How Not to Fix a Leaky Camper Roof

Getting caught in the lie of self reliance.

Zach Bowman Odyssey
Beth Bowman

Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.

Part 69
Bowman's Odyssey

There’s no mistaking the sound of air escaping. That sharp hiss, the harbinger of a thousand headaches. Beth has her window down, snapping photos as we wind our way up Spirit Mountain, the rocky switchback barely a mile from downtown Cody, Wyoming. The truck rocks and sways as it lumbers up in low range, slow but drama-free. Brandon and Leigh rocket ahead in their Westy, making up what they lack in driven wheels with careful momentum. Then the noise comes. An air line, most likely. One that runs to the onboard tank, or one of the two suspension air bags over the rear axle.

The sky is roiling by the time we make it to the top of the bluff, muscular clouds swelling their way across the sky, pushed on a cold and fierce wind. The weather radio warns of thunderstorms and gusts of 50 mph. We set up camp. I crack a beer and proceeded to burn the shit out of dinner in an attempt to get our chicken tacos cooked before the rain comes.

Brandon’s wrapped up in a calamity of his own. The outside temperature hangs in the middle 40s, and the Westy’s propane heater is in no mood to warm the cabin. It’s throwing a fit instead, complaining of a blocked combustion inlet. It’s dark by the time he pries out the fridge and accesses the heater. I can hear the curses over the wind and the racket of scraping the charred remains of our food into a bag. I recognize the look on his face, a combination of hunger, fury, and fatigue. He’s through with it, ready to cut his losses. Shove the thing back together and cuddle with the dogs for warmth.

Beth Bowman

More often than not, it’s an aggravation to travel in a group. More schedules to juggle. More egos. More chances to miscommunicate, to unwittingly wound. It's why I prefer to keep my circle small and wrap myself in the falsehood of self reliance. But more than meals together, more than conversation and someone else for our daughter to chase around in the weeds, these moments are why we need each other around.

“Have you tried running some air through it?” I ask.

Brandon looks at me. I can see the tunnel vision lift. He’s been too close to the thing. Wearing the same thought patterns bare.

“No. That’s a good idea.”

He fires up his compressor while I hold my thumb over the open air line. It builds pressure, and when I release it into the heater’s inlet, a burst of thick, brown dust, the gatherings of a hundred dirt roads, shoots out the exhaust. Brandon takes over, hunched in the cubby where his fridge usually sleeps. Eventually, clean air’s all that comes out. When he hooks everything back up and hits the switch, warmth fills the van. Success.

The smallest of victories can do a galaxy of good for morale. I’ve forgotten all about my leaky air line, and the rain’s been kind enough to hold off. Kiddo’s asleep before Brandon’s done buttoning everything up, so Beth and I walk to the top of a knoll in the dark. We look down on the burning webs of Cody below as owls and coyotes whisper around us. The smallness of it all. Nine thousand souls glowing in the dark, each with a universe of worries all their own. All I want is to hold this perspective, to keep it for when I’m too close to my troubles to see them for what they are. Small in the grandness of our world.

I remember the air line five minutes before we’re set to take off for Yellowstone the next morning. The bed’s sitting precariously low on the driver’s side, and the air pressure gauge confirms my worry. The right side is dead flat. I get Brandon to put some air in the thing while I crawl around in the dirt, expecting to find the line to the bag disconnected or cracked somewhere along the way. Instead, air comes gushing out of the bag itself. Bad? Meet worse.

This isn’t a piece you’ll find sitting on a part store shelf. I’ve got just enough reception to send an S.0.S. to Hellwig, the manufacturer. Tell them where we are, what we’re doing. Try not to sound as desperate as I am. We’re headed to Jackson, I say. There’s a camper dealer there who should be kind enough to accept an overnight shipment for us.

I can’t blame the air bag. We’ve put this equipment through fresh hell for the past eight months. More than 19,000 miles, plenty of it over gouged and rutted earth. They aren’t made to put up with the kind of axle articulation I’ve asked of them, and recent running over an hour’s worth of Wyoming washboards finally did this one in. I can see where it’s rubbed against the spring pack.

