Neil Calder was on a dream off-road trip when the unthinkable happened; far from the reaches of civilization, his truck camper literally fell off. If only a dozen off-road experts would just show up and help, right? What the…
I am here in the United States for four-months. I live in Japan. I planned on getting a truck and camper and gently going across America watching birds, sleeping in the camper and going where I want for a couple of years. It was a nice daydream and suddenly all of that fell to pieces like a broken window.
Returning To Cerro Gordo Road
I was on a trip down to Lone Pine in southern California where there are some great backcountry trails. I used to live in Palo Alto and would explore the area in a Range Rover, so I had already done part of the Cerro Gordo Road.
I had never succeeded in completing the road because the Range Rover consistently broke down. I was determined to complete this particular trail with my Toyota Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper.
Above: The campsite at Alabama Hills before setting off
The day before I had completed the Saline Valley Road, which is another beautiful trail near Alabama Hills. In the United States there are so many backcountry places to explore in a truck and camper. I love it!
My truck is a single cab, manual, four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma; about the most basic model I could get. My camper is a Four Wheel Camper Shell model; no shower, refrigerator or sink. I wanted the rig to be as light and maneuverable as possible.
Above: The off-road condition warning at Swansee-Cerro Gordo Road
At the time of the incident, the camper was only three-weeks old. I am not sure if the camper and tie-downs were fully settled. For example, I had already noticed that the top of the left front turnbuckle was consistently loose. The morning of the incident, I tightened it and then off I went to the start of Cerro Gordo Road.
A Punch In the Mouth
I was doing well, gently making my way up the track. It was a very steep and broken road. There were major boulders. I was in low range four-wheel drive the entire time.
I got up to the half way point, which was about eight to nine-miles from the start of the trail. At that point I should have stopped and checked the turnbuckles again because my rig was shaking a lot, but I didn’t. I continued on.
The road got steeper and worse. I had never been that far on that trail because my Range Rover had never made it that far.
I continued slowly up trail. Another five to seven miles up I stopped to get out to get a good look at what was in front of me to see what route to take. I walked up and turned around and looked at my truck. That’s when I realized something wasn’t the same.
It was a punch in the mouth.
The camper wasn’t anywhere in sight. You can imagine the emotion of it all. Where is it? What am I going to do?
I turned the truck around and started easing my way down the trail. Half a mile down the trail there she was in the middle of the trail.
The amazing thing is that I didn’t hear or feel anything when my camper came off my truck. Going relatively slow on the broken road, she must have elegantly slid backwards and plopped on the ground more or less undamaged.
It just shows the solid construction of Four Wheel Campers. There was a little cosmetic damage on the back trim and the electrical connection was pulled out. That was basically it.
I had a total of four turnbuckles. At that point three were still in the truck and one was attached to the camper. One hook had opened. I imagine it shook loose and began to shake around. The stress on that one bent it out and it moved significantly. Then the rest popped out. Once those had gone, off it flew. The tie-down points on the camper were fine.
The Impossible Arrival of Twelve Experts
The road was narrow so I was thinking that I would need to get a truck with a crane. It would have to be pretty special arrangement. Maybe I could rent a helicopter to lift it out. That would be thousands of dollars. I was despondent.
Worse, the camper was blocking the trail. I had to work my truck around it to head back to civilization. It took me awhile to get my truck around the camper. Then, I started working down the mountain.
I stopped at the half way point where I stopped before. It was beautiful with pylons from mining days. The views are astonishing because you can see for miles. It was a beautiful day. I got out of my truck and walked around the corner.
There, all lined up on the trail were several brand new, top-of-the-line, 2019 off-road vehicles. I walked down and saw guys with video cameras. I think they were more surprised to see me as I was to see them.
They were from Four Wheeler Magazine and various other web outlets for four-wheel driving. They were doing a comparative test of next year’s models to see how they performed off-road. They said, “Once we finish our video shoot, we’ll be up to help you with your camper.”
I got in my truck and drove up to where my camper was located. It was quite a steep hill. I backed my truck up to the camper so that it was going down the hill and not up the hill. That way the truck would be lower than the camper.
Up they came in ten beautiful 2019 trucks. One guy, Vern, the Technical Editor, looked at me and said, “Neil, it would be good if you let me drive your truck”. He assessed me in no time at all.
Vern backed the truck up to the camper. Eleven guys lifted her up and turned her 180-degrees. Then we were faced with how we would lift my 1,000 pound camper, which is quite a chunk of cheese.
The guys were confident and funny dealing with this dilemma. It was the best time. They created an atmosphere of, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this under control and we’re going to look after you”.
First they lifted the camper as high as they could and put some boulders underneath it. Then they lowered the truck as much as possible, deflating the tires almost completely. The air bags were also deflated. We came to find that one of the air bags had blown. That got the truck lower.
