Remember that scene in Apollo 13, when they’re blasting off in the rocket and one of the rocket engines flames out? They troubleshoot it for a few minutes, then Tom Hanks turns to the other astronauts and says “Looks like we just had our glitch for this mission.” Well, that’s how I felt when we left Gallup, NM on Sunday morning.
We had arrived late the night before, on the wings of an exhilarating MTTS finish in Palm Springs and a quick dash to see the splendor of the Grand Canyon. After a solid eight hours of sleep, the first in many days, we awakened refreshed and with plans to visit Albuquerque on the way home. Around 11 AM we pulled out and all was well, and I commented to Hope that the trip had been a great success. I was so worried about flat tires and overheating, and with the exception of some exhaust bolts that had vibrated out on our way to Minneapolis (our glitch for this mission), we really had not had any mechanical problems.
About two hours later we were in Albuquerque and first on the agenda was a visit to the Rowland Nursery for a quick photo. Mrs. MINIBee and I had found this nursery, which shares our name, some 30 years ago on a cross-country trip and she made me promise to get an updated photo as we passed through. My Garmin GPS found it by name but when we arrived we discovered it had been changed to Plant World, so our photo opp was gone. We then headed to Old Town for some lunch and shopping, and just after crossing some railroad tracks I heard a dragging noise behind us. Prepared for the worst, I stopped and got out to take a look…
Albuquerque, we have a problem…
Because of a defective piece of metal stock, a thick stainless steel rod on the right side of our MINI Fini Sportlink 3 hitch system had snapped-off like a tree branch and the tow bar was dragging on the ground. The Beehive was still attached because the left rod had held, and amazingly there was no damage to either MightyBee or the Beehive. Thankfully no one was hurt, but right there, on the corner of El Pueblo Road NE and Las Lomitas Dr. NE, we were stranded in Albuquerque.
We couldn’t drive, not even a few feet, so immediately I went to work to get the Beehive unhitched. Everything was torqued and twisted and I couldn’t pull the hitch off the ball, so I pulled the pin for the drawbar and slowly pulled MightyBee away from the Beehive. I then lifted the tongue and Hope helped me install the front wheel so we could push the Beehive into the empty lot next to us. We were on a slight hill, which made it a challenge, but together we were able to get it off the road and stable.
Several cars passed us with no acknowledgement and one even honked at us. We we must have been quite a sight, huffing and puffing in the hot Albuquerque sun. Hope was calm about all of it and I was proud of her. She had started struggling about halfway through the trip, with the schedule, the campsite bathrooms and a longing for home, and now this…but she was great.
Some nice people in a white car came by and offered to help. At the time it didn’t seem like there was much they could do, so I thanked them and told them I just needed to call a towing company to pick up the hive. They said ok, then returned a few minutes later with cold bottles of water and an offer to tow the Beehive with a truck to their nearby home for safekeeping. Bob and Renita, angels on the roadway! About 15 minutes later the Beehive was safe at their home and my inner-MacGyver kicked in to make a plan.
Could it be fixed? Should we store the hive and head for home? How would I find a welder on a Sunday in Albuquerque? All these questions were abuzz in my head. We headed to a nearby Starbucks where I could use my MacBook and focus. At first I just tried to find some mobile welders and I found one at a local truck stop, but I really needed to know about the construction of the Sportlink to see if a repair was even possible. Then it dawned on me…use Facebook to reach out to the MINI family. I went to the MTTS page and typed this message:
Within minutes my Facebook lit up like the rocket car in Park City, Utah. Comments and messages of encouragement, offers to help, empathy and concern were showered upon us. It wasn’t just a MINI family, it was a MINI Army.
So many people helped or offered to help…Becky Whitcomb, Trudee Sauer, Way from Way Motorworks, Barry Patascher, Pedro Tomas, Gary Mack, Russell Roth (the hitch designer), Pamela Haithcoat, Carrie O’Brien McPhee and many others. Carrie mentioned she had an uncle nearby, Scott Eckstein, who could weld, so we went there first. He was very kind and took a look, but after discussing the situation with Russell they decided his equipment was not well-suited for the task. Barry Patascher had posted on the New Mexico LXM page, asking someone to help me. Around the same time Carrie posted in the original thread, tagging Rick Easley who was about 25 miles north of us. Rick had already posted, offering his help. Russell then called me after talking to Rick and it quickly became apparent that Rick was my best chance for a fix, so we made a beeline for his house. At this point Hope was upset and worried that we weren’t going to get home on time. I was determined and focused, and driven by the spirit of everyone who was trying to help us I thought of another quote from Apollo 13:
Failure is not an option!
We arrived in Los Lunas, NM and worked our way to Rick’s house, eventually ending up on some rural roads lined with several properties that had horses. I wasn’t sure we were in the right place, but Rick called and guided me in and when we turned down his driveway we could see a brand-new JCW Hardtop and I knew we were with family. Rick and his family were very kind, and after showing him the hitch he went to work.