Beth Bowman

To my shock, I get a call from Hellwig within an hour. Not only can they get us the parts, but they have a solution to prevent the problem from happening again. Jump to a smaller diameter bag. Doing so will reduce our weight capacity by 400 pounds, from 2,800 per side to 2,600, and it means replacing not one, but two bags. It’s worth the hassle.

I give Hellwig the address. Beth calls the camper dealer only to find it closed for the week—they’re out hunting. Christ. Not to worry, says the voice on the other end of the line. They share the space with a detail shop. There should be someone there to accept the package.

We drive through Yellowstone with the truck’s tail dragging and its nose up. The thing porpoises at stops, bobbing forward and back like a playground spring horse. Building a truck like this is always a balance. Stability is directly opposed to off-road capability, where articulation and soft spring rates are king. When I put the rig together back in Knoxville, I sat down and got honest with myself. The truth is, in this country, getting to any trail means a disproportionate amount of time on tarmac. I put it together to be safe and steady on road first, capable in the dirt a distant second.

It’s raining as we work our way towards Jackson. The Tetons towering around us, defining our horizons, their saw-tooth peaks already white with snow. The sun streaks through the dark clouds in places, shining on the aspen groves that dot the fields between us and those mountains. Their leaves are lighted with the gold of autumn.

Beth’s birthday is tomorrow. Her 30th. We celebrate by stopping in Jackson for gifts and pizza and beer. By the time we make the ice cream shop, Kiddo’s gone full meltdown. Another in a mean streak of long days for her. There’s nothing left to do but toss our dessert in the trash and make our way to the campsite, a short hike out of town to Curtis Canyon. It’s a good 10 degrees cooler up here than it is in town, and by the time we find an empty spot, the sky has gone vicious again.

Beth Bowman

I level out the truck in the whipping wind and listen as the clouds tear themselves apart. There’s thunder, but it doesn’t sound like thunder. Not like I know. It sounds like lightning. No boom and bellow. Just the sick, ripping sound of wild electricity. I can feel it. We’re in a wide and empty bald, nothing taller than waist-height for 300 yards or more. The bones of struck trees stand here and there, their gray wood burnt from long-past strikes. The voice of self preservation clears its throat in my head, just in time for cold sheets of rain to come pouring over the hills behind us.

There’s no time to say goodnight to Brandon and Leigh. We all take shelter as quick as we can. They’re leaving for Boise in the morning. Splitting off for a spell to visit with family and rest a few days. We’re looking forward to easing the pace ourselves. We make a quick meal, feed kiddo and get her in bed. Beth crawls into the top bunk as the rain gets going in earnest, pounding on the roof with a viciousness we haven’t heard in our eight months on the road. It’s a worry, but there’s something precious about being warm and dry, the three of us together, alone in the wild.

I write for an hour or two, wrap up and crawl into bed. I’m not under the covers for 20 minutes before Beth starts moving around.

“Something just dripped on me.”

Condensation, I think. It happens sometimes. A string of cold, damp days will leave the camper’s aluminum structure sweating. We turn on a light. It’s not condensation. The roof’s leaking. Fat drops of water gather in spots before dripping onto our pillows.

Fuck.

I’m furious at myself for not doing a better job of sealing the solar panel mounts when I installed them back in Maine. Beth is unfazed, as usual. She digs out the shower curtain. Suggests we peel off the sheets and put our pillows at the other end of the bed. Throws the curtain over everything, then a few towels on top. By the time we’re through, the rain’s slacked. It’s 3:00 a.m. At five, we hear the van start up and trundle its way down the mountain. I lie there, trying to remember looking down on Cody. Thinking a little water’s not the worst thing. We’re all safe and warm. That’s not nothing.

