I was traveling north on I-25 in New Mexico on a bright sunny morning. I’d just stopped for breakfast and was enjoying the rest of my fragrant coffee. Without warning, my trailer pulled sharply to the right then swayed left, right, and left again. My first instinct was to brake while I held the steering wheel firmly hoping that would stop the sway.
As I tapped the truck brakes I remembered I should squeeze the manual trailer brake control on the dashboard instead. I reached for the sliding control but never made it. I already was enveloped in white and off the road. I could sense motion like being in some bizarre carnival ride but could see nothing except white.
As soon as my world stopped moving, I saw that my dog Penny was alive and looking puzzled. I realized we had been in an accident and the airbags had gone off. A surge of adrenaline kicked in. My door had opened from the impact. I unbuckled and slid out under the airbag without even turning off the ignition. I ran around the front of the truck to the trailer with the first thought in my head being “This is bad. Did I turn off the propane?”
Still attached to the truck, my Airstream lay on its side like a wounded whale beached on an alien shore. The propane tanks were intact inside their aluminum box. I quickly checked that the propane was off, then turned back to the truck, opened the passenger door and picked up my bewildered Chihuahua. By then, a man had reached the wreck and said firmly “Ma’am, you’ve been in a major accident and you need to sit down.” Obediently, I walked twenty feet away and plopped down on the ground, dog in my lap. He turned off the ignition on the truck. He and his wife and another kind gentleman retrieved my phone, my purse and my briefcase. I sat there unmoving in the dusty red dirt, watching with odd detachment as other people stopped to see if they could help. I could see my truck was badly damaged. Its wheels had sunk halfway into the ground. I was trying not to look at the Airstream. By then my thoughts had turned to thanking the Lord that my dog and I had walked away from the wreck.
I was very fortunate my seatbelt had held me firmly. The people who stopped to help said the truck had rolled up and down an embankment. It landed facing south instead of north. The trailer had yanked it around like a toy. Although the roof was badly dented above the back seats, it remained intact above the front seats.
I asked one tall man who’d joined the group of good Samaritans to take photographs of the wreck on my cell phone. Another man who stopped was an emergency technician, He asked me my name and the date and where I was going and whether I was in pain. I was not in any pain. I was too shocked.
The accident occurred in a rural desert area with many canyons and little traffic. No one else was involved, thankfully. The embankment prevented my rig from crossing over to the southbound lanes. The group of people who’d stopped to help decided three would stay with me until the police and ambulance arrived. The others wrote their names and telephone numbers down for me and wished me well before continuing on their journeys.
An ambulance arrived after about thirty minutes and took me to the hospital in Socorro, NM. The paramedics unsuccessfully tried to take Penny off my lap, but she bared her two teeth and growled, menacing them with her gums, It was clear she’d decided she wasn’t leaving me. I was able to walk to the gurney holding her and laid down with her on my lap. My blood pressure was dangerously high, and my heart was racing, but I did not have any abrasions or feel hurt then. By the time we arrived at the hospital, my neck, hip and shoulder were aching from the impact of the seatbelt.
The nurses were awesome. They let Penny stay in my lap and I stroked her fur, grateful that she seemed completely fine. I figured out later that the airbag must have passed right over my pup as she slept in the passenger footwell so when the truck rolled she fell into the deployed airbag rather than being hit by it as it burst into action. Either that or my guardian angel grabbed me with one arm and her with the other. Perhaps both.
Penny stayed with me during multiple X-rays and CT scans to be sure I hadn’t injured my neck or skull. I didn’t think I’d hit my head, but bruises started blooming there and in many other places by the next morning. I had a colorful welt matching the bottom of the steering wheel on my left leg, and found that my coffee cup had apparently upended itself on the back of my yellow “Happy Camper” shirt.
I had no major injuries, but the crazy skyrocketing blood pressure kept me at the hospital for several hours until it stabilized. Upon my release, the sheriff very kindly drove me to a hotel across the street from a Walmart where I could pick up some necessary items including a change of clothes and a blood pressure cuff. He and his colleagues managed to find most of the things thrown clear of the truck and trailer and pile them all in the back of the truck before it and the Airstream were towed to a salvage yard.
The tow yard was closed until Monday, which was just as well. I needed some moral and physical support before visiting the remnants of my beloved tiny home on wheels and my pretty lime green truck. I posted a request for help on the Airstream Addicts Facebook page, asking if anyone in the area would be willing to visit the tow yard with me to try to retrieve any items I might be able to recover. The outpouring of support and generous offers of assistance was inspiring. One new friend offered to come help on Monday with her van. Others organized by the Sisters on the Fly “wrangler” for New Mexico arranged to come on Tuesday, along with a couple of experienced full-timers who happened to be in the area camping. Thanks to a girlfriend who reposted my original post, I received many offers of help from all over the country including places to stay until I had a replacement trailer. One lady in Minnesota even offered to loan me an Airstream! Most importantly, many people were praying for me.
That night I began to doubt in the wake of the accident whether I really had what it took to tow and travel by myself. I thanked God for sparing me and the pup in the accident and asked that He make clear what His will for me was in light of my self-doubts. The more I looked at the accident photos, the more shaken I felt.
