Monday, December 25, 2006

The Super Camper : Nearly destroyed in Baja

Below is the story of the Super Camper's second trip to Baja which ended in disaster. If you don't feel like reading the full account, scroll down to the bottom for a video summary.

December 20th 2006, 2:00pm. Almost ten hours into a fourteen hour drive, about to round a corner, following a Jeep at a safe distance, gnawing on teriyaki flavored beef jerky while discussing the feel of the ride after removing the anti-sway bar, suddenly I notice a large white utility truck coming towards us from the opposite direction, taking the curve ahead a few feet too wide.

There’s that moment when you recognize impending disaster. You don’t have time to go through the thought process of what’s happening now or even what might happen next. You’re simply locked into the moment. And almost as if you’re watching a movie, you’re completely powerless to do anything but brace yourself and experience it. Those moments are not soon forgotten. So it is that those few seconds are painfully clear in my memory.

The utility truck and Jeep swerved in opposing directions but not quickly enough to avoid impact. They bumped briefly and then bounced off like billiard balls. We watched the utility truck pass by Ryan’s window in a blur, and for a moment, believed we were clear. Then came the impact, the crunching sound, of metal on metal. The force knocked us sideways, shoving us into a ditch. We teetered at an angle long enough for me to look down, out the window at the pile of large rocks lining the road that had prevented any evasive maneuvers, and consider the possibility of us tipping over.

Fortunately there was no cliff, and our low center of gravity served us well as we did not tip. The camper righted itself, and I struggled to get my mind around what had just happened.

“Thank God we didn’t tip over”, I was thinking, when next to me Ryan started yelling, “get out, get out, there’s gas!”

I jumped out. The video camera had been in my lap and I started filming the utility truck still driving down the hill. I thought he was going to run, so I tried to focus on the license plate with shaky hands. He pulled over at the base of the hill and Ryan was still yelling at me to get away from the camper.

The truck had hit us just behind the driver’s door in the Xtracab section and completely annihilated the utility box holding our 5 gallon extra gas tank that we had just filled only a few miles before. It was now emptied in a pool on the pavement and gas was running down the road producing a very flammable slick. In the hours following, we would also give thanks that it did not ignite. Ryan tried to neutralize the risk by emptying our fire extinguisher onto the puddle, and we sat separately on the rocks on the side of the road in anger, frustration, and disbelief.

The Jeep with California plates had pulled over up ahead and two well-dressed Mexicans were examining their damaged wheel well and flat tire while a boy of about 8 looked on from inside the vehicle.

The Jeep was safely off the road, as was the utility truck, but the camper was stuck in a ditch and blocking most of the lone Southbound lane. I was impressed by how quickly and professionally the Mexicans began working together to control traffic. It seemed well rehearsed, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. After a semi-truck missed the front corner of the camper by less than a foot, we decided to try to move it off the road.

Ryan got in, started it up, and put it in drive. Stepping on the gas pedal produced no result. He put it in 4-wheel-drive, and amidst the smoke from burning rubber, the front wheels caught hold and pulled the camper out of the ditch, across the road, and into a turnout on the other side. From there we could get underneath and really survey the damage.

The driveshaft had been ripped free of the differential and was dragging on the ground.

The driver’s side spring was broken completely and the other spring was tweaked.

The airbag we had just installed was ripped apart. The tire wasn’t just punctured, but completely blown to pieces. The aluminum angle that protects the edges of the camper fulfilled its duty, preventing the camper from crumbling, but it was crunched and the underside was mangled where the utility box had previously hung.

I was standing there, video camera in hand, trying to imagine how we would ever get the camper home in that state, appreciating the fact that we hadn’t been hurt and that we had purchased Mexican insurance, but our cell phones had no service and help seemed far away. The guy who hit us, from here on referred to as “El Culpable” (the responsible one), began looking underneath the camper to see what could be done. Together, he and Ryan jacked it up and changed the tire. Then with the camper still perched on the jack, El Culpable and his partner, the logo on their hats told me they were electricians, got under the camper and started looking to see if the driveshaft and differential could be re-coupled. His partner seemed useless, and to prove my impression correct, he would soon resign himself to sitting on a rock on the roadside and smoking cigarettes while watching the cars go by, occasionally looking back at me with a creepy grin.

Meanwhile, Ryan and El Culpable got to work beneath the camper. After much strain, they were able to loosen the bolts that held the drive shaft.

Once loosened they struggled with the long piece of unwieldy metal until eventually the ends slid together and the two parts were once again connected.

The next largest impediment to driving was the broken spring. Of course that wasn’t going to be magically fixed on the side of the road, but they surmised that if they could get the whole spring moved forward enough, and then the front end pulled down and tucked under the piece of the frame that it was connected to in happier days, it would hold in place enough to drive to the next town. That was another interesting undertaking accomplished by employing many rocks of various sizes stacked together behind the tire to lift up the back end of the spring and force the front end forward. The back of an axe was used as a hammer to force the spring back into alignment, and finally, by jumping on the bumper to rock the spring forward further, the spring was eventually made to rest beneath the flange of steel that Ryan had attached to help support the bed mount under the weight of the camper. I’m sure he had no idea that piece of metal would actually help us in this situation.

