Never a Dull Moment When You Travel with Me

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When my sister’s car was ravaged by hail and nearly had to be totaled out during those terrible storms that hit the South earlier this month—and then her roommate’s car (also damaged in the storm) was fully totaled by a crate that flew off an 18-wheeler in front of them on the drive from Knoxville to Memphis the following day, resulting in an eight-hour wait at a dingy rest stop, where coincidentally a blonde college girl had been abducted just weeks before, for the tow truck to finally arrive at 2am—I was just sure I had transferred my notorious luck onto her. I even laughed evilly in my head, thinking that for awhile I’d be back in the clear and someone else would see just what it’s like to walk in these size 8 shoes.

But it seems she’s sent it back my way. (Jerk.)

We left San Francisco for our epic road trip on Saturday, May 14, arriving at SVV’s parents’ house in Fair Oaks very late at night with the plans of leaving that Monday morning. Only, after I returned from Sunday brunch with Amy—a brunch, I should note, where it started hailing furiously in the middle of our visit…in Sacramento…in May (this is an oddity, for sure)—SVV was already loading up the trailer and ready to make an early escape. He asked me to check the road conditions for I-80, which I thought was a weird thing to do given that, again, it was May.

So imagine my surprise to find that four-wheel drive was required to pass at Donner Summit just before Tahoe. Given the questionable conditions in Sac and the 45 degrees when it’s usually 70 to 80 that time of year, I guess that shouldn’t have shocked me. But SVV and I had gotten engaged that very week in the Tahoe area just two years prior wearing bathing suits. This weather was not the norm. In fact, we went to Tahoe more than half a dozen times this winter and took my little Altima every time but one…in December, January, February and March. So heavy snow in May is not only “not the norm,” it’s downright preposterous.

We waited it out a bit, hanging out with SVV’s brother Jim and our niece and nephew and indulging ourselves on one final feast my lovely mother-in-law prepared for our departure, and finally decided to just get going. The road conditions seemed to have improved, and it looked like the worst of the weather for the day was behind us; if we were going to wait until the following morning, then we’d really be in trouble as a full-blown snowstorm was making its way south.

Only, if there’s one thing I’ve already learned in the 10 days we’ve been gone, it’s that you can never trust Weather.com. Needless to say, it arrived sooner than expected.

We weren’t an hour east of the VVs’ house when the snow started flurrying. As we were driving a Silverado sans four-wheel drive that was towing a 19-foot trailer, we pulled over on the side of the road after just a wee bit of slipping and sliding and put chains on the truck. It was cold as the dickens out, and we were hardly dressed for being out in the snow—I was wearing very non-water-resistant TOMS; SVV in his signature Chucks. I’m only glad SVV threw our puffy jackets in the car just before we left our apartment. (I was under the false impression that we were leaving winter, i.e. San Francisco, for summer, i.e. the rest of the country. Apparently not.) We suited up the truck and kept driving.

Not three miles down the road, there was a chain checkpoint. There we were told we also had to put chains on the trailer. Good thing SVV is a smarty-pants and also thought to grab the extra set of chains before we left. I swear I would float through life in an aimless haze if it weren’t for him. We pulled over on that exit to a line of 30 cars doing the same. We chained up and were back on 80 within 20 minutes.

What followed may very well be some of the scariest hours of my life.

We hit a patch of black ice—the worst SVV, a California native who’s been coming to Tahoe for 30 years, said he’d ever seen—and all the cars and trucks in front of us were going just 5 miles per hour and still careening into the vehicles in front of them. It was that bad. There was nothing you could do but slide and hope. We saw seven wrecks and spin-outs in a five-mile stretch, some involving multiple vehicles and serious injuries.

My heart was pounding in my throat, and I just knew we were next.

But this is where marrying a guy who knows all and can do all comes in handy. Even though he later admitted to being scared himself—though he’d never admit so in the face of adversity; it’s just something about these former military boys, I’m telling you—SVV maneuvered that truck-and-trailer like he was born to do so, keeping one hand always on the emergency brake, and we came out on the other side unharmed.

