Late on New Year's Day, a solo car-camper decides he doesn't want to pay the $10 campground fee. He asks for advice from fellow travelers, who suggest an out-of-the-way canyon on the far side of a nearby dry lake. They assure him of three things: It's a beautiful camping spot, it can't be seen by the park rangers, and the lake bed is completely dry.

The frugal traveler sets out across the lake in his SUV. Feeling his way carefully at first, he soon finds himself doing 50 on the hard salt surface, quickly approaching the lake's center--and low spot. Sun to his back, he fails to see the water glimmering on the surface until it's too late. The SUV decelerates hard and fast as the frame plows its way into the muck. Dusk approaches, and the stuck SUV juts out like a lighthouse in the middle of the not-dry lake. With no escape the weary traveler spends a less-than-comfortable night in a not-so-beautiful spot. Early the next morning, a park ranger comes out to investigate. After a $76 citation for camping in a prohibited area and an hour ride to the nearest pay phone, he's given two numbers. The first is Miller's Towing, 50 miles away in Lone Pine, and the second, a heavy-lift helicopter out of Fresno. The ranger's parting instruction: "Miller is $225 an hour, and the helicopter's $7000 an hour; whichever you choose, your vehicle will be out of that lake bed by tonight."

In his 33 years of recovering vehicles from the most unimaginable situations, John Miller has seen everything--and has never failed to rescue a stuck traveler. With an armada of 15 tow trucks, from a 4WD ATV to "Brutis"--a 17-ton, 1982 HD 6x6 (10WD) military recovery vehicle with a 20,000-pound hydraulic front winch, 45,000-pound rear winch, and 30,000-pound crane--John has the right tool for any job at his disposal. In this case, he loads a Thiokol-tracked Snowcat on the back of a 6WD flatbed wrecker and heads out to the dry lake. Driving the wrecker partway out, he unloads the Snowcat for the trip across the muck and, after a quick winch, has the SUV slowly following the Snowcat back across the lake to terra firma. Total camping cost: $1575 (Miller's seven hours at $225 each) + $76 citation - $10 campground fee savings = $1641.

Everything about Miller Towing is on a large scale. His contract service area covers 17,000 square miles (larger than 10 states) of some of America's most breathtaking yet inhospitable countryside. From the top of the eastern Sierra Nevada range to the western Nevada border, it includes much of Owens, Saline, and Death Valleys, all treacherous places to be stranded. Even the view from his shop is spectacular--it directly faces the 14,495-foot summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Miller keeps his fleet of vehicles impeccably maintained, washed, and polished. His wreckers typically last one million miles, and he currently has three in active service with more than 1.1 million miles on them. His trucks require 20 minutes of maintenance for each hour off-road, and he averages one new tire for every three off-road recoveries. And his company does 700 recoveries a year.

Miller's mild-mannered, unflappable personality brings welcome calm to people in trouble. He speaks with authority and knows what he (and you) should do. Night or day, he personally answers every recovery call, "because I've been to all the ends of the roads. I know what questions to ask the people. I tell my guys where to go and what equipment to take for each situation." He then dispatches the appropriate team from his crew of seven, four of whom remain on call 24/7. If there's a stronger, more capable towing service in the country, we don't know about it.

John Miller Remembers
by David C. Green

Miller got called out to help an older couple in a diesel pusher towing a brand-new Suburban. The husband felt like he was running out of power heading over one the passes, so he asked his wife to get in the Suburban, start it up and help by pushing the motorhome over the pass. At the top of the grade, the wife acted out of habit: she stopped the engine, put it in park, and got back in the motorhome. They made it about four miles down the hill before the tires, wheels, and backing plates were completely ground down, causing the differential housing and ring gear to hit the asphalt. Miller asked if he'd noticed something going on in his rearview mirror. "No, I only thought my exhaust brake was working extremely well today." That's all he could say...and wrote Miller a check for $3500.

Another time, two boys in a Scout found an old map of the Chloride Cliffs on the far side of Death Valley. They reached the top of a hill and found a berm built across the road. Instead of stopping and looking over the top, they barreled up--and the road headed straight down. They turned around at an old mine at the bottom, but the Scout ran out of power coming back up. The Parks Service found them and told them to contact Miller. It took two trucks, a 6x6, and Miller's little service truck 18 hours--from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. the next day--to get them. That's $4050.

Sound Advice
by David C. Green

John Miller has a wealth of hard-learned advice on how to avoid problems and what to do when you can't. Trouble in adventure paradise? Here are some of John's observations.