The next morning I attended Mass a couple of blocks away at San Miguel Mission Church. The processional hymn was an old favorite of mine with a reassuring refrain “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” Later another song that proclaimed “you shall cross the barren desert but you shall not die of thirst” and “you will wander far in safety though you do not know the way” seemed to speak directly to me. After Communion, the cantor sang a cappella a verse from a song that I had never heard in church before, but had discovered while traveling. For me, this hymn — “The Summons” — captured what I felt God had called me to do. I had even shared a YouTube clip of it on my Facebook page many months ago. Hearing it at San Miguel that day comforted me as a very generous outpouring of grace.
I realized that God had everything in hand. I do know this and trust this, but sometimes I forget it. His gentle reminders were the reassurance I needed. It occurred to me as well that the Mass I’d attended just before the accident was at Our Lady of Good Help (aka, Our Lady of Socorro) and where I ended up resting afterward was in Socorro. Later that week, I met a kind woman named Adriana whom I spoke with after Mass. She treated me to a meal and showed me where she had painted Our Lady of Socorro in a mural down the street. I took that encounter as another sign that all would be well.
It turned out that wind and a blown tire were the culprits in my accident. Insurance handled the claims very promptly, professionally and fairly. I ended up being in a position to purchase a replacement tow vehicle and trailer and get back on the road by the end of the year. I also made some wonderful new camping friends, kind souls who salvaged some of my belongings, stored them for me, and let me stay with them while I recovered and worked on the insurance claims.
I did take away some lessons. In addition to greater trust and prayer, and appreciation for being the recipient of help, I resolved to drive more slowly and be more aware of the weather, purchased a smaller, lighter trailer to make it less likely it could pull the truck around, installed a TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring system) on my new trailer, and visited CAT scales to check my weight distribution. Fundamentally, towing is serious business, not to be obscured by the joy of traveling. Even when nothing has gone wrong before, and even when you do everything right as best as you can, something can go wrong suddenly. I’ve since practiced more with the manual brake controller in my replacement truck.
I’ve also had some recent reminders that no matter how I prepare or practice, ultimately there are things beyond my control. The hitch on my new Airstream “Alvie” was improperly installed with only three bolts instead of six on the tongue plate for the anti-sway bar. On my first long trip, I arrived at my destination with the bar dangling in mid air. The tongue plate had snapped in half.
Fortunately, this was a simple repair at a nearby Airstream dealership who managed to fit me in right away. Thank you to JD Sanders RV in Alachua FL!
From this experience, I learned that it is best to doublecheck everything, not trust that the dealership has done everything correctly just because they have more experience than me.
The following month, I faced another challenge. My hitch detached from the receiver on the entrance ramp to a highway. Thankfully, I was able to pull over right away and the screeching hitch shank supported the weight of the trailer both before and after I stopped. My new Airstream was not damaged. Nobody ran into us on the ramp.
This incident remains a mystery. I’d just left the Foley RV Center and Airstream dealership in Gulfport, Mississippi after having a minor issue with my rear bumper fixed. The service department repaired the Airstream bumper without unhitching my truck. Neither they nor I noticed that there was anything amiss with the hitch.
From the side of the exit ramp, I called Foley RV in a panic. I simply could not believe my hitch had fallen out (and was both shaken and very relieved it fell out BEFORE entering the highway!). The mechanic immediately came to pick up my Airstream and tow it back to Foley RV. He thought that the hitch pin must have broken, but neither one of us could find it along the road. We did retrieve one of the two weight distribution bars which had fallen off a block or so before I pulled over. The other had vanished. Ironically, the anti-sway bar with its six bolts remained in place.
Trying to figure out what had happened, and decide whether to repair or replace the hitch, I called the Airstream dealership in Florida that installed the hitch when I purchased Alvie. I had a key lock on the hitch pin purchased from the dealerhip and had never removed the hitch from the receiver. The service managers in Florida and in Mississippi thought it very unlikely that the pin had simply failed. With forty years of combined experience between them, they’d never had a pin just break.
Without the pin, the original dealership couldn’t do anything for me warranty-wise and suggested that what had happened was that somebody somewhere had attempted to remove the locking pin and steal the hitch. The truck had been hitched up to the trailer all of the previous day and during my one-night stay at a nice RV park in Louisiana. I’d stopped twice for gas, once in Texas and once in Louisiana, and enjoyed a short rest break from driving the previous day, but nothing had looked wrong with the hitch when I checked before resuming my trip. The morning the hitch fell off I’d driven over an hour on the highway to get to the Mississippi dealership for my minor bumper repair. I’d inspected the hitch and my set-up as part of my normal checklist that morning, but my list did not include handling the hitch pin itself to be sure it was secure. The truck and trailer were never unhitched at Foley RV and were only left unattended near the entrance to the dealership for fifteen minutes while I paid the bill. So, perhaps someone tampered with the hitch pin at some point and weakened it, perhaps it broke, or perhaps someone managed to remove it outside the dealership despite the obvious difficulty of stealing the hitch when it was attached to the trailer?
In any event, it was a blessing that the hitch departed from the receiver in a way that did not harm anyone or anything except the hitch itself. I appreciated Foley RV’s very prompt assistance and expertise that let me get back on the road the same day.
I ended up purchasing a new hitch with a key-locked hitch pin. No problems so far, but I did get a lot of helpful advice from fellow Airstreamers. In particular, I am adding to my safety routine. After the pre-towing inspection I always do, I am now re-inspecting as soon as I tow a very short distance. I’m also testing the hitch pin itself to be sure it remains locked and secure. Perhaps my tale of second chances will help not only me but also others to avoid incidents like these. May St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, and our Guardian Angels watch over us all on the road!