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This is a vacation that snuck up on us by way of my aunt & uncle in Florida whom I haven’t seen in at least fifteen years. A few weeks back they mentioned on the phone that they were taking another one of their infamous baseball stadium tours of the country. This one would include an Arizona Diamondbacks game in Phoenix, after which they would spend a night at the Grand Canyon. After the call I got to thinking about meeting up with them there, but hadn’t given much thought to the date, assuming my uncle would, as usual, send me their itinerary at least a week before they left. Pat asked me earlier this week if we’d be going to meet them at the Grand Canyon and I told him I didn’t yet know when Dick & Dottie were planning to be there, but expected it wouldn’t be until mid to late September.
Wednesday night I called my uncle on an unrelated issue and my aunt said, “Oh, by the way… we’re leaving tomorrow morning on our trip.” Surprised that they were leaving so soon, I asked when they would be at the Grand Canyon and after checking their itinerary, came back with, “Next Thursday, the 21st.” Thursday morning Pat went into work and put in for two weeks of vacation starting next week, knowing full well that JC Penney requires a two-week notice prior to employees taking off. Amazingly, when he said it was a family emergency, they approved it. Fortunately they didn’t ask and he didn’t tell the nature of the emergency.
I spent Thursday and Friday working out an itinerary for us based on the last three counties of Utah that I have yet to visit. The route will take us from Williams, Arizona to Monument Valley, then on to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, next to Capitol Reef National Park, thence to home via the loneliest road in America, U.S. 50 across Nevada.
Pat stopped after work on Friday to pick up food supplies and we brought the Bounder home from storage that evening. This morning we packed up the motorhome, loaded in the cats, and finally managed to get out of the driveway around noon. Given the summer heat, high though decreasing gas prices, and the middle-of-nowhere destinations, we decided not to tow the car along with us.
Up to the top of our street, onto I-580 eastbound, over the Altamont Pass beyond Livermore, and on to I-5 south we headed, the temperature rising with each passing mile. Destination: Lost Hills, along I-5 in northwestern Kern County, 224 miles from home. As always, the trip down I-5 through the central valley was utterly boring with yellow grass covered hills to our right and endless acres of fruit trees to our left. The temperature in Oakland when we left home at noon was 73º. Upon our five o’clock arrival at the Lost Hills RV Park, it was 106º! As soon as Pat had the shore power plugged in, I fired up the Bounder’s two air conditioners that are still running full blast two hours later.
Though the RV park has electric and sewer hookups, the clerk advised us of the local TV stations we could pick up with our own antenna. Translation: no cable. Internet access? Go to the nearby truck stop where they have wi-fi. The campsites, indeed the entire campground, is a mixture of yellowish-white sand and gravel interspersed with a smattering of very young eucalyptus saplings. Three other motorhomes and two fifth-wheels are in the park and save for a woman walking her two small dogs with her two young children, everyone seems hunkered down inside their rigs presumably with the AC going full blast. Frankly, it’s too hot to go outside to find out.
Pat made cocktails for us, fed the cats, set out chips & dip, then made some quesodillas for dinner. Mouse has decided the coolest spot in the Bounder is the bathtub while Wheezie sleeps in her usual spot under the sofa and Samantha has taken up residence atop a blanket on one of the booth seats at the dining table.
Up at 7:00, start the coffee, check the outside thermometer: 84º. Not a good sign of things to come. Pat called my attention to what appeared to be some oil drippings on our outside step. Looked insignificant to me and I thought it might have been condensation dripping down from the air conditioners that had been running all night. Departure time revolved around the one ritual that guides all further activities for the day: the morning dump. Enough said. We managed to hit the road at nine o’clock by which time the temperature had risen to 96º. East on CA-46 to CA-99, then south into Bakersfield where we picked up CA-58 east over Tehachapi Pass and across the high desert.
