Photo: Our motor home being towed off of the mountainside after brake failure coming out of Death Valley National Park.
(Note: Before you read, I want you to know we are all safe. It was a terrifying experience, one which makes me feel so grateful for my life, hubby and kids.)
The Day Our RV Brakes Started on Fire
We left Death Valley National Park at 7am on Tuesday because the 120 degree heat was not being tolerated by my family or RV. Our air conditioning would shut off after 15 min, and exposed skin burnt in the sun’s rays. One day of four kids in the oven of the RV was an accomplishment.
We researched the mountain road as we have done for over three years of mountain driving noting nothing out of the ordinary. The rig climbed out of the -200 feet below sea level valley and up thousands of feet as we sipped coffee at a speed of 15mph seeing the world awaken in slow motion. Noting road grades of 6% for 9 miles we began our descent as we have numerous of times.
In low gear we twisted and turned to find a 9% grade for 3 miles sign (locals claim it to be a 12% grade, but California law has a max of 9% grade for roadways..hmmm). We sucked in our breath. This was not marked like Colorado. There was no “Brake Check Area 9% Grade Ahead” sign, no flashing lights to warn of the upcoming adventure, and no shoulder. This road seemed to be one of the last highways to be funded by the state of California and lacked a runaway truck ramp, believe me I noticed! We were on our own and buckled in for the ride.
Photo: The road Jon was maneuvering in the RV without shoulders and without brake power. He was amazing.(photo by Clementine)
Perhaps what followed next is similar to a dream you have experienced where your vehicle has no brakes as it speeds downhill, a roller coaster ride twisting and turning in which you feel powerless over and wonder if you will make the curve, a free-falling-I-just-jumped-out-of-an-airplane queasy feeling. Without words, our bodies told each other we were so very afraid and I gripped my seat belt as the kids slept. “Please God help us make it down this mountain. Please God, please God, please God..” was all I could repeat silently as I looked over the guard rail separating me a few feet from the sheer cliff.
My mind took a picture of one particular guard rail marking a sharp turn ahead of us, and I believe after that moment I may have disassociated. I remember accepting the reality that we may be driving off of the side of the mountain as the RV continuously would pick up speed and brakes lacked in slowing us. My body froze in fear, yet my spirit became serene knowing regardless my children, husband, and I were going to be okay. Our spirits, our essence, would be okay. I saw death and yet it was not scary. I heard myself begin to speak out loud to Jon. “One more curve baby. We’re almost there. Just a little ways to go. One more curve.” Was that really me speaking so calmly?
As soon as the snaking road unraveled itself, a section of slightly level pavement appeared. Jon, and whatever spiritual guidance was surrounding us, miraculously stopped the rig on the two lane highway. Immediately, smelling smoke, Jon ran out and spotted the brakes had caught fire. “FIRE! FIRE!” (We found out later flames had licked the back of the rig too.)
Sleeping kids knee jerked into action and found themselves standing with me barefoot in the desert sand in pjs and undies. The fire went out. Jon and I shook with fear, fighting with emotions to get a grip on our situation. With no cell service we felt helpless as countless cars sped past. Then our traveling family, Pieter and Clementine Hartog, peeked over the road and we were no longer alone.
Photo: The RV after the fire was out.
We drove 40 miles to find cell service and to call our insurance company. The highway patrol coned off our rig as it dripped boiled brake fluid and hogged 1/2 of the highway lane. He assured us the towing season was just about to begin, us being number four already for May.
Photos: The Hartogs thought we were just taking a rest as they came up behind us. The fire just went out and we were making a plan about what to do. We were anxious because we couldn’t get the rig off of the road without a shoulder. (photos by Clementine)
The family gathered, Jon and I told our kids about the feelings we were experiencing-sad, afraid, overwhelmed. They heard us and understood so lovingly. Elizabeth replied, “Through this you are teaching me how to handle situations when I am on my own. I’m really proud of you mom and dad and how you handled everything. Dad, you are a good protector.” (insert tears)
The beautiful gifts that unfolded were overpowering and healing. In the past if something so stressful would have occurred, Jon would have reacted in irritation and frustration while I would have been pinning him with blame. We would have shut down the kids’ emotions and told them to just be quiet while we figured everything out, not able to hear how they were feeling.
This time we broke that cycle, perhaps generational cycles of dealing with fear and sadness in our family systems. We watched how safe our children felt with us as they laughed and joked amid pure chaos. They joked around at being seen by tourists from around the world as they sported their underwear. What a gift. What four amazing kids.
It took six days for an insurance adjuster to get in contact with us because we were in Lone Pine, California, in the middle of nowhere. We lived in a hotel room for over a week while the Hartogs watched our dog. I spent every day on the phone, being passed from one insurance person to the next. I spent hours at the repair shop, hours shifting stuff from the RV to the hotel. I am still not done with dealing with insurance and the $4,000 bill.
We found out the shop that put on our new tires and brakes a month ago neglected to adjust the tag axle electronic braking system. There was zero shoe to drum contact on the third axle brakes. This makes me more than angry.
Photo: The mountain road we drove down from Death Valley, California.
Jon and I are finally processing the event, feeling the emotional spectrum. Thank you to all of you who sent loving messages our way through Facebook and Twitter. We feel so loved.