The Long Trailer

Truck and travel trailer

A double thump shook the trailer I was towing, as the rear wheels jumped on, over, and then down the curb as I once again cut the corner too short.

“Damn,” I said to no one in particular, although my wife was sitting in the passenger seat trying to not laugh. It was the third time that day I’d hit the curb while making a right-hand turn.

Always helpful, my wife remarked, “Didn’t the salesman say the main thing you’ve got to remember is you have to swing wide – really wide – when making right turns?”

“But if I swing any wider I’ll be on the wrong side of the road,” I objected.

“And he said that’s exactly where you should think you almost are. Don’t start turning the wheel until you think you’ll cross over the center of the road. That’s when you start turning.”

Being smarter than me, my wife wisely didn’t volunteer to try it herself.

It was the third day of practicing towing the new 28-foot trailer we’d bought. After we retired, we stupidly thought it would be a good idea to buy a travel trailer and do some road trips. Just hitch up the trailer whenever we feel like and take off – right?

With our first road trip just a few days away, I wanted to get familiar with towing. If I had any brains, I would have re-watched the classic movie ‘The Long Long Trailer’, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, before signing the paperwork.

As we later found out, that movie left out some of the more challenging aspects of owning a travel trailer, probably because there’s no way they could be portrayed as comical.

Our tow vehicle is a Ford 150 pickup, so at 19 feet plus the 28-foot trailer, we’re driving 47 feet of vehicles down the road. Fortunately, the truck has side view mirrors that are large enough to see around the trailer, although I later found out that the “Objects are closer than they appear” warning on the passenger side has a whole new meaning when those objects are 47 feet behind you.

Interestingly, I found that driving in a straight line on a level road was fairly easy. The problems arise when making a right turn. Or backing up. Or braking. Or going up a hill. Or down a hill. Or around curves, Or, really, anything other than a straight, level line.

Back to the right turns. I finally completed one without hitting the curb. I smugly settled back and said, “See, nothing to it after all.”

“Yeah, and it only took you about fifteen turns over three days to get it right.” Did I mention that my wife has a finely tuned sense of sarcasm? I was never sure if her stomping on the floor in a futile attempt to stop the truck by phantom braking was due to panic or simply trying to make a point.

As to left turns, I found them easier because you didn’t have to worry about driving the trailer wheels over the curb, with your wife’s laughter ringing in your ears.

However, you have to remember to swing wide, to the point you think you’ll jump the far curb and mow down any lingering pedestrians, and then crank the wheel to the left. Otherwise, you’ll be treated to the panicked looks on the faces of cars in the left lane of the street onto which you’re turning, as they look at your 47 feet of metal bearing down on them.

If you turn too sharp on that left turn, you run the risk of clipping that car in the left turn lane. And cars are much more expensive to fix than curbs.

Once you’ve mastered turns, you have only two additional skills to learn before you take to the road: stopping and backing up.

As you’ve probably guessed, the braking distance for 47 feet of truck and trailer is considerably longer than for the truck by itself. Yes, the trailer has its own brakes and they automatically come on when you press the truck brake pedal, but the result is far different.

I found this out the hard way the first time I made a stop. Fortunately, I was the first one at the stoplight. I say fortunately because if there had been a car in front of me, I would have collapsed it like a cheap accordion.

As it was, I hit the brakes too late and ended up with my truck in the intersection, as cross traffic wildly swerved around me while calling me colorful names and using graphic hand gestures.

It only took me two stops to learn how much sooner I had to brake while towing. Learning comes quickly when your life depends on it.

The final skill you’ll need is backing up (one of the funniest scenes in The Long Long Trailer, by the way).

Here’s the thing. Backing up with a trailer is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. You’ll feel frustrated – and frankly, a bit stupid – the first time you try to back that sucker into a space.

The main problem is that everything is the reverse of what you’re used to. If you want the trailer to go to the left, you turn the steering wheel to the right, and vice versa.

At first, your brain refuses to go along with this, as it’s counterintuitive to your years of driving experience. If you concentrate hard, it may help at first.

But the first time you slip and turn the wheel right to move the trailer right, and then try to correct and fumble that too, while at the same time reacting to your spouse (who is outside directing you) yelling that you’re going the wrong way, you’re a goner.

It would be easier to unhitch the trailer, get some neighbors to help, and move it by hand. At least then you’d be going the right way.

After multiple failed attempts to back the trailer into our driveway so that it was straight, accompanied by increasingly loud insults being hurled by my wife (for the record, it is NOT true that I got my driver’s license out of a Cracker Jack box), one of my neighbors finally took pity on me.

Being an experienced trailer tower, he told me the secret to backing up: place your hands at the bottom of the steering wheel, not at the top!

It’s as simple as that, and apparently, everyone who tows a trailer knows this….except me.

With your hands at the bottom, when you want to trailer to go left, you move the steering wheel to the left; to go right, move the steering wheel to the right. I immediately became an expert at backing up the trailer and felt like a fog had been lifted from my brain and my IQ increased by 20 points.

So, we’re now ready to hit the road, confident in my ability to turn right and left without hitting anything, stop without causing multiple T-bone accidents, and back up without having to go to marriage counseling afterward.

Uphill, downhill, and curves are yet to come, but I’ve already watched the Long Long Trailer again, so I’ll be prepared.

Before you go…

If you’re a car fan like me, check out my story about my muscle car experience. It may bring back some memories.

Muscle Cars and Pickles

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