Highway to Heck, Part 1 – Jason Bontrager
I am thankful, and you’ll understand why when you read the story below. For now, I’ll just say that our fellow Americans are alive and well and more than willing to help a guy in need. There are so many great people here in the USA!
Let’s change ALL the plans at the last minute…Because it’s FUN!
Initially, I was supposed to fly to the recent Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, but at the last minute, I decided to drive my ’08 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Duramax towing my 1997 Land Rover Defender 110 to Expo West instead. I had a potential buyer for the Defender and thought it’d be a good chance to get the rig out to “West” and in front of them.
Aside from wanting to get the Defender out to “West,” I just really like road trips. I have for years. When I was a kid, mom and dad would pack up my sisters and me in the station wagon with the Jayco pop-up camper in tow. We hit all the Great Lakes. We’d usually head up to the U.P. (Upper Peninsula of Michigan). If not, then lower Michigan or Wisconsin.
I was your guy if anyone wanted to get out of town in college. A couple of friends and I would leave on a Thursday after classes, head out on the road to wherever, and get back late Sunday night or early Monday morning. Trips were made to Colorado, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, and several other states.
During the early years of our marriage, Aimee and I would make many trips to Michigan to the family lake cottage and Florida for some mid-winter sun. Now, Aimee and I, our three kids, and dog Ellie don’t bat an eye if we need to drive instead of fly for vacation.
Anyway, back to the trip – I had the truck serviced (fuel filter, oil, and oil filter) at High Ground Outfitters in Bristol, Indiana, and then I got the Defender loaded up. The load was nicely balanced, and I was feeling good about it. I took off early on Wednesday morning and was scheduled to arrive in Flagstaff late Thursday afternoon.
I made it to the town of Lincoln, Illinois, around 3:30 PM and stopped to refuel and grab some coffee and a sandwich. I check my tow set up and cargo tie-downs at every stop, so before starting out again, I headed to the back of the truck to look things over.
Humming to myself, I moseyed to the back of the truck and looked down.
My truck’s towing hitch was slanted downward at a 30-degree angle bringing the hitch and trailer coupler dangerously close to the ground. My mind was racing, “What do I do? What do I do!? Okay, breathe……breathe…….You can fix this.”
What a gut punch. Even thinking about it now, the anxiety creeps back up.
We had an issue on a previous trip out west, and I was looking forward to an uneventful run west this time around, but no such luck. Unlike my partner in Skinny Guy Campers, Donnie (aka Skinny D), who hauls around what seems like a complete auto shop on his road trips, I’m more of the “wing-it” type. I prefer to think of it as being optimistic rather than unprepared. I did have some essential tools, but not near the kit like Donnie.
I’m more of the “wing-it” type. I prefer to think of it as being optimistic rather than unprepared.
As I sat there contemplating the merits of traveling light vs. always having the tools I needed and devising a plan, a gentleman up the street noticed my predicament and walked over to see what’d happened to my truck and trailer. [Shout out to this guy, my man Mark, who runs a small design firm in Lincoln, started an orphanage and school in Haiti and was kind enough to let me park my trailer on his lawn so I could go and fix my hitch. He also let me borrow his full socket wrench set. What a great person! Some might say, “hero”. We should all strive to be like Mark.]
With some hammering and prying, I was able to get the trailer disconnected from the truck. After disconnecting the trailer, I began the process of figuring out what went wrong. This winter, I had installed new front and rear aftermarket steel bumpers, and unlike the factory bumper, there was no 3rd connection from the truck hitch to the back of the bumper nearest the 2″ inch receiver. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this was overlooked during bumper installation. Instead, the only bolts bearing the weight on the hitch were the 2 pairs of OEM bolts that attached the hitch to the truck’s frame rails. And after further inspection, I found that 1 of those pairs was missing (having been sheared off), and the steel hitch bracket still being held on by the other pair had “taco’d.” I partly blame the “lovely” Illinois roadways. Sorry Illinois, it’s an Indiana thing.
I blame Illinois.
PRAISE THE LORD the front pair of bolts hadn’t sheared off! I’m not sure what would have happened if that had occurred. When in these situations, it’s easy to call a tow truck, scrap the trip, and just give up. Not only was I trying to fix my truck’s physical problem, but I was also trying to keep my mental game on the positive side of the spectrum.
