Living a carefree life may include a few contradictions, or at least a little irony.
The above photo was taken in late 2012 in Quartzsite, Arizona, on the Defiant’s maiden voyage, when I first hit the road. One of the trailer’s wheel bearings went rogue. Five months later, another wheel bearing went away. But as business gurus like to chant, there are no problems, only opportunities. It’s generally good to keep a broad shovel handy when you take advice from business gurus, just as from lifestyle gurus. but their upbeat and motivational phrases and quotes are intended to help us find the little nugget of gold within the pile of simplistic bovine waste matter.
There are opportunities to learn within mishaps and misfortune, miserable or confusing as the experiences might be. Like many other folks, I’ve had my fair share. I’ve had competent counselors throw up their hands at my various situations along my own way through life’s trevails, with one friend declaring with astonishment that I was the “unluckiest” soul he’d ever come across. But I discovered that to a hearty degree, we often make our own luck by our unfortunate decisions, which then channel circumstances that become likely to follow in their wake. I’ve naively or unknowingly signed up for many of mine, but the plus point is that with recognition, comes wisdom. Wisdom is like Applied Knowledge, while knowledge consists of mere lessons still waiting to be learned. Bend enough nails or hit yourself with a hammer often enough, and you may eventually learn to change your approach to handling one.
I’ve recently been looking through thousands of photos in order to pick out a few of the more remarkable ones that reflect not this year’s abbreviated travels, but a sampling of the many, many things I’ve seen and experienced over the last four years. That little project quickly became overwhelming, because I could not pick out some and leave others. Too many remarkable sights, and too many notable experiences. And, some opportunities to learn. It seemed duplicative anyway, since nearly all are well covered in earlier posts. Even using the mini-calendar at the bottom right of this page, it’s still an ordeal to saw back in time, but they’re there. So, all you get is this hurriedly-improvised post instead of a look back at 2016 in review. I’m deflecting the issue, since the benefits of hindsight are still percolating in my mind, such as one may choose to define that. Having realizations is not the same as sorting through them and, as a result, adjusting or holding course or priorities. Besides, I have a positive talent for procrastination.
So, I’ll mention the simple thoughts that came to mind when I found the above picture among those much more notable, beautiful, or inspiring. The inconvenience of a disabling wheel bearing failure on my travel trailer, especially at the start of my travels, seemed to epitomize the uncertainties of radically changing one’s lifestyle. It’s painted one way by those trying to promote it, and those benefits are real. But left unmentioned are many of the practical realities. It helps not to dwell on them, but to learn from them, if possible.
So, what of this particular, comparatively minor mishap, stranding though it might be? What was learned, besides the need to keep one’s wallet handy in this new and carefree lifestyle?
- I learned that I can tell when a trailer’s wheel bearing has disintegrated by two things: the wheel and tire looking off-tilt (no longer vertical), and perhaps dark grease thrown in streaks over the spinning steel wheel. This is caused by severely overheating the grease. You won’t be able to hear the screaming noise typically made by bearings going bad on cars or trucks.
- I learned that having the bearings greased at an RV shop, as I had done before the start of my adventure, does not reveal overall wheel bearing condition, nor assurances of same by mechanics. Neither does it guarantee competency in the use of the proper selection of grease or wheel bearing adjustment. An ounce of prevention is helpful, but does not always work.
- I learned that frequently checking the hub temperatures by touch on long trips is helpful to try to “catch” a failing bearing, but that they can also fail within a three-hour window and not be detected in time. How frequent one’s gas and potty stops are, matters.
- I learned that when wheel bearings go, they go big, and can allow the rather expensive brake hub to quickly be damaged beyond repair, let alone prevent field repairs because the damaged hub might not be able to be removed by mere mortals with hand tools.