On Breakdowns

  • Running fast and fully loaded in 120-degree heat fries engines, transmissions, and tires. "Get-there-itis" often overcomes common sense.
  • Read your owner's manual. Know the location of key systems. For example, is there a resettable fuel-cutoff switch? Also learn fuse functions and locations.
  • Carry spare belts, water hoses, and fuses.
  • Have the right lug wrench. If you have alloy wheels and a steel spare, have a set of steel lug nuts and wrench for the spare.
  • Once a year, check your jack to make sure it works.
  • Check your spare--one can easily go flat or become rotten over time.

On Towing and Trailers

  • Repack wheel bearings every year. Inspect them for rust, lubrication, or damage--you don't want to lose a trailer wheel when you're going 60 mph in the middle of the desert.
  • Change your trailer tires every three years. On trailers left outside, inspect for weather damage and cracks.
  • Before you start out, make sure you have the correct size spare, properly inflated and not cracked. Half of his trailer recoveries don't have spares, or, if they do, they're useless.
  • Carry two $20 bottle jacks and some wood boards.
  • Make sure you have the right lug wrench for the trailer wheel.
  • Know how to properly hook up your trailer or tow car.

On Off-Roading

  • Slow down. Problems occur when driving too fast or towing too hard. Drivers hit deep ruts and tear out the suspension, break axles, crack oil pans, and blow out tires.
  • Look ahead for dry creek crossings and rocks. Watch out for sand and debris on turns. That's where most people wreck.
  • Talk with a trustworthy person who's recently traveled your intended route.
  • Don't use old maps. Roads often change and become impassable without safe turnarounds.

Sound Advice cont...

On Accidents

  • Easily preventable causes: speed, falling asleep, drunk driving--in that order.

On Solo Four-Wheeling

  • Use 2WD until you get stuck and then use 4WD to get yourself out.
  • Got a winch? Practice at home and know how to use it safely.
  • Know about your 4WD system and how to work it. Miller got called to recover a 4Runner stuck on the side of hill. He looked down and pointed out to the driver that the hubs weren't locked. The driver responded "I never knew you had to lock the hubs."

On Survival

  • Use common sense, have patience, and think about what you can do for yourself. An older woman drove into his shop from Death Valley using pantyhose for a fan belt. Now, that's thinking!
  • Carry a lot of water and a cell-phone. Although those don't always have service in the desert, inexpensive satellite phones do.
  • Call for help early.
  • Know where you are. Miller picked up a driver from a pay phone in Death Valley and spent nine hours looking for his stuck truck--at $225/hour. Carry a GPS and know how to find your location. With latitude and longitude, he'll find you.
  • If you're traveling solo, bring a mini-bike. Before cell- and satellite phones, Miller carried a Honda Mini-50 in his wrecker. That was his only way out if the truck broke down. He wasn't going to try to walk 20-30 miles.
  • Stick to main roads. If you do have to walk, don't look for shortcuts. Even if you make it, you'll have a hard time leading Miller to your vehicle.

On Washboard Roads

  • Go 5-15 mph, tops.
  • Shocks heat up at increased speeds and fail.
  • Look ahead for obstacles and changed road conditions.
  • Slow down--washboard increases the distance you'll need to stop.

When the call comes in that a semi has tipped on its side (usually caused by the wind), there aren't many options. For the big jobs, Miller Towing uses a low-pressure, inflatable, heavy-duty airbag system that slowly lifts the rig back onto its 18 wheels.

Miller's Fleet
by David C. Green

  • Brutis--(above Image)1982 17-ton, Cummins diesel-powered 6x6 military recovery vehicle equipped with 20,000-pound hydraulic front winch, 45,000-pound rear winch, and 30,000-pound crane
  • Two 4WD wreckers
  • One 4WD flatbed
  • One Thiokol Snowcat
  • Freightliner four-axle, 90,000-pound-capacity wrecker for big rigs and pusher motorhomes
  • Freightliner three-axle recovery truck

  • International wrecker for towing and motorhome recovery
  • Two heavy-duty 2WD wreckers
  • One medium-duty 2WD wrecker
  • One light-duty 4WD wrecker for pavement
  • One light-duty 4WD wrecker for off-road use
  • Peterbilt 2WD: Jerr-Dan
  • Freightliner tractor towing a Landall trailer with forward moving rear axles; used mostly to load motorhomes with wheel-bearing failures
  • International rollback three-car carrier
  • 1989 GMC 4WD flatbed for off-road
  • 4WD service truck
  • 4WD tire service truck with bed-mounted tire-mounting machine and generator
  • Bobcat with bucket and rotary sweeper
  • Two 4WD ATVs
  • International Harvester bulldozer to pioneer roads for difficult recoveries
  • Tractor-trailer airbag righting system using low-pressure, high-volume heavy-duty rubber inflatable bags to raise a trailer onto its wheels

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