Monday, August 26, 2019

10 Tips on How to be Breakdown-Ready

Nobody wants to break down. But it happens.

We are serial travelers - with cars, boats, motorcycles and now the RV and we've experienced breakdowns in some pretty remote spots. They happen. Here are our top 10 tips for handling RV breakdowns.

1 - Purchase a good tow plan. We have two: AAA with RV/motorcycle coverage and Coach Net. We use Coach Net for our Class A, we keep AAA for the motorcycles and toad.

2 - Be ready with a plan.
Class As are heavy and large. If yours is diesel like ours, the drive line will have to be disconnected before she can be towed in order to avoid transmission damage. Not every mechanic shop or tow company is equipped to handle a rig that big and many tow companies don't want to mess with the disconnecting of the drive line. The two times we've been towed it took 6 hours from initial phone call to get Loretta settled safely in a shop, and we got lucky and were on the fringes of significant population bases both times. Had we still been in the willywonks when disaster struck it may have taken even longer. 

Therefore, while sketching your route for the day, keep mental track of the nearest big cities at any given point of the route. This will come in handy when discussing your preferred shop with the tow company. You're likely to have better access to all the services you need by making that your home base. It may make sense to ask to be towed just a little bit further to a proper city for quicker turn-around on parts, lodging and restaurant options, and things to keep you busy while you wait. 

Along these lines, before you call be sure take a moment to review who manufactured your chassis, transmission, engine, whatever the relevant problem area is - if you can readily give this to the tow company in the first call they will start their search by looking for the right technician to handle your rig.

3 - Have a ditch bag ready. If you have pets this is especially important. We keep soft carriers for the cats, all the paperwork for all 3 pets is handy in a folder. If you must board the pets they will insist on viewing their shots records first, some hotels ask for this as well. We each have a small suitcase under the bed for a week's worth of clothes and our toiletries are already packed in them. Don't forget important medications too, if you can't leave a supply in the suitcase at least leave yourself a reminder note to raid the medicine cabinet before zipping up your suitcase.

4 - Have a savings account or a special credit card set aside for disasters. They happen, so be prepared in advance and limit money as a stress source as much as possible. If you can, pick a card that has some travel bennies on it, cash back on dining out, hotel or the repair bill, which will take some of the bite out. Don't be afraid to ask for a cash discount at the shop if that's how you roll, some shops prefer this and the savings can be significant.

5 - When looking for pet-friendly places to stay, often hotels are not the best option. I am always on the lookout for pet-friendly cabins at the campgrounds where we stay. This time we found an Air BnB with a doggie door to the enclosed backyard which made both cats and the dog quite happy. We were able to extend a little bit when our RV parts took longer than planned to show up, and thus avoided having to move the pets when they were at peace. By staying in a whole-house Air BnB we saved a little over the hotel, eliminated the pets' stress of cleaning staff coming and going, and had a kitchen to cook in if we wanted to break up the restaurant monotony.

6 - RV repairs ALWAYS take longer than you expect. Make housing arrangements for whatever you think it should take x3, if you are in a remote location or if your rig is older like ours and it's harder to find parts, add even more time.

7 - Take your valuables. Passport, credit cards, jewelry, don't leave these things on the bus. I still get upset about the earrings I mistakenly left out in plain sight when I hurriedly packed up in Albuquerque, they weren't valuable but they were cool and I miss them.

8 - Take a quick video of the inside and outside of your rig before handing it off. We've come back to damages here and there caused by technicians while they were working on something unrelated and did not pursue reparations because we had no proof it wasn't like that before. Now I take a quick "before" lap inside and out with the phone videocamera while waiting for the tow truck.

9 - Ask the shop to show you the old parts, or give you a tour of the work they did, a good shop will be proud to show you their work. We've been charged for work that wasn't actually done in Denver and in Los Angeles and since we were just passing through weren't in a position to drop by and get it fixed later.

10 - Last and most kind to one another. Breakdowns can be stressful. At the end of the day take a moment to reconnect over an adult beverage, by relaxing together in the hotel hot tub; at the very least take some time to snuggle together wherever you have landed for the night.

Loretta outside our Air BnB, back from the shop, washed and ready to go

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Glacier National Park with No Reservations

"You'll never get in!!!!" said everyone we talked to.
Literally every. single. person. we met.
"It's high tourist season you know..."

