Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Yep! Your friendly, living free nomad was finally busted.

No! No! No! Not by the police, the FBI, IRS or Interpol. Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say My McVansion was busted, broken down, on the fritz!

Yep! Sixty-nine days into the first trek of 2014, I had to rein in those 185 horses under the stubby nose of My McVansion, ultimately ending up in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Blue Ridge, Georgia. I knew the problem was in the rear end of the vehicle where there was a loud clicking sound and white smoke was emanating from the right rear wheel.

And here is the culprit . . .

You can see how the bearing failed and was breaking apart and the poor shape of the rollers themselves in this photo
It's the right rear wheel bearing. Such a small part compared to the overall size of My McVansion, however, we've all heard of Achilles' Heel and this part was McVansion's Achilles' Heel in this instance.

So, here I was, stranded in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of western Georgia. I had just left the company of Leonard Steward, a new friend in Jasper, Georgia, who is in the process of converting a 40' Bluebird school bus into his dream home on wheels (complete with Jacuzzi). I was on my way to Tumbling Creek campground in the Cherokee National Forest near Copperhill, Tennessee to meet up with two more vandweller friends (by Internet, we hadn't met in person before), Cuzzin Dick Tracy and David Hair, both from Dalton, Georgia.

Fortunately, I had cell phone connectivity, as did Cuzzin Dick. So, I called and told them that I wasn't going to make it to the camp and since it was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, it wasn't likely I was going to find a mechanic (or at least one with the skills to diagnose and fix this unknown problem) until Monday. However, I walked to a couple auto parts stores (very close to where I had come to rest). Amazingly, one of the guys at one of the auto parts stores took a wild shot at calling a local auto service business and they just happened to be working on Saturday to get some extra work completed. Meanwhile, David Hair told me to hold tight and he was on his way from Tumbling Creek to meet up with me.


The local mechanic came to look at the van and brought his trailer with him to carry it back to his garage. He and his partner were nice fellows, but immediately seemed to conclude the problem was that the "rear end" also known as the differential was burned out and would have to be replaced. The rear end or differential is where the power to drive the vehicle connects from the transmission through the drive shaft to the rear axle that ultimately drives the vehicle. This is a major component of the drive train and a major undertaking to change.

Basically, I was told they could take the van back to the garage where it would sit for the weekend. Then they'd have to locate a used differential and probably an axle that they probably couldn't get until Wednesday or Thursday and then a day to do the actual job. And, I couldn't stay in the van; I'd have to find someplace to stay even though I told them that the van is my home. So, almost a week of lost time, a major component and labor cost and the expense of staying in a motel and eating all meals out.

So, what did this add up to? Well they estimated $400 to $600 - up front - before they would move the van as a deposit for a used differential. The labor would probably be around another couple hundred dollars. A motel and meals for the duration would likely set me back another $500, plus or minus a few dollars. So, total cost would be about $1,300. OUCH! They had me by the short hairs. This is one of the challenges of being a wandering, living free, nomadic type traveler.

The Cavalry To The Rescue!

Up to this point in time I had been parked in a Burger King parking lot. The Home Depot was across the four-lane highway and behind some stand-alone stores and a small strip mall. The cavalry came in the form of David Hair who dropped everything at Tumbling Creek campground, where I was supposed to meet up with him and Cuzzin Dick, and drove to my location. I moved the van backwards and forwards and David assessed the situation. We went into the Burger King and had some lunch while we awaited the mechanic and his trailer to return. I made a couple calls to the mechanic's wife inquiring as to when he would be coming back. She was nice, but emphatic that I could not stay in my van . . . PERIOD! This perturbed both David me, so David said lets get move the van over to the Home Depot parking lot. Home Depots are known to be friendly to RVers and vandwellers.

He drove over first and made sure I could take the most direct route to get there with the least amount of driving on whatever the problem was. He then called me and I carefully pulled out of the Burger King parking lot, crossed the highway when I had the green light and made my way over to the Home Depot where David was waiting for me to drive past him slowly so he could hear the noise emanating from the rear of the car. He from the outside and me from the inside ascertained that the noise was not coming from the area of the rear end, but was actually coming from the right rear wheel. One would have hoped that the local mechanic who had listened to the noise earlier would have come to that same conclusion.

