Are yawl lost?" He proceeded to give us fairly simple directions to get back onto I-65 North and even pointed out a little used intersection ahead of us that was large enough to turn around in.

 

We got to I-65 but then exited again and returned to McGriff's. I explained what had happened, but they could find nothing, even going so far to check the exhaust and check under the truck, leading the mechanic to note that he was getting a little too thick for that kind of activity. They found nothing, so I took one of the mechanics for a test drive with the trailer attached and, of course, the truck functioned perfectly. We decided not to take any more of their time on what appeared to be an intermittent problem that only appeared under full load with the trailer so we took off again. Naturally, we experienced more problems less than 10 miles down the road. I decided not to turn back again. That night we made it as far as another Flying J truck stop outside of Birmingham, Alabama.


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If you need a reliable company, their address is 1614 Bell Street, Montgomery. They give more than 100% effort in serving you.

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Their body shop, located across the street from the garage, backs up on the entrance to Maxwell Air Force Base, "Air University - The Intellectual and Leadership Center of the Air Force."

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Repairs in progress.

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"They better not try to get in this truck. Don't worry Alpha Dog, I'm on guard! I am JoJo, a mighty, mighty Schnauzer!"



 

April 19, 2012:                        [Odometer 257715]    By morning, my mind was thinking back to past problems and I recalled how the truck had run poorly a couple of years previously when the catalytic converter was totally clogged. I started calling muffler shops and was finally referred to Decatur Highway Transmissions in Gardendale, Alabama who I was told could install an aftermarket catalytic converter. (I am not sure of the exact time line, but somewhere in here, Keith, the head mechanic from McGriff's, called to see how we were making out. When I explained the details to him, he said he thought it might be the catalytic converter, thus confirming my own suspicions.) I talked with Rayburn Mullinax, owner of Decatur Highway Transmissions and he said to bring the truck in and he would get it done somehow, although he had a full schedule.

 

We drove to their shop, getting only slightly lost because I had programmed the wrong building number into the GPS. They had one of their mechanics back the trailer up their steep driveway (backing up, especially from a busy street up a steep driveway to a narrow parking spot, is not my forte) and disconnected the trailer so they could put the Suburban on a lift to work on it. Rayburn said that he felt the catalytic converter problem had started some time ago, not just because of the problems caused by the A/C compressor.

 

While the Suburban was in the air, they also discovered that two of the brake lines leading to the left rear brake were leaking so they replaced these for me also. Rayburn and his wife Donna were extremely nice to us, allowing us to basically take over their waiting area and make the dogs at home there while the work was being done. They even offered us lunch (pulled pork sliders with slaw, cake, beverages), although we declined. As we left, we were not only offered good wishes but an invitation to stop in when we traveled in this area again, just to visit and eat! True Southern Hospitality. There has to be some Irish in their ancestry!


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If you need a shop in the Birmingham, Alabama area, they are located at 2430 Decatur Highway. When looking up their address today, I found some negative reviews, but they sure treated us well. I do not know the stories behind the reviews, but I know that for every repair shop or auto dealer (or most other stores for that matter), you will find some people who swear by them, and others who swear at them. We are among the first group.

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This is Rayburn's model collection dating back a long way. He even has one hand-crafted trucks with moving wheels and steering wheel that was carved from a single block of wood.


 

[Odometer 257728]Back on the road again. I wish I could tell you the truck now ran smooth as silk and all problems were resolved, but no such luck. It seemed better for a few miles, and then started up again. I came to realize that the truck ran well as long as it was cold, but started having problems as soon as the engine got up to temperature. Hindsight being a great expert, can you say, "Metal expansion due to heat?"

 

We traveled only to the area near Huntsville, Alabama when we decided to get off and get some supper at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. We like to eat at Cracker Barrels when we are traveling because they have special long lanes for buses and RV's to park in. (Per Julie, "And because their Pinto Beans are a wonderful protein source. They should also have their own drive-thru coffee shops—much better than the other chains.") Of course, half the time there are passenger cars parked in these lanes (the one we stopped at Friday night had all lanes full of cars) but when we got to this Cracker Barrel, the lanes were free.

 

This was another place with some of those unnamed people it was nice to meet. Julie and I both were exhausted and both had the same idea to ask to see if we could spend the night. We asked the hostess who seated us if we could speak to the Manager and told her our request. She came back to say he had gone outside to take care of something and would tell him to see us when he came back inside. A short while later she came back to the table to tell us she had found the Manager and asked him if it was okay for us to overnight in the parking lot and he had readily agreed. Later we got a chance to personally thank the Manager as well.