A police officer arrived on the scene at about this point, almost two hours after the accident. He circled the scene with that confident swagger displayed by men in uniform, flashed me a sparkling smile, and then launched into a fast-paced exchange with El Culpable wherein the driver admitted that he was in fact culpable, and explained that there had been another car involved, but had they changed their tire and left. The cop thought that over while looking at the dusty ground, then planted his feet wide apart, folded his arms over his chest, and asked what we wanted to do next. We told him we would try to drive to the next town, El Rosario, which was about twenty miles of hills and valleys away, call our insurance company, and figure out what to do.

The cop immediately began discouraging us from contacting the insurance company. He was pushing for us to just drive to a mechanic and have it fixed there, with El Culpable picking up the bill. We weren’t sure of the full extent of the damage, but it seemed like something that should be fixed by professionals in the States, rather than a cheap Mexican job. The cop kept insisting that it would be much more of a hassle to get the insurance involved. He threatened that if we wanted a police report, both vehicles would have to be impounded and could be kept there up to a month before everything could be sorted out. After some arguing, I finally insisted that we get on the road and told the cop we would consider our options along the drive.

As soon as my cell phone registered service, I dialed the insurance company. We had purchased our Mexican insurance through Sanborn’s, a distributor for General Electric. They answered almost immediately and seemed helpful. We gave a report of what had just taken place, and the representative told us that he would try to send an agent down that night to take a look at the damage. By the time the caravan of cop, electrician, and injured camper was nearing the next town of El Rosario, it was apparent that the cop was in a hurry to get this over with. Re-inserting the drive shaft into the differential brought the back wheels to life, but the spring was attached very precariously, and every revolution of the tire produced a rubbing sound. The brakes also felt squishy, so we were driving slowly over the hills and through the valleys. The cop pulled along side us and signaled to “hurry up!”

Pulling into town, the speed bumps were torturous. The cop seemed to be on a parade route, waving, or pausing to chat with various people along the way. Eventually we were led to a dirt driveway with a small adjoining office lined with junk vehicles. Within minutes curious onlookers had us surrounded. The cop began issuing instructions to the short rotund mechanic, then paused to ask if we had called the insurance company. When I answered in the affirmative, his frustration level rose significantly. The mechanic shook his head and said that since we had already made the call, he couldn’t help us. We were a bit confused by all of this. No one spoke English, and while we both speak Spanish quite well, it was still difficult to understand the cop in his speedy tirades. He wasn’t making it easy on us. He was angry and blaming us for being difficult. He instructed the mechanic to attach the camper to the tow truck and told us that we would follow behind in his car on the way to the next big town of San Quintin. This didn’t sound good to us. We didn't want to risk further damage or let the camper out of our posession. I called the insurance company once more and told them of the developments. They said that since San Quintin was closer to Ensenada, if we were towed there, the adjuster could get to us faster. So we gave in and watched the swarm of Mexicans theorize on how to lift the camper.

They first hooked the chain to the camper so that the chain was lifting the truck by the bumper. Since we had extended the bumper about a foot to accommodate the extra length of the camper, it was not sturdy enough to support the weight. Ryan tried to explain this to them, adding to the anger of the cop, who just wanted to get things moving. To change the angle of the chains to avoid the bumper, they then slid a long board under the spare tire so that it was taking the load. Ryan objected once again because the beam that supports the spare tire is even weaker than the bumper. At this point the cop was irate. We realized that he was late for a holiday party and in no mood to wait for us to make sure the camper was towed safely. The other Mexicans seemed to be siding with him. I tried to explain to the cop and a suave Mexican who I later learned was the owner of the Electrical company and the truck that had hit us, that this wasn’t just about getting money out of the insurance company. I explained that we had built that camper ourselves over the last two years and this was only its second trip. To us, it was worth more than money. We just wanted it fixed correctly. I think the owner understood but the cop was not to be swayed.

Ryan got underneath and removed the spare tire from the harness, which had already been bent by the attempted lift. Then they were able to put a board on the chain that would be supported by the frame itself. We called it “good enough” and got into the cop car. Quite possibly the most surreal moment of the entire experience was looking out through the cracked windshield of the cop car at the camper, being dragged precariously by a tow truck, at a slight angle so that the front corner of the truck was riding about a foot into the oncoming lane, while the cop sang along to Mexican Oom-pa-pa music. We cringed every time a huge truck narrowly missed taking out the front end of the camper.

