Letter Re: A Learning Exercise with “Get Out of Dodge” Applicability

Dear Jim,
I thought I’d relay an exercise I learned from last year.
Every year, I do a large historical re-enactment in Pennsylvania. I take two tents totaling 300 square feet, my forge, tools, clothing and gear for a family of four down to a four poster bed, tables, chairs and workbench, plus merchandise to sell. This fills a conversion van with rear seat removed and a standard kit-built trailer. It’s great rehearsal for bugging out. Packing takes about 8 hours.
Before I left, I realized the brakes were a little soft. I made a point of leaving lots of clearance on the highway. The trip is exactly 403 miles from my house. Most of it is interstate.
Upon leaving the event to return home, I realized the trip out with the cargo and trailer had beaten the brakes up a lot. They were definitely soft. I left lots of clearance. My wife had gone ahead, and I had both kids.
Our usual trip home includes a detour on a state route, two lane, through Ohio hills, to stop at an ice cream factory. I was on this road and came over a hill at normal speed–55–and saw a line of cars backed up behind one turning left. I braked and felt the pedal sink. I was moments from plowing 3 tons of van and cargo into a Toyota. I found there was just enough room in someone’s front yard to get between the traffic and a tree. Honestly, I was prepared to sideswipe or lose the trailer to avoid that wreck, and I was lucky there was no ditch. It worked. I pulled over as soon as I could stop and checked things over. Grass and mud everywhere, but no serious problems.
However, as we left the ice cream factory, I heard a whine, rumble, and lost a trailer tire. I always carry two spares, so I pulled into a farmer’s driveway (paved, it’s central Ohio) and got to work. The blowout had also shifted the cargo in the trailer and split the wooden side from the hinge holding it. The tarp was acting as structural support.
I couldn’t find the jack. I knew I had a jack, but I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t under the passenger seat, nor all the way in back with the trailer spares. I tried using some dunnage and lumber to pry the trailer up, but no luck. I knew I could lift it myself and have my daughter prop dunnage under, if it was empty, but that’s a 2-3 hour job to repack, and we’d been at it hard for 12 days and had 250 miles to go, at 90+ degrees with no air conditioning. I tried to go ahead and break the lugs loose, but they were too tight even with me standing on the wrench.
The farmhouse was empty, with a sign noting they were gone until Sept, when apple harvest would start (I think, don’t quote me), and I’d rather not start hiking with two small kids, so I tried to flag someone down. Luckily, two minutes later, a very nice man and his wife on a Harley were heading back toward the small town we’d left, and said they’d let a garage know. They even returned to report on it.
A few minutes later, two country boys in a pickup showed up with a screw gun, an air compressor, an impact wrench and a jack. Five minutes later we were good to go. The guy running it said he wasn’t sure how to price it, so I handed him two $20s. I would have paid $100 and not flinched.
I left a lot of distance ahead the rest of the way home, especially on the state roads, and on the Columbus bypass.
And of course, when I unpacked I found the jack, under the other passenger seat, where I’d inadvertently moved it to fit in the extra first aid kit and fire extinguisher.

The lessons here are: always maintain the vehicle. Less than 90% means fix it now. Always inventory your emergency gear with hands-on when loading, so you know where it is. Always leave extra distance and assume there’s a roadblock, stopped vehicle or such over the next hill, until you can see. Always check your spares and all lug [nut]s (I’ve had a frozen lug on the van before, too) regularly and before a trip. – Michael Z. Williamson