Breaking Down on the Loneliest Road in America
After dropping a live-in camper onto his Dodge, our man’s truck-turned-home gives out in the desert.
The sun shone on the cold desert, the sky drowning blue and cirrus fractured, clouds floating 18,000 feet over the calamity unfolding beneath my boots. The windshield was full of the painted desert, white with snow from a week-gone winter storm. The voltmeter on the Dodge’s dash floated at an uncomfortable 12.5 volts, two below normal. The alternator wasn’t charging. Ninety miles outside Delta, Utah, I sat inside the truck, shouldered on the side of Highway 50. The two-lane vanished to perfect pinpoints on the frozen basin, east ahead and west, behind. I took a breath. Ran my hands over my face. I hadn’t yet had the camper for two full days.
Back in December, I’d made up my mind to drive right up to the camper factory in Woodland, California, and pick ours up. It is, as the Prophet Cash foretold, cheaper that way. Any dollars I didn’t spend having the thing shipped to the East Coast were ones I could use outfitting our box for life on the road for a year. I needed the hours in the truck, anyhow. It’d take a little over 5,000 miles round trip, and each one would be a test. A dare. Fail now or forever stay in one piece.
I left Knoxville on a cold Sunday morning, one woodpecker the only sound in the valley. His marbled warning echoed from the crooked fencerow in the back yard. Tennessee went easy, then Arkansas. I watched the sun sink, splashing the bare oaks of the Ozarks red in their lonesome fields. Felt that old pull. The desperate chase of the light.
The drive was brutal. An honest slog in an unladen three-quarter-ton truck. Twelve hours the first day, fourteen the next. Across Texas and New Mexico. Up to Flagstaff with a herd of Elk on the shoulder, their eyes bright and wild in my headlights. I wish I could convey how massive this country is. How rare that we can point ourselves inevitably West and go, go, go. Run out the highway and the hills. Slide our fingertips over the creases and the valleys of the impossibility that is America. You can’t grasp its vastness from a plane. It’s diversity from a map. You have to put your feet on the ground. Your hands in the dirt.
It’s a long time to be left alone in your own head. To think about all the variables that’d come together to make the truck work with the camper. To wonder on all the choices we’ve made to get to this station. A point of light opened in my thoughts somewhere in the Arizona desert. The quiet and true realization that none of it mattered. The decisions were made. We’d jumped. All that was left was how we hit the ground.
Most of those worries abated the moment I saw the camper for the first time. Stepped inside and put eyes on our home for the next year. It’s small, sure. Compact, but not unlivable. Reminded me more than a little of a small sailboat. We’re going to be fine.
Installation took a few hours. Getting acquainted with the camper’s various systems took a few more. It was nearly rush hour by the time I lumbered out of Woodland and into Sacramento’s rush-hour traffic. All told, the camper weighs in at a whisper under 1,700 pounds. Nearly a ton, or right on the border of what’s acceptable to stack on top of an ancient Dodge with nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer.
Pushing the bounds of what was safe for this machine, I resolved to prepare the truck as best as I knew how before leaving. That meant a rear sway bar. It meant airbags to help with the load. Hellwig’s been building sway control bits for 65 years, and sent over a complete kit for evaluation. The pieces went on over the course of a couple evenings, and I couldn’t tell much difference in handling without some weight on the bed.
Let me be clear: There’s no way I’d feel confident wrangling this thing without help from the airbags and sway bar. Keep in mind, I went with one of the lightest truck bed campers in existence. I have no idea how guys do it with the big 3,000-pound slide out jobs.
The truck felt the weight, but took to it like any good mule. Like it was bred for it. I had the airbags set at 20 psi when they dropped the camper on the bed, and though it looked level enough, the nose was clearly in the air as I pulled out into traffic. Throwing another 20 psi at it solved the issue, and had the thing feeling flat and stable. I-80 out of Sacramento climbs from sea level to over 7,200 feet at Donner Pass in under 90 miles. It’s a scramble of switchback interstate, and I did it at rush hour. If I wanted a trial by fire, I got it.
It was dark as I rolled over the Sierra Nevadas towards Reno, jousting with traffic and trying to grow comfortable with just two mirrors. That’s when the throttle died.