We had planned to drive all the way to Winnemucca, Nevada the first night, but due to the time it took us to pass over the Sierras—around three hours—and the stress that ensued, we wound up calling it a night in Sparks.

One handy tip I learned from both reading some RV blogs and absorbing some of your comments on our initial road trip post is that there are a number of companies who are camper friendly and allow you to overnight in their parking lots for free—Flying J, Big K-Mart and Wal-Mart being three of them. To save money on campground fees—and to save the stress of finding a place to sleep after dark—we made for the nearest Wal-Mart* on Pyramid Way.

We parked at the very back of the lot where we wouldn’t bother anyone, went in and did some shopping (we wanted to be good tenants after all), set up the bed for the night and passed out. Only, it was loud being so close to a major freeway and took us ages to fall asleep.

When sleep had finally come to us, we were awakened to unwelcome screeching at 4am: “GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW. YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO BE HERE.”

“Huh?” I murmured sleepily.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. YOU MUST LEAVE, IMMEDIATELY!” he yelled, menacingly.

Ella growled. SVV sighed. Smoke billowed out of my ears.

“OK, OK, we’re going,” I said, annoyed.

“IF YOU’RE NOT OUT OF HERE IN 15 MINUTES, THE COPS WILL BE HERE!” he continued to yell.

“Geez, it’s 4am, I said we’re going. What more do you want? How do you expect us to have the trailer packed and ready within 30 seconds of you waking us up?” I might have shot back.

So, in our pajamas, we got in the car and drove the trailer to the adjoining Kohl’s parking lot, where they don’t kick campers out of their beds at 4am. I will be shopping at Kohl’s again; I will not be returning to a Wal-Mart if I have any say about it.

Nevada, as it turns out, is not the friendliest place. Luckily, Utah would prove to be much better—when we came out on the other end of the monsoon, that is…

*For you fellow RVers: I read on a camping blog that Wal-Mart wishes you report any branches who don’t honor its company-wide policy to the corporate office, which I will be doing promptly once my fuming has abated.

COMMENTS
  • May 23, 2011
    SUSAN H.

    I suspect the fellow in the WalMart parking lot was not employed by them, possibly a neighbor or another squatter who didn’t want anyone else marring his privacy?

    • May 23, 2011
      Kristin

      You know, by the time we were out of there, he was gone, but I’m *pretty sure* he was nighttime security for Wal-Mart. Then again, I like the idea that he was a fellow squatter annoyed by our presence–that makes the story more fun =)

  • May 23, 2011

    What a terrifying experience on the highway. That SVV Really is a smart man.

    Most Wal-Marts that don’t allow overnight parking post it very clearly. Guess I’ve been lucky and not kicked out of one yet.

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I know you’re shocked that with my luck, I’d get kicked out of Wal-Mart my first night ever attempting to sleep there, huh? =)

  • May 24, 2011
    Sid

    I can’t imagine putting chains on a car. (I’ve only ever seen snow once.) I’m all like, “But Kristen how? Do you put the chains on the tires? Or you talking about actual metal chains?” And black snow??? Slide and hope? Are you people crazy? Why would anyone go out in conditions like that? Shit, I don’t even venture outside when temperatures drop to below 10 degrees Celsius.

    lastly how’d you manage to get the edges of the Nevada photo looking like that? Photoshop or setting on your camera?

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I would have had NO clue how to put chains on tires, too. Luckily, SVV knows all, and it was no big deal to him. Growing up in California, you learn to keep chains in your car if ever driving near Tahoe during winter months. It’s quite easy actually: There’s an opening so you can just fasten them around the tires. However, the ones for the trailer we had to drive over to fasten them. That was a little harder (and oh so cold).

      Re: the photo, you can get that effect when you use filters on your lens, which we do periodically, but that was just added in Lightroom with the vignetting function, as I snapped all these photos out the window with my point and shoot! I’m sure there’s a similar function in PhotoShop, but I haven’t really used PS much since switching to LR, so you’d have to look up where to find it.