We stopped for lunch at noon in a rest area near Edwards Air Force Base where the space shuttle lands when the weather is too crappy in Florida. When we got out to stretch our legs, we both noticed even more oil accumulation on the door step. Again, it was more like a stain on the step’s surface and a check under the rig indicated a tiny intermittent drip. All gauges on the Bounder’s dash indicated normal operating parameters so I decided it was something I’d mention to our mechanic when we got back home. Half an hour later we were back on the road and headed towards Barstow where we finally intercepted the start of I-40 eastbound. From Barstow, I-40 follows old Route 66 all the way to Oklahoma City. Our destination for the day was more modest: Kingman, Arizona where we pulled into a Love’s Truck Stop eight miles east of town around five o’clock.
I overshot the alignment of the Bounder’s back end with the first fuel pump and when I tried to back up a few feet, discovered we had no reverse! I pulled ahead to the second pump instead and while the 46 gallons needed to refill flowed into the gas tank, Pat & I added a quart of transmission fluid to the engine. When I went inside to pay the bill I grabbed six quarts of oil and four quarts of transmission fluid to replenish our supply. Back in the Bounder to pull away from the pump, it was obvious the transmission was not working properly and needed professional attention. Since Kingman was the largest city in northwest Arizona and this was Sunday evening, it made sense to head back into town, find a campground for the night, and deal with the transmission problems in the morning.
We pulled into the Kingman KOA at 6:30, parked in front of the office and went inside to get a campsite. Back behind the wheel, I put the Bounder in drive and went absolutely nowhere! Visions of blocking the campground’s office door for the night flashed in my head. Racing the engine, she finally started to move forward and I followed the campground’s golf cart to our site wishing its driver would move a little faster because I didn’t know how much longer the transmission would last.
We California boys couldn’t handle the local heat, so our first priority was to get the Bounder hooked up to shore power, sewer, water, & TV cable, then turn the AC on inside. Pat looked under the rig near the doorsteps and spotted a slow drip, so he set up a sheet of newspaper to capture and monitor the evidence. Two hours of cooling down and getting 400 miles of desert driving out of our systems later, we were ready to take a closer look at our problem. I crawled under the Bounder with a lantern and located the source of the drip which the newspaper indicated was relatively minor, once the engine was turned off. It emanated from a box descending from the drive shaft about one third of the way back from the front of the Bounder.
My plan of attack was to accumulate as much evidence as possible and call our mechanic Carlos back in Oakland in the morning. With Pat’s camera, I took a picture of the leaking box, then headed back inside to write down the chain of events:
1. The red light on the dash which read Auto Park that had been on since leaving Oakland.
2. The initial oil noticed on the doorstep in Lost Hills.
3. The transmission temperature gauge had given normal readings throughout the entire trip.
4. More oil on the doorstep at the Boron, California rest area lunch stop.
5. No reverse available at Kingman truck stop fuel pump.
6. Sluggish transmission performance during eight mile drive back into Kingman.
7. Initial failure of Drive when pulling away from KOA office.
Okay! That’s it. Nothing to do until tomorrow morning when I call Carlos back in Oakland. Get his opinion as to the nature of the problem and his estimate of what I’ll have to pay to have it fixed. But will it be fixed in time to still meet my aunt and uncle at the Grand Canyon? The bigger question: after paying for the repairs, will we still be able to afford to go on to the Grand Canyon? Stay tuned!
Up at 6:30 after a return to bed at 6:00 a.m. failed to produce any more sleep. I busied myself with making coffee, then cigarettes but less than an hour was consumed in the process so I started working on the blog. Finally 8:00 a.m. arrived and I called Moturis in San Leandro only to get their overnight answering service who told me the office opened at nine. I started worrying if when I did get through, Carlos would be off on vacation for the week. A morning check under the rig revealed no further dripping onto the newspaper during the night, clearly indicating the problem was related to running the engine.
Old car in front of Russel’s. Sign on door reads, "We keep them running a long time!"
