It’s hard to know for sure when is the right time to let an old car go. But when her backseat smells like urine, that might be a sign. Our twenty-year-old Suzuki RV tow car didn’t always smell like urine. Believe me, Suzy the Suzuki lets out some interesting old car scents and farts but pee wasn’t one of them until last week when I was stranded on the side of a California highway for five hours. Turns out that even if you pay annually for a Triple-A membership, all the sissy tow truck drivers will not tow you back home to Big Bear Lake when your transition goes out. Who knew tow truck drivers were such pansies? I do now that I went through this experience of waiting five hours on a Sunday for a tow truck for our RV tow car.
When it comes to our twenty-year-old RV tow car I have always had a love-hate relationship. I love when she delivers me safely to the trailhead of some of the most beautiful high-altitude woodlands in southern California. I hate when I can’t figure out what on God’s earth that stench is. Did it come from Suzy the Suzuki or the dog? Or what the hell that new noise could possibly be?
My volatile relationship with Suzy the Suzuki our RV tow car, began the day we purchased this 2001 Suzuki Vitara. After I somehow, embarrassingly, managed to figure out how to get the super sticky clutch into first gear, we were soon driving out of El Cajun and back onto the freeway heading towards home in Big Bear Lake, California. But first I had to figure out how to put the damn windows up. The power windows apparently did not work correctly. Which I discovered as I was merging onto the 15 Freeway near the Mexican border. In our brand-new to us RV tow car, you had to yank the driver’s side power window up with both hands to get it to close. It’s not the kind of thing I would suggest doing at freeway speeds while in the driver’s seat. This means the first time I drove The Toad, I did manage to close my left hand and some of my hair, in the window, while trying to shift into fourth gear and also merge into San Diego rush hour traffic. From day one, The Toad had me screaming “Oh shit”
The big issue with purchasing a twenty-year-old RV tow car that is no longer in production is that buying spare parts can be next to impossible. Like when we had our home mechanic check out The Toad mechanically and realized the drive shaft was faulty. Luckily there was one, yes one, 2001 Suzuki Vitara driveshaft available at a junkyard somewhere on the east coast.
We bought this part for The Toad, replaced that defective part and spent six years driving our Suzuki tow car from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone National Park and beyond. We made some amazing family memories. Like the one time, we decide to fill up our RV tow car Indian style. We shoved in five adults, a child and two dogs for the drive up to Rock Creek Lake. From our nearby campsite, this was only a two-mile drive so this wasn’t as dangerous a journey as it may sound. Honestly, in India, if you also threw a live chicken into the vehicle, this is how everyone commutes!
Stranded in a desolate wilderness
But our RV tow car had to throw a few unexpected endeavors into our vacations. Suzy the Suzuki just loved to try our patience. Like that one time at a very isolated and yet super scenic and snowy Saddlebag Lake. The minute I yanked up on the shift lever and it came loose in my hand my dislike for this twenty-year-old vehicle definitely blossomed. It might have been accelerated by the fact that I was parked four miles down a rutted dirt road at over 10,000 feet deep underneath the pines of the eastern Sierras.
This was early, very early in the summer season. This hidden high-altitude lake was located so far back in the wilderness where the California black bear and the elusive golden mantle ground squirrels roamed. I would be far more likely to encounter a rambunctious marmot than a crowd of Patagonia-clothed day-trippers here in the far reaches of the Inyo National Forest. Highway 120 heading west towards Yosemite National Park had just been plowed of the last remaining winter snow the week before and had just barely opened for the season. When I parked The Toad in the Saddlebag Lake parking area it was right next to a giant snow berm. I put the old-ass vehicle in neutral, cut the engine, let the wild animal, I mean my trail dog, out of the backseat, and did a quick little walkabout around the northern side of the lake. I was canvassing the area for the hike and fishing trip we had planned for the next morning. This was day two of our month-long eastern Sierras vacation in 2018 and the shit was about to hit the fan.
After a quick walkabout with the pup, I was back at the Suzuki and ready to drive out of the wilderness flanking Yosemite National Park and head back to our campsite in Lee Vining. It was nearly 4 p.m. and I was hungry for dinner. There might have also been a cold Corona back at camp calling my name. I unlocked the Toad, shoved the pup in the backseat, pressed in the clutch, moved the gear shift into reverse, and to my surprise, the gear shift came loose in my hand.