Well, you may remember there is country song made popular by one of the mainstream country singers, it may have been Garth Brooks, I'm not sure at the moment, but the main chorus went, "I have friends in low places. This vandwelling, living free, nomad is fortunate to have friends in HIGH places. Even though this was the first time David Hair and I had met face to face, I immediately had major confidence that he know what was what and where the problem was. He said it's not the differential most likely, but the right rear wheel bearing and axle. We walked about three minutes to one of the nearby auto parts stores and bought the Chilton repair manual for the series of vans My McVansion was a member of. He looked to the section on the rear axle and bearing and asked a few questions, and fortunately, there were a couple other people in the store who knew the answers.

The conclusion was that, while it would be a difficult task to do in a Home Depot parking lot, and barring any unforeseen damage, the axle could be removed, the bearing replaced and the differential checked for any damage. With that, David Hair and I returned to the Home Depot, spoke to the store manager, Keith, and apprised him of the situation and got a 100% affirmative, "No problem with me overnighting in My McVansion in his parking lot." With that David said he was driving the 50 to 70 miles back to his home in Dalton, GA, would spend the night, gather the necessary tools and return by around 9:00 AM Sunday morning (the first morning of Daylight Savings Time) to begin the project of removing the rear axle, ascertaining the damage, acquiring the necessary parts and supplies we'd need from the auto parts store and . . . fix the problem right there in the Home Depot parking lot.

True to his word, David was there the next morning and the following photos document the scene and the damage we found and repaired.

My McVansion's In The Field Operation

The van up on jack stands with the right rear wheel removed.
The wheel and brake drum (where we found a broken spring) removed
David at work under the rear of the van. This was the view I had of David most of the day, taking his instructions to do what he needed done on the outside
David at rest between major segments of the operation

At last, the axle is out and now we can see the problem, a defective wheel bearing (from when I had a new axle and wheel bearing installed only 14 months earlier) that had carved a deep groove in the axle and was the actual problem
A close up of the actual groove and damage to the axle, you can see the rough edges creating metal filings and really destroying that rear axle.
There was no way to get the axle replaced on a Sunday. Finding either a used or new axle was not in the cards. So, fortunately, there was a "repair" bearing available that actually allowed the bearing to ride on the undamaged part of the axle nearest the tire. It's not a permanent fix, but should get me the rest of the way back to base camp in West Virginia and then I can take it to my regular mechanic and have it done permanently

By about 3:30 PM or so, My McVansion had all its pieces and parts back together and I drove it around the Home Depot parking lot and it was sounding perfect. I stopped and thanked the Home Depot manager, again, for his cooperation and then off we went.

Tumbling Creek At Last!

Here's My McVansion at the Tumbling Creek campground in Cherokee National Forest near Copperhill, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Home Depot. 
Here is a shot of David Hair at rest, again after a yeoman's rescue of yours truly. That's Cuzzin Dick with his back to us.
Here's Cuzzin Dick after stoking the fire a little and loading his ever present pipe.

The Rest Of The Story

Oh! And here is the rest of the story. Remember that $600 to $800 estimated cost for repairing the van from the local mechanic in Blue Ridge, Georgia, plus the additional estimated $500 in motel/food expenses? Well, the total cost for parts, the Chilton manual and a couple lunches for David and myself came to under $100. Now, David did a masterful job of saving my behind and pulling me out of the quicksand. I need to do something nice for a great guy (whose reputation for such acts, precedes him, I might add). The one thing I've found being a wandering nomad and vandweller is that there is a fantastic community of people - maybe I should call it a network - but whatever, there always seems to be someone around with the knowledge, skills, experience, tools, whatever one needs and they are always sharing all of it with each other.

I wrote this article at Tumbling Creek campground where I spent the last few days with Cuzzin Dick Tracy. I have no cell phone or data coverage here, but Cuzzin Dick does and shortly, I'll be on his Millenicom mifi hotspot to post this before I hit the road to make my way back to the base camp in Keyser, West Virginia where I wouldn't be getting to until several days later had it not been for David Hair. Thank you - is inadequate, but still THANK YOU, DAVID!


