Of San Francisco
And cable cars
In nineteen hundred and ninety six
I take my 5th wheel down Powell
Forty-five feet of feelin’ cooler than
McQueen, Cage and Connery
Past the bottom
The truck’s brakes fail
So I drive the city streets
Using the trailer’s brakes
Impressing a parallel trucker
“You’re one of us,” he tells me
Eat your hearts out
California & Powell Intersection
California, United States of America
Taken during travels, 2022
My F-250 is pulling a 35′ fifth wheel trailer, over 45′ of unwieldy vehicle, so even with Google displayed on the dashboard, it’s a little tough to navigate through city streets. But I don’t mind a little city tour as we try to figure out a way there.
We eventually find ourselves climbing up a long relatively gentle slope quite a ways when we hit Powell Street on a cross street. Left is a steep climb. Right is a steep decline. Straight looks like another steep decline coming.
And it’s Powell Street! Steve McQueen once got airborne in a Mustang here! “Streets of San Francisco”! Cage and Connery in “Alcatraz”!
“Oh, we soooo gotta do this!”
So we do.
I can’t remember, now. Was it three street crossings going down Powell? Or four? Maybe five.
The pitch change at the cross streets is so abrupt, the back end of the trailer scrapes the pavement at every one. And when the truck pitches over to the next drop, I don’t even want to look back at the hitch in the truck bed, and just hope the trailer’s undercarriage doesn’t also bottom out before its wheels follow us over the flat.
At the bottom we share shit-eating grins of wildly inappropriate accomplishment.
And a couple blocks later, the truck brakes fail.
It’d happened earlier on the trip, this inaugural roadtrip of my 5th wheeler experience. We were just inside northern California, on a minor coastal side road of the 101, at the end of a very long descent from the mountains to the shoreline. The river at the valley’s bottom was in sight, less than a hundred yards (about 100 meters) further on, where the road took a 90 degree right, then just 50 yards further on, a 90 degree left onto and over the bridge crossing the river.
I’ll never really understand the combination of intuitions that made me pull over and stop, still on the descent, before the river. I’d never had brakes fail before. It couldn’t have been the smell of overheated brake pads alone, though that had me a bit worried. Maybe it was that and just the combination of never having driven anything that big before. Or, maybe, my much beleaguered guardian angel had my back, again, that day, tapped my shoulder and shouted in my ear: “PULL OVER!”
I pulled over, came to a stop and set the emergency brake, telling my companion, “I just want to give the brakes a rest.”
Then I tested the brakes. My foot pushed the pedal all the way to the floor, without any resistance. No brakes, at all. None. If I’d gone just a little further, we’d have had to negotiate those two 90 degree turns without truck brakes. With 35 feet of loaded RV pushing us through them.
That was the day I learned to use both the electric trailer brakes and low gears when going down hills. I really hadn’t even properly set the trailer brakes up before that day, but I got out the manual after that, you can be assured.
In San Francisco I learned that even this wasn’t always enough.
So here we are in downtown San Francisco with no truck brakes. Earlier on this hot northern California day we’d come into San Francisco through the Marin Headlands, the steeply hilly park on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The best views of the bridge and the city are had from the hillsides in the Headlands. We stopped along several lookouts, then crossed the bridge into the city.
Traffic was heavy, stop and go. The heat coming up off the pavement made it pretty miserable. To keep the engine from overheating, we had the AC off and the windows rolled down. But I wasn’t even thinking of the brakes at that point. We were on level ground, after all. Still, the combination of atmospheric heat and constant brake use in the traffic obviously kept the brakes pretty hot.
Trailer brakes are electric, with a dash-mounted controller which sets how much brake is applied when the truck’s brakes are engaged. Most of the braking power remains with the truck. The trailer’s brakes are there as much to keep the trailer stable while braking as to take some of the load off the truck. And it’s important to not overheat the trailer’s brakes either. In a pinch, the driver can also manually control the trailer brakes, to apply more pressure to them and increase braking.
And so that’s where we find ourselves, on the level streets after coming off of Powell, when my foot goes right to the floor again. No truck brakes.
“Oh. That’s not good,” reaching for the trailer brake controller.
“What’s not good?”
“Truck brakes failed again,” bringing the truck to a stop with the trailer brakes.
“No! That’s not good!”
“Trailer brakes are fine,” rolling forward again.
“Shouldn’t we pull over?!”
“If you can find a place in downtown San Francisco to park 45 feet of RV, sure,” using the trailer brakes to stop at a red light.
“There are two lanes here. We can put on the hazards.”
“For an hour while the truck brakes cool?” Rolling forward again.
“Trailer brakes are working fine. I haven’t been using them since the bridge. (But obviously should have.) Could have used them more coming down Powell, too.”
So on we go.
We’re side-by-side on the street with a truck, whose driver must have been watching me, or maybe heard our conversation. Stopped at a red light, he calls out with a note of incredulity:
“Hey man, are you driving with only your trailer brakes?”
“Yeah, the truck brakes went out a couple blocks after we came down Powell.”
He laughs, flashes a thumbs up. “You’re one of us!”
I laugh. Nod, tipping the Akubra Snowy River hat I’d bought in Australia.
With a wave, he turns left at the light. We wave back and go straight. My navigator has a route back to the RV park dialed in on the map. We get there without incident, or truck brakes. Fortunately, we find a pull-through site. If I’d be forced to back the truck in, I’m not sure I’d want to do it with just trailer brakes.
Oh, and incidentally, the street crossing in the featured photograph is Powell Street.