Our New Adventure, Part II: Starts With a Bang
I’ve never been much of a planner, typically forgoing the proverbial well laid plans for something that takes much less effort on my part: wingin’ it. Some of my fondest memories have come from experiences that only the most basic kernel of a plan. Drive west. Find food. Look for big trees. My preference for the no-plan plan was hatched one spring break in college when three friends took a backpacking trip that turned into a road trip halfway across the country. With about $25 in cash and Aaron’s dad’s gas card, we added 5,500 miles to the odometer of Nelson’s new Corolla in a fried chicken and beef jerky fueled tour of the American west. It was a trip of firsts. We spent a very cramped and snowy night in that small car parked in a pullout near Rocky Mountain National Park, mooned the Utah Jazz arena in Salt Lake City, explored the delicate stone structures of Arches National Park, drove down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, had our first In-N-Out burger, hit the Vegas strip with a pocket full of quarters and a deep-seated desire for free booze, dangled our legs into the vast chasm of the Grand Canyon, and made it back with most of our dignity in place. None of it was planned and it was beautiful.
Though there have been other fantastic no-plan adventures, my favorite began late in the summer of 2013. After getting hitched in an old barn near Grand Lake, CO, Jenn and I said goodbye to all the friends and family who came out to share in the experience, packed our small truck full of camping gear and headed out with only the barest notion of a plan: buy a National Park Pass and use it as much as possible in two weeks, and maybe pop in for a visit with Nelson if we made it to Oregon. We made a point to remain open to experiencing any opportunities that would present themselves along the way and the road of whimsy certainly did not disappoint. I’m so thankful for those beautiful memories shared with my very best friend.
The honeymoon adventure was a significant win for the no-plan plan on my part, as Jenn is an openly devout planner. It seems that hardly a week blows by that she doesn’t say something akin to, “I should have known you wouldn’t think of [insert something I failed to do here]. You’re just not a planner.” I think she feels she must say that aloud so that the idea might eventually take, and it will no longer surprise her that I simply make most choices with the same degree of logic as the windblown dandelion seed. Bless her heart, I don’t know how she deals with my perpetual whimsy. A case could be made that I might apply the no-plan plan perhaps too liberally and without discrimination, but if I’m being truly honest, I can’t quite wing it like I used to. I haven’t quite sorted out what’s changed, but I have a hunch it has something to do with parenthood.
When we set out on this new adventure and moved into our Itasca, I had decided that having a bit of a plan was the sensible thing to do. I laughed when I typed that last line because there are some, I am certain, who would argue that there is absolutely nothing sensible in a life lived traipsing about the countryside in an RV with a baby and two dogs. In the short time we’ve been doing this, I’ve met two kinds of people: those that think we are the bees-knees for following our dreams, and those who think we’ve lost our marbles. Anyway, where was I…ah, yes, I have begun to embrace the necessity of the plan.
There are many sensible things about having a plan when traveling in an RV. In fact, a mathematical argument could be made that the need for a plan grows in direct proportion to the size of one’s RV if you plan to park it anyplace more scenic than the Walmart parking lot. When it comes to state and national parks, anything over 35 feet in length can be a bit limiting while camping out west, and that threshold seems to drop as you go east. Many of the older parks simply weren’t designed for vehicles as large as many modern RVs. That’s a decision we made willingly when we made our choice given our current circumstances. Though we are very happy in our big bus and it suits our immediate needs perfectly, we will definitely consider downsizing when we aren’t traveling with a pony. So long as George is around warming our hearts with his goofy grins, we will enjoy the luxury of 42 feet and all that it affords, including the separate washer and dryer.
Prior to the big departure, we had been camped at Hidden Acres RV Park on Lake Lavon for six weeks, much longer than either of us had originally hoped. At this point, with my well-honed ability to unplan, it should surprise absolutely no one that I had, up to this point, completely underbid the effort involved in transitioning to a life on the road. In fact, the whole debacle will get its own blog post once I’m able to reflect back on the experience and resist the urge to completely detach from reality in search of my happy place. Therefore, once the big day had finally arrived, it was hard to feel confident that we were truly ready, but we had done it. We had made a plan and were going to stick to it, thankyouverymuch. We had places to stay lined up along the route to Santa Fe, our first destination, and I had even picked an initial leg that would take us to a Loves Travel Stop knowing full well that they are RV friendly so that we could fuel up on diesel and DEF before we even hit the highway. The Subaru escape pod was triple checked, the dogs were watered and pottied, and I was feeling pretty damn good about facing that long ribbon of tarmac before us that would deliver us to New Mexico and, eventually, to a new life that embraces adventure and exploration. Little did I know that my poor plan would succumb to the wanton adventures of the road just 6 hours north up Highway 287.