Beth Bowman

In another five hours, we’re back downtown, picking up pieces from a hardware store and hunting out the camper dealer. We find it tucked behind a grocery store, wedged in an alley. I find Bobby, the owner of the detail shop, chatting with a customer about his ’73 Travelall. There’s a beefy Defender lurking in the corner, and a slammed second-gen Lightning across from the shop. Clearly, I have found my people. I tell him what’s happened. Beg for a space to wrench on the truck. Stop the leak and swap the air bags once the UPS truck shows. He’s a saint, and points us to a spot out front.

Beth spends the majority of her 30th birthday sitting in the truck, showing our daughter the same movies she’s seen a thousand times while I clamored all over our idiot home. I find a couple of likely places for water intrusion, pull out the fasteners, reseal everything, and reinstall them just in time for the air bags to arrive. They come out and go back in with a little persuasion, the old bits carrying the dirt and corrosion endemic of so many hard miles. I trim the air lines, plug everything up, and, to my amazement, they hold. There’s no hose around with which to test the roof, but the weather calls for more rain. It’s a matter of waiting.

We don’t have to wait long. We find another campsite, further up the mountain past our first. There aren’t words for how gorgeous it is. Clouds brew up from creases in the ragged ridges behind us, and low clouds blot out the base of the hills back towards town. The air is sharp and cold enough to prick at my lungs. My breath hangs in the air for a moment before wandering off to join the gray sky. It starts raining just as I pack up the tables and stove after dinner.

For a while, it looks like my effort on the roof worked. The ceiling’s dry. Tired as we are, we’re in bed by nine.

Kiddo cries herself awake in the early morning, and when Beth gets out of bed, she drops her feet into a small, cold sea. Something about the way we parked, I guess. The pitch of the truck let the water move to the center. Let it fall not on our bed, but square in the middle of the floor, where it pooled. A night’s worth of rain. There’s nothing to be done about it now. Kiddo’s still wailing in her bed. It’s 5:00 a.m. again, and she won’t go back to sleep. Her cries are a siren to one lonesome coyote sitting just outside the truck. It yips and wails in response, its voice cutting through the thin wall of the camper like there’s nothing between us. One wild dog wondering what we’re doing to our poor pup. The two of them bark back and forth for a good 10 minutes while Beth and I put a pot under the worst of the drips and mop up all we can.

Beth Bowman

When Beth finally gets Kiddo, she points at the quickly filling pot with glee.

“Wa,” she says, clapping her tiny hands. It breaks me.

We get her calmed down. Shut off the lights and bring her in bed with us. Not to sleep so much as to just be still for a minute. Consider our options. Before long, the temperature drops, despite the heat being on. I roll over, flick the water heater, and wait for the thing to light. It doesn’t. We’ve drained our first propane tank.

I get up, dress, and step outside into the gray dawn, only to find the camper’s aluminum steps covered in slick, wet slush. It wasn’t just rain, but snow, that fell all night. Heavy, wet stuff pushing on the roof. The hills around us are dusted with it. I can just see the frosted conifers on the edge of the darkness. By the time I crunch my way to the side of the truck, swap the tank, and walk back around, our worried coyote is calling out to the fog. I can just see him there on the edge of the light, his jaws turned to the sky in one cry after another. He sounds like a pack, his yip echoing off the trees behind me. Calling out to someone, anyone. For food. For warmth. For help.

I go back inside and light the heater. Dump the pot of water. We’re all tired, worn down by long days on the road and two full and sleepless nights. I need time. Space enough to dry out, rest up, and work on the truck. Fix the leak correctly. I hate asking for help, despise being a burden, but we can’t weather another wet night. I swallow my pride, pick up the phone, and put out a plea. Call out to someone, anyone for help.

A friend has a cousin through marriage in town, she says. Hasn’t seen her in years, but she has an open vacation rental that’s ours if we want it. One with a driveway big enough for the truck. And her cousin knows someone who can help with the roof. It feels like a miracle. The overwhelming gift of perfect strangers extended on the thinnest of associations. There's no more poignant refutation of the lie of self reliance than the importance of smothering your pride to embrace a larger circle.