Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote and least visited National Parks in the U.S. Seems fitting that it would be the first National Park I drove Mander to. I certainly don’t have a history of choosing the path most commonly traveled. I had an America the Beautiful pass burning a hole in my pocket and I was feeling up for the challenge, so I pointed Mander’s wheels towards deep west Texas.
To get to Big Bend, you eventually have to head south. Waaaaaaaaaaay south. You go south until you can throw a stone into Mexico. Before you head into the park, there is a unique little ghost town called, Terlingua. I have SO MUCH more to tell you about this town, but for now, I’ll just tell you that I spent the weekend there exploring. Come Monday, I was ready to drive the last 30 miles into the park.
Big Bend offers a $12 backcountry camping permit. With this permit, you get 2 weeks in a primitive site within the park, whether that be tent or RV. You can only reserve a permit 24 hours in advance and you have to do it in person, at the park’s visitor center. There are only so many backcountry spots that are accessible to RV’s, so I knew it was going to be a gamble getting into one. I wasn’t super stoked about how the system was set up, I certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of driving Mander 30 miles into the park, only to be denied. But what can you do? I crossed my fingers, headed into the park and hoped that I would get lucky and get into a spot.
I arrived at the visitor center and told the park ranger what I wanted and what I was driving. He quickly responded, “Ain’t gonna happen.” I don’t think he knew who he was saying no to. I certainly wasn’t gonna give up that easy! I asked him to please look again and there must be something we could figure out to get me into a backcountry spot. He flipped through his reservation book, shaking his head defeatedly. I was starting to get worried.
Finally he said, “Here’s what we can do. Tomorrow we can get you into the Rattlesnake Mountain site for one night and then you can move to the Croton Spring site for the rest of the time. If you don’t want to drive out of the park tonight, you can head to Chisos Basin Campground and pay $15 for one night there. They just called and told me they have a few spots left. Once you get a spot there, you can go to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and reserve your backcountry permit. You’ll have to hurry though because someone can walk in at any time and take this arrangement of campsites I’m offering you.”
I asked if he could at least call and reserve me a spot at Chisos Basin and he said no. I just had to go there and see if there was a spot I could fit my RV in. Well hot damn! I better get to gettin’! I got back in Mander and quickly headed to the road that would bring me to Chisos Basin Campground. As you turn onto this road, you are greeted with a sign that tells you that you are about to go on a steep, winding road with hairpin turns. Trailers over 19′ and RVs over 24′ are not recommended. Mander is 24′ feet, not counting the scoot. I took a deep breath and continued on.
Although I was feeling rushed, I took it slow and steady. Partially because I had no choice, Mander doesn’t go fast up hills, and partially because I was on an intimidating road. Up ahead, on the side of the road, I saw a vehicle I recognized from Instagram. It was the Bowman family from American Field Trip! There was no one behind me, so I stopped to say a quick hello. I hopped out and was chatting with them, when Mander starting spitting and sputtering. I was immediately alarmed and said a quick goodbye so I could get back in Mander and give her some gas before she died. My butt had just landed back in the driver’s seat, when she completely sputtered out.
I tried to start Mander and she would only run for a split second before dying. Ok. Don’t panic, I told myself. I took off the doghouse and did the thing I knew to do. I replaced the fuel filter. Then I tried to start her again. Still nothing. At this point, traffic began showing up and I was blocking the entire lane. Thankfully, the Bowman’s started waving people around me. I pulled off the air filter so I could look into the carburetor. I could see fuel squirting out of the jets so it didn’t make sense why she wouldn’t run. Now, I started to panic. Is my fuel pump shot!? Am I going to have to get towed out of here!? Does Good Sam even come into National Parks to tow!?
Thank God I had one measly bar of cell phone coverage because, who ya gonna call when your Mander won’t run? Uncle Buster! (read to the Ghostbusters tune). I called Buster and explained to him what was going on. He suggested I spray the carburetor with carb cleaner while I turned her over. So I did. I sprayed so much carb cleaner into the carb that I started it on fire! So now, here I am, in the middle of the road, with traffic being waved around me, and the top of my engine is on fire! My adrenaline was through the roof to say the least. Luckily, once the carb cleaner was burned off, the fire went out. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. I had to regroup.
There was a little pull off on the side of the road behind me and the Bowman’s suggested I roll Mander backwards into it so I would be off the road while I tried to figure things out. I agreed that would be a smart move, but the problem was that without a running engine, Mander would have no power steering or power brakes. I had to put her in reverse and let my heavy ass house roll backwards, down a steep mountain road and make it into a pull off that if I over shot, would give way to certain death. I was terrified.
I said a prayer to anything and everything that my brakes would hold and put it in reverse. With a shaking leg, I kept my foot stomped as hard as I could on the brakes with just the slightest let up. I rolled backwards, with way more momentum than I would have liked, and muscled her into the pull off. Once I was safely off the road, I told the Bowman’s that I appreciated all their help, but I didn’t want to keep them anymore. It took some convincing but they eventually, reluctantly agreed to leave. After they left, I took a few moments to collect myself, then I called Buster back.
He had thought of a way to trouble shoot my fuel pump. There is another fuel filter after the pump, so I was to disconnect the fuel line there. Buster suggested tying a plastic bag around the end of the fuel pump, so when I turned it over, it would capture the fuel. If there was fuel in the bag, it meant my pump was still working, if there was no fuel in the bag….well then I was up shit creek without a paddle. I crawled under Mander and rigged up the bag. I turned the key to trigger the pump. Then I nervously crawled back under Mander to see the results from our fuel pump test. Fuel! Fuel in the bag! Hallelujah!
With that information, Buster thought the next reasonable thing to do would be to replace the fuel filter by the fuel pump. It didn’t make very much sense that it would be clogged because that filter is after the one up top, but it sure was worth a shot! Luckily, I carry multiple filters with me so I had another new one to install. I swapped it out and tried to start Mander. When you replace fuel filters, it takes a while for the fuel to make it through again, so there was a long, stressful, span of time before I could see fuel in the carburetor. Then another, painfully long moment while I waited to see if she would catch. Finally, she caught and stayed running! Mander is so tricky. I had now learned that the filters could be letting fuel through but be clogged just enough to not let enough fuel through to keep her running.
I quickly put the air filter and dog house back on, collected my tools and put Mander back in drive. I had been broken down for over an hour and was thinking that by now, I had surely lost my chance at getting a spot in the campground. Most likely, I had lost my backcountry permit too but I hadn’t come this far to turn back now! I shook it off the best I could and mandered on down that scary mountain road…
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Until next time, much love and Mander on!