- I learned that removing the wheel on a dual-axle trailer in order to take weight off the blown bearing (for towing) does no good, since the bare hub will merely drag on the pavement. This is the drawback of having what’s called an equalizer to smooth the ride on a dual-axle suspension. Success here would be of limited value anyway, since the remaining healthy tire (and bearing) on that side would be badly overloaded and likely to fail during anything but short, slow trips to a shop.
- I learned that towing services are not generally equipped to deal with a failed wheel bearing, and so are relegated to towing the trailer as-is over whatever distance it may be to the nearest repair facility, with the bad wheel still under full weight. If the towing distance is significant, this can escalate damage and repair costs significantly.
Deja vu! Those wheels are supposed to stay parallel to each other.
- When a second bearing failed just five months later on the short commute to Wickenburg, I learned once again that a complete re-greasing of all bearings will not stave off disaster, and that it may be best to bite the bullet and just go ahead and replace all the wheel bearings on any older trailer (1994) right at the get-go, as a precaution. It may hurt financially, but it’s less than the pain and added costs of dealing with sporadic failures one at a time in the boondocks.
- I learned that it is best to learn to properly replace, grease and adjust wheel bearings yourself, if possible. Removing, lubing and adjusting is actually a very straightforward task. It’s the arduous difficulty of getting dropped axles on a heavy trailer into the air that poses the challenge. If the jack can’t get under the dropped axle, you’ll be laying in the dust digging holes with putty knives or whatever you can press into service. There must be the working space available to swing the jack’s handle for lift too, which is a challenge in itself. It’s cramped under there, especially with a low trailer. Dropped axles are the kind where the axle connecting the two wheels is bent down to be much lower to the ground than a simple straight axle. This allows the trailer to ride a few inches lower to the ground. That’s good for RV park touring, but bad for off-road boondocking and jacking up wheels to change tires or do hub work. There are gizmos to get around this, related to changing flat tires, but as with anything, not taking on an inherent drawback is the better approach. Fortunately for you, dropped axles are rare these days, but if you buy an older trailer, take a look underneath. You want straight axles. Seriously.
- I learned that the lifting power rating of jacks does not equate to real-world use. Scissors jacks are the worst offenders since, in practice, their rating only applies to the very top of their range of motion. Anywhere below that, and you’ll need to be Godzilla on Jolt Cola laced with crystal meth to rotate the undersized handle. Hydraulic jacks are okay, but unless you buy stronger models than you think are warranted, you may find that poor working space to put body weight on the handle will prevent your putting any power into it. A stronger jack will normally lift more weight with the same handle effort on your part. Again, dropped axles may limit your jack choices: stronger jacks usually can’t go as low as weaker ones. Using a jack set on top of dirt or sand is an issue all by itself. Shifting and tilt are the problem, and it’s fairly easy to end with a bent or deformed jack, if not a dropped trailer. Me, I packed a 2-ton (4,000-pound rated) hydraulic jack to lift one wheel on a 7,000-pound trailer, figuring that all I needed was to be able to lift up 1,750-2,000 pounds max. Result: an expanded vocabulary, and a bent jack.
- Out in the wastelands especially, not everyone who works on your trailer will be experienced in the nuances of bearing lubrication and adjustment. Same with electricals. You’d think that greasing and adjusting a bearing would be a no-brainer, right? The problem stems from the fact that TT axles are always selected for cost, so they always run very close to their maximum load rating in actual use. That leaves no fat for safety margin, and everything needs to approach perfection if the bearing is to live a reasonably long service life. An insufficient quantity of mixed grease types, with or without a careless adjustment, will introduce enough imperfection to tilt the scales. Repair shops range from customer-sponsored experimentation to rock-solid competency. The challenge is to be able to discern the difference beforehand. Sometimes, there isn’t much choice, and you just have to roll with it. But there’s nothing quite like getting a repair done in a timely way and having no more trouble with it until its natural lifespan is over. My own experience has been that there’s little that’s quite so expensive as a cheap repair on things that matter. Your mileage may vary.
So ends my learning curve for today! What’s your story?