Glacier National Park in dramatic sunshine and a light dusting of snow

We were already plugged in at a great 50amp spot in Kalispell, MT but we were determined to figure out a way to stay inside Glacier National Park for the full experience, despite the fact that it's mid-August and we had no reservations. Brimming with overconfidence, Lance and Chloe set out in the Mini on Thursday morning to try to nab us a spot while I finished my morning work. It wasn't long before he called victorious, and waited in our spot for me to bring Loretta. It's good that he stayed to defend our space, because not long after he dropped our cash and registration envelope in the collection box some random dude in a red SUV showed up and tried to steal it. Fortunately, stubborn husband prevailed and by Thursday afternoon we were enjoying our lakeside spot in Glacier National Park, in spite of all the naysayers.
Here's our secret weapon: Apgar.

Our campsite at Apgar

Apgar Campground is first-come, first-served; no reservations accepted at all. It's the first campground from the West entrance of the park on Lake McDonald - only $20/night but no hookups whatsoever. On the way in grab one of their envelopes and fill it out. When you find your space, plant yourself in it, tear the tag off the envelope and attach it to the stick with your campsite number, stuff $20/night cash in the envelope in the ranger's collection box. Simple.

I heard there's a credit card option but we didn't test the theory.

There's no wifi and very sporadic cell service in the park, so I drove out to nearby Columbia Falls at the crack of dawn to get the work done on Friday. This sweet find was the Montana Coffee Traders and they had a corner table with power just for me. When everyone else woke up and it started getting crowded I relinquished my table and finished the work on the outside booth at the Dairy Queen (which was still closed) where I clocked the fastest internet speeds I've seen so far - almost 50Mbps on Google Fi!
We stayed at Apgar for four nights, and I noticed that there's an early batch  of campers that leaves just before 8am, and it takes a while for their spots to fill in. Another batch of folks leave around 10 and those fill faster, by 2:00 every single spot was filled and there were rangers turning would-be campers away at the entrance. The Apgar Visitor Center is right next door and has large RV parking for short spells, a solid strategy would be to get there at daybreak, lurk and lap, repeat as necessary.

An assortment of boats are available to rent on Lake McDonald

The weather was wildly variable, and the mood of the mountains changed significantly depending on the temperature and skies (the primary reason we wanted to stay in the park - to get the best photograph opportunities). On our first lap along the Going to the Sun Road it was overcast and brooding, an overwhelmingly awesome but photographically flat grey experience. The next day it stormed all day - we comfortably sipped coffee next to the propane heater while we worked on a supersize puzzle and watched the sad tent campers next to us hurriedly pack their soggy camp and flee; on the glacier mountaintops above us it snowed. 

The next day gave us fluffy patches of clouds and stunning light that revealed fresh snow, the second lap across the Going to the Sun Road made for significantly more dramatic photos. It's good that we stayed to experience some of the mountain's moody range.

The Lodge at Lake McDonald

The Lodge at Lake McDonald is pretty at night and we had high hopes for a fabulous dining experience but waited over an hour to be seated, then were disappointed by the saddest, thinnest, most tasteless and also offensively overpriced steak I have ever had. The building is fabulous, though, and the salads we saw folks receiving in the bar looked amazing (I think the bar and restaurant share the same menu), I'd recommend skipping steaks and also the Fireside Dining Room altogether and eating a salad in the bar. We had plenty of time while waiting for our table to decipher the petroglyph lanterns in the lodge. We call this one "dude went exploring and the first dude he met was shy. Then he was chased by a unicorn and helped a teenage octopus with his croquet strategy. Then he narrowly escaped being eaten by colorful sharks and stabbed a stranger". 

The Lighting at the Lake McDonald Lodge

Late in the day before we were supposed to leave we discovered a bicycle path, and so opted to stay an extra day so we could fully explore it.

The bike path from Apgar to the West Entrance
Next stop: Yellowstone. On our way Loretta's front right tire made a horrendous noise so we pulled in to a popular big rig stop called "Woody's" where there was plenty of parking, fuel and food and most importantly cell service to make our second phone call to Coach Net, then booked our first Air BnB in BigFork MT to wait on repairs. The plan was to sort through the Glacier pictures while we waited for repairs, but failed to take into account that the majority of them were already downloaded to the computer on Loretta which is now at the shop so that will have to wait. All the pictures you see on this blog came from my Pixel 3 camera phone, a surprisingly good little camera for a phone.

The latest mechanic's update suggests we might be rolling again in a few days. We'll post the rest of the Glacier shots down the road.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Breakfast egg rolls

This is definitely a make-ahead-of-time recipe. Shawna likes to eat them with one hand while poking at the GPS with the other on travel days.

