That time we got locked out of the RV cabinets for three days...

“Dad! We’re out of toilet paper!”

We were stopped at what seemed like our 17th vista late in the afternoon after traversing the Yellowstone Grand Loop, having quickly ducked into a pullout to take in yet another majestic view. Brady had some serious stomach issues going on, and seemed to hit the RV bathroom at every stop. He’d run through all of our in-house provisions, and needed an assist.

I exhaled and slumped over the wheel, wanting nothing more than to just keep moving.

“I’ll grab it,” Allison offered, and I handed her the keys. For a moment I hesitated, thinking I should just get it myself. Our extra supplies were stored in the under vehicle exterior storage cabinet right outside the door.  I quickly dismissed the hesitation. “Nah, she’s fine.”

Twenty seconds later, Allison’s panicked voice reach me. “Justin! I need you!”

What could she possibly need me for? Last time I heard this voice though, steaming hot pink coolant was boiling over the and pooling under the engine compartment. Was sewage spewing from the vehicle undercarriage or something? I sprang up and bolted for the door, almost tripping over the Yeti cooler stocked with La Croix that lives between the driver and front passenger captains chairs.

A little backstory on the exterior storage compartments on the RV. If you’ve never experienced RV living, you may not know that exterior stowage is a crucial element of your journey. Ten locked exterior cabinets adorn the Thor ACE 30.2, housing everything from empty storage areas to the outdoor TV cabinet to the cabinet with our hook up hoses and cables and the black and gray water tank valves (the gray water tank is where the sink and shower drain, and the black water tank is the “poop tank”, as the kids call it). I wasn’t home when Thor was delivered to the house, but Allison took possession of the massive key ring, which included several keys which are still a mystery to me. For the first couple of days, I fumbled through the ring every time I went to open a storage cabinet. The cabinets each have two latches, one with a simple non-locking T twist closure and the other with a cam lock closure with keys nearly identical to the locks on the Thule bike rack, further adding to the confusion. The key-cabinet pairing seemed totally random, but I eventually determined that three of the cabinets on the passenger side of the vehicle, including the swimsuit/paper towel/toilet paper cabinet and the large cabinet where I store my tools, the fire pit, and air compressor, all were locked with the same key, with two copies of said key on the key ring. The key master was the same as Thule keys, which identical round heads, so I moved these keys in a specific location on the key ring to make it easy for me to remember. The remaining 7 cabinets, including access to the dump tanks, the portable BBQ, the bike helmets and Quinn’s Wee-Ride “third wheel” (which I have to fully disassemble to store everytime we use it), and the 28-case stash of Pamplemousse La Croix, were all locked by a single key with a green rubber head. 

I found it strange that three of the exterior cabinets had a separate set of keys. Even more strange was that the remaining seven cabinets only had one key. And even more strange still that the key with the green rubber head had a fraternal sibling on the ring with a gray head, only with half of the key missing. The ominous foreshadowing of the broken cabinet key was not lost on me. I even stopped at the key kiosk at the Home Depot in Las Vegas to have a duplicate made, only to find they didn’t carry the appropriate key blank and couldn’t copy it for me. “Ah, whatever,” I reasoned. “I’ll just be careful. I mean, what’s the likelihood I’m gonna break the only key to the majority of the cabinets?”

There was Allison, crouched by the cabinet, a look of shock and disbelief on her face and the green key head in one hand, the key shaft severed. “I don’t know what happened,” she blurted.

“Al! That’s the WRONG KEY!” Her error was blatant to me, but still lost on her.

“I’ve opened this cabinet hundreds of times!” She countered defensively.

“Not with that #&%@ing key you haven’t!” I shot back.

“But I didn’t even turn it that hard! I’m not that strong!” She remained incredulous about the reality of what had just transpired.

“Well clearly it was hard enough to snap the f’n key! I should have been more kind. I tried. But the reality of having our only key to the majority of our storage cabinets in the middle of Yellowstone with no cell service and over a hundred miles and several hours from the nearest town was washing over me fast and furious.

It was clear to me that Allison had not taken the time to decipher which key went to which cabinet. She was, in fact, surprised to learn that there was even a 2nd key. Since our first day when she initially loaded most of the cabinets, I had been the one to retrieve all of our provisions from storage. I had rearranged all of them, and I knew what was where, and which key opened every door. Allison had just been grabbing the key and giving ‘er a go with various keys until the cabinet unlocked. This haphazard approach had worked just fine for her. Until it didn’t.

I could tell from her face that indignation was giving way to remorse, and while it still hadn’t fully landed that she had done anything wrong, the consequence of her actions was becoming real nonetheless. Her replies were getting less forceful, almost as if she was reliving it in her head and talking to herself in an effort to process the reality. “But...I didn’t even turn it that hard...” she muttered.



I took a deep breath, and I masked my frustration with empathy. Fake it ‘til you make it. “It’s fine, hon. I’ll figure it out.”

My mind whirled as I worked through what “figuring it out” would look like. We were supposed to spend two more nights in Yellowstone before heading to Grand Tetons, and eventually on Jackson, Wyoming, the next town on our itinerary. We had no cell signal at this stop, and no signal at our campground. There’s really only three spots in Yellowstone where you can get cell service, and even then, you get the typical “phone showing a couple bars of LTE and yet I can’t connect to a damn thing” issue that we’ve faced in all the parks.

I tried searching “Locksmith” in Google Maps. In Safari. In Chrome. Nothing.