We had just finished our second and final break at a rest stop north of Estelline, TX and were crossing the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River when the coach began to lose power, the dash ablaze with red warning lights. The temperature gauge was pegged in the red and the digital matrix display was politely informing me to pull over and stop the engine; something I was entirely unwilling to do on the narrow bridge. The coach promptly entered limp mode and we inched off the bridge and onto the highway shoulder, coming to a stop amid a patch of knee-high weeds bristling with thorny burrs. This was not a planned stop.
I’m not a mechanic by any stretch, and our diesel pusher keeps most of the mysteries of the powerplant well hidden from view behind a radiator that, for its size alone, could double as a drive-in movie screen. Nonetheless, I did the manly thing, and wandered back and lifted the hatch. Hmm, there seemed to be plenty of coolant in the reservoir, but our escape pod was also covered in a fine mist of the sticky-sweet fluid which seemed less than ideal. I decided to give the coach time to cool off and give it another go. After about 45 minutes, I had managed to move up the shoulder another hundred yards or so before the dash once again lit up like the Vegas strip. It was time to call in the big guns.
As I was not yet well-acquainted with the art of planning, I can freely admit that I may have left a few stones unturned. In fact, one of the things I should have done, and had even thought about more than once, was sign up for Good Sam Roadside Assistance. Sadly, I had not, and was forced to rely upon the rather lackluster service provided by our extended warranty. In short, we would spend 25 long hours (yes, hours) on the side of the highway waiting for a tow that we were told we’d have to pay for because they could not verify the contract included unlimited mileage on towing, never-mind my having the original copy of the signed contract in my possession. Since we are big and heavy, and we needed to go 99 miles, the cost to tow would come in at a tidy $1600. I believe I was on my fifteenth call of “where the hell is the tow truck driver” when they told me they would pay the whole bill regardless of contract. Thanks, I guess. 25 hours!
We took the escape pod into Amarillo while the tow truck driver did his thing. After checking into a rather dilapidated room at the Red Roof Inn and fetching a bit of late dinner (Rosa’s Tortilla Factory for the win!), I met up with the driver as he was dropping off our home at the Cummins shop. It was impressive to see it connected to to the tow rig; it must have been a real sight going down the road! It was after 9PM on a Saturday night, and the shop wouldn’t open until Monday morning, so it looked like we would be getting the extended tour of Amarillo. We weren’t particularly thrilled, but it was looking a fair piece better than being stranded on the side of a busy highway.
Dealing with the Cummins shop in Amarillo felt a bit like trying to wrestle a toothless alligator. The lady at the counter wasn’t particularly sweet or helpful — in fact, she seemed mostly inconvenienced by the fact that I had bothered coming in that Monday morning — but she was mostly harmless. I suppose I should be thankful that they managed to successfully identify the issue* and had us back in our home by that Thursday afternoon, with Freightliner footing the bill (Yay, warranty!), but the service advisor was spectacularly bad at her job. I had to call for any and all updates, and the first two days worth of updates weren’t even for our RV. Also, despite my making a big point of having a refrigerator full of food, not to mention six containers of Braum’s Rocky Road ice-cream, they still managed to kill the power to the inverter and let it all spoil. When I mentioned my disappointment, the service advisor didn’t even have the good grace to apologize. She simply said, “It’s not our responsibility,” and proffered a smirk. Hey, at least we were home.
We spent a couple of days regrouping in Amarillo at Fort Amarillo RV Park. My gosh, it felt so good to be back in the coach! It certainly didn’t take long for it to become our home, and we missed it dearly while we were separated. We replenished our food supply to no small expense and even scooped up a few replacement cartons of Braum’s. Life was good, and things were finally feeling back on track. That weekend, I managed to put my first dent in one of the coach baggage doors while trying to pull in at our first Harvest Host stay. Turns out the bigger rigs need to take an alternate route when boondocking at Blue Mesa Alpacas. You only need to have more patience than I did and they’ll gladly come out and guide you in. I snagged the only boulder at the end of the drive, but they were on the scene in a jiffy and more than sweet about getting us off the rock and sorted out in a fine spot on their property.
Low and behold, we finally made it to Santa Fe, and only one week later than originally planned. Remember, we had a plan, and it had been executed brilliantly up to the point of total failure. I believe it was the venerable Mike Tyson who once said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” You see, the road insisted that plan needed tweaking. I think that’s what the whole first-day debacle managed to hit home for the both of us: having a plan is valuable — nay, darn near essential when you live in a large RV — but you had better be willing to bend to the whims of the road, for she is a fickle temptress. When the plan no longer fits the bill, there’s always a little bit of magic in wingin’ it.
Heck, we’re now wingin’ it in Albuquerque!
* You folks who crave the details might like to know it was only a thrown fan belt due to seized AC compressor bearings. Fairly minor in the big picture. Yay! A new compressor and belt was all she needed.