I’m a professional photographer traveling the United States by myself in a big motor coach, towing a very heavy Land Rover so I can go where the motor coach can’t. I’ve invested a major portion of my life in this multi-year project I call Vanishing America— documenting the changing face of our nation—and I almost had to give it up because I didn’t use the right equipment for the job. The equipment I so dramatically allude to is my tow bar.
Towing a car is a lot like towing a boat or a trailer—as long as you’re moving forward. But that’s where the similarities end. Boats and trailers are meant to be backed up. Tow bars aren’t. Unlike a unibody trailer, where everything is all one unit, the tow bar and the car are two separate units, and cannot easily withstand the torque that’s applied when moving in reverse. Bolts will snap, couplers will bind, and bars will bend. If you’ve ever tried it, you know… it’s not pretty, and it’s very dangerous.
I knew that when I bought my tow bar. But I bought a cheap one anyway. I originally wanted a specialized setup that would be easy to connect and disconnect, but I also wanted to save a few bucks, so, trading inconvenience for a lower price, I settled for a generic fixed-angle tow bar.
It didn’t take long before I found that you get what you pay for.
One winter, I pulled into a Waffle House in central Georgia. It was a cold, rainy night, and I was hoping to use the parking lot to turn around and get back on the road heading the other direction. Often buildings like this have a drive-around parking lot, allowing trucks and trailers to circle the building and come out the other side. Unfortunately, this parking lot was deceptively small and only had one way in or out. So, I was trapped. I now had a 32-foot Class A motor coach with a 6,000-pound Land Rover attached to it facing the wrong direction in a tiny parking lot. Murphy’s Law was in full force that night, and I was upset. I was angry with Mother Nature for the miserable weather, and I was angry at the Waffle House for having such a small parking lot, but I was mostly angry with myself for getting in this situation in the first place.
My only way out was to disconnect the vehicles and drive each one, separately, to a larger parking lot where I could reconnect them. Easier said than done. Because of the odd angle of the two vehicles, and the pressure that angle put on the hitch, I couldn’t simply unhook. I had to actually disassemble the tow bar to get the vehicles apart. And that required removing shear bolts, hammering out hitch pins and beating the living daylights out of every piece of metal in sight. But, after a few bruised knuckles, two stripped bolts, and half an hour of curses and frustration, I finally had the two vehicles separated. I drove them to a bigger lot, hooked up, and went on my not-so-merry way.
Had I been using a collapsible tow bar, I could have saved myself the frustration and unhooked the vehicles without any trouble. But, inconvenient though that evening was, it wasn’t dangerous, so I figured I could handle it if that situation ever came up again. However, a few weeks later, in Virginia, I found out that I couldn’t handle it. What were formerly minor inconveniences quickly became life-threatening problems.
End of My Career?
It was a beautiful winter afternoon at the Pohick Bay Regional Park campground, and I was unhooking the Land Rover on what I thought was level pavement. As I was soon to find out, it wasn’t level enough.
I’d released the parking brake on the Land Rover in order to give the vehicle enough freedom of movement so that I could remove the stubborn tow bar coupler from the ball hitch. Not properly chocking the tires was my first mistake. I was able to release the coupling easily enough, but when I did, the Rover lurched forward, with my right hand still on the tow bar’s tongue. Instinct told me to push the car away from me. (Trying to be Superman and stopping a rolling car with my bare hands was my second mistake.) As the Land Rover picked up speed, the tongue on the tow bar forced my right hand up against the rear engine cover of my coach, sandwiching my hand between the tongue and the radiator grille. In an instant, my future as a photographer vanished before my eyes. I knew my hand would be crushed. All sorts of awful thoughts raced through my mind…Would I lose the use of my fingers? Would I lose my hand? What if I was trapped here without any help? Could I bleed to death? In that moment, time seemed to slow down, and I thought about outdoorsman Aron Ralston, who amputated his own hand after having it crushed by a boulder while rock climbing in Utah. I wondered if I would suffer a similar fate.
Thank Goodness for Modern Materials!
Fortunately, the back of the motor coach was made of fiberglass and I was able to bend the grille just enough with my free hand to twist my pinned fingers and wrench my hand free. And, as I removed that living barrier, the Land Rover jumped forward, embedding the tow bar deep in the grille, stopping just short of the radiator itself.
Though I didn’t feel any pain right away, I was afraid to look at my hand, for fear that I might be short a couple of digits. But, I was lucky. I had a few lacerations, severe bruising and swelling, and the pain was growing, but everything was still there. Four fingers and one thumb… so far, so good.
With some immediate first aid, I was able to regain the use of my hand by the next afternoon, and could pick up a camera again a few days later. My hand will never be 100 percent, but it will be a constant reminder of the lesson learned that day: Buy the best equipment you can afford. More specifically… Buy a better tow bar!
A Better Tow Bar
That’s right. My advice: Ditch the old-style tow bars and move up to one of the collapsible setups. These marvels of engineering genius not only fold up to store right on your RV, but they’re compact, tough as nails, and, best of all… they can be used by one person without having to be straight or level (though straight and level is always preferable).
Several manufacturers, including Roadmaster and Blue Ox, make collapsible tow bars. Most, like mine, are mounted on the motorhome, but you can also find ones that can be mounted on the car.
The Blue Ox Aventa LX, which I now have on my coach, can be disconnected at even severe angles by simply removing a couple of pins. And it can be done in less than a minute. The system I use does away with the awkward ball hitch. One end of the tow bar slides right into the receiver hitch, and the two collapsible arms connect directly to the towed vehicle (the toad) with hitch pins. It’s that simple. No more having to line up on the trailer ball. And, to make things even easier, those two arms can be moved independently of each other, not only in a circle, but forward and backward, too! So, you don’t have to have the car positioned perfectly, or have a spotter tell you when to stop. You get close enough, extend the arms, line them up and lock them in.
It’s sheer genius! What used to take me 30 minutes filled with anger and frustration, now takes me less than a minute—a minute full of smiles and a sigh of relief. With the pins locked in and the breakaway braking system in place, I’m off to my next adventure with one less thing to worry and stress about. Of course, these specialized tow bars cost a little bit more than a traditional fixed-position tow bar, but they are still very affordable. And, after all, isn’t it worth it? I make my living with my hands, and I almost lost one of them to an outdated and finicky tow bar. So, yeah, I definitely think it’s worth it.
Holt Webb is a photographer who travels by motorhome to document scenes that are in danger of disappearing from American life. You can read about his work at www.vanishingamerica.net.