Close Call at 65 mph

I had to wait a while to publish this one but maybe I just need to get it out…

I like to think I’m a safe person.  At least to the point of looking out for others if not always myself.  I don’t drive aggressively, I maintain my vehicles, and don’t take big chances on the road.  That said, I probably stress my truck and the vardo more than most people would.  The truck has spent sixteen years as an archaeologist’s field vehicle and has gone into places I would have never thought I would take it.  I have crept into BLM campsites with the vardo that required it to be tipped up to 45 degrees and I was certain it was going to go over.  I’ve intentionally jack-knifed the whole thing just to push it into place between boulders.

These things are just the nature of travel in the remote western US and having worked in remote places for 20+ years I have become used to expecting the unexpected.  I regularly check my tires, wheels, and bolts for damage or looseness.  In fact, I recently discovered a sheered-off bolt on my hitch bumper and I can’t even imaging how that happened except possibly during the event I am going to describe here.

This is the driver’s side wheel from the vardo.  It is steel, not aluminum.

We were driving from San Diego to Portales, New Mexico and after a nice stay in Flagstaff with our friends, we were coming down into the desert on I-40.  Approaching Holbrook, I thought I could feel a slight shimmy in the wagon.  As it normally tracks well behind the old F-150, I thought it must just be an effect of the wind.  Suddenly, with a “whooping” noise the trailer gave a jerk (surprisingly minor feeling due to the heavy weight of the truck).  I thought I might have a blowout but then saw sparks out of the corner of my eye in the side view mirror.

The wheel had come off and passed us at 60 mph as I was able to slowing onto the shoulder, fortunately near an off-ramp.

I watched the wheel run for what seemed like miles while I was trying to Jedi mind-control it to not steer into the oncoming lanes.  Fortunately, there was little traffic on the Interstate that day.  Mind-control worked (actually the road camber worked) and took it into the right ditch about a quarter-mile down the highway.

After a moment of mental freakout, I had a look at the situation, and realized what must have happened.  I lost a whole wheel!  A couple of studs were broken from the hub, one was stripped clean as the nut was ripped off.  The remaining two were intact.  The hub was whittled down to almost nothing and we had coasted in on the ends of the leaf spring bolts.

Did I mention it was Sunday?  In rural eastern Arizona?

I’ll keep the story short.  Assessing the situation I knew I was fully prepared to camp.  We had water, food, and a place to sleep if need be but I wanted to be on the road.  I had a good spare but nothing to bolt it to.  I contemplated putting it on the two remaining bolts to limp into town but upon inspection determined that they were far too destroyed.  As the wheel tore off the lugs it sheered into the bolts and the nuts were stripped anyway by being pried sideways. This meant abandoning the vardo on a rural highway; not the most desirable choice.

I was limping into Holbrook, Arizona.

I went to town and after asking around, I found the only 7 day a week mechanic was on vacation at Lake Havasu.  I actually spoke to him on the phone and he wasn’t sure what to suggest.  I drove back to Winslow as I figured there would at least be a parts store and maybe it would even open.  If there was nothing there I could trek back to Flagstaff before the end of the business day.  I’d only end up being a day or two behind.  Wild plans came to mind.  I could rent a flatbed trailer, load it with a come-a-long, and haul the vardo home that way; expensive and difficult.

I went back to the vardo on the way to Winslow and pulled the hub (fortunately I had some basic tools).  I brought the hub to the parts store that was open but the nearest part that fit was about 90 miles away in Payson, Arizona and could probably be delivered tomorrow.  I though maybe I could get studs pressed into the remaining hub but again, nobody would be around until tomorrow.

And then, like a miracle, the ol’ boy Good Samaritan network kicked in. 

An older man buying parts at the store overheard the conversation and knew a guy who might be around who might be willing to fix it.  The parts store kid was pretty skeptical but I was willing to try just about anything at this point as the day was waning away.  We followed the man to the old part of Winslow to a junk and car filled ancient gas station and talked to a teenager working on a little import car. He said his uncle Jerry would be back after lunch but we could wait if we wanted.

Eventually the uncle (Jerry) came back and gave us the tour of his Model A Ford he happened to be working on that day.  That’s why he was in.  Anyway, in fairly short order he pressed in new lugs, put in new bearings and charged me way too little for the whole process.  Jerry was our savior.  I hauled the whole thing back to the vardo, reassembled the hub, put on the spare, and away we went into the night.  I don’t always depend on the kindness of strangers but it’s these small acts of kindness that give me some hope in this world.

Drive safe.  Check your equipment.  Carry tools.

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12 thoughts on “Close Call at 65 mph

  1. I had a passenger side rear wheel bearing shear off on my Ford Focus last week with no warning. We were going 65 in traffic. It’s amazing how much room other cars will give you when your car drops a foot and begins to shower sparks! We’ve got things back together now and life goes on.

  2. Thanks for reposting this. And “Yikes”!!! Good to hear about your rural/backcountry driving and parking… Great that the story has a nice ending too. I like the simplicity of single axle trailers, but this gives a nod to the merit of dual axles even for smaller loads I guess, or perhaps beefier axles and oversize and stronger heat treated rims. I don’t know for sure, but it seems the 4WD crowd would have the solution for bulletproof strong and durable rims, steel or aluminum. I know big 18 wheel trucks often have aluminum front rims (Alcoa) on the front two critical wheels that must not fail… but glad it all worked out. 🙂

  3. I was travelling south on I-5 north of Seattle once, and saw a truck travelling north, pulling a bumper-hitch camper, probably 30′ or so. One of the tires on the camper had a blow-out, at which point the camper started fishtailing in ever greater oscillations, finally rolling multiple times and coming completely apart across the lanes of the interstate. The truck got whipped around by the trailer’s movements, but the driver managed to keep control despite looking like the truck was being attacked by King Kong. Suffice it to say that the driver probably didn’t manage to keep his shorts clean. Made me think that I’d probably opt for a 5th wheel hitch if I were to ever tow something that size, as it was clear that the bumper hitch really gave the careening trailer a lot of leverage over the steering of the truck.

    Glad to hear the vardo was okay — it’s clear that you’ve poured a good deal of your soul into building it!

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