Nine o’clock finally arrived and I placed my second call to Moturis, asked for Carlos, and when he came on the line I heaved a sigh of temporary relief. After telling him everything I knew and answering a few of his questions, he told me the problem was in the parking brake mechanism box, the very box I had photographed the night before. I was quite surprised when he said the Auto Park light on the dash was directly related to the problem and was designed to warn of problems with the box under the chassis.
I may be able to create websites and write computer blogs, but when it comes to anything mechanical, i.e. engines, transmissions and the like, I’m a complete idiot. Don’t even know how to change oil in a vehicle. Carlos tried to explain to me that the parking brake mechanism box was made up of a sensor and a control valve that sent a signal to the transmission indicating whether or not the vehicle’s parking brake was engaged. It had it’s own reservoir of transmission fluid and filler cap which we needed to get to and replenish. Visions of a circus contortionist flashed through my mind as I envisioned crawling under the rig, fighting simultaneously with eye glasses, a flash light, and trying to pour a quart of fluid into a filler cap I couldn’t see. Carlos asked us to go and do that while he looked up some information on the box after which he would call us back.
Per Carlos’ instructions, we first started the engine and went outside to check the dipstick on the transmission. It indicated the proper amount of fluid on the stick for a cold start. I went back in and turned off the engine. Next, Pat insisted he would be the one to crawl under the rig and found the filler cap to the parking brake mechanism immediately. He reported that he could see the empty reservoir and thought he could pour the transmission fluid in without need for a funnel and tube. Successful, he crawled back out and we went back into the air conditioned Bounder to get out of the outside morning heat that was already up to 84º. I turned the engine on to see if Auto Park light would go out on the dash; it didn’t.
We got Carlos back on the line and he was pleased with the results from the transmission dipstick check and the fact that Pat had successfully filled the parking brake mechanism’s reservoir. We’d now be able to safely drive to a mechanic where Carlos estimated we should have to pay about $500 for a new box with parts & labor. But he was still worried about possible damage to the transmission itself and asked us to perform one more test when we got ready to leave the campground: leave the emergency parking brake engaged, put the transmission in drive, and see if we could move the rig. If we could, there was additional damage that would need to be addressed and would cost an additional $1,000. If the brakes held, all was good and only the box would need to be replaced.
I called Russel’s Auto & RV, told them of the problem and what our own mechanic had told us. They said they could handle it and to come on over. We did Carlos’ last test with the emergency brake, it held, and we passed! Russel’s was just a mile away and when we pulled in they had us hook up to their shore power so we could run the air conditioner for the cats. The owner’s wife gave us a ride to the nearest shopping area and dropped us off. I got some rubber bands for my hair at Walgreens, then we headed across the street to Golden Corral Buffet where I got my first senior discount! After lunch we walked over to the Walmart Superstore where Pat failed to find any Halloween supplies that he wanted. Instead of calling Russel’s to pick us back up, we decided to hike the ten blocks back to their shop in the hundred-degree-plus heat. A steady breeze helped make it bearable.
Back at the shop, they told us they would have to order the part and it would be in tomorrow morning. They’d call us when it came in and we headed back to the KOA for another night. Once hooked up, we got into our bathing suits and headed for the campground pool. After forty minutes or so in the water, I headed back to the Bounder and took a much needed nap. Two vans full of European teenagers and their parents pulled in just before sundown and took over the campground’s cabins. Pat and I sat in our air conditioned rig sipping cocktails and watching the flurry of activity. After watching a couple of shows on TV, we hit the bedroom around ten o’clock.
Pat was up by 6:15 and I crawled out of bed at 7:00. Neither of us is used to running the Bounder’s air conditioners all night and all day, but in this Arizona heat we have no other choice. The white noise created by them makes it difficult to understand normal conversation without raising and directing our voices. I started the coffee, went to work on the blog and waited for the phone call from Russel’s indicating our part had come it. The phone rang at 9:10 a.m. The part had arrived.