  • May 24, 2011

    After all your frantic twitter updates, I’m glad to hear the full story! It’s like a modern-day Donner party. Without the cannibalism. Glad you made it through safely!

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      HA! I love that analogy. You are spot on.

  • May 24, 2011

    Wow, I’m glad SVV kept a cool head under pressure, because driving a trailor(!) through black ice and snow would have scared the pants off me! Huge props to him for being so clever and getting you through it safely!

  • May 24, 2011

    That feeling of driving over the Sierras is the WORST. So glad SVV was so prepared. Brandon’s driven in snow so much he’s the same way. Makes me feel a little better. I always get SO hungry after being stressed from that drive, though. Glad you guys made it through safely!

    I may be boy-cotting Wal-mart just for that reason – how RUDE!! At 4am, no less. Seriously, didn’t they think waiting til’ a decent hour, then politely letting you all know that not Wal-marts aren’t supposed to do that, would be a little more appropriate? Good to know about Kohl’s. I may up my non-existent shopping there just for that reason, too. That’s a hilarious thought about being a fellow squatter. Definitely think you should stick with that story 😉 .

  • May 24, 2011
    sarah

    Man, I made a cross-country trip through some of the same parts a few years ago, and had no weather problems (thank god, seeing as I was in a Chevy Cavalier) — in January no less! Here’s to the rest of the trip being a little less stressful…

    • May 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Don’t ever travel with me then, or your good luck WILL change, no doubt. =)

  • May 24, 2011

    What a nightmare start to the trip! The weather has been so weird lately seemingly everywhere around the world. And people say global warming isn’t real?

    That picture of Ella in bed is adorable though 🙂

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      Tell me about it. I’m terrified of all these tornadoes hitting the South where I grew up. Particularly as you can see what just a little hail can do to a car, let alone a person!

  • May 24, 2011

    Well, damn! Lucky you had SVV with you, that boy sure does sound handy!

    (Though for the remainder of the trip, you might want to consider hiding the forks from him. Don’t want him getting any ideas from the Donners.)

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      HAAAAA. Your comments slay me. They’re honestly the highlight of my day.

      (And, no worries, all the knifes are of the plastic variety. I don’t think even SVV can do much harm with those.)

      ((Though come to think of it a pregnant woman in the Canyonlands did suggest eating Ella for dinner should we get lost in the canyons. It took all I had not to say, “well, what about your fetus??”))

  • May 24, 2011

    Gaaah, I heard the story but even so, the pics make it that much more terrifying. So glad you made it to SLC safely, and so bummed it never stopped raining (for the record, it still hasn’t stopped raining. We’re hitting 3 weeks of downpours and I have never been more grateful not to live in a basement apartment. Flooding this year will be epic.)

    xox

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      It was supposed to rain today (yet again) in Moab, but suddenly the forecast is clear! Keep it up there with you in SLC, will ya, at least until we’re out of the state? =)

  • May 24, 2011

    Three cheers for SVV! And a big thumb’s down for cranky Wal-Mart guy. Booooooo.

    • May 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Luckily, your people (you know, of alien descent…kidding, I mean of the Salt Lake variety) were SO MUCH NICER.

  • May 24, 2011

    I’m glad everybody’s ok. And stupid Walmart security guard – one more reason why we’d never shop there.

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I mean, why would you when Target’s an option??

  • May 24, 2011

    Sorry y’all had such a harrowing start t the trip. If it had been me and J in the same situation, though, I totally would have been the one doing the driving — he’s kind of awful about following too close to the car in front of you! Oh, and FYI, some Walmarts CAN’T honor the company’s RV-friendly policy because of local ordinances. Certain cities/counties don’t allow overnighting in lots, regardless of what company policy is. My guess is that’s what happened to you in Sparks, rather than it being some random rule made by the local Walmart. I think there are websites or books out there you can check that ID places that have these laws on the books.

