Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Bridge to Nowhere -- Confronting my Fears on the GW

You have to understand that I recently bought a trailer for my hovercraft (which, you must admit, is one of the best opening lines EVER), and, while towing it home, at night, on the Mass Pike, had a guy pull up alongside me, honking and gesturing for me to pull over. When I did, and opened the door, I immediately smelled burned rubber. I then saw that I'd been leaving a cloud of acrid smoke in my wake, hence the honking and gesturing. It was coming from the trailer's right rear wheel, but I wasn't sure if the source was the tire, the wheel bearing, or the electric brakes. I waited for the smoke to dissipate, then realized it was the tire itself that was smoking. The inside edge of the tire was rubbed raw and sticky, down to the steel belts. It slowly dawned on me that I could see this because the fucking fender was missing. The sequence of events, apparently, was that the fender had loosened, leaned into the tire, shaved it like Parmesan, then flung itself off into the weeds, taking with it the right taillight just to keep it company. Fortunately I was only a few miles from home. I limped it the rest of the way. I haven't gotten around to fixing it yet.

So you'll appreciate that I have a certain sensitivity about towing. But that mishap occurred with a $300 home-built trailer. You get what you pay for. Shame on me for not checking the security of the fenders before driving it home. It's nothing like the trailers I tow for work.

Which brings me to today's story. I'm en route from Newton MA to Emerald Isle NC for an unexploded ordnance survey in Bogue Sound. As per the previous post, I've been driving a lot. This is my third two-day drive in three weeks. The last two were the trips back and forth to Rockford IL, about 1100 miles each way, so two 550-ish mile days. This is a bit shorter -- 850 miles, so about 425 miles a day -- over two hours of driving time per day shorter than the last hauls. Cake.

But -- and it's a big but (hee. tee. hee.) -- Rockford was due West, straight out I90 for a 1100 miles, all farmland except for the short stretch between Gary and Chicago. This trip is down the Eastern Seaboard, probably the most congested roads in the country. To get south of Boston, you have to get through New York City. There are three ways to do it. I95 goes straight over the George Washington Bridge to the Jersey Turnpike. Or you can take 287 over the Tappan Zee and cut to the Turnpike via the Garden State Parkway, which is slightly longer but avoids the GW. Or you can continue west on 287 and go through Scranton -- substantially longer.

When I'm driving a car and heading south of the city, I generally take the Tappan Zee. Although I have an emotional attachment to the GW (I'm originally from Long Island; I love the view of the city from the GW; and I have a painting my grandfather did with the bridge in it), the roads leading up to it are ancient infrastructure, and a bit claustrophobic at that; they pass right up against buildings, no breakdown lane. (You don't actually even see the bridge until you emerge from between the buildings and are about to drive over it.) And the road surface both approaching and on the bridge is terrible; whenever I have to take the GW to head into the city, I can hear my wheels tensing up with anxiety, like your balls when you're about to wade into the ocean. It's not until you get halfway through Jersey that the turnpike surface smooths out.

You can take a truck and trailer over the Tappan Zee, but you can't drive any commercial vehicle down the Garden State Parkway or any other parkway; they're for passenger cars only. So unless you want to head further west and then south, which adds onto the length of the trip, the GW is in your plans. The thought of pulling the 32' trailer or the boat over the GW, or, for that matter, through any major metropolitan area with high traffic and no breakdown lane, where any breakdown including a simple flat tire will put you in a world of hurt gives me pause, but sometimes one must face one's fears. 

So, a few years ago, on a road trip to Aberdeen MD, I reminded myself that the work truck and trailer are both only a few years old and very low-mileage reliable vehicles, and I pulled the 32' trailer right over the GW without incident. Then, last year, I did the same with the boat for a survey on the Chesapeake. And again, despite my anxiety, nothing went wrong.

Nothing went wrong on last month's trip to and from Rockford IL either, aside from my FastLane pass expiring. However, I did notice, as I headed home from Rockford, that the trailer seemed to be getting a bit loud; regular bumps and jounces seemed to elicit more clanking than usual. I checked the hitch and the retractable jack, but they were both secure. When I got back to the office, though, Gary noticed that, in fact, many of the bolts connecting the trailer's aluminum structural members had loosened up. I was quite surprised. I think of this as a new boat trailer. We bought it and the boat about four years ago, and it has seen little use. Of course, once I thought about it, "little use" was the trip up from SC where we bought it, a bunch of day trips around Boston, the trip to and from the Chesapeake, and the recent haul to and from Rockford. That's probably 4000 miles -- not a lot for a car, but probably more than many boat trailers see going to and from the local recreational water body. Gary tightened every bolt on the trailer with an air impact wrench last week.

Last night while I was planning the route to Emerald Isle NC, I looked again at the GW issue. Upon closer examination, if you take the Tappan Zee, you don't have to wait 'till Scranton to turn south; you can take Route 17. It's neither a highway nor a "parkway." Google Maps estimates it's about 15 miles along Route 17 from 287 to where it joins the Jersey Turnpike, estimating it adds about 20 minutes to the trip as compared with going over the GW. I couldn't find anything about Route 17 on trucker's web sites, but I'm not exactly a trucker and the rig isn't exactly a "truck" -- just a pickup truck towing a trailer but classified as a commercial rig.

