Gloria! Gloria! A tale of custom RVs, roadtrips, Rocky Mountain snowstorms, and emergency diesel repair
Gloria, you're always on the run now
Running after somebody, you gotta get him somehow
I think you've got to slow down before you start to blow it
I think you're headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it
This is Gloria. Born in 1983, she is the custom-built brainchild of Jan and Ev Holister (as a faded and scratched plate near the entry reads). She features a 28' Bluebird firetruck chassis, Caterpillar diesel engine, air brakes, a full sized kitchen and bathroom, a dashboard to die for (complete with a slew of conveniently unlabeled switches and lights), and a whole lot of hard wood and mirrors, a testament to her luxurious early 1980's beginnings.
After almost two years of mulling over the idea of becoming...*breath*...RV people, we found her for sale from a dealer in Portland, and she seemed perfect. At the beginning of this month, after some back and forth with the dealer and as much research as we could do on this singular piece of 80's RV history, we flew out to Portland to make her ours, with dreams of her ferrying us on future cross-country art making/networking/selling trips. After all, we had come to agree, being a successful artist is about getting out there as much as it is about making art, and we were still missing a giant component of how to make that happen. Gloria was the missing piece, and for $10k, she was a steal.
The anxious week leading up to our trip out to Portland was spent finding accommodations for our puppy, planning our route back across the country, and seeking inspiration for a name for this land yacht in the 1983 Billboard charts. It was there that we came across the late disco hit Gloria (originally by Umberto Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi, but made popular in America by Laura Branigan), which had charted the same year as the birth of this custom brick of an RV, and while 1983 was a hell of a year on the charts, Gloria seemed like the perfect moniker. A little more perfect than we realized at the time.
The trip started uneventfully, and before it was too late in the day, we were headed off the lot in our new acquisition, fresh and excited for the next few days on the road.
Within the first hour, while we were still in Portland looking for lunch, a conspicuous puddle appeared underneath the radiator, and back to the dealer we went. After an hour of attempted diagnosis, we concluded that the coolant had been overfilled and boiled over, but was no big deal, and off we went, eastbound.
The snag had put us slightly behind schedule, but it was not enough to dampen our spirits. The first afternoon and evening on the road was relatively uneventful, and we landed in a Wal-Mart in Pendleton, Oregon for a quick sleep before trying to make as many miles as possible the next day.
Day two started with our first mountain pass, through the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. As we drove out of town and towards the mountains, we passed dozens of 18-wheelers pulled over putting chains on their tires, and signage on the roadway encouraging drivers to do so. No chains in tow, our only option was up, and so up we went. The pass was snowy but went without incident, and Gloria chugged promisingly up and down the elevation.
By mid-afternoon, we had almost checked Idaho off the list and pulled over to document our progress for eagerly awaiting family members before making our way towards Salt Lake City and onwards.
As evening closed in, the favorable forecast that we had projected during our week of planning deteriorated. There was a nasty snowstorm brewing, and we were headed right through it before making it down the mountains and to the next outpost of civilization.
The next few hours did not go well. The next few days, arguably, went worse.
(...I think you're headed for a breakdown...)
About half-way through the snowstorm, one of the unlabeled lights on Gloria's dashboard began to glow, menacingly, red. Shortly thereafter, the light began to emit an unnerving, whining buzz. There was nowhere to pull over. The weather was only getting worse. I tore through what we would dub "The Gloria Bible," a worn binder full of piecemeal documentation for the component parts that, put together, created Gloria. Manuals for the engine, heater, built-in blender, fridge, generator, couch. And nothing regarding the lights and switches on the dashboard. While Matt white-knuckled us through the dark and snow towards the safety of the Salt Lake City exurbs, I texted a friend on the west coast imploring her to start lighting candles for us, and did Google searches like "red light buzzer diesel engine," to little avail. Gloria's custom-built idiosyncrasies, it would seem, were not purely positive.
