Tammy had set the GPS for the Buc-ee’s Convenience Store at St. Augustine where we would top off the tanks and buy tee shirts and pulled pork sandwiches before making our way to I-10 and our first overnight stop in the panhandle. As we crossed a long bridge over the choppy water of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville a familiar warning chime captured my attention. The Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) warning flashed on the dash and informed me that we had 500 miles to add fluid before the onboard computer would slow us to a crawl. I made a mental note that I’d need to add DEF at our next fuel stop.
West of Jacksonville we pulled over at a rest stop to check the jack that had potentially lowered earlier in the morning. “It must have been user error” I thought to myself in relief. Then as I cranked the ignition to move on down the road the DEF warning chimed again, we now had 260 miles to add fluid. The math didn’t add up I worried that the Nitrogen Oxide Sensor (NOx) that we replaced in Oregon was failing again.
At our overnight stop half-way between Tallahassee and Pensacola we didn’t disconnect since we had enough fuel to drive well into the next day or at least that’s what I thought when parked. Having a supplemental 75 gallon fuel tank means I can carry 110 gallons and only have to stop for fuel about a third as often. As I sat in my drivers seat de-briefing myself of the days journey and thinking about where to buy DEF I noticed that the transfer tank had not transferred. The Fuel Filter between the two tanks was clogged and needed to be replaced. The rest of the evening was spent researching where to buy the fuel filter and DEF locally with trailer in tow the next day. Little did we know that in the morning before checking out of our campsite we would have a third malfunction to contend with.
I raised the landing gear all the way in preparation for departure when Tammy noticed the left rear jack was pushing down right before her very eyes. The incident the previous day was indeed a warning from the same ghost that had haunted us in December when we had to replace four out of six jacks in Texas. The PTSD associate with having jacks deploy while speeding down the highway was too real and recent and it swept over both of us like a tsunami. I raised the jack and ratcheted it in place with a 3000 pound orange strap only to have the middle jack descend in real time. Understanding that those two jacks are plumbed in the same loop we were required to strap up both until we could figure out how to Exorcise the devil from our hydraulics. Then we reluctantly set out, all 55 feet of us in search of an auto part store that had ample parking. One eight point turn later in and out of a parking lot that was way too small for us I had a new fuel filter and two large bottles of DEF in hand. In the meantime the transfer tank started working again and by 11am we were back in I-10 heading west.
There was no small talk that morning as we drove, no singing “on the road again” or listening to audio books, just an eery silence as we both internally processed how complicated RV life was beginning to seem. We had that homesick feeling even though our home was right behind us rolling along at 60 mph. We were once again on a journey across more than half the country with orange ratchet straps holding back 3000 pounds per sq. inch of pressure that was trying to push the landing pads to earth while moving.
We arrived at a Loves Travel Stop where we could fuel up, add DEF fluid and check to see if the straps were holding. Tammy was beginning to cry and she said she wished we could just drive straight to Van Leigh. “Where is their factory?” I asked hoping to get an answer that would help me eliminate the notion and get on with our race with the weather. The GPS showed that we would have to drive 388 miles through Alabama to the NE corner of Mississipi and the best route to get there was via the very exit we sat at paralyzed with indecision and fear. We couldn’t call our warranty rep because it was a Saturday so the detour would have to be made in a leap of faith. The idea of ditching our careful plan to beat the worst weather only to head into the belly of Tornado Alley without knowing for certain that they would fix our rig seemed counter intuitive at first but months of frustration over this issue and the idea of brashly showing up at the factory unannounced appealed to us both. We were finally fed up owning a new rig that we were afraid to pull.
After making the decision to detour to the factory everything started feeling better. The cloudless blue sky and relatively light winds ushered us past Floridas highest elevation at 345 ft. Above sea level before crossing the border into Alabama. The two lane highway weaved its way through the rolling hills of southern Alabama past plantations and small farms and charming small towns that had the “mayberry” feel. There were fields of yellow flowers everywhere and it felt like we were watching the spring season in reverse with each passing mile north.
Once on the right hand lane of I-65 I relaxed to the point where I occasionally used cruise control and repositioned to shake off the tension of the morning. We listened to a book on tape, a memoir by a talented writer named Brianna Madia about her Nomadic exploits while living and traveling in a big red van named Bertha. “Nowhere for very long” was also about the things that motivated her to live an adventurous life and Tammy and I listened intently as she described her own take on RV Life. We laughed out loud as she described her roadside breakdowns. Somehow it was exactly the right book for us to listen to at this defining moment in our own nomadic journey.
Tammy had called ahead to a campground just south of Birmingham and booked their last site. When unshackled the left side jacks, disconnected the truck and called it a day. The next morning we shackled them back up and connected with I-22 to Tupelo. The winds were light and it felt great to be seeing new country, places that we already want to come back to visit when we have the time to take it all in. But this time we needed to focus on the goal at hand which was to get to a campground relatively close to the factory so we could begin the process of getting some urgent warranty work done.
We rolled into a campground in Corinth Mississippi early in the afternoon and by 12:30 am on Monday morning we had sent a detailed email to Vanleigh explaining that we needed their help. We also reminded them of all of the ways that our rig was abandoned at birth. Tammy was asleep when I hit send and it took me a while to de-compress. Tupelo was the word that kept ringing through my exhausted mind. “Tupelo, Tupelo, Who sang about Tupelo?” Through headphones I connected with iTunes and I fell to sleep having flashbacks of my youth as Van Morrison harmonized the classic lyrics of “Tupelo Honey”.
Monday morning we awoke with a feeling of calm and we listened to music. Perhaps because we felt empowered that we were finally taking a stand with Vanleigh or was it because we were grounded geographically between the birth and resting places of Elvis that music sounded so good. Even the birds were singing in the trees outside our door. “Is that a “whippoorwill” Tam asked. “Whippoorwill! somebody sang a song about Whippoorwill’s” I responded. Before you knew it we were listening to old tracks by the Ozark Mt. Daredevils and Randy Travis.