It’s almost like the telcos want you to think you have service so they can shade that point of the coverage map on the “Can you hear me now?” commercials, but if there’s any more than two people trying to access the network at the same time, it’s the Safari version of the pinwheel of death as your futile request toils unanswered for several minutes and finally yields to the generic “Cannot connect” message. The only thing worse than not having cell service is the false hope that those two of three bars of LTE give you. You know you’re going to come up empty in any data search, and yet you try repeatedly because you should be able to search. It says I have service! To make matters worse and feed into the sense of false hope, every once in a while, your request will go through and appear for a second like you’re getting somewhere. Fear not though, this is just the sputtering of an overwhelmed network trying desperately to accommodate the tens of thousands of park visitors bombarding the cell towers. Maybe the towers themselves are just as hopeful as you are that they’ll be able to deliver the information you desperately need in the moment. Without fail, both you and the towers will eventually succumb to disappointment in desperation.

We had to just press on, knowing that eventually we’d have to resolve the lockout, but that nothing could be done in the moment.

I’d love to be the guy who just lets it go. “Eh...whatever! I’m sure it will work out eventually!” Just be in the moment, controlling what you can and letting the rest go. The thing is, I’m not that guy. If there’s a problem at hand, I grind and grind on it until I win. And if it’s literally impossible to solve the problem in the moment, my mind will churn on endless iterations of resolution until the time is right for the problem to bends to my will.

We pressed on for the rest of the day, the predicament weighing on my mind continually as I tried to feign normalcy.

“Look, kids! More bison!”

Is there even an locksmith in Jackson?

“Wow, that sulpher is potent, huh?”

What if I have to get in to one of those cabinets?

“How hot to you think the water is in that hot spring?”

I wonder if I can drill out the lock? They do that in movies, right?

I eventually convinced myself that there would be no need to access any of the cabinets until Jackson, and went about our day living in that reality until bed time, when even that conclusion was challenged.

“Dad! The toilet won’t flush!” Grace’s shout signaled the manifestation of my worst fear. I had dumped the tanks at the dump station that morning, so I figured we could go several days before needing to dump again. You’d think that I could just push the “Black Water” indicator button to get an idea of the level. But no, that indicator has been broken all trip and pegged on “Full”. I didn’t think that would be problem on the trip, but I also didn’t anticipate being locked out of the tanks of literally unable to dump them at all.

It turns out my crude calculation failed to account for the catalyst of the entire situation - Brady’s repeated bathroom stops that day. Pressing the foot-activated toilet lever just led to the bowl slowly filling more and more, with the tank seeming completely full. “NO MORE USING THE BATHROOM!” I snapped, fully realizing just how ridiculous that sounded in an RV with four kids at bedtime. Luckily they all had already relieved themselves, and we went to bed with the toilet bowl half full.

I woke up in a cold sweat at 3am. I dreamt that we were barreling down the park loop, the RV jostled by the normal course of traversing park roads, urine sloshing from the toilet bowl and drenching the bathroom. I decided I need to drill out to the lock to the tanks in the morning and punch the cylinders out of the lock. I new my old general purpose Dewalt bits were not the right tool for the job, and that I was going to train wreck this solve, but I was out of options. I tossed and turned fitfully the rest of the night, awaiting the morning light and the expiration of campground “quiet hours” to put my terrible plan into action.

Luckily it didn’t come to that. One final attempt to flush the toilet the next morning proved successful in slowing draining the liquid from the bowl. Apparently the tank was not completely full, but was rather clogged from the excessive quantity of single-ply toilet paper the Gagnon children use with every flush. The accumulation of said single-ply was impeding a successful flush, but having settled overnight, the blockage eventually gave way. We had been granted a temporary reprieve.

The next day, we continued to tour the spectacular sights of Yellowstone. After having spent three fulls days in the park, we decided to abandon our campsite for that evening and press on towards Jackson rather than backtracking a couple hours to stay overnight in Yellowstone. Grace pointed out that we were not only abandoning the campsite, but also the four old camping chairs that we had left by the fire pit. We mourned the old chairs for a few moments before deciding that getting four hours closer to a locksmith was more important than four old and tattered camping chairs.

We found a campsite in Grand Tetons that evening, opting to save $50 with a “dry-camping” site instead of full hookups given the fact we couldn’t access any of our cables, hoses, or tanks as it is. After exploring Tetons for the day, we pressed on to Jackson in the late afternoon, doubling parking our giant rig into front of the only locksmith shop in town.

SIDEBAR: Jackson is a town in Wyoming. Jackson Hole refers to the valley adjacent to the Teton mountain range where the town of Jackson is located. This is a common point of confusion for visitors in Jackson, us included.

We made fast friends with Jim and Greg, the two locksmiths who helped us work through our predicament. First they tried to take the two parts of the broken key to grind a new key. Just like the Home Depot key kiosk, however, they didn’t have an appropriate key blank for the specific lock, so that was out. There would be no new key for the locks.

Our only option was to pick each lock individually, which Jim and Greg accomplished with quite a bit of difficultly. They then removed the cylinder from each lock and removed the locking pins, and replacing the cylinder in the lock. We weren’t going to be able to make the new key, but we got around it by turning the lock into an ultra-secure mechanism capable of being disable by your run-of-the-mill flathead screwdriver.

$200 and a couple hours later, we were back in business. 70% of our storage cabinets are now undoubtedly less secure, and any common thief could easily swipe 28 cases of Pampelmousse La Croix or 28 gallons of poop water from our black tank. There’s really nothing of significant monetary value in those cabinets anymore, but after being locked out of those cabinets for three-days, having them accessible is priceless.

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