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A second RV also spent the night at the Cracker Barrel. Note that our truck and trailer are too long for the lane. A bus or motor coach not towing a car would fit.


 

I should also mention that Thursday night, despite having full sun all day, our batteries were almost fully discharged. The only charge was from the truck alternator, which is not really very significant because of the voltage drop over the 100 foot of small diameter wire (the round trip distance from the truck battery to the trailer batteries). For some reason, our solar system was not charging the batteries. Therefore, we had to spend the night using only dry cell powered lights. The only item I ran on the camper was the refrigerator. When run on Propane, the refrigerator puts a very light load on the battery. Since we run all day with the refrigerator off (I don't like to drive with the propane turned on) it is important to run it at night. So I took the chance of draining the batteries more to run the refrigerator. This became our pattern for the next three nights as I was unable to find the cause of the problem in the solar system.


 

April 20, 2012:                        [Odometer 257813]    We woke up and got on the road fairly early having decided that we had spent enough nights in Alabama. I gave up on getting the truck to work right and just decided to go with it and hope we make it back to New York. It is a struggle, never knowing if we are going to drive up the hill at 55 mph or 35 mph, but we have used up all our reserve funds (that were supposed to pay for our summer camping) and I can't guarantee another trip to a repair shop is going to get us any further than the first two. I truly believe the parts that were replaced all needed to be replaced, but there is still some other problem.

 

As we approached Louisville, Kentucky, the brake lights came flashing back to us and the traffic suddenly came to a stop, adrenalin moment number two. I slammed on the brakes and aimed for the shoulder because the car ahead of us was stopping a lot faster than we were. He saw us coming and moved as far left as the traffic allowed him to. Fortunately, we avoided a collision. In fact, the front plane of the truck never actually crossed the back plane of his car, so we would have missed even if I had not moved to the shoulder, but it was not a fun moment. We played stop and go traffic for the next several miles until we passed the site of the cleaned-up accident that had caused the delay. A small SUV had rolled over and the top was flattened pretty good. We figured at least one person survived the crash because the ambulance we had seen on the other side of the expressway, while we were crawling forward, had its lights and siren going, and they do not do that when transporting a corpse.


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Julie snapped this representative photo of the dashboard showing the engine revving to over 3000 rpm while the truck struggled up a hill at almost 30 mph.


 

There was a Cracker Barrel restaurant at the exit we were approaching so we decided to get off the expressway and have an early supper and wait while the rest of the traffic backup cleared out. We looked at the back of the restaurant for RV parking and did not see any so we parked in a line of empty auto parking spots at the back of the lot. As we walked to the restaurant, we saw that they did indeed have RV parking but there were two cars lined up in each lane. Tired and frustrated, we thought about moving the truck and camper and parking directly in front of all the cars in the front of the lanes, thereby forcing them to wait for the cars behind them to leave before they could leave. However, we realized we were just spit-balling and would never actually do that. Besides, somebody would probably key the camper in retaliation because they were obviously too ignorant to realize they were in the wrong.

 

While talking with the waitress, we found out the next day in Louisville was called Rolling Thunder, which was a huge fireworks display that went on all day leading up to the Kentucky Derby. We were glad we were going through on Friday night instead of Saturday so we would avoid the traffic.

 

[Odometer 254954, 2:53 PM, Central Time]After supper, we got back on the road and kept traveling until we found a truck stop in Ohio approximately 12:30 AM, Eastern Time now, where we stopped for the night. It was raining quite hard and had turned colder. We really missed our solar power now as I would have liked to run the furnace. Even though the furnace is propane powered, the blower requires a fairly large electrical input. We just got out some extra blankets instead and settled down for the night.


 

April 21, 2012:                        [Odometer 258272]    We slept in late and got on the road about 10:00 Saturday Morning. Nothing dramatic happened today, but it did rain lightly most of the day and the truck fought on. Some hills we were going as slow as 25 mph and at times I had a hard time even accelerating going downhill. I have come to an interesting, yet mystifying conclusion about interstate roads in Ohio based on this trip and our trip down last year. I cannot figure out how they have achieved this, but all North/South Interstate roads go uphill at least 85% of the time! And, they are constructed so you visually think you are almost at the top, only to realize when you get there that it is just a slightly decreased slope to fool your visual senses prior to starting another steep slope. Don't believe me? Try driving the route with a truck struggling on the up hills!

 

We crossed into New York on I-86 and stopped for the night at a welcome center. This was the most empty rest area I have ever seen at night on an interstate road. I saw one other RV, who moved on early, and heard only 4 or 5 trucks come in and leave during the night.


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A cold, gray morning at the I-86 Welcome Center rest area.