But I did read something interesting concerning the GW that I'd noticed but never thought about. There's no toll on the GW heading south, only north. So, if you're driving at low-traffic hours, the backup only occurs north. I read several truckers saying that they routinely head south over the GW as long as they're traveling at off hours, but always avoid it heading north.

Screw it, I thought. I shall face my fears, again. I will banish the image of the smoking right rear tire on my hovercraft trailer. I'll do what the truckers recommend. I'm driving on Saturday. Truck's new. Trailer's new. Tires are fine. Fenders are attached solidly. Nothing will go wrong. Go wrong. Go wrong.

So I set off at 5:30 this morning. The truck and the boat trailer felt nice and tight -- the clanging was gone. Gary's bolt-tightening had done the trick. I passed the turnoff for 287 and the Tappan Zee and was committed to taking the GW. Mind you, after the hovercraft trailer incident, I was looking behind me to be certain I wasn't shredding any tires, but all was going well. In fact it was going so well I began thinking I was being too conservative stopping halfway in Laurel MD. Hell, the GPS puts me there at 1pm. I should push further. That way I'll have an easy day tomorrow. I'll get south of DC. Maybe Richmond. Yeah, I'm a real road dog, just like when I was 24. Rolling rolling rolling...

I started my approach to the GW. As a commercial vehicle, you need to keep left to take the upper deck. The road was just horrible. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! I thought, I'll be driving my BMW 3.0CSi down to The Vintage (an event for classic BMWs) in Winston-Salem in a few weeks. No way I'm driving over these rough roads in that. My gorgeous but soft Alpina open-lug wheels wouldn't last, uh, a New York minute.

And then I saw the last thing I wanted to see. A car pulled up on my left and started honking and gesturing for me to pull over.

Shit. Piss. FUCK!!

I saw a sign for an exit before the bridge perhaps two hundred feet ahead. I looked in my right mirror. Incredibly, I had room to change lanes. I took the exit. (The images below are from Google Maps. Once I was safe in my hotel room, I became obsessed with figuring out where I actually was.)

It dropped me in The Bronx, beneath an elevated train line, creating lanes that went between the pillars and a lane on either side (for those of you from Boston, it felt very much like driving under the old expressway before they took it down). The lane on my right was full of double-parked cars.

And I was towing this:

Gee, this is going to be fun.

I hung the first right turn I could and found myself in something resembling a residential neighborhood. Again, incredibly, on my left was an unbroken line of spaces along the curb. I pulled the truck and boat into them. Below is the actual location (Clifford Place).

I took a deep breath, got out of the truck, and walked around to the trailer.

Nothing was smoking. 

The trailer was still attached to the truck. 

The boat was still attached to the trailer. 

The gear (which looks like a small submarine) was still strapped to the deck of the boat.

Whatever it was that caused the good Samaritan to honk and gesture couldn't be that bad.

I relaxed.

Then I found it. The left rear light (which, on a trailer, is a combination turn signal, brake light, and parking lamp), and with it, the licence plate, were being dragged on the ground like that guy in Game of Thrones who tried to poison Daenerus Targaryan. The aluminum right-angle bracket holding the licence plate and the light assembly to the trailer had cracked in half. Two of the wires had already ripped out from the trailer's wiring harness. The only thing holding still it there was the ground wire.

Not so bad.

I pulled the license plate off and hung it from the back of the boat. I then cajoled the light assembly into hanging onto the trailer using zip ties and Gorilla tape. I stripped fresh insulation off the wires, spliced them, and tested the light. The parking light worked but the brake and directional did not. I certainly wanted to have a working left directional, but preferred not to be troubleshooting and repairing any more than necessary on the streets of The Bronx. I thought, good enough, I'll stay in the right lane, pull off at the first available rest area, and troubleshoot more completely there.

I asked a man pushing a bottle cart how to get back to the GW bridge, "Right, right, and right," he said. I walked around the corner up to 174th street and looked to get some recon on what I was about to be driving into, but it looked ok, and even if it didn't, it's not like I had a lot of choice.

I was up and over the GW in no time. I pulled into the Vince Lombardi service area, which I've passed dozens of times in my life but never stopped at, and trouble-shot the directional. Not surprisingly, when the wires sheared, one of them touched to ground and popped a fuse. This is a modern truck with about a hundred little tiny blade fuses, but those for the trailer coupling were labeled, and they had replacements at the store in the service plaza. 

The rest of the day's trip occurred without incident. I am safely ensconced in a Holiday Inn in Laurel MD. Tomorrow I simply need to skirt Washington DC before the highways and byways become more bucolic.

In conclusion, facing one's fears is overrated. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Just because you're worried about truck trouble in what's probably the most congested constricted choke point in the country doesn't mean it's not actually going to happen. I got out of it easy, but my love for the New York skyline notwithstanding, Route 17 and the Tappan Zee are calling my name.