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The bad luck streak continues!

Our streak of bad luck has continued, but we are learning to focus on the bright side.

This morning, we packed up and departed from this week’s home in Victor ID. We chose a gentler route than we’d come in, which took us over the low Pine Creek Pass and southward. Ascending the pass was easy, and we were winding down the other side at a leisurely 35 MPH when we heard a tinny noise and saw in the right side mirror, almost simultaneously, a black-and-silver object go flying off into the weeds.

For a moment I was confused, thinking it looked and sounded like the little disposable charcoal grill we had packed in the rear compartment. Had the compartment come open? I quickly pulled over and walked back to the trailer.

As I was walking, a discussion I’d had with my friend Doug Dukane in Tampa flashed through my mind. Doug had the unfortunate experience of having two wheels come off his 34-foot Airstream, leaving him and his family stranded by the roadside in Ohio. The cause was a mechanic who didn’t tighten the lug nuts properly on the wheels. The damage to his trailer was extensive ““ when the wheels depart an Airstream, they usually take some of the aluminum side sheet with them.

So when I got to the passenger side of the trailer, I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. The forward wheel was gone. It had left us for a ravine about 200 feet up the road.

A motorcyclist pulled up. “Something came off your trailer!” Yeah, I know. He left, and a man in a pickup truck stopped by. He blocked traffic for us, while I went up the hill to retrieve the missing wheel.

Driggs body damage.jpg

The damage showed what happened. One lug nut apparently came off its stud. The remaining studs were unable to take the strain, and snapped off cleanly at their bases. The wheel flopped around for a moment during this process and then bounced out, damaging the Airstream’s body as it left.

Driggs disc brake.jpg
Note five studs snapped off, one stud left

The strange thing was that the wheel that left us wasn’t the one we’d had worked on last week. I would have sworn that if a wheel was to come off, it would be the last one that had been removed. But it was the wheel forward of that one instead.

This was one of those “It can’t be happening” moments. Sure, I’d seen many trailers where a tire had blown out or shredded, leaving carnage in its wake. But our lug nuts were well-seated, having been worn in over many thousands of miles of travel. They had been re-torqued when we installed the disc brakes in May. All the nuts were present when we left the campground (I checked as part of my routine pre-departure walkaround). How could a nut have come off completely in just seven miles?

We weren’t in the right place to be doing forensic analysis, I realized. We were parked blocking most of one lane of a winding mountain road, far out of reach of cell phone service, AAA, or any other service that might rescue us. Our spare was already in use (we haven’t had a chance to replace it since the drywall screw of last week).

Now, in my opinion, the most critical thing about an emergency situation is how you and your group react to it. Regardless of how serious a situation is, you probably can make it better with the right response, and with the wrong response you can make any situation much worse.

There is a process involved here. Step One is to calm down. Don’t yell at anyone, since that usually makes things worse. Step Two is to mentally step away from the situation, as if you’d had a night to sleep on it, and then look at it again from a big perspective. I try to defocus my attention on the proximate issues that tend to make me react emotionally, whatever those issues might be: someone bleeding, bent metal, unhelpful bystanders, etc.

In this case, the guy with the truck who was blocking traffic for us started saying, “That disc is red hot! There’s something wrong with your brakes. That’s what made the wheel come off!” I felt the disc, and while it was hot, it wasn’t “red hot.” It was as hot as you’d expect a disc to be after descending a 5% grade for two miles in 85+ degree temperatures. (Later analysis showed the disc brake to be operating normally.)

I also try to avoid being pressured to do something that might make the situation worse. For example, if someone is shouting, “Get it off the road, you’re blocking traffic!” you might hastily jump in the truck and pull your trailer further and make things much worse. My feeling is that traffic can wait a minute while I figure out what’s going on.

When I ran through that mental process, I realized that I needed to assess the damage to ensure the trailer was towable. A quick check in the wheelwell assured me it was. Nothing was dragging, and the hydraulic lines to the disc brakes were intact. Once I knew the trailer was OK, and I could tow it with three wheels, I felt better. All we needed to do was get it to a tire shop and they could fix it. Fortunately, an Airstream can be driven with one wheel off, as long as you go slowly.

It occurred to me that if we lost another tire for any reason, we would be completely stuck by the side of a road and in a situation where we could not even be able to stay in the trailer due to the tilt of the road. So, what to do to ensure this wouldn’t happen?

Three things: 1) I could drive slowly. Sure, traffic would pile up behind us and the drive would be akin to water torture, but I’d rather have a few annoyed drivers behind us than be sitting by the road with another tire gone.

2) The load each tire can take is dependent on air pressure. Since three tires now have to do the work of four, it’s a good idea to make sure the tires are inflated to their maximum pressure, which is usually 65 psi. Read the side of your tire to be sure. I already had 60 lbs in each one but in retrospect I could have added a little insurance by putting the additional air in.

3) I checked the torque on the remaining three wheels ““ and it’s a good thing I did. All of the lugnuts on the wheel that had been removed last week were loose too! That’s not uncommon when a wheel is removed. I should have checked the torque before we left Victor, since that was about 50 miles after the wheel service was done.