 

April 22, 2012                         In the morning, it was extremely cold (heck, we were back in New York of course) so I ran the heater for approximately an hour before we got out of bed to provide a little warmth in the trailer. If I knew what was coming later, I would have stayed in bed.

 

[Odometer 258599]Back on the road heading East on I-86. We turned on the GPS and let it guide us home, figuring it would be the shortest route. In hindsight, this was probably not our (my) smartest move. The GPS had us exit I-86 near Randolph, New York and take us over Route 394 to Route 242. On the two-dimensional map, it is a fairly direct route. On a three-dimensional map, also known as a topographical map, it shows this is a very hilly route. The truck was having more and more problems on the hills taking a couple of them at as little as 10-20 mph. Finally, we hit one very steep, very long hill. After a while, we were climbing at no more than 10 mph and I could not get the engine to go more than 1500 rpm. When we got down to 3 mph, with the top of the hill in sight less than 100 yards away, the truck gave up all pretense and the engine quit. Fortunately, I had been driving as far over on the shoulder as I could since we were going so slow because, when the truck stopped, there was no coasting possible (except backwards). Other good news, we were now about 80 miles from our destination. Our AAA RV Plus membership has a 100 mile towing limit. Over that distance we have to pay $3.50 per mile plus tax. Betsy had made it within the 100 mile radius before it stopped.

 

The "life's crazy moments" news is, the hill where the truck died is a named hill on the maps and in the New York Registry of Peaks. It is listed as 2188 feet high and is named "Murder Hill!" And we avoided the Blue Ridge Parkway because we did not want to go mountain climbing with the truck and trailer combination. Go figure!


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We stopped on Murder Hill just before Route 242 gets to Whig Street, upper right on map.

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My view for the next two hours waiting for AAA. I had to keep my foot on the brake to keep the trailer brakes active or we would roll backwards.

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The view from outside looking down the hill. I kept the four-way flashers on until they drained the battery. Wonderful hind-sight again, I sure am glad the battery did not go all the way dead or there would have been no energy to keep the trailer brakes on. SCARY after thought.


 

[Odometer 458637]I called AAA and explained our location and situation. I don't remember for sure, but I must have just told the woman who took the call that I was hauling a trailer without explaining what kind of trailer because she told me the truck was covered for the tow, but not the trailer. We later found out from the tow truck driver that our plan covers our travel trailer since there are living quarters inside it (their defining condition) but would not cover something like a utility or boat trailer.

 

Within less than half an hour there was a knock on the car window. Robert of John's Collision had snuck up on me. He explained that he was on the way to another tow but had been asked to assess our situation. He called the AAA dispatcher, Matt Stoll, who I became very familiar with, and explained our status. He emphasized that I was sitting there with my foot on the brake to keep the unit from rolling backwards. He also called his brother, John, who owns the towing company. They do not have any equipment suitable for handling both the truck and the trailer. Matt and John both started working on finding someone with the capability to tow both units. They were also working against the fact that it was Sunday.

 

It was Robert who first mentioned the name Murder Hill on the phone when describing where we were located. He stayed with us as long as he could, but eventually had to leave to take care of the other tow job he had originally been headed for. Matt kept in contact with us every 10-15 minutes making sure we were okay and letting us know the status of the hunt. We were told about 12:30 that they had located a company in Olean who had the equipment to do the job. James of J and R Truck Repair called around 1:00 to get more specific directions and tell us he was on his way. It was important to know which direction we were facing so he could come in from the same direction.

 

James arrived about 2:00 and the retrieval began. All this time, Matt had been calling regularly to update their status and check on ours. His last call came in just as the tow truck arrived and just as my phone died. I found out later, it was also the end of his shift, so James took over from there.

 

When James called prior to leaving Olean, he had asked specific questions about our hitch height and the trailer clearances plus weights and information of that nature. We did not realize it then, but he was planning to use a single tow truck, rather than one for the Suburban and one for the trailer. He hitched the Suburban to his tow truck, towed the whole unit to the top of the hill, and then stopped where it was more level, crawled under the Suburban on the cold, wet gravel, and disconnected the drive shaft. Then he towed the whole caravan to our summer camp site.


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The first step was to hook a winch cable to the draw hook on the front of the Suburban so the truck and trailer would not roll away when we took off the brakes and put the truck in neutral. There was a scary moment when it started to roll back just after I got out of the truck, but it only moved an inch and from then on we were fine.

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The caravan ready to roll. Julie sat in the second seat of the tow truck, I sat on the front part of the motor cover between the seats and the two dogs lay in their bed on the back portion of the motor cover. Not the most comfortable trip but we were moving, and think of the great gas mileage we were getting compared to the rest of the trip.