Dragonfly said...

What a great story. I was so sad when I saw how much this was going to cost you. This is indeed a kind community. I have heard of Cuzzin Dick, please say hello from to him and David.

Ed Helvey said...

Thanks, Dragonfly --

I believe your just did say hello to Cuzzin Dick and David since they read the blog.

Unfortunately, it's easy to be taken down the primrose path and "soaked" when you break down in a strange area. You are at their mercy. I don't know if the local mechanic would have actually taken me to the cleaners once he got into the job, however, The inconvenience factor and living in a motel for at least the better part of a week would have still been costly. I've read of many accounts where when someone breaks down with their RV the repair place allows them to live in their rig on the property. But, this guy's wife had no compassion - period. It was her way or no way. Maybe one day she'll find herself in a somewhat similar situation and she'll get a lesson What goes round, usually comes round as the old saying goes.

Ed (Currently in Maryville, TN)

Anonymous said...

Indeed a heart-warming story, particularly so in contrast to the often merciless world we travel through (No! You can't live in your home until the repair is done; go pound sand. But who knows, perhaps there's a reason for the hard stance, so I wouldn't be definitive about it, but would be on guard.)

We're all part of a community, whether of mobile-dwellers or civilization as a whole. How a member of that community responds to a need reflects the wealth of his soul; does he happily share or not?

Well done David, although I would dare say if asked, you'd comment, "It was but reasonable service." Nice.

Ed Helvey said...

Nicely said, Richard.

Actually, I was told it was for insurance reasons. I couldn't live in the van on their property because it would violate the terms of their insurance policy. Somehow, I think they were stretching the issue. I've read of many, many accounts of folks being broke down with their RVs or vans and being offered to stay in their vehicle awaiting the repairs. So, I think this gal was just asserting her authority. I imagine it was she, who also demanded the upfront deposit for parts. I met the husband/mechanic and told him I'd need to stay in the van and he said nothing about there being an insurance issue nor did he make any mention of there being a need for an upfront deposit for the parts. Oh well, in the end, David was a bit perturbed by their attitude, too - and they didn't get anything out of the situation. They lose.


Unknown said...

Hey Ed,

Glad you made it back safe and sound. Yup, that's the same David I've met at Tumbling Creek. Always ready to help whatever the situation. Never underestimate the kindness of the locals either.

Remember that $900 clutch fan I told you about on my first schoolie? Well when I broke down in Mc Allen, TX (I think that's where I was) after having several mechanic shops (also on a weekend) give me trip ending estimates a friendly local small shop mechanic drove above 25 miles out to where my bus was sitting on the side of the highway and got me going again enough to finish my journey to Deming,NM for the hefty sum of $50. No more over heating problems the rest of the trip.

David would have helped any passing traveler stranded. And to them he would have been considered a local.

Hope to see you on the road again.

Fireman428 said...

Hi Ed,
I lost track of some of your travels due to work stressors and I had some kinda flu. otherwise I might would have just come down to tumbling creek to meet up with you guys. Cuzzin Dick and David are two gems in the vandwelling community. I spent time at David and Linda's hacienda (which Linda is a great cook) back in November last year. I was wandering down throuh GA on my way to TX to my aunt and weathered out that bad megastorm that went through. I'm looking forward to seeing them again at Lost Creek in a couple of weeks. Glad to hear the McVansion is road worthy again. I had a tranny issue with th SS Phoenix back in Jan. so I can relate to that "I'm stuck, please be gentle with me" feeling. ;-)

Unknown said...

Hey Ed, so glad it worked out well for you. I agree that David and Duck are great guys, , absolute assets to van dwellers and definatly decent to camp
with, as I have done many times. I'd really enjoy the chance to meet you and wish that you could make the Lost Creek Gtg I hope we get the chance to meet ftf one day and share a pot of coffee and a campfire

unswydd said...

Thanks for the story! Wonderful group of people these Vandwellers! You're so fortunate for having friends like this. What a blessing.