In the Nick of Time
It was Wednesday. I was due in Great Falls, Montana Thursday night to judge a field trial starting Friday morning. For the last several years, I started my season by hauling my camper to Montana, judging one day, and then running the next two days in a three-day Chukar trial. After the trial, I would bird hunt for a few weeks in Montana and Wyoming. It was a win-win situation for everyone, and I looked forward every year to meeting up with my friends.
I spent the previous night at a rest area in Wisconsin, and made it to my favorite breakfast restaurant, Norske Nook, right when they opened. Then, I made it through Minnie and traffic was light on I-94 northwest bound. I was cruising at 70 mph with a tailwind, which makes a huge difference pulling a camper. It was one of those beautiful Fall days in the northern tier- blue sky, slight wind, light traffic. Life was good. I happened to glance in my left mirror and saw a tire, 20 feet in the air in the left lane just behind the camper! Instantly, I figured it couldn’t catch me if I maintained my speed, so I rolled along and watched the black tire hit the grass in the median and swerve back onto my side of the freeway and disappear behind my outfit. I saw no cars behind me or coming the other way, either. I was on I-94, at two p.m., in the middle of the week, and there were no cars in sight in either direction. I thought that was very lucky for someone since the tire bouncing along down the road could have easily hit another car. “Some guy just lost his spare tire,” I thought. My rig was rolling fine. Maybe it was my spare tire? I slowed and pulled off to check my camper just prior to an exit. Braking was good, and nothing pulled as I eased onto the shoulder. I jumped out to check my spare, but the mystery was solved the instant I looked at the axles on the driver’s side of the camper. The front tire was missing. As I walked down the side of the camper, I saw the entire wheel assembly was gone. Only the end of the axle was left. I looked back for the tire and saw a guy walking along the edge of the freeway, rolling a tire ahead of him. I walked back to him and thanked him for rescuing my errant tire. He laughed and said he saw a tire in the air and slowed down to see where it would go. After it crossed behind me, it hit the cable along the edge of the road and stopped. I told my story, and then asked where the nearest town was to take the camper in for repair. He pointed at the exit and said, “That’s the exit to Fergus Falls. There’s an RV place in town. I don’t know if they are still in business though.” “Can I drive it like that?” “Sure,” he said, “Just go slow and take it easy on the bumps.” So, off I went up the exit ramp to Fergus Falls.
At the top of the exit, I pulled off the road and grabbed my phone. I dialed four different auto repair places, two service centers, three bait shops, and a motel. This was during the heart of Covid, and the story was the same everywhere. “We are backed up two to three WEEKS. Sorry!” No one answered the phone at the RV place. I figured I’d slowly pull the rig to the facility and see if anyone was home. Not knowing if I would break the remaining axle or blow the remaining tire, I drove through the business district of Fergus Falls, Minnesota with three tires on my four-tire camper. Oddly, no one gave me a second look as I pulled up to the RV store. It looked closed.
I parked in the shade and walked to the door to check their hours. The door was unlocked, and I eased into a room piled high with parts. I could hear men talking around the corner. So, I casually browsed through the isles as I determined which guy was the owner and which was the customer. Finally, the part was ordered for the customer, and I learned Aunt Betty’s health was OK, Rotary’s speaker for the week cancelled, and the odds of the Vikings going all the way that year was zero. Then it was my turn. I said, “Well, I have a problem. My tire departed the camper out on the freeway, and I have absolutely no idea how to fix it!” I basically threw myself on the mercy of the parts man at the RV repair place.
He said, “Let’s take a look,” which was encouraging. I thought laughter and “See you tomorrow, bud”, was more likely. But we went out to the camper, and he closely inspected the damage. He jacked up the axle and put a wood block in the springs, so the good axle could support the camper better. Then, he pronounced the most likely cause was a failed bearing that finally melted the axle and the entire wheel departed. “It’ll take a new axle, bearing, tire, and other minor stuff,” he said. “Let’s see what I have.” I said, “If you have the parts, can you fix it?” (It’s about 5 p.m.) “Sure, if I have the parts, but I don’t have an axle that will fit. So, let’s see if we can find one.” While I checked on the dogs, he started Google searches for RV axles based on the picture I took of the information plate welded on the damaged axle. An hour later, he looked up from his fourth phone call with a smile, and said, “I found one! But you need to be in Becker, MN at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow, at this address. This guy will fix you up. He has an axle. But, he wants to know, right now, if you can make it.” “Absolutely!” I said, having no idea how I would get a three-wheeled camper back 130 miles the way I just came. He hung up after getting the address, phone number, and name of the shop. “Uh, John? How can I get my camper 130 miles back the way I came?” I said. “Randy, I see this type of thing all the time. You have 3 good tires. You have two 5300# axles, so you can support over 7000# easily. The max gross on your rig is 8000# and you aren’t packed full of stuff. You probably don’t weigh more than 6000#. I had one customer drive all the way to Pennsylvania on three tires. Just take it easy, go slow, and take your time. You can do it.” I tried to pay him for his time, but he said, “I never did anything but give some moral support. You don’t owe me anything. I need to closeup and head over to the church. It’s fried chicken tonight! Good luck!”, and he was off.
I found the address on the map. Luckily, there was a rest area on I-94 just ten miles from the shop. The adventure just kept on keeping on.
I arrived at the rest area several stressful hours later. I fed the dogs, ate a sandwich, and went to bed. It was 11 p.m.