Then Vern backed the truck up as much as he could. With muscle power, the people in the front were lifting her, and the people in back were pushing. We managed to get the lip of the main body of the camper to the flat part of the truck. Once we did that we could all lift and push, and in she went. In 15 to 20-minutes she was back on truck.
After the camper was on, they bent back the turnbuckle hook that bent. They reattached the turnbuckles, tightened them up, and put a strap around the back to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.
The team was equipped with a compressor and re-inflated the tires. I was lucky that they had the right tools on hand. They just took over and patted me on the back. It was a fun challenge for all of us. It all turned to happiness and joy in a short time.
It took less than two-hours from the camper falling off to driving back down the mountain. California is a huge place. I was on a tiny little trail and ran into these guys. What are odds?
Free Lunch with New Friends
After the camper was put back on we had the best fun. A lot of the guys were my age, so we were swapping stories. They said, “Let’s have lunch”. They had brought lots of sandwiches and drinks. We hung around their trucks laughing. I can’t believe I got a free lunch!
These guys were on a schedule. They were up here to do work, not just to have fun. I am so grateful that they dropped everything and came to help me out. It was a sacrifice for them. The weather came in, and the light changed for their photography. I’m not sure they got to do what they needed to do. I can’t thank them enough.
After lunch they said, “Neil you go down the hill first and we’ll follow you to make sure you make it to the tarmac again”. I slowly drove down the trail and made it to the bottom. Then I went to each one of them and thanked them personally for what they did for me. I have received lots of emails from them since.
Four Wheel Campers in Woodland
From there I headed back to Lone Pine. My next objective was getting the camper back to the Four Wheel Campers factory in Woodland, California. It was a bit weird with the air bags aired down, but the truck was okay. I stayed the night in a hotel in Bishop. I was pretty exhausted and emotionally weakened.
The first thing in the morning I called Four Wheel Campers and explained what happened. I was headed back to San Francisco, passing by Woodland and asked if there was anything they could do to repair my camper. I told them that I thought it was just cosmetic damage. They said to bring it straight in.
I had an epic drive because there was a lot of snow on Highways 395 and 50 across the Sierras. I was driving at 35 miles per hour. I live in Okinawa, which is an island south of mainland Japan. I don’t ever see snow. That day I saw beautiful snow forests and expanses of snow covered desert.
I got to Four Wheel Campers around 7:00pm. Stan Kennedy waited at the factory to make sure I got in okay. He showed me where I could park. By Stan staying it was clear that Four Wheel Campers was going to take good care of me.
The next morning Aaron Geiger and his team took the camper immediately. Through their inspection they found that the back bottom trim had been dented in. That was more from us pushing the camper on ground to lift it on the truck. That damage was repaired.
They also put lock nuts on my turnbuckles. In theory, the turnbuckles won’t come loose again. They also put a chain from the camper to the securing point in the Tacoma. There are now two chains that are only 3 to 4-inches at most.
The lock nuts will make the procedure of tightening the turnbuckles harder because I will need a wrench to do it rather than hand tightening.
For most people in most situations, hand-tightened turnbuckles (my original set-up) works fine. The accident was my fault. I should have been more diligent about tightening the turnbuckles given the off-road conditions I was traveling.
Above: Neil (left) with Aaron Geiger, Service Advisor/Parts Department at Four Wheel Campers
Essentially, there was very little damage to the camper. Certainly nothing structural. The Four Wheel Camper team spent all morning on it. They took good care of my camper and I had a great time.
Hats Off to the United States
I don’t think this would have happened in every country. Hats off to the United States. I’ve lived in several countries and Americans really help each other out. They were fantastic. Thank you!
There is no doubt that I will be more careful in the future, but in no way will this experience stop me from going off-road again. I don’t want to get in any trouble far from home. The possibly of twelve guys showing up again in a bad situation isn’t that likely.
When things go wrong, frequently that’s when you have the most amazing experiences. If you plan your life so everything is booked and planned, you reduce the risk, but then life can become quite dull.
Throughout my life I have been an incredibly lucky person. This experience was incredible. I was as far out from civilization as I could be and twelve of the most qualified people just happened to be there to help me. The experience reassured me of the goodness of people.
A Parting Turnbuckle Lesson or Two
The lesson from this experience is loud and clear. Whenever I go on any kind of off-road trip, I need to check my turnbuckles frequently; more than once a day. Second, for the kind of off-road trails I enjoy, I needed a lock nut to keep the turnbuckles in place.
To tighten my turnbuckles, I have to get on my hands and knees, open up an inside compartment door, put my hand in and adjust them. It’s a bit of a procedure, but it’s not so bad considering what can go wrong. Always check and tighten your turnbuckles!
Be sure to follow Neil’s travels by reading his blog.