Breakdown in Montana, A Road Trip gone wrong

Breakdown in Montana, A Road Trip gone wrong

If you follow along with the blog, or with us on Instagram, you'll know all about the road trip gone wrong that dominated our lives for the past two months. I've been meaning to write this post about the experience but it's been caught in draft ever since we found our way back home at the very end of summer. So before I can go on telling you about the silver linings I guess I should just tell you exactly what happened back in August of this year.

The Plan 

We decided to postpone a summer trip to California until 2015 in favour of a less expensive road trip to Yellowstone National Park. I knew we'd be able to find accommodations in campgrounds and RV parks for about $20 - $30 a night so that would surely save us some money. Eggie is light as a feather compared to most trailers, and although we could have used our economical Suzuki SX4 to tow her, we thought the extra room in our '99 Sienna van would be useful. So, we cleaned up the van before the trip, fixed the broken A/C, and topped up the oil. Eggie's second lock (Todd had replaced the original with a deadstock vintage replacement) was taken apart and re-installed to fix a loose fit. We were feelin good to go. 

After a fantastic weekend spent with family at the Sun Harvest Music Festival in Kelwood, Manitoba we booked it to Brandon with the intentions of fixing a broken signal before crossing the border. I spent two hours in a McDonalds playland with the kids until Todd returned from the mechanic with a partially repaired signal. Turns out the wiring for the trailer was done improperly and unless we wanted to stay for a couple days for a completly re-wire it, we'd have to choose between right or left signal. We chose left, and took one out of the lot on our way to the border.

Our first night out wasn't great. I had scouted a cheap RV park for the night ahead of time, but when we arrived it was abandoned. Our GPS took us to several more defunct and forlorn spots, until finally we found one for a whopping $40. Basically a big ugly gravel lot. We were shown our spot, close to the washroom building, and right beside a covered truck with the bumper sticker "Piss of a Liberal, Buy a Gun". Oh yeah, and Eggie's lock broke. We spent the evening hours in a Mennards buying a lock and hasp, a rivet gun and even a friggin drill. I also threw in a roll of duct tape. Seemed like things were falling to pieces already.

When morning came, we all felt like it was going to be a better day. The sky was clear, and we rolled into the next stop with enough time to enjoy a swim in the pool. Yeah it was just another lot, this time red gravel and dry grass, but it was $20 and there was a pool! The wet towels dried within minutes of being draped on the picnic tables. I opened a bottle of wine, and we played yatzee outside by candlelight, listening to the choir of cicadas in a nearby tree. I felt like we had made a great decision choosing to take Eggie on a big adventure.

Our home for many days to come . . . down "Sheep Dip" road.

Our home for many days to come . . . down "Sheep Dip" road.

That feeling continued the next morning as we rolled out of our spot just before the rain hit. We reached Pompeys Pilar when the sky cleared and took a hike up to see Clark's signature carved in the side of the rock. Luke bought a walking stick made out of a branch taken from this point on the Yellowstone river. Our destination was Gardiner, Montana and with several hours to go we hit the road, refreshed.

Here is where our story hit a sharp turn from "Doing pretty good, a few minor obstacles" to "Everything is terrible and we should have went to disneyland!" 

It began very suddenly. We hadn't observed any warning signs with our van until about 3 miles east of Columbus, Montana when a gradual hill prompted a grinding and banging noise from under the hood. We opened our windows to get a better idea of what was making the noise. A terrible burning smell met us along with the most awful sounds a car could make blared up from our engine. We pulled to the side of the highway, which of course was under construction in just that spot, down to one lane. Trucks whizzed by, inches from Eggie's side. We looked at each other in horror. My phone was showing no service. I pulled out the GPS to get a look at how close we were to the next town and we decided to ride it out for the next 2 miles. Being stranded in this awful spot was not an option for us, nor was it safe for anyone else on the road. This sign was our salvation, and marked our home for several nights to come.

A storm rolled in that first evening. It mirrored our mood perfectly. Eggie rocked with each howling gust of wind. Rain showered down on the roof like little pellets and I shed a few frustrated tears. The worst of it was not knowing how bad it was, though Todd had a pretty good idea that we were in deep.

I felt so stupid for taking that damn van and putting us in danger on that highway. I felt very responsible for all of it. 