The next morning, I was up at 5:30 a.m. and on the road by 6. I was gaining confidence driving my three-wheeled camper around but was still taking it easy on the bumps. The directions were not to a business district. In fact, I was on the outside of town. It looked more like grouse hunting country. I turned off the paved road on to a rural gravel road, then on to a more rural gravel road. I was in the grouse woods, but I couldn’t really enjoy them because I was worried about turning this train around should I arrive at the wrong address. Finally, I saw a small sign nailed to a fir tree advertising trailers and trailer repair. Below the sign, an arrow pointed to a two-track snaking off into the woods. Below the arrow was a phone number. It was the same number I had for the shop. Encouraged, I turned on to the two-track and checked my watch. It was 7:15 a.m.
After a few hundred yards, with the road turning slightly left then right, I flushed a Ruffed Grouse off the road. Smiling, I turned another corner and the woods opened into a very large clearing with a well-kept house, lined up trailers, and a huge shop at the far end. The rollup door of the shop was open, and I saw a man sitting in a chair drinking coffee. I pulled up, rolled down my passenger window, and said, “I’m Randy. I sure do hope you are expecting me. Can you fix my axle?” It was 7:30 a.m. on Thursday.
“Back that thing in here,” he said. Two more men appeared out of the back, as I unhooked the trailer. “Why don’t you head to Rebecca’s Café in Becker and get some breakfast, “he said. “We got this. I’ll see you in an hour or so.” Before I left, they had all three tires off the ground, the wheels off, and I didn’t want to get in the way. I left the high-flying wheel with them and left to get some breakfast.
By the time I returned, a new 7500# axle was exactly fitted and mounted, with new brakes, new bearings, and one new tire. Also, the other axle’s bearings were checked and the bushings that linked the axles were all replaced. By 11 a.m., they finished up and I said, “I owe you some money. You have no idea how much I appreciate you and your crew. Thank you!” “Randy,” he said, “I’m glad to have the work. We need it. This Covid thing has our entire state about shut down. We are happy to help. How does $1100 sound? I only charged you labor for one guy, even though all three of us worked on it.” He said he’s thankful for the work. He had orders for over 100 ice-fishing houses but couldn’t get the aluminum to build them with Covid shipping problems. Every day he wrestled keeping the business open. So, we thanked each other. Him for the work. Me for his work. He will never know how close he came to a bro-hug.
Wednesday afternoon, I never thought I’d be back on the road the next morning. It was 11:15 a.m. on Thursday. I was rolling up the freeway, just past St Cloud, MN, and I was due in Great Falls, MT at 7 a.m. the next morning (Friday) to judge. I figured I could make it if I drove through the night with a 2-hour nap thrown in there. I texted the trial chairman and told him what happened, and I would be there for the first brace. He expressed some skepticism. I headed west.
The rest of the tale is uneventful, if exiting the freeway onto a narrow two-lane county highway in pitch black Montana, headed to Roundup, in the RAIN, at 1 a.m. on a Friday morning is uneventful. In addition to the rain and dodging deer, there was a serious coffee emergency underway. When I drove through Glendive, then Miles City looking at a beautiful sunset and dry highway, I really wasn’t thinking ahead about coffee for the all-nighter. I assumed I’d be able to find some- somewhere. There is no “somewhere” along that route. Later, after a two-hour nap, I didn’t want to stop and crank up the generators to brew some, since I was already cutting my arrival close. I had no coffee, the rain was steady, and I was pretty sure the deer were out. I rolled into Roundup, MT at 2:30 a.m. looking for coffee. The town was closed. I spotted a deputy idling his car, so I stopped and walked over to him. He rolled down his window. “Hey, Deputy, what did you do to earn the midnight shift?” I laughed. He chuckled and asked where I was headed. “To the nearest coffee in Roundup,” I said. “I need to be in Great Falls by 7.” “Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is there is no coffee here. The worse news is the closest coffee is in Lewistown, an hour and change up the road at the Town Pump,” he said. “What’s the good news?” I asked. “I get off work in 4 hours,” he said, laughing.
At least the rain backed off to a drizzle.
When I hit Lewistown, it was still dark, still raining, and my “caffeine low” light was flashing red. I stopped at the Town Pump and filled a giant Yeti cup with their finest, organic, sustainably grown, family-farmed, farmer-harvested, eco-friendly, gently roasted gas station coffee. It was so strong it was doing pushups in the cup. It reminded me, a little, of Ready Room coffee in the Navy, but marginally more refined. Perfect.
At 7 a.m., the Beast, the camper, me, and 5 bird dogs rolled onto the trial grounds off the end of the runway in Great Falls, MT. I staked the dogs out, watered them, and climbed on to a 4-wheeler to judge. I drove quickly to the start line, saw another judge, two dogs, and two handlers. I checked my watch, waited ten seconds, and yelled, “Turn ‘em loose!” at exactly 7:30 a.m.
In less than 24 hours, I went from a broken axle/lost tire on the side of the freeway, hundreds of miles from my destination, where I didn’t know anyone, to cruising down the road, whole and healthy, and on the way to fulfill a promise, on time. Everything just fell into place.
Yep. Livin’ the life.
Randy is a member of the Georgia Region NSTRA (#8381). This article is an excerpt from his next book. Both his published books, Endless October and Endless October- Season 2, are available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and Audible Book formats. Check out his BLOG: www.abirdhuntersthoughts.com, Podcast: A Bird Hunter’s Thoughts-Turn ‘em Loose, and YouTube Channel: A Bird Hunter’s Thoughts. Contact: email@example.com.