    • May 24, 2011
      Kristin

      Ahh, that makes more sense. Seriously, though, he didn’t have to be so GD rude about the whole thing. We’d been told consistently that you could overnight in any Wal-Mart parking lot–and had done our research as well–and a simple, “excuse me, ma’am, you’re not actually allowed to be here” in a polite tone would have sufficed!

    • May 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Actually, Scott brought up the fact that it wasn’t a local ordinance, as Kohl’s allowed us to overnight in their parking lot next door. Rather, it was just someone at Wal-Mart being a total dick, I think.

  • May 24, 2011
    Ris

    Being from the south and all, I can’t even drive when it’s barely snowing, much less through something like this mess! I’m glad y’all emerged on the other side to tell the tale. Is that photo of an obliterated back window yours or your sister’s?

    • May 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Sister’s car after a hail storm. The crazy thing is they didn’t total it out, they’re actually going to try to fix it. And the whole body looks like a golf ball!

  • May 24, 2011

    Good grief. That is quite the adventure! Glad to hear you are all safe and sound!

  • May 25, 2011

    It is a corporate “desire” rather than policy for Wal-Mart to allow overnight parking. Some don’t allow due to local restrictions. And some are just assholes. You can check at walmartatlas.com. Happy trails!

    • May 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Ahhh, thanks for this and for the link. Will make our lives much easier should we decide to give Wal-Mart a second shot!

      • May 26, 2011
        Kristin

        Although, since we could park overnight next door at Kohl’s, it clearly wasn’t a local ordinance, just someone wanting to be an asshole!

  • May 26, 2011
    Brandy

    That drive sounds scary! I’m glad you guys made it out safely.

  • May 30, 2011

    Unfortunately, tons of Walmarts don’t allow overnight parking. There’s a Yahoo group that creates & updates a walmart RV guide showing which locations allow it. There are plenty of reasons to boycott Walmart but this probably isn’t the best reason. After all, I’ve never heard of any Targets or Kmarts allowing overnighting in their lots. So the fact that some Walmarts do permit it is actually a reason to shop there more often, don’t you think? Those that allow it are doing us a big favor.

    I overnighted at probably a dozen walmarts on my big road trip. My rule of thumb was this: If there were other RVs or trailers in the parking lot, I knew it was safe and I pulled in near them. If not, I plugged in my GPS and found the next one. If there was a security car with a flashing light circling the parking lot, that’s another sign to move on.

    Oh, and I’ve found out the hard way that weather.com is just terrible. Dreadful. Especially their hour by hour forecast!

    • May 31, 2011
      Kristin

      Scott, those are all good points. We were just a bit surprised as EVERY person we had talked to who has done extensive RV camping told us that all Wal-Marts allow it (many RV blogs said the same), and I read an interview with someone from the corporate office saying it was the company-wide policy. So I was a bit shocked when we tried our very first Wal-Mart to get such a rude awakening. (Seriously, if he had been nice about it and just politely asked us to move, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but this guy was a serious grouch!)

      But I thought K-Mart also allowed camping? I had read that Wal-Mart, Big K-Mart and Flying J were the three companies you could rely on for free overnighting. Regardless, we’ve stuck to BLMs and KOAs ever since and have been pretty pleased with the grounds!

  • June 5, 2011

    Dreaded black ice! Glad you guys managed safely through it. Because it gets super cold here in Sweden (you know our miserably dark and frigid winters) , all drivers have to navigate a slippery course before getting their driver’s license. Either they take you out on icy roads or they mimic icy conditions for you to drive on.

    Scary!

    • June 18, 2011
      SVV

      This is awesome. Scandinavians are so advanced in their thinking. In our country, this type of idea would somehow be a violation of our civil rights!

  • June 10, 2011

    Just diving into your adventures now, can’t wait to see how you are doing. Not the best start, but I know you are going to turn it around…sshh don’t tell me I haven’t read your other posts yet!

  • February 15, 2013

    your story sounds too familiar! we’ve recently published our bus-almost-fall-into-the-void experience on our way to french Alps! Stay safe!!

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