You, Sir, are a HERO
Enter my friend, business partner, and automotive hero, the Lead Mechanic at High Ground Outfitters, Jason Ellinger. I think I called him 30 times in total on this road trip. He helped me diagnose and figure out solutions to every little issue like a great (automotive) doctor! If there was a constant positive influence on this trip, it was Jason. He helped to keep me on the right side of the mental track. You’re the man J(elli)!
So, first things first, I needed a way to push the hitch back into place. If I could just do that, I could replace the rear pair of hitch bolts and get it all reconnected. “Tiny battles, tiny wins,” I told myself. Mark told me about the local “Farm & Fleet” store just ½ mile away, and thankfully it was only 4 PM, so I had plenty of time to get to the store and find the right parts to fix this hitch. I headed off to the store, wondering how I to bend the 1/8″ framing of the hitch back upwards. (With hindsight being 20/20, I probably could have used the trailer coupler and tongue jack to pull the hitch back up, but when the adrenaline is flowing, logic can be challenging to find and wade through.)
As I mentioned, aside from the hardware needed, the first issue was getting the hitch pushed back up reasonably close to re-bolt it. I tried a ratchet strap in the parking lot and was thinking of getting a floor jack, but THEN I saw him – the forklift operator loading landscaping mulch onto a customer’s truck bed. We’ll call him Forklift Guy, FG for short.
I watched as he completed the job and made his way around the back of the building. I ran around the back of the building to see if I could find him. I found him in the service shop out back. I explained the situation and asked if I could pay him to push my truck hitch up with the forklift.
“Well, company policy says I can’t,” he replied.
“Of course it does,” I thought to myself. “This solution could save me not only hours but loads of stress.”
“Are you sure you can’t make this one exception?” I asked (not creepily at all), “I’ll make it worth your while!”
“Well, I guess if you can find a manager, you could ask him.,” said FG.
“Yes. Find a manager. That’s what I’ll do.
I fast walked back into the store and tracked down the manager. Many odd looks and much pleading later, I convinced the manager to let FG help me out. I ran to my truck and backed it around the back of the store. FG aligned the forklift with the truck hitch and slowly pushed it up. I had him lift it up so high that the truck was off the ground. We were able to get the truck hitch bent back to about 1″ from the truck’s frame rails. This was at least 3 hours of frustration saved! I profusely thanked the heroic FG and slipped him some cash.
I drove the truck back around the front of the store and went in to find the correct bolts to re-attach the hitch. “The bigger, the better here,” I thought. I’ve never been so thankful for such a well-organized farm & fleet hardware department and for all the help I received from the workers there. I found the Grade 8, 1/2″ bolts, washers, and nuts I needed. Between my new road tool kit additions and my existing tools, I was able to get the hardware installed nice and tight. The hitch was all back in place against the frame rails.
Even though the hitch was back in place, I had the nagging feeling that I needed to tie the rear point of connection between my new bumper and the hitch. I think I would’ve been okay, but I just wanted to eliminate any potential point of failure, which meant this 3rd connection needed to be made. I took some measurements and ran back into the store to find a strong enough steel angle that I didn’t have to cut down with a grinder or chop saw. I found a small 3/16″ thick galvanized handle I could cut opposite ends off, which would work perfectly for my purposes. I just needed a small saw to make the cut. I found a small Dewalt battery handsaw that would work. I bought the saw and parts, made the cuts in the parking lot, test-fitted the new parts, took some more measurements, made my final parts list, and headed back in to get my final hardware. I remember vividly the last thing the clerk said at my final checkout. He said, “We close in 30 minutes. Are you sure you have everything you need?”
By this time, I was back in the mode of my early years of metal fabrication and was sure I had everything. I grabbed some food and headed back to Mark’s to make the final mods to the angles, drill some holes in the bumper and install my grade 8, 5/16″ hardware to hold it all together. By the time I was done, I was very satisfied with my work. Getting the hands dirty, solving problems with very few tools.
I used my newly acquired bottle jack to lift the trailer’s A-frame up high enough to couple the trailer back onto the truck hitch. I was all back together and ready to hit the road again, and it only took 6 hours. I made sure I had all my gear and tools and pulled out of Lincoln, Illinois, around 9:45 PM. My spirits were high at this point, but little did I know that this was only the beginning of the troubles I would experience on this road trip.
To be continued…