We pulled into a truck stop outside of Ogden, Utah, after a harrowing few hours, where it was still snowing despite all indications on the radar, and with limited guesses about the buzzing red light. Was it low fuel? Were we overheating? Something else? We hadn't yet learned how to read Gloria's gauges, and having never driven a diesel truck before, even if we had, we didn't know what nominal should look like anyway. We refueled and regrouped and brainstormed, landing on either fuel or coolant as the culprit - Matt had read that in cold weather connections in the coolant lines could have loosened and may be leaking, but this was no time or weather for maintenance work. We started back up and the mystery light wasn't immediately screaming at us, so we resolved to carry on towards Wyoming.
Before we were on the road for 15 minutes, the light was back to buzzing, and we pulled off the highway into a dimly lit cattle farm. It was still snowing and getting more frigid by the minute. Dogs barked at us from the dark, and we hoped that whomever's farm we were parked in was friendly, or at least ambivalent. Visions of a kindly farmer in pity taking us in and offering us something hot to drink flashed through my head, alternating with visions of a less kindly counterpart flanked by snarling dogs and hollering at us with shotgun in hand. But noone came out, and I didn't blame them, given the weather. We topped up the coolant - obviously we had ruled out the possibility of low fuel - and headed back into the night, resolving to look underneath Gloria in the morning and tighten up those pesky coolant lines.
We made it to Evanston, Wyoming that night, finally having cleared the weather, with intermittent buzzing from our dashboard.
The next morning we figured we would do a few hours of coolant-line tightening and be on the way. Instead, we spent 12. On investigating Gloria's underbelly, Matt discovered a shredded belt flopping uselessly around one of its pulleys, and several other belts in poor condition (not to speak of the dozens of dripping coolant line connections). There was graciously an auto parts store near the Wal-Mart where we had parked overnight, and between the two stores I made well over a dozen trips back and forth, buying tools, coffee, coolant, lunch, and countless belts before finding the close-enough-to-right sizes (we hoped) to replace the dry rotted and shredded originals. Matt busted his knuckles all day trying to figure out how to properly remove and replace the old belts. As the day wore on, customers and employees in the auto parts store would talk about the impending winter storm, and how outside of town had 30 inches forecast. It was - it had been - time to get out of Dodge.
Dark having fallen and satisfied, if exhausted, with what had turned out to be far more work than we had anticipated, we started Gloria back up by the light of a friendly trucker's headlights, and prepared to make it as far as necessary to get out of the path of the looming winter storm. We would drive all night if we had to.
The details of that night are a little blurry, smeared and dulled by the long day of work prior, cut through with the absolute terror of crossing the dark expanse of southern Wyoming with few-to-no populated outposts in which to seek respite (all of which were under threat of serious winter weather), overheating badly, losing engine power, pulling over at exits for literal ghost towns and places with names like Red Desert, with a severe winter storm aggressively bearing down on us from the west, lit signs along the highway warning us of that fact, barricades at every highway on-ramp still open, but serving as a stark warning that if we broke down long enough for the snow to start, we may very well be stuck without access to any passage to civilization until the storm had passed and the highway was cleared and passable again.
After countless stops, an attempt at adjusting one of the belts that we had replaced, and gallons more coolant filled, boiled off, and sprayed out from some unknown source, bless god, we made it to Laramie, limping in, smoking and shuddering, at 6am.
Sleeping would have been desirable after what we had just endured, but we had decided to seek professional help as soon as possible, so after an hour nap we left to find an available mechanic, accepting that, perhaps, Gloria's issues were beyond our capacity to resolve. Finding several mechanics who wouldn't work on RV's and one who was booked up for the day and evidently operated on a first-come-first-served basis which we found less-than-encouraging, we headed to an auto parts store to buy more coolant and get into a sleep-deprived argument before my father called me to advise me that "when you're in a hole, you should put down the shovel." Things weren't looking good.
