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FMCA helps locate "missing" motorhomers

FMCA members Jim and Gail Ellis

It wasn’t an All Points Bulletin, but FMCA’s method of locating a member couple proved to be as effective.

FMCA member Kim Corrigall contacted FMCA Feb. 11 to report that his good friends, Jim and Gail Ellis, had not been heard from since Feb. 2, when they left a campground near San Antonio, Texas.

The Ellises are full-time motorhomers from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It was unlike them, Mr. Corrigall said, even for a short time, to lose all contact with their close group of friends in Canada.

E-mail gets results

From its headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, FMCA sent an e-mail on Thursday, Feb. 12, at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, alerting all members to be on the lookout for the Ellises’ Alberta-licensed coach and FMCA member plate number, 380188.

The e-mail included a photo of Jim and one of Gail. It also showed their 1987 40-foot Newell diesel pusher and towed vehicle, a 2007 black Chevrolet HHR.

Hundreds of e-mails from throughout North America poured in to FMCA, expressing concern about the Ellises, with some reported sightings of their coach.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. that same day, FMCA received a call from a member who said he had camped next to the Ellises for two days at Kartchner Caverns State Park in southeast Arizona.

FMCA forwarded this information to Kim Corrigall, who called the park and confirmed that Jim and Gail were there.

Said Jim Ellis: “The park host at Kartchner Caverns walked up to us with a note and said, ‘Kim Corrigall has been trying to get a hold of you.’ “

Who found the Ellises? 

FMCA members Dave and Donna Moore were on their way to Catalina State Park in Tucson, Ariz. They had just left Kartchner Caverns State Park ... Read more

The Ellises had been located, without incident or drama. And they were safe.

“FMCA is a very impressive and effective communications conduit, one has to admit,” Mr. Corrigall said. “That they rallied in what felt like an emergency circumstance with such speed and sense of purpose is truly inspiring.”

The Ellises are grateful to FMCA and members for their care and support.

“Gail and I were just super, super impressed with how that worked out," Mr. Ellis said. "We’ve never had so many people come up to us since this happened, or got e-mails saying glad you’re okay … It’s a wonderful service. I really appreciate you guys. FMCA did a heck of a job.”

Follow-up e-mail

On the morning of Feb. 13, FMCA, in another e-mail, informed its membership that Jim and Gail had been found and were okay.

More responses from FMCA members funneled in …

“This is a GREAT service for FMCA members. I am happy this couple has been found safe. I am proud to be a member of FMCA. Thanks.”

“I'm so glad they were found. You guys are terrific! Thank you for the concern for the members!”

“Thanks for letting everyone know. We looked all weekend in our travels! So glad all is well. What a great network.”

“Well done, everyone! It gives me a great sense of safety and belonging to a group of people which, to me, are like family! I guess that's why we're called the Family Motor Coach Association. Again, great work!”

“I am so glad this had a happy ending. My husband and I, as FMCA members, appreciated your involvement and help in finding this couple. What an added benefit of belonging to this association.”   Read more member responses

Yes, it was a happy ending for the entire FMCA family. Yet the situation left members wondering how the Ellises lost contact in the first place.

Here’s an account of the events that led to the concern of the Ellises’ friends and family and to the subsequent successful e-mail issued by FMCA.

Out of touch

The Ellises spent a month at South Padre Island in Texas during January. They were, as always, in frequent contact with their close group of family and friends back in western Canada.

In January, they also made a few day trips down to Mexico. The significance of these trips doesn't become clear until after the events culminating in FMCA's help in finding them.

On Jan. 24, Jim and Gail left South Padre Island and started a slow-paced, three-week trek to Phoenix, Ariz. They planned to visit several state park campgrounds they had targeted during their travels in the United States last year.

Jim and Gail knew that wireless Internet access is not widely available in U.S. state parks. According to an April 2008 USA Today survey, 16 of Texas’ 84 state parks had either free or pay-per-use Wi-Fi. None of Arizona’s 30 state parks had Wi-Fi.

So, before the Ellises departed for Phoenix, they sent out an e-mail stating they would not have e-mail access for the ensuing three weeks. Unknown to them at the time, none of the recipients received that e-mail.

“But we did have our cell phone working at that time, right up until about the end of January,” Mr. Ellis said.

En route to Phoenix, Jim and Gail stayed for six days at Lost Maple State Natural Area, roughly a five-hour drive from South Padre.

On the day they left Lost Maple, they sent an e-mail greeting card to one of their friends back home. That was Feb. 2. “So around the second of February was the last time somebody heard from us,” Mr. Ellis said. “Some people knew that we were fine since then.”

Cell phone problems

After they left Los Maples, they tried a few times to call out on their Verizon cell phone. The phone would connect to the local carrier of cell services but wouldn't complete any calls. Friends who tried to call them received the message, “You’re phone is no longer in service.”

“We couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t dial out on it,” Mr. Ellis said. "It didn’t say our phone had been disconnected or terminated.”