 

When we got to Timberline Lake Park campground, we talked with the owners, Skip and Lillian Norris, and decided to have the tow truck move everything down to the camp site. We then unhooked the trailer from the Suburban and Skip used his tractor to move the trailer into position on the site. It was a sight to see him stand off to the side of the tractor and occasionally adjust the steering wheel as the tractor slowly moved the trailer into position using its "granny" gear. In the mean time, James had moved forward and was reconnecting the drive shaft on the Suburban (laying in the mud.) Once the trailer was in place, James backed the Suburban into a parking spot and our journey was done. We hooked up the electricity, did the minimal setup, turned on the furnace, and went to bed.


 

April 23, 2012:                        Monday morning we woke to snow on the ground. We had about half an inch of wet snow, but it could have been much worse. Some areas got 10 inches or more and had power outages and all sorts of other problems We just had a continuation of our luck in not totally missing the snow when we go away for the winter. Last year, we had a dusting of snow the first morning back. This year it was half an inch. It was all gone by the next day, but I still can't say we have seen a totally snow free winter.


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SNOW! YUCK!

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The wet snow stuck on the open hillside but did not coat the warmer ground nearer the swamp, which has a high percentage of tree cover.


 

I put the battery charger on the car and was able to get the car to start, so that was a positive. I also called Shawn Lessord, the person who designed and installed our solar system, and made an appointment for him to come out the next day. Then we took a chance on the truck and drove the six miles to the local Chevy dealer to inquire about new trucks. Can you say, "Sticker Shock?" We took the time to stop at a nearby grocery for water, milk, and a few other essentials. We did not want to push it too much.

 

April 24, 2011:                        Shawn came out and found the problem with the solar system in under two minutes. A fuse was located inside a junction box and I did not realize it existed. He replaced the fuse and the system was back up and operating. He also took the time to inspect the entire system including the mounts and roof penetrations, and was very pleased to see no change in the system. Considering that going down the road is like taking the trailer simultaneously through an earthquake and hurricane, this speaks very well for the installation. We spent most of the rest of the day on the phone with my children and Julie's mother trying to put together a recovery plan and figure out how to get a new-to-me truck for hauling the trailer or, alternately, determine if we were going to stop our mobile life.

 

April 26, 2012:                        This morning early, I took the Suburban to Resch Auto Service where I used to get it serviced. They determined there was a mechanical problem with one of the cylinders that would require the engine to be rebuilt. This put a whole new light on things. Because we have been advised it is just as expensive to rebuild as to replace an engine, and may take considerably more down time, we are thinking it is time to again replace the engine. This will be the third engine in the Suburban, and once replaced, we should be good to go again, so we started making different calls. We will try to get one more opinion before we commit.

 

Taz has thrown up three times between last night and this morning and is acting really sluggish. We made an appointment with the vet for this afternoon. After the vet, since we were in the area, we did laundry and went to Wegman's Supermarket to stock up. Once I take it in to the shop in Rochester, we will probably be a week or more without a truck. Right now, it looks like they cannot start until sometime after Mother's Day. In the meantime, we keep using the truck as little as possible and hoping it does not die totally. It sounds really sick, which it is, but has so far kept running.

 

April 28, 2012:                        Today was milder with less wind. I put out the awning and started emptying items out of the truck. I will have to leave my leather in the back of the truck as there is not enough room to store it here and I do not want to drive up to the storage unit just for that.

 

April 29, 2012:                        Today was mild and sunny. I got the rest of the camp kitchen set up and all the other items stowed where they belong. So far, it was our best day since we got back to New York. And to think I was complaining about the muggy heat in Alabama.

 

May 1, 2012:                          I went to Corcoran Motors today and got a second opinion on the motor. George Corcoran, the owner, said it sounded like the cam shaft had either worn down too far or had lost a node. Either way, he confirmed the need to replace the motor and confirmed it was cheaper than rebuilding mine. So, we gave him a down payment and told him to order the used motor. On the way home, I noted that the $40 worth of gas I had put in last Thursday was not going to last until we got the truck back to him to replace the engine. You just don't get very far on a tank of gas at 4-5 miles per gallon.


This is the end of our travel saga. I could have ended it Sunday, but figured it was nicer to show the (almost) conclusion to the saga. A special thank you to all the friendly, helpful people who went out of their way to help us over the last two weeks. Despite all the ugly faces you see on the news (many called politicians) and all the horror stories, there really still do exist a lot of very good people on this earth. Also, I don't care about anyone's specific religion and try not to tout mine so as not to offend anyone, but I do believe in a higher power and do believe that he/she was looking over us in so many ways on this trip.