What’s Wrong with This Picture?

We awoke early at a Swiss rest stop, refreshed and eager to reach Lauterbrunnen. The campground there would be our base for a long weekend of hiking in the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps—one of the few non food-related items on my bucket list.


This rest stop had a great playground

Both Mark and I wondered how our rig, a very used 1997 Ford Rimor, would handle the 10% grade we’d have to climb in order to get there. It was the most gradual route we could find, and we were cautiously optimistic. While the kiddo lounged in the bunk, Mark and I downed a few cups of tea, set the GPS and then drove off to tackle the pass.

Suddenly, after an hour or so the van suddenly started riding rough. Really rough.

I crossed my fingers and hoped it was just bumpy pavement. But the pavement looked fine. A flat tire maybe?

But then the screeching started.

It was a horrible, ear-splitting metal-on-metal sound that made my blood pressure rise and my heart sink. You know how in old Westerns whenever a child is stuck on the tracks, the conductor throws his weight on the emergency brake to stop the train? Remember the screeching? Well our rig was making that sound. Mark veered over to the shoulder and stopped so I could jump out and make a report. Oil and smoke were absolutely pouring out of the right front wheel. It looked bad. Really bad.

Ironically, we’d spent the entire previous day visiting mechanics in Germany.

That’s because last week fourth gear had started grinding and squealing. For a while it looked like we’d need to shell out €3000 (roughly $5000) for a new gear box. But at the end of the day we were lucky enough to find a Ford dealer with a wonderful mechanic who, after driving around with us for 20 minutes, recommended that we do nothing at all. Fourth gear was completely shot, yes. But it wasn’t a safety issue. After discovering we planned to sell the camper back to the dealer after the trip, the mechanic recommended that we not make such a big repair on the van.

In other words, as long as were prepared to go from 3rd to 5th for the next nine months, we wouldn’t need to spend any money at all.

Heck yes! Who needs fourth gear anyway?

But 24 hours later here we were with a brand new problem, smoking by the side of the road in the Alps in Switzerland, one of the most expensive countries in Europe. Dealing with this, from towing to repair, would not be cheap. I try to be a realist, but it was difficult not to wish that this oil/screeching/smoking thing had happened just one day earlier in Germany and quite possibly with a mechanic behind the wheel.

Anyway, we obviously needed to get off the motorway, so we decided to take our chances and try to limp to the nearest exit, three long kilometers up the road. But first we packed up all our passports, tech gear, and basic supplies, and arranged all the stuff neatly by the door. I put Archie on his leash. If the vehicle burst into flames, at least we’d have a good shot at saving our most important stuff.

Nervously, we started to drive.

Though prepared for disaster, we found we could go up to about 35 km per hour without screeching. Good news. So with our hazard lights blinking, we crawled along the shoulder until we reached the exit, which seemed like it was about 10 miles away. I have never been as happy to get off a motorway in my life. We pulled into a gas station and thanked our lucky stars we made it. Now we just needed a mechanic.

This particular exit didn’t have much of a town attached to it, just a few scattered buildings here and there, but off in the distance we could make out a Fiat sign. It looked like a dealership. Oh, thank God. Surely they could help us, if not directly then by connecting us with a mechanic. We climbed back in the van and drove toward the sign.

For (temporarily) unlucky people we seemed to be getting pretty lucky. Not only had we broken down near an exit (30 minutes later and the situation would have been magnitudes worse), but it turned out that the Fiat dealer had a shop in back that worked on Fords too. The manager, Ivan, spoke beautiful English, a relief, because although I speak German (sort of), Swiss German is totally incomprehensible to me. (It sounds like a mix of German, Italian and drunk.) Well-dressed and efficient, Ivan, assured us that they could fix the problem (apparently something something to do with brakes and tires and worn-out ball bearings). The dealership was about to close for lunch, he said, but they’d get right to it when they reopened.

What luck. All we had to do now was wait

.Waiting for RV repairs, Switzerland

Six hours and €850 euro later we were good as new and ready to hit the road.

Just not in fourth gear.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Atomos July 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

Whoa, reading that totally stressed me out.


2 Renee July 15, 2011 at 10:27 am

Then my work is done. 😉


3 Berni July 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

See it that way: you still have four gears, isn’t it? I like your blog, nice writing. Take care


4 Renee July 15, 2011 at 10:27 am

Thanks, Berni. Yes, we have plenty of gears left. 😉


5 Tricia(Geeky Explorers) July 14, 2011 at 11:12 pm

What is it with RV blogs & constant problems? 🙂 It makes our experience on our shakedown trip not so bad. Glad that everything worked out, and really, 4th gear is highly overrated right?


6 Renee July 15, 2011 at 10:25 am

Good lord, RVs are great but when something goes wrong it’s a real pain.

And ours isn’t super powerful. We can’t use fifth gear unless we’re on a long, flat stretch of freeway. Hills in fifth our out of the question. So usually we don’t go above third.

In fact, just this morning we nearly got stuck in a campground driveway in Rome. It was so steep that even in first gear we could barely get up it. How lame is that? Glad we could amuse all the backpackers for a few minutes though…


7 Jason @ Travel Junkies July 16, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I had a 1973 VW camper bus that had no reverse. I drove that thing for 2 years and never once needed it. Living without 3rd gear should be a piece of cake. Hopefully the other gears don’t go out as well. All part of the adventure, right?


8 Renee July 17, 2011 at 3:32 pm

You’re completely right. Losing fourth wasn’t a big deal, but now that we’re used to it, we barely even notice it. And besides, living on the road with four gears beats living at home with five any day.


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