That was one of the most oh-shit moments I have ever had in my life as I was utterly in the middle of nowhere and I knew it. There was no cell phone reception for at least six miles, near the bottom of the Tiago Pass. I knew I had to hike out four miles to the highway before it got dark and hoped someone would pick me up, hitchhiking, with my dog. As the sun began to set and the mountains became much colder, I knew my boyfriend was going to start to worry that I hadn’t come back in an hour as expected. It was not the best way to start my weekend and our vacation! Luckily for me after three miles of walking, luckily downhill towards Tiago Lake and Highway 120, a random pickup full of a local family drove by me and offered to drive me back down the pass to Lee Vining. At this point, I was hours past the time I had said I would be returning to camp to make dinn
er. I figured my boyfriend must be worried, I was starving and stressed as I thought this was the end of our summer vacation.
Luckily that particular time my boyfriend managed to duct tape the gearbox back together the next day. Believe it or not that duct tape fix lasted us over four years of Suzuki high-altitude adventures! Yea for duct tape!
In the six years we owned The Toad and drove her all over the Pacific Northwest, she loved to supply us with those oh shit moments.
As I am very happy to be a dirty camper, I spent about sixty days annually driving our twenty-year-old RV tow car and praying she did not break down on me in the middle of the wilderness. I’ve mostly been very blessed. But after the whole, I’m stuck in the deserted wilderness with no clutch and no cell reception moment, I was a bit stressed about driving The Toad up desolate mountain roads with no cell reception. I mean, especially after we duct-taped the gear shift back together. But the Toad hung in there, through all those years of camping hijinks. She might have had a few stressful moments but until we lost the transition last month, nothing that duct tape or a trip to an auto parts store couldn’t solve!
She was held together with duct tape (And love)
Believe me, when you are cruising down the backroads of America at fifty-five miles an hour in a 34-foot motorhome, the last words you want to hear are “Oh shit” It was a very warm summer’s day somewhere on a backroad highway in Arizona. We had left Lake Powell hours ago on an already warm morning and were heading east toward Telluride, Colorado. And then The Toad decided to go walkabout.
When your tow car slams into the back of your RV going fifty-five miles an hour down a desert highway in the middle of nowhere, you have problems. One of the arms of our RV towing system had come undone. Luckily for us, one of the arms on the towing portion was still in working order, so The Toad did not come undone from our RV because that would have been way more disastrous.
“The Toad just went walkabout”
This situation could have been far worse than it was. We picked up a few broken pieces of Toad from the side of the highway, threw them in the backseat with our adventure dog and I decided to just drive the tow car behind the Rv as we then continued on to the friendliest little town in the west, Montrose, Colorado and the nearest Autozone. We had just pulled into Montrose the only kind of big city of any kind within one hundred miles when I lost power steering in the Toad. We had some kind of luck that her serpentine belt went out in this small town with the nicest people and I managed to cruise into an auto shop, that fixed her up within hours.
Our RV tow car has been there for so many vacations, most of them in the high-altitude forests of the eastern Sierras. And some of them along the way to Yellowstone National Park, Mt Rushmore and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. She has looked eye to eye with wild Bison in Montana, she has been towed up the insanely beautiful and yet terrifying in a 34-foot motorhome Monarch Pass.
We towed Suzy the Suzuki on her maiden voyage up California’s central coast in 2018. She ferried us up the coast to San Simeon where we checked out the elephant seals on the chilly beaches and our old dog Candy ate so much grass in one sitting she omitted cow farts for a week afterward.
We were not always RV campers. Once upon a time we went camping in the back of the truck and froze our toes off. I mean we woke up with frost on our sleeping bags. It was time to buy an RV and a tow car. We were so lucky to find a tow car that would last us five years of fun with very minimal problems.
It’s with affection in our hearts we said goodbye to the Suzuki this week. Suzy was there for so many of our family memories in the years leading up to when my boyfriend’s daughter heads off to college this summer.
Coming back from our last eastern Sierras holiday the Suzuki’s transition went out, in the middle of nowhere just below the Santa Clarita Grade of course. And that is how I ended up waiting five hours for a tow truck. And that is how I found myself eventually peeing in a Starbucks cup in her backseat as traffic whizzed by me on this California highway.
Sometimes the Toad made crazy noises, sometimes she decided to go walk about and sometimes she made terrible smells. But we had a lot of great adventures along the way. We are all sad she won’t be there when we caravan to Alaska in 2024.