In the morning a flat bed came to tow our van away. I stayed back with the kids in Eggie while Todd went across the interstate to the town of Columbus. As you can see, breakfast was just perfectly cheerful for Eve and Luke. I messaged this photo to my mom who was waiting for an update. Aren't kids fantastic? They helped keep my mind off of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So, a few hours later I phoned Todd at the garage. It was indeed the engine, which had to be replaced to the tune of $3,200. I was in shock. We had paid less than that a few months prior for the entire van! I wanted to abandon it, but we decided it would still be more cost efficient to replace the engine than it would be to buy another used car with unknown issues. At least when we had this work done, we'd have a revived vehicle with a longer life than before - right? The work was to take 5 days though, and that meant we'd miss Yellowstone entirely.

We tried to find a rental without luck. No out of state cars were available. Since Yellowstone crosses over from Montana into Wyoming, and we would still need a car that could tow, there was nothing for us. When I got the message that my parents were starting the drive to meet us and tow us all to Yellowstone, I was elated. They really saved the day. We left with the plan of returning the following Monday to pick up a repaired van and start the drive home.

I had booked 4 nights in Yellowstone. After missing the first night still stranded in Columbus, we drove through the clouds, past a herd of bison, and through the most beautifully moody landscape I've ever seen, to the Canyon campground. Here again I admitted responsibility and defeat. I made the assumtion that the spot I booked included electricity. WRONG. It also didn't include hot water taps in the bathroom although it did actually have a bathroom. Better than several other RV spots in the park that only offer outhouses. We shivered the night away in the damp cold, with snow warnings posted at the camp office and not nearly enough room for all 6 of us. Despite our offers, my parents slept in the car. I envied them in the middle of the night when they turned that car on for some heat. The next day we moved on to Bridge Bay, near Yellowstone Lake.

Another day which felt like November instead of August. I was shocked at how the temperatures dropped from our day back in that desert like RV park, basking in the pool.

Now most of our towels and clothes were wet, and not a thing would dry no matter how long it was hung up in Eggie. The duvets and thin woven blankets I brought weren't enough to keep us warm. My dad and Luke stayed back at Eggie while we went to the nearby general store to buy some sort of fleece blanket. I now own a giant tacky Yellowstone wooly blanket. When we returned, we discovered that in my dad's attempt to get our 40 year old, untested, propane furnace to fire up, it caught on fire. The flames spread under the cabinet into one of the storage compartments, setting colouring books and boxes on fire. Grabbing the only thing in reach, a 2 litre of diet sprite, he extinguished the flames.

yes, eggie was on fire

It smelled like burnt fibreglass. Some of the fibres on the cushions had melted together. Sopping up the sticky flood of Sprite off the floor and in the storage compartment with the remaining dry towels, I lamented my lack of safety precautions. Always equip your trailer with a fire extinguisher. Get dangerous old heaters replaced. 

The rain that night wouldn't let up. We ate under the little awning ( thanfully we installed one just before leaving for the trip). Everything was cold, wet, cramped and miserable. Too wet for a fire, we went to bed early. This time the four of us slept in the car and my parents got the bed. We left in the morning, cramped up, cold, dirty feeling and not willing to stay another night without heat or any semblance of comfort. By sundown we were in Gardiner, booking the last room in town.

you'd think our strange tale would have ended here, right?

Wrong. Needing medication, my parents couldn't stay another day when we were told our van wasn't ready. So we made the choice to pack up the kids and send them back home to Winnipeg while we waited for the repairs to be done. It would be 5 more days spent in that RV park. Each day we were sure it was our day to drive home. This is us on the highway going east, 10 days after we first broke down in roughly the same spot going west. And after that, twice more, and everything that followed.

We struggled into Billings after two highway assistance calls, blown off hoses and severe overheating of our supposedly newly re-furbished replacment engine. We bought 4 duffle bags, stuffed them full in the Target parking lot, and got a shuttle to a hotel where we booked two bus and two train tickets online for 7am the next morning. Hours later we were on the bus headed home, with Eggie and the van left behind in a motel parking lot, and a phone message for our mechanic who was off for the long weekend. Needless to say, I appreciated the single servings of wine I could buy from the train store. We made it back in time for me to start my first day of work for the new school year, half a day to spare. I can still hardly believe our crazy adventure. It isn't a short one to tell.

Two months later we returned to Montana, retracing our steps to retrieve what was left behind. I'm happy to report that besides having to replace a dead battery on our way home (can you believe it !?) everything is back where it should be. Car rentals, many repairs, bus and train tickets, as well as gas and hotel rooms on the retrieval trip cost us big time. I guess we should have just flown to California after all! Heck, we could have gone to California and taken the kids to Disneyland for that budget! But, this is a story we will never forget. And, despite all of it's lows, it did have some pretty good silver linings in-between. These experiences are worth sharing in another post, which I will definitely write once my hands un-cramp from typing out this crazy tale.

Hobby photographer, traveler, maker, vintage curator, mother, blogger.