After I finished updating this blog, we disconnected the hookups, pulled out of the KOA, and drove the 8/10ths of a mile back over to Russel’s Auto & RV Repair, arriving at ten after ten. We hooked the Bounder up to their shore power to turn on our air conditioners, then I shaved, brushed my teeth, and rolled a new day’s supply of cigarettes while Charlie was under our chassis installing the new part. The shock came when I went inside to pay the bill. Carlos had estimated $500, yet Russel’s charged us $270! I was delighted!! Great folks; great service. If you ever have a breakdown near Kingman, Arizona, these are the folks you want to help you out.
Temperatures were in the low nineties when we pulled out of Kingman at 11:30 with only 111 miles to drive to Williams. The first 40 miles saw the temperature climb to 102º, somewhat cooler than what we had experience during the past few days. But after 50 miles, the desert changed to lush green valleys and the temperature started dropping. By the time we got off I-40 on the Williams exit, it was down to the low eighties! We pulled into the Railside RV Ranch around 1:45, got a site for three nights, drove through the park to our assigned lot, and got the Bounder hooked up. No air conditioning needed here! It was 81º, there was a light to moderate breeze, and it all felt quite wonderful blowing through the open windows. Even the cats seemed to appreciate the change of climate.
The Grand Canyon Railroad’s tracks run right alongside this campground (hence its name) and Pat and I took a walk over to get a closer look. Fascinated by the black-eyed susans growing in the field, he took a few photos. After a forty minute walk along the railroad tracks we returned to the Bounder where Pat fixed me a sandwich. I worked on the website while he grabbed a catnap.
The campground office had told us the train would be coming back from its run to the Grand Canyon between 6:15 and 6:30, so at six o’clock we grabbed the cameras and walked over to track side where we chatted with other campers while awaiting the train’s arrival. Smoke billowing from the steam engine finally appeared in the distance around 6:45 and I turned on the camcorder to capture video of it’s approach and passing. Earlier we had stopped by the campground office and bought tickets for tomorrow’s two-hour train ride to the Grand Canyon.
It was seven o’clock and nearly dark when the train completed its passing by the campground and pulled into the station in downtown Williams a mile away. Pat and I returned to the Bounder where he fixed a terrific chicken-ala-Lucey dinner which we washed down with a bottle of Chardonnay. With the sun’s departure, the temperature has dropped into the low sixties, all the windows of the Bounder are open, and it feels like we’re back home in Oakland… climate-wise, that is!
Neither one of us got much sleep last night despite the fact that we had no need to run the air conditioner. I-40 passes by a mile north of the campground and given the nature of the canyon we are in, the traffic noise is amplified and annoyingly audible with all of the Bounder’s windows open. I slept with earplugs in but Pat can’t use them and consequently he had a fitful night’s sleep. The campground provided us with a shuttle ride to the train station in downtown Williams delivering us to the station by 9:45 where we watched a wild-west shoot-em-up performance before boarding. The train pulled out of the station promptly at 10:30 for the 65 mile run up the the south rim of the Grand Canyon, lumbering along at 40 mph. Staff offered us a choice of mimosas or bloody marys and we settled on the former along with some danish. We were riding in the dome observation car and a few miles up the tracks a Navajo Indian named Clarence Clearwater joined us with his guitar and entertained us with songs and several stale jokes.
We pulled into the south rim station around 12:45, hiked the 47 steps up to the El Tovar Hotel which overlooks the south rim. Wearing a backpack containing my still camera, extra lenses, flash attachment, movie camera, and binoculars, and Pat lugging my tripod, we walked over to the rim, took in the view and started shooting pictures. I got some good camcorder footage but the best shots are made with a still camera and I started shooting like Ansel Adams. We walked eastward along the rim to a spot where we saw others being photographed out on a rock and decided that would make a great shot for us as well. The folks there ahead of us asked me if I’d shoot them with their camera and I obliged. Next thing I knew others were asking me to do the same thing and I found myself becoming a photographer/entertainer as I cajoled each into smiling faces and dramatic positions.