He assumed that Telus, his Canada-based service provider, didn’t have a contract with Verizon. “So I thought, well, we’ll travel down the road and we’ll try again. But I kept getting this notice from Verizon every time I tried to phone out, saying you’re not listed with us. And so I didn’t even know my phone wasn’t working, other than the fact that I couldn’t phone out through Verizon.”

While the cell phone was a minor concern, it was something that went on the “things to do when we get back to mainstream civilization” list. After all, the Ellises had informed anyone who cared that they'd be out of touch for three weeks, and everyone knew their general intentions.

Jim and Gail also have a second cell phone they use when they’re not together, such as when they are staying in a populated area and Gail takes the towed car and goes shopping. When they're apart, she always has this second phone with her.

This phone is on one of the inexpensive plans that, because of its low basic monthly rate, does not permit calls from outside its “home” area, without major usage expense. The Ellises figured there was no need to power up that device.

Uneasy feeling

Back in Canada, Kim and Michael Corrigall and the Ellises’ support group had started to wonder why there hadn't been any contact from Jim and Gail since about the third week of January.

One member of the group called the cell phone number to say hello and get some peace of mind. When the phone's recording revealed “no longer in service,” butterflies began to form in collective stomachs.

“The inability to reach Jim and Gail on the second cell number amplified the stress level to the point that we started to undertake calls to anywhere that a group of amateur sleuths could conjure,” Mr. Corrigall said.

They called campgrounds and other places where the Ellises were known to have been. No leads. The group even alerted law enforcement offices in the areas where they thought the Ellises were destined. “After only one day, these avenues were exhausted and it seemed that the wheels were simply spinning,” Mr. Corrigall said. That was dinnertime Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Mr. Corrigall’s wife, also named Kim, suggested asking FMCA for help. So that evening, the Corrigalls sent an e-mail to all of the contacts listed on FMCA.com for the FMCA chapters located in the geographic area in which the Ellises were traveling.

“By 0600 the next morning,” Mr. Corrigall said, “my phone was ringing with a call from the executive level of FMCA in Florida with questions regarding the status of the search. After verifying the legitimacy of our request, a commitment was made to send out an e-mail to the FMCA membership designed to elicit help in spotting our friends.”

Aftermath

A few days after “all the fuss” over them had dissipated, Jim Ellis spoke to FMCA by phone from Adventure Bound Camping Resorts in Tucson. “We got a notice from the park here,” he said. “It’s the whole e-mail from FMCA, and a note written on it says, ‘Is this you?’ ”

Apparently, their newfound notoriety lingers.

To fellow campers he meets, he relates the story of how people thought he and Gail had been lost or kidnapped, and FMCA’s role in finding them. “All of the people who were concerned about me are just super impressed with FMCA, I want to tell you. And so are we.”

Mr. Ellis doesn’t blame anyone for worrying about them.

“It is scary and I certainly can understand it from my friends’ and family’s point of view when we didn’t’ get a hold of them during that time. I had sent an e-mail, or thought I had sent an e-mail, to everybody saying, ‘Well, we’re going to be staying in state parks without e-mail for the next three weeks, so don’t expect an e-mail.’ But they all told me they didn’t receive the e-mail.”

Cell phone mystery solved

Shortly after FMCA learned of their whereabouts, Jim and Gail discovered the root of their cell phone problem. “My cell phone had gotten cut off by my service provider because somebody had been using it fraudulently,” Mr. Ellis said. “Unfortunately, they never told me about it, that they had cut it off.”

Their cell phone number somehow had been pirated while they were in Mexico. After an immediate and unusually high use of the phone number occurred originating from Mexico, the phone company simply shut the service off.

Jim and Gail have since been issued a replacement phone number, but Mr. Corrigall said all motorhomers can learn from the Ellises’ experience.

“The pirating of phone numbers without actually stealing the phone is a new one to me, but having your phone company simply shut off your service without advice is shocking.”

Jim and Gail enjoy hiking and camping in U.S. state parks.Moving on

The Ellises have been full-timing for about 15 months. “We’re going to keep going until we don’t want to do it anymore,” Mr. Ellis said.

Jim is retired from the television production business. Gail is 9 years his junior. “I had to haul her out of work, which she didn’t really want to do at the time. But now that we’ve gone on the road, she absolutely loves it.”

They work as “consultants” for a private campground in Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. They spend six months in the southern United States, gathering information about campgrounds.

“We know what kind of services should be provided and we take that information back to our boss, who owns the campground," Mr. Ellis said. "It really works out well for us … we get a little income and get to keep on the road a little longer.”

This is the second year they’ve traveled down south from Canada. “We came back to a few places that we really enjoy, all of them being state parks. One of the best ones where we’re going to head back to in a few weeks is Buckskin Mountain State Park, on the Arizona-California border, right on the Colorado River.”

Wherever they travel, they’re not likely to lose touch again, even if they are without e-mail or cell phone service. When you’re a member of the Family Motor Coach Association and part of FMCA’s network of motorhoming friends, you’re never really out of reach.

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