13 Tons, 6,500 Feet, 6% Grade and No Brakes!

If we're gonna breakdown we might as well do it in the US.

It's a bit shortsighted as with an RV any breakdown even in the US is a long breakdown.

And yes our rig, Gracie, is an older beast, at 17 years. So we're bound to have things break.

And break they have!

But our thinking was hey let's push the limits and see what happens, cause we're going to be pushing the limits in other countries where we don't speak the language and there are much fewer RV focused repair shops.

What's the worst that could happen?

So we were visiting friends of ours in Marion (near Asheville) North Carolina 3 weeks ago. They took us to Catawba Falls and said they typically take visitors to the Falls and to the Blue Ridge Parkway. However we were there for such a short time that we couldn't visit the parkway with our friends. So they suggested we take it on our was to Atlanta. They did warn us that it's a mountain roadway with a lot of switchbacks and steep inclines.  We thought no big deal, as we came over from California with Gracie and she did just fine. Plus the mechanic checked her over in Michigan as well as we came down the Appalachian mountains on the way to North Carolina. However, crossing the Rockies were before we loaded Gracie up and started imprisonating our minivan behind her.

Knowing that it was Our niece's birthday and we wanted to make it to their house in Atlanta for dinner we set out at the beginning of the day. The goal was to make it to Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the US east of the Mississippi. I knew things were going to be crazy when the town we started out at was only 1,000 feet above sea level. Mount Mitchell is 6,500+ feet above sea level.

Gracie is a gas rig. She doesn't climb fast.

But she climbs!

And climbs she did.

Mostly at 20 MPH.

So we were realizing this was going to take longer than planned.

But the Blue Ridge Parkway is beautiful, and even more impressive to see the views from a class A motorhome! We could see everything and there were some impressive views!!!

Indeed, She Made it to the Top, Without Issues.


Technically the mountain at the top of Mount Mitchell is 6,684. But this was as far as Gracie was allowed to go and we weren't up for a hike. What's another 106 feet eh? -- part of our philosophy is to keep things happy and fun, not pushing the kids and ourselves just to accomplish something pointless.


The setup of Becky capturing a shot proving that Gracie was indeed up this high!


It was refreshing to be up there in the cooler air while the drizzles every now and again. You can see why they call this the blue ridge and the smokey mountains by looking at the mountains in the background.

After visiting the top of Mount Mitchell and then making a wrong turn (backing up with a towed vehicle is a no-no... getting Gracie "stuck" is an easy) we had lunch.

Then we started the descent.

I thought the ascent was steep...

The descent was crazy!

But no problem, I dropped the transmission into 2nd gear, as there are only 4 gears in our transmission (by far not enough!!) and the 4th gear is the overdrive gear...

And supposedly the transmission will act like an engine brake slowing us down.

And it works.

To a point.

But (and I found out later what I did wrong) I didn't do it right, even after driving through the mountains plenty with a loaded rig, never for that duration with that steep of a descent. I made the mistake of either letting the speed get to high in 2nd gear or of putting it into 2nd gear while we were going too fast (like 50-60MPH).

What I didn't know then, but I've learned since, is that I "blew the seals" in 2nd gear.

Essentially I was now in neutral going down 5,500 feet in only a few miles.

It's like rolling a marble down a track, it goes pretty fast!

So I knew I had to use my brakes to keep this beast under control.

Oh yeah, did I mention there were 25MPH curves corners with 1,000 foot drops and no guardrails!! Don't even talk to me about Guatemala or Honduras and the small roads with crazy bus drivers... we were doing that, right here in North Carolina. These traffic ticket lawyer notes helped us stay within the required speed limit.

Thing is, I recently had a conversation with another full time RVing family about brakes and mountain descents. HE explained what he learned that you're supposed to slow the vehicle with your brakes down to a crawl (10-20MPH) and then let go until around 60 MPH... then do it again. This process would keep your brakes from heating up as they have time to cool off between breaking.

This is NOT TRUE. As I found out much later. (keeping the brakes depressed prevents air from getting in between the pads and rotors, thus preventing the smoking, they get hot, but you need to just keep steady pressure on them according to a mechanic at a semi-truck/RV repair shop)

Problem is it only took us a minute or two to get upto 60MPH and then it took me another couple of minutes to get us slowed down... needless to say it was an annoying ride.

But it didn't last long!

