tl;dr: I’m fine. Trailer is mostly fine. Subaru is driveable. And the whiskey bottle didn’t break either 🙂
In the beginning
While driving from Alamogordo, New Mexico to Fort Davis, Texas last week, I ran into with gusty winds with no warning, had a sway situation, and went off the road about 10 miles away from Fort Davis.
Before I left that morning, I had read the weather forecast closely, as I always do. The winds around Ford Davis were predicted to be 15-20 miles an hour. I’d driven many times in wind like that, so I wasn’t worried. As I got closer to Fort Davis, I could see that the mountain route I didn’t take had cloud cover and hints of snow on the mountains. I had full sun with a beautiful blue skies with puffy clouds. I was almost home for the night.
Then the trailer started to sway. I felt it before I saw it in my rear view mirror. My right hand moved to the trailer brake and hit the panic button and I kept an even speed. I’d visualized this situation, so I knew what I was supposed to do. For a few seconds, I felt the trailer falling back in line and I thought I was going to be OK. Then what felt like a big hand hitting the back of the trailer pushed it to the right and I felt the car go left and it all went wrong. I was no longer in control. The car headed off the road with trailer swinging behind it and I hit the brakes to try and slow the inevitable collision with whatever was ahead.
And then everything stopped. Everything was silent. I didn’t even realize the air bags hadn’t deployed. I didn’t check to see if I was OK. I pushed the door and looked behind me to see where my trailer was. It was upright. Not rolled over, not in pieces. On the hitch still. I breathed a small sigh of relief. Everything else was fixable as long as the trailer was in one piece.
A Fine Mess
There I was, in the middle of West Texas, completely stuck, with no signal on my cell phone. I looked up to see a white pickup coming down the road and before I could even wave my arms in what I hoped was a “Please stop” kind of signal, I could see it slowing and moving onto the shoulder. The friendly man driving quickly called his brother-in-law, who was working nearby come over and take a look. About two minutes later, a big official-looking truck with emergency lights on pulled over. The local game warden just happened to be heading home to Fort Davis. He radioed the county sheriff to call the Department of Public Safety and got out to see what he could do.
While we waited for more help to arrive, the game warden dug out a small saw, and he and Elizabeth and I worked to clear branches, grass, and cactus from around the side of the trailer and the car. The brother-in-law and another guy showed up and quickly assessed the situation as needing more tools so they went off to get resupplied.
Those two guys, Roy and Tony, I think that was their names, turned out to be the miracle workers of the day. They told me they’d pulled people out of similar situations, so I stood back and let ‘em have at it. They jacked up the back of the Subaru and put the spare (donut) tire on since the real tire had come off the bead. Then they jacked up the front of the Subaru and crawled under it with the chainsaw to cut down and the mesquite bush I’d run over, so that reversing the car wouldn’t add to any damage. They didn’t see much wrong structurally at that point so they decided to go ahead and pull the rig from the trailer bumper till the wheels got traction, then let the Subaru back it all up, if it could.
Meanwhile, the game warden and the sheriff were cutting the barbed wire and the wire fencing I had run through, so that those things wouldn’t cause more harm either (let’s just say barbed wire left its mark on my hood, front fender, right quarter-panel, and the windshield.
As the guys were doing their thing, the state trooper took my license and insurance details, photographed the rig and the skid marks on the road, and did whatever else he needed to do to file an accident report. I asked him if there was anything I could have done to avoid this. He said the wind comes down off the mountains fast and furious sometimes and I was just kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d seen worse, he said, some have gone several car lengths farther into the fields or flipped the trailer and car. I was lucky, he said.
Roy and Tony slowly and carefully pulled and pushed until all six tires were out of their red dirt ruts and Tony had enough traction to steer the Subaru. Roy dropped the chain and Tony backed the trailer and car out into the road and then onto the shoulder. At this point we had three emergency vehicles with flashers going, so I didn’t have to worry about being in the way of any other traffic while my rig blocked the road.
Seeing Bella and Breeze on the side of the road, looking level and mostly unharmed was when I started to cry, tears of relief rather than fear. Breeze looked fine except for 1-inch hole where a branch had punched clear through the front wall; it missed every wire and electronic thing in that area, though.
The LEOs and Tony and Roy swarmed the car, hitch, and trailer, looking for leaks, bent stuff, or anything else that might be bad news. Everyone agreed it was definitely drivable to the campground, and one deputy sheriff said he’d follow me there with flashers on, since he didn’t want me going faster than 30 mph with that donut of a spare tire on the car. I hugged everyone, passed out my little business cards, and told them this was going to be a great story on my blog, once I calmed down enough to write it.
Back On the Road
I checked my hitch, and my lights, then slowly signaled left to get back on the road. I was listening for any new noises and the sheriff was looking for leaks or any other signs of trouble. We slowly caravanned through Fort Davis, where I noted the location of the local service station where I’d be tomorrow putting the car up on the rack and getting the tire remounted, and then turned left up the road to the state park. It was definitely comforting to see the headlights of the sheriff’s car behind me all the way. I turned into the state park, and he vanished, so I didn’t get to thank him for the escort.
I pulled into my campsite, unhitched and went inside. It was a mess: every shelf had come off the rails, every drawer had come loose and pretty much everything that wasn’t secured was at the front of the trailer, under the table, thrown forward by the force of the stop. Drawers and shelves were put back in place, bed remade, and, eventually, a small dinner consumed and the unbroken whisky bottle provided a shot to calm my nerves. Before the light faded completely, I looked under the trailer with a flashlight and couldn’t see any damage. The electric hookup worked, the propane heater and burners worked, and the plumbing seemed undamaged.
Preparation Pays Off
I think the trailer brake panic button did what it was supposed to do, it slowed down the trailer, and if the second gust hadn’t hit me, I might have been OK. And while it didn’t prevent the accident, I think it played a big part in keeping the trailer upright. I had, since the day I picked up my trailer, practiced reaching for the panic button, so my muscle memory took over as soon as I realized I had sway. That and visualizing how I would react in a sway situation definitely helped me react better than if I’d never thought about it:
- Don’t slam on the car brakes.
- Steady speed, slow down gradually if possible. Remember rule #1.
- Steer straight ahead, if possible.
If you tow a trailer…
(1) My sales rep, Denis, told me to practice the panic button move and it paid off in that 13 seconds.
(2) The Alto couple who rolled their trailer in New Mexico the year before I picked up have been generous about sharing that frightening experience and it was hearing their story that made me sit down and learn what to do in case of a sway event, and that helped me do the right thing last week.
I owe all three of these people a huge debt of gratitude for their advice and experience. The reason I’m writing this post is so you can learn from my story, prepare for the worst, and maybe do better if you find themselves in a similar situation.
I am completely grateful, and lucky, that I’m fine, my car is drivable, and the Alto is fine except for that little hole in the wall. It could have ended much worse, and I think about that every day. Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you can still be lucky enough to walk away from it.
I am forever grateful for the kind people of Fort Davis who stopped and helped me out just because that’s what people do in West Texas. If any of y’all are reading this, you’re the best, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I think you’ve really got to wait and see how things play out. Sometimes a decision you might consider a regret or failure in the present can turn out to be the catalyst for something extraordinary in the end. Some of life’s wildest journeys begin with a wrong turn.