Just after dark we arrived at the junkyard in San Quintin. The insurance adjuster called and said they would arrive first thing in the morning to take a look at the damage. We didn’t want to leave the camper, and since we were equipped for two weeks out in the desert, we decided to make camp in the junkyard. No one seemed to mind.

That next morning, rather than opening the camper door to a view of a point break, we watched the sun rise over crashed cars.

The insurance adjuster arrived promptly at 8:00am, a short well-fed woman with a warm smile and her husband. Like everyone else, they spoke little English. She circled the camper, taking photos of the damage, as well as the truck that had hit us, which was parked conveniently alongside.

We filled out a simple report. She said they had to tend to another situation further South, and would return at 1:30pm to meet with the cop and the responsible party. The cop showed up at nine, looking disheveled, still trying to get his tie situated beneath his collar, asking where the adjuster was. When we told him they had already came and left, he stormed off.

There was a cute little dog in the junk yard that we named "Pinchy" as in "pinchy perro". Playing with him helped pass the time.

Ryan called his Dad, who immediately offered to make the seven-hour drive down to pick us up. By the time he arrived, just before sunset, the adjuster still had not returned.

All afternoon the cop kept reminding us that it was our fault that this situation was so difficult. If we had just had the truck fixed in El Rosario, he insisted, we would be already on our way back home, or continuing on our camping trip. He didn’t realize the extent of the damage. Ryan had slid under the truck and saw that the broken spring was really the least of our worries. The transmission was leaking oil,

but much more worrisome was the realization that the frame itself was tweaked on both sides.

Ryan began to consider the fact that the truck might be totaled.

Around 6pm, right when we had given up on the adjuster returning at all, they showed up. Apparently they had run out of gas. The cop was cursing and carrying on with a smile, giving them the jovial Mexican equivalent of “where the heck have you guys been, we’ve been waiting all day!” Throughout the day, his entire attitude towards us had changed. The night before, Ryan had given him a bottle of rum to take to his party, and we had won him over. The adjuster met with the cop, gave us a copy of the report, and took $1,200.00 from the responsible party. It was Friday, and she said that due to the holiday, the camper would be towed on Tuesday, the day after Christmas, back to the US to a mechanic in Chula Vista. She told us to take everything valuable out of the camper.

With that resolved, we began moving everything to Ryan’s Dad’s van. There was quite a lot. The refrigerator was filled with marinated meat, sausages, and bacon, which we couldn’t bring back across the border, so we gave to the cop for his trouble. We also had several packs of cigarettes kept in the camper in case we needed to bribe any cops, which we also gifted to our new cop friend. He was pleased to say the least. We filled the van with everything else including the cushions and the cabinet doors. Ryan had spent so much time making them he couldn’t bear the thought of having them stolen. He unwired the auxiliary battery, and pulled off the electrical panel that held the solar controller. Then there was still the solar panel, the refrigerator, the mattress, and the compressor, none of which could be easily removed. Ryan sat there and thought it over. He decided there was no way we could leave the camper in the junk yard for four days unlocked, since it had to be inspected at the border. We decided we had to stay with it, so we spent another night in the junk yard with Ryan’s Dad camped in his van. The owners of the junkyard might have thought we were starting a gringo community within their gates.

In the morning we were able to convince the junkyard owner to load the camper on their flatbed tow truck and take us to the border that day.

There, we drove ourselves through the two-hour line, across into the US and had another towing service carry us the rest of the way home.

The camper now sits peacefully in the patio where it was put together, awaiting its fate. We have filled out claim forms and are now waiting for the insurance company to send another adjuster out to let us know how much we will be awarded. Updates to follow…

Press play...


Sean said...

I've been following along since your blog got mentioned on one of the boards I frequent. I'm sorry to hear of your woes. Best of luck with repairs.

Evelyn said...

That sucked Holly!! And I thought that my holiday was rough!! Hope you get things worked out!

Daniel Derkacs said...

Here's my friend's "super camper"

It's parked in La Jolla for now but he's coming back to start it up in a few weeks.

SEARS said...

Well that answers my question as to how the trip went. Glad you guys are OK and at least the camper seems to be pretty salvageable.

Dan said...

Thanks for a good job documenting and handling a scary, frustrating situation! You two represented America well! I like the calm, patient, but yet assertive way you two handled, and then befriended the cop. No doubt the gifts helped, but I think the main thing was that you two earned his respect, and he started really listening.
El culpable's help was heart warming. Your gracious acceptance of his help was also heart warming. In a world were so many people with differences are hurting each other, I love reading about people helping each other.
Remember Daryn Kagan from CNN. She now has a site where she is trying to collect positive stories. I think you should submit this one.
I can relate to your desire for a camper. I rented a VW pop top on Maui last year, and I loved it! It increased my independence and standard of living enormously. I can also relate to your dismay at how much campers cost. When the plug in Sprinter hybrid vans come out I want to turn one into a camper with a roof full of solar panels. Take care, Dan