See, these trucks have this thing where the throttle position sensor gets tired. And when it takes a nap, you’ve got no damn throttle at all. Embarrassing in the middle of a Target parking lot; awful close to deadly when you’re trying to pass a school bus on a dark and crooked stretch of icy four-lane in the California mountains. The check engine light illuminated. I downshifted and gave the pedal a good kick in the ass. The engine woke up again, the tach doing an accurate interpretation of my heart rate. Put that on the list, I guess.
I rolled past the electric glow of Reno, the casinos flashing their lights at no one and everyone. I dropped off the interstate at Fernley. Fueled the truck and tried to catch my breath or in a catch basin. It was getting late, and smart money was on finding a place to park the truck for the night. There were options. Truck stop casino, Wal-Mart parking lot. But I wasn’t spending my first night on tarmac.
So I left the streetlights behind. Ran off down Highway 50, a stretch Nevada proudly advertises as the “Loneliest Road in America.” Why wouldn’t I head off into the nothing? Point a truck that’d recently lost all power down an empty and freezing swath of desert? I drove for another two hours. Drove a road so straight the headlights on the other end looked like the dim flicker of windows on the horizon. Learned how impossible it is to gauge distance in the dark. Couldn’t tell sand from snow on the shoulder. Watched jackrabbits dart and jump through the scrub brush at the thin edges of my high beams.
After two hours, I turned to a dirt road buried under four inches of snow and ice and crawled the next five miles. Opened the driver’s door to a spectacular emptiness, a sky so crowded with stars that it staggered me. I’ve spent a lifetime in wild and forgotten places, but I have never seen a show like that. Never been so smalled by our crowded universe. I stood in the freezing night air and tried to breathe.
I bunked down to the sound of coyotes and burros chatting in the darkness, throwing barbs back and forth across the snow. Fell asleep wondering how long those two have been at each other. Farmers back home always keep one donkey with a herd of cattle, one stubborn beast who’ll go at a pack of coyotes like it’s nothing, biting and kicking and breaking necks until the dogs leave everybody the hell alone. The world’s perfect like that, sometimes.
The next morning was a gift. I was up with the sun, eager enough to get on with getting back to Knoxville. But when I pulled back the shades, I wasn’t met with a vast and empty plain. The jagged teeth of a snow-covered range framed the basin I’d slept on, dipped orange and gold by the rising sun. The camper’s heater had kept me warm all night, happily insulated from the 21-degree desert. I was as alone as I’ve ever been standing on the snow and sand.
I filled my lungs. Hiked a ways from the truck and drank in the stillness, the complete silence. There was nothing in my ears but the sound of my blood pushing through my veins. It was the first time in six months that I knew—knew—that my wife and I had made the right decision. That this was what our life held for the next year.
In another four hours I’d be on the side of Highway 50, the truck’s brand-new alternator smoking from under the hood. The charge wire burnt in half. I’d stand there and weigh my options. Finally wager I could drive to the closest NAPA on nothing but the grace of two Odyssey AGM batteries and a little back feed from the camper’s solar system. Cover the longest 90 miles of my life, eyes twitching between voltmeter and odometer, willing the tenths out of the way.
I’d make it. Laugh like a drunken jackal at the odds and stroll into the only parts store for 200 miles or better.
There are plenty of reasons not to take a truck like that on a saga like this. Parts availability is not one of them. There, in a Utah town with a population of less than 3,500, sat an alternator for a 5.9-liter Cummins. All hail the farm truck. I had the roached piece out and the replacement installed in little over an hour.
That was it. I rolled into Knoxville a couple of days later, weary, but whole. That bastard alternator and the throttle position sensor the only failures over seven days and more than 80 hours of driving. Covered 5,100 miles, the tarmac equivalent of London to Islamabad, all within the borders of one magnificent and baffling country.
In two weeks, we’ll set off in earnest. Fix and pack and sort and leave. Set off for the Nevada deserts and California forests. The Altantic marshes and Gulf Shore sands. The Colorado mountains and Wyoming plains. We’ll cover as much of it as we can, ravenous for the vastness.