  • 1 package egg roll wrappers (find near the produce aisle by the refrigerated salad dressing)
  • 9 eggs
  • 1/2 bunch green onions
  • chopped pickled jalapenos to taste
  • 2 oz cream cheese
  • 8 oz sausage, bacon, ham, or whatever
  • cooking oil

In a large skillet cook meat, when done remove meat and set aside, retaining the rendered fat in the skillet.

In a medium size mixing bowl add 8 eggs.

Separate one egg, keeping the white in a small bowl and putting the yolk in the mixing bowl.

Chop green onions and cream cheese and add to mixing bowl.

Whip with a fork until well mixed.

With the vent hood ON add chopped jalapenos to frying pan, cook until just starting to brown.

Chop or crumble meat and add back to skillet.

Add egg mixture and cook until done.

Take one egg roll wrapper, put two tablespoons or so of egg mixture in the middle, fold over the ends, and roll like a burrito using the reserved egg white to seal the flap.

Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan to about 350 degrees (you can check with an extra piece of egg roll wrapper, it should flash up immediately).

Add egg rolls 3 or 4 at a time so the oil doesn't get too cold, cook on both sides until golden brown, let cool a bit then serve or freeze.

The filling can be pretty much whatever you want. I recommend staying away from cheese or anything wet like tomatoes.

Serve with sour cream.

To reheat from frozen - for each egg roll: 30 seconds in the microwave and then 6 minutes at 375.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

East-Bound and Down, Loaded up and Truckin'...

Signs like this are all over the OR and WA coast
With equal parts reluctance and excitement, we turned our backs on our beloved Pacific and officially started the Eastern leg of our clockwise lap around the country. The last stop in Washington state was at a Thousand Trails park in Diamond Lake for two weeks. The park is half KOA and half Thousand Trails and has all the amenities a camper could dream up. Incidentally, before our departure on August 9th we already broke even on our July 1st Thousand Trails annual membership fees, so our TT camping for the rest of the year will be freeeee. Not a bad start to the year.

Plenty of room at this campground,
this is my office view for the next couple of weeks
I've been getting this strange sense of dejavu. I've been here before. It's been 40 years or so - my great grandmother lived in Spokane and kept a cabin on Diamond Lake - funny I didn't make that connection until arriving. I visited her here when I was quite young. Driving out of the city and into the woods made me smile, she must have traveled this exact road countless times a half century ago. I expect she felt the same sense of relief we did with the first breath of fresh mountain air.

Being still for a couple of weeks gives me a good opportunity to get ahead on as much work as possible - after this we'll be heading to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and the Tetons, places known for breathtaking views and terrible cell coverage, so the more I can get done in advance the more I can relax and enjoy the weeks to come.

Lance changing out the jacks solenoid
Lance seized the mailing address opportunity and ordered parts to repair Loretta's jacks again. This time the problem turned out to be the solenoid, a twitchy little part which took some effort to track down, and required some contortionist skills to replace. He looked like a mad scientist poking at everything with the pointy ends of his VOM (electronic troubleshooting device for those of us who are not electronics engineers). On swap-out day, Chloe stood guard and nipped as many mosquitoes as she could but she couldn't catch them all and so the project exacted a blood toll. Of all the systems on the bus, the jacks have vexed us the most; now that we have resolved three different failure points we aspire to trouble-free jacks from here on out.

Since the electronic troubleshooting tools were out, we installed the stereo we bought last December. We selected one that picks up bluetooth too, so the passenger of the day can push audio books and stream music while we cruise down the road - that should make the upcoming long drive days across the plains a lot more fun. This is a project we've been putting off because one look behind the old dead stereo revealed dozens of wire nuts - Lance's personal nemesis - and so he just closed the dash back up with a sigh and promised to deal with it "after the holidays" and they've been lurking under the dash mocking us since then. Now armed with the right tools and visions of audiobooks just out of reach we waded into the rat's nest... a couple hours and a few burnt fingers later all the wire connections were refinished properly, the kindle and phone successfully paired, and the stereo blaring some truly terrible local station to which I was singing at the top of my lungs much to Lance's dismay.

The final stages of installing a new bluetooth stereo.
This project was house destructo level 7.

The great National Parks we're heading to next typically book up months in advance. Foot drama kept us from making real plans until everything was sold out; so we're going there anyways during their busiest time of the year with no reservations at all. I've been doing my homework and have lots of information on public lands nearby in case we can't stay in the National Parks, but all the same it's a little worrisome. All fingers are crossed, hoping we luck into some great spots.