While doing this I had a cycle where I slowed us down to 20MPH and then let it go... we didn't get very far and we were at 60MPH again so I put my foot on the brake pedal put pressure on it and it dropped to the floor.

"I HAVE NO BRAKES" I yelled to Becky.

Suddenly EVERYTHING runs through your head, things like:

  • Crap why are we doing this
  • Is this going to be the end
  • I haven't seen a Semi all day, there's no runaway truck ramps on this road!!
  • How could I have lost the brakes I did everything right
  • No brakes no transmission, I can't do anything
  • How can we stop this train
  • mmm that was a tasty lunch

No that last one didn't run through my head, I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

In reality I did have brakes but I had lost over 70% of my braking capabilities.

We started to smell something hot.

I had no idea what was going on but if I jammed the brake pedal to the floor I could slow down slightly.

So there was a lookout and I pulled into it and stopped.

Instantly there was a terrible stink and smoke started coming out in the front.

Thought that ran through my head: "How in the world did we overheat going DOWNhill?"

Lets just say my brain was running faster than my logic could keep up. Silly reptile brain!

As I was poking around in the front of the engine compartment trying to see where the smoke was coming from Becky pointed out that the smoke was coming out the sides by our windows not the front.

And sure enough it was the brakes.

I had smoked them.

And they were glowing, almost red.

I could smell hot metal.

We were hung.

Some 3,000 feet up, only 8 miles from Asheville (level-ish lands).

But no way to get down the mountain.

Well technically we had the minivan, who could forget her, him, it? But then what do we do with the motorhome?

Many Google searches later, and finally with the help of my friend who works at Maverick Windows serving Houston, I figured we needed to sit for a couple hours and then drive it as the best way to cool down hot brakes are to drive it.... without using the breaks... ha, good luck with that dropping another few thousand feet in 8 miles.

Sit still on a mountain for Two Hours

So after 2 hours of just sitting there waiting for the smoke to go away and things to settle down we tried it again.

We had learned there was another lookout in a couple miles. So if things didn't work out that was the goal.

Fortunately things "worked out" and we were able to get Gracie down the mountain and back into "level lands"

However the route we planned to take from Asheville to Atlanta was planned before we lost our transmission and our brakes. But we didn't think about that, instead we thought about finding an RV or transmission shop still open at 5pm on a Wednesday.

While driving and Becky was researching/calling we were paying attention to the brakes and transmission, the shifting from 2nd to 3rd gear was rough and sometimes didn't happen until the RPMs were up around 6,000... but in general it could drive. It was going.

Driving or Limping Along

So we pushed on, deciding that it'd be better to get it fixed in Atlanta where we were planning on being for a month versus being stuck a few hours away in Asheville. No offense to Asheville, it's just we wanted to get to Atlanta.

However. the route we took meant we weren't able to stay on expressways and so the transmission fought us often and we had to use the brakes a lot going through towns. (I left a longer distance between me and the cars in front which meant I had to go slower)

We didn't make it to the birthday dinner.

In fact when we got to the place we are staying in Atlanta I sent Becky and the kids over to say hi, but it was after dark and I finished setting up Gracie for the night.

Only hang up in getting there was the reverse was a bit rough, I had to rev it high before it would slam into gear.

Since we were in our spot, and didn't have a rush anymore we sat still through the Labor day holiday and then started making calls to transmission and RV shops. Turns out the best deal was less than a mile away, so we scheduled the repair. It would be two weeks before they could work on it, unless we left it there, then they could squeeze it in sooner. -- No way! We live in this Rig.

So Gracie got a doctor's appointment for today the 21st. Yeah we had to wait almost 3 weeks.


We collect memories and not things... but we do grab a bumper sticker of where we make memories. needless to say Gracie earned this Mt Mitchell bumper sticker!

Stay tuned as the story get more crazy tomorrow!

Paul Kortman

Dad of 4, husband, blogger, digital marketer, follower of Jesus. I podcast at nomadtogether.com and own connexdigitalmarketing.com We're on this crazy journey to travel the world as a lifestyle. Looking for help in how to live as a digital nomad family? Join this Facebook Group!

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle PlusYouTube

Read other posts about: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get all the updates!

Fill out the form at the right to receive emails when we update this website or have emergency updates. You’ll receive additional updates that may not be published on this blog post.

Signup Today!