Rick is a master welder with 30 years of experience and he had the right tools and the stainless steel welding material needed to make the repair. He and his son worked on the weld and it looked strong. It was so hot when he was done that it had to cool for like 30 minutes before we could handle it. When it was cool we took it back to MightyBee and after a lot of hammering, twisting, lubing and perseverance, the hitch was back on and operational. It looked good and level and although I in no way doubted Rick’s skill, I wondered if the hitch had been torqued and twisted so much when it originally broke that no weld would hold. I was grateful for his efforts and decided to go get the Beehive, then cautiously head out to Amarillo, TX for the night. We took a photo together before we left.
We made it to Amarillo, stopping every two hours to check the hitch. It looked good when we arrived and we settled-in for some much-needed sleep.
In the morning I checked the hitch again and it was level and solid. We headed for the Dallas area on our way to Hattiesburg, MS as we continued home, and I kept stopping to check the hitch. About halfway to Fort Worth I noticed the hitch was drooping a little but the weld was holding. I stopped at a Walmart to get a different drawbar with no drop, to raise the tongue two inches and relieve some pressure on the hitch.
Then north of Fort Worth, about two hours later when we stopped for gas, I checked the weld and it had started to crack. So on Monday afternoon, in the parking lot of a Tiger Mart about 20 miles north of Fort Worth, the Beehive was grounded.
This time I wasted no time and went straight to Facebook, first messaging my friend Rick Mahaffey and then asking to be a member of the Metroplex MINIs page. Once again the MINI family was there, and again many people offered to help. Rick Mahaffey, Cindy Heinemann, Eraldo Guimaraes, Cindy Burton, Tony Nguyen, Rubaiyat Rahman, Cindy Hughes Goldston and others. Russell Roth mentioned he had a friend in town who owned a Sportlink hitch, and he thought I might be able to borrow it to get home. But could we get my hitch off the Beehive? Eventually I was put in touch with that friend, Gene Moore, and he headed my way with tools and encouragement.
About an hour later Gene arrived in a Chili Red Cooper S Hardtop and I immediately was struck by his calming aura. I explained what had happened and we went to work. The plan was to remove my Sportlink and install Gene’s, then hitch up the Beehive and get back on the road. It seemed simple enough, but the left stainless steel rod that we had hammered in place in Albuquerque was now stubbornly refusing to come out. We hammered, twisted and pulled for several hours and made some progress, but eventually we reached a point where there was only one reasonable solution. Here’s another quote from Tom Hanks in Apollo 13:
Gentlemen, what are your intentions? I’d like to go home.
It was time to cut our losses, pack up the Beehive and send it home with Gene for safe-keeping. We hitched it up to his MINI, said our goodbyes and pulled out for Monroe, LA for the night. It was about 9 PM. We arrived in Monroe around 2 AM and I was fighting fatigue the whole way. I desperately needed quality sleep to make the final 14-hour drive home. Oddly enough I had trouble falling asleep when I hit the pillow, with my mind full of thoughts from the past two days.
Throughout those two days SO many people reached out to us and checked-in with us. It was a frustrating time but also one that showed me the good side of the human spirit and the extraordinary impact the MINI has had on my life. So many friends, some of whom I have never met in person, and complete strangers too! I will forever be grateful and I hope I get the chance to repay the favors. And Russel Roth was amazing throughout all of this, constantly checking on us and working on solutions to get us home. It has been an amazing level of customer service from a company that is part of the MINI community and stands by their products and customers.
Some people have used this situation as an “I told you so” moment, saying that MINIs should not pull trailers. Bullhockey! This was caused by a defective piece of metal from an outside source, likely manufactured a year before my hitch was even made. Stuff happens and there was no way MINI Fini could know it would happen (in fact it has never happened before). The 4,300 MTTS miles with all the potholes, rough bridge joints and other road hazards may have put additional stress on an already weak piece of metal, so that could be a factor. The Beehive will roll again, you can count on it.
The parallels to Apollo 13 are uncanny. Our first glitch in Minneapolis was not the serious one but the second glitch made us change the mission. We had to leave one craft behind to get home in the other craft. We needed to keep moving to hit our re-entry window and make it home on time. We were dependent on a network of people all over the country to get help to us. But the one difference? We made it to Palm Springs but they did not make it to the moon!
With the Beehive in Texas we were able “motor with purpose” (wink) from Monroe, LA to home, 840 miles in about 14 hours. We pulled into camp MINIBee at 2:30 AM, local time, just 8.5 hours off from our original schedule.
Hello, Houston. This is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.
Cue the dramatic music. It was great to be home.
(If you haven’t seen Apollo 13 and therefore don’t understand the references, you should rent it because it’s a great movie.)