Matt didn't want to be stranded in Laramie. It was cold, blustery, and with limited resources. Even if we waited for the mechanic to see to Gloria, we couldn't be sure how much it would cost or how long we would be stuck there. Matt was inclined to make it to Denver - if we had made it through the last night we could make it the two hours to Denver, which would at least be nicer to be stranded in while we had Gloria repaired, he reasoned. I was too addled with stress and lack of sleep to reason and put it in his hands. He started filling up the coolant again. Gallons went in. Many more gallons than we had been able to put in before, oddly, until a river of coolant began ushering forth from a line near the top of the system, in an area that we hadn't noticed leaking until that moment. Our diagnosis adjusted. The shredded belt that we had replaced the day prior, we reasoned, had been for the water pump and until then, coolant hadn't even been circulating in the system, just sitting in the radiator. Once we had replaced the belt, the system began circulating but hadn't been adequately filled, at which point what little coolant was in the system reached a line that had been dry until then, and which also had a massive hole in it, accounting for the spray of coolant and serious overheating and smoking on the prior night's drive. Additionally, one of the other belts that we replaced was still not the right size and was slipping, accounting for our intermittent loss of engine power. Time to get back under Gloria and do more work.
Another five or six hours of knuckle busting in high winds and dropping temperatures in another Wyoming auto parts store parking lot, but once through, the primary leak was fixed and our belts were tight. I had done quite a bit more reading in The Gloria Bible and online for diagnostic tips and information on what our gauges should look like, and as we drove back to the Laramie Wal-Mart, things were finally looking the way they should. That night, we optimistically made it a point to drink a few beers, eat a rotisserie chicken, and watch a movie before getting a good night's sleep and heading out early the next morning to finally make some miles under more mechanically-sound conditions.
We awoke to a freezing interior at 3am.
It had been 16 degrees outside with 60+ mph winds all night. It still was. And all of our batteries had died. There is good reason for idling your diesel engine all night when it's that cold, it turns out.
I called insurance for a jump, and Matt went in to Wal-Mart to buy a propane heater, and a scarf and gloves for me since I hadn't packed for this kind of weather, certainly hadn't accounted for the possibility of being stranded in the high windswept plateaus of Wyoming for two days, and the zipper on my jacket had busted days before. The woefully ill-equipped tow company arrived and was no help jumping either our engine batteries or our house batteries, to my dismay. Matt went back in to Wal-Mart to buy new batteries. Over the next several hours he split time between trying to untangle an electrical rats nest, extracting the old and woefully-inadequate-to-begin-with batteries, and replacing them with new heavy duty truck batteries, and huddling inside trying to stave off hypothermia. By daybreak, new batteries were installed, the engine was idling, and the thick layer of ice that had accumulated on the inside of the windshield had nearly melted. Once Matt's hypothermia wore off, we were on the road.
Cheyenne was our first checkup stop, and there were no puddles or smoking, no red light whining at us from the dash, no gauges out of whack. Denver was next, and we were still nominal. Passing the double check, we headed on towards Kansas.
Finally we were making headway, and that night we cleared prairie fires in Kansas, passed through Kansas City, and stopped in Boonville, Missouri, having finally put 800+ miles behind us in a single day, without mechanical troubles. The generator wasn't starting anymore, but compared to everything else we were hardly concerned with it and resolved to not care about it until we reached home.
The next day we managed to wake up and start Gloria without any issues for the first time in days, and headed out for our last long day of driving. I honestly don't remember much of that day besides the rush hour traffic in Indianapolis and terrible roads of Pennsylvania, because for the first time the day wasn't colored with any major mechanical issues or delays. We stopped when we wanted to stop, read about the local history of each small town we passed through, drank a few gallons of coffee to offset the lack of sleep over the last week, and made it to a Cracker Barrel in Hagerstown, Maryland, close enough to home to spit on it.
We stopped at the DMV in the morning to get Gloria's official Maryland plates, picked up the car from long term parking at BWI, and made our way back down to the Delmarva peninsula, sun-dappled and much greener than it had been when we left a week before, and more beautiful than I ever remember seeing it. We picked up our pupper from the kennel, and made it home, bruised and overdosed on cortisol, but only two days later than anticipated.
We were dirty and deliriously exhausted, but we made it. My father says it was a test of our mettle that we passed with flying colors. If we did, I think those colors were black and blue and blood red. And we never did end up putting down that shovel.