Continuing in the same direction was out of the question. We were headed for Swan Valley, a town of 200 people and very little else. We drove another ½ mile down the road to the first turnout and executed a very slow, tight 180 degree turn. Then we drove at the sedate pace of 25 MPH all the way back up the pass, down the other side, past our campground in Victor, and another eight miles to Driggs, where we pulled into Kaufman’s OK Tire.

Driggs Kaufmans.jpg

Eleanor and I, although completely stressed out, tried to relax and think during the long slow drive back to Driggs. I tried not to get anxious about things I could not control, like the probable cost of repairing the body damage. Focusing on the good things in life helps avoid “catastrophizing” (obsessing on what’s gone wrong). So I counted our blessings: everyone was fine, we were going to be able to get it all fixed, there was a tire store only 14 miles away, and it was another gorgeous sunny day.

When we arrived at Kaufman’s OK Tire, both Eleanor and I had our plan. I explained to the tire shop owner what had happened and outlined the repairs we’d need. Eleanor took Emma into the trailer and made a special lunch for us ““ comfort lunch.

And of course, everything turned out fine. We spent the afternoon walking the streets of Driggs, which is something we’d wanted to do all week anyway. It was a bonus, really. We dropped in on the rock shop and Emma entertained some grandparents while we were there. It was over 90 degrees, so we dropped in on the old-fashioned soda fountain and got some great cold treats: Bumbleberry ice cream for Eleanor, Oreo cookie shake for Emma, and a frosty Lime Cooler for me.

Driggs soda fountain.jpg

I made a trip to the local auto parts store to get a torque wrench. I’m going to check the torque on those nuts EVERY trip from now on! And then I spent about an hour with the very friendly service tech David, who explained to me in detail everything he was doing, in his classic Mexican accent.

Driggs David working.jpg

The wheel did a lot of damage, and yet we were lucky. As it wobbled off, the wheel’s stud holes were destroyed, making the entire rim into expensive aluminum trash. It also knocked off the dust cap that covers the wheel bearings, and we never did find the hubcap in the tall weeds. Five of the six studs were snapped clean off, and the one remaining was badly mangled. The stud ripped a large hole in the tire, too. Finally, the wheel bent the aluminum trim piece that surrounds the wheel well, and bent the side of the trailer too.

Driggs ripped tire.jpg
The stud ripped a hole in the tire as it came off

Driggs damaged wheel holes.jpg
Stripped out and enlarged in all six holes. This $300 wheel is trash.

So why were we lucky? Well, the damage to the Airstream could have been worse. Blown tires often shred before they come off, ripping apart the wheelwell area and even destroying dump valves and parts of the belly pan. Our body damage was limited to a bit of bent metal and a piece of trim. This may be fixable without replacing the aluminum side of the trailer.

The bill at the tire shop was $264, for two tires (I got a replacement for the spare, even though we don’t have a rim for it at the moment), bearing re-pack, valve stems, wheel balance, seal, studs, lug nuts, dustcap, and disposal of two tires. We’re riding on the steel spare rim at the moment. I called David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream and asked him to bring a replacement aluminum rim and hubcap to the Rocky Mountain Vintage Rally, where we will meet him in two weeks.

So our string of bad luck has continued, but I prefer to look at it as a karmic balancing. We’ve had a charmed life in the past year, with very little going wrong. As my good friend Adam said, “Even if you stayed home, the water heater would have broken or something.” In other words, stuff happens no matter where you are. Our house has given us very little trouble over the past few months, and I guess we have to expect a little grief once in a while.

The work at the tire shop was completed by 4:45, and we decided to do a little driving this evening. I stopped every 25-35 miles to check the torque on the wheels with my new torque wrench. It’s now 10 pm, and we are parked behind a gas station in the town of Kemmerer, WY, about 150 miles from Driggs. This town is known as the birthplace of JC Penney, and the “mother store” is still here in town. Tomorrow night we may drop in for a peek before we get out on the road again.

3 Responses to “The bad luck streak continues!”

  1. terrie Says:

    you really have a good level headed approach…and i have not mentioned how very impressed we are with your magazine…”Airstream Life”…what an exceptional publication…

  2. 3ms75Argosy Says:

    Wow – I’ll bring my torque wrench on our trip next week. I’m glad everyone is ok, and damage is fairly minimal for what could have happened. Nice that the trailer seemed to tow straight even without a tire!

    Ok – I’m sure a thousand backseat quarterbacks are going to take a stab… so I will too. I too can’t believe a stud can come off in 7 miles… did the centramatics make the stud too short for the bolt? I guess those front rims take a lot of sheering force from being dragged around on sharp corners, which would also tend to loosen the bolts. Wow again! Glad you didn’t go into panic or mad mode… I keep practising my “zen moments” at times like this. Think Hawaii!


  3. Robert Says:

    Luhr Family. I am so glad that you are all ok. Thank goodness you have two axels!

    Rich you are amazing for fixing it yourself. You rock.