Eventually Pat & I got our own shots and headed back westward along the rim in search of Bright Angel Trail. One of the folks back at the Williams campground had advised us to walk a hundred yards down it where we would find a tunnel through an overhanging rock and provided for a spectacular view. Eventually we located the trail head and started the hike down where, in short order, we came across the tunnel through the rock. Indeed the view was spectacular and we could see the switchbacks along the canyon walls in the distance where the trail continued its way down to the canyon’s bottom. A closer look revealed the mule riders headed back up to the rim.
California condors circled both overhead and below us, riding on rising heat currents. I was pleasantly surprised when my camera cooperated with a series of rapid-fire shots while following the condors through the viewfinder. On the walk back to El Tovar we came upon a squirrel eating on the grass along the walkway and I took another five or ten shots hoping at least one of them would turn out to be interesting.
Frankly, we found the south rim to be a little disappointing after our trip to the north rim back in 2000. The north rim sits at the junction of two canyons, one running east-west, the other north south, but the south rim overlook contains only the east-west view and with the sun still high in the sky, the colors were muted. Unfortunately, our train left for its return trip to Williams at 4:30 and we wouldn’t be able to see the shadows of sunset creep into the canyon. Although the colors in our photos would be bland, they were still of the Grand Canyon and would still look pretty darn good. Just not Ansel Adams quality.
By 3:30 we had collapsed into the comfy leather chairs in the cool and shady lobby of the El Tovar, the hiking and afternoon heat having exhausted us. We made our way back to the train station by four and boarded at four-fifteen. Only six of us occupied the dome area of our car on the way back to Williams and we made an impromptu party of it with cheese, crackers, veggie trays, and free champaign served by the railroad. We pulled into Williams at 6:45 and Jack was there from our campground to pick us up. Down to my last twenty-dollar bill and too cheap to pay the $3 fee for the maximum $100 withdrawal from the railroad station’s ATM, I asked Jack to take us to an ATM in town where I withdrew my standard $200 for $3.
Back home at the Bounder and exhausted from a long day, Pat made dinner for the cats and bourbon & 7’s for us while I hooked the camcorder up to the TV to see what I had managed to get on tape. Afterwards, we watched a little TV, then Pat headed off to bed at ten o’clock while I stayed up to watch the news. The pictures in our cameras could wait until tomorrow.
Both of us slept much better last night, but the fresh air flowing through the Bounder’s windows had us both up by 6:30 in the morning. I got the coffee pot going while Pat fed the cats and by the time he sat down, the coffee was ready to pour. I took my coffee over to the desk and fired up the laptop in preparation for downloading the 200+ photos I had taken yesterday at the Grand Canyon, anxious to see how well they had come out. After hooking up the card reader, I got the camera out of the backpack and opened it to remove the capture card. There was no capture card in the camera! Let me repeat that: there was no capture card in the camera. The camera’s card slot was empty. I didn’t take 200+ photos at the Grand Canyon yesterday. I had taken zero. No wonder the camera’s battery had never worn down yesterday. No wonder it was happy to do rapid fire shots of gliding condors. It didn’t have to deal with saving anything!
To make matters worse, Pat had not been sufficiently inspired to take many photos with his own camera. In fact, he had taken only five of the canyon itself!
Truth be told, the photos wouldn’t have been that good anyway. Our four hours at the canyon had been while the sun was directly overhead. There were no shadows in the canyon and the colors were washed out. The best photos of the Grand Canyon are taken during sun-up and sundown, but by the time sundown was taking place in the canyon, we were halfway back to Williams on the train.
Today was the day we were supposed to meet up with my aunt & uncle who were driving in from Florida on their own cross-country trip. They had made it to Phoenix last night with 40 minutes to spare before the start of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game they had come to see. Today they would be driving up to Tusayan and spending the night in a hotel just outside the Grand Canyon before leaving tomorrow morning for Blanding, Utah. A map check revealed their most direct route from Phoenix would not bring them through Williams as I had originally thought.
Thank God for cell phones which allow us to coordinate plans over distance. We realized that if Dick & Dottie detoured to Williams, they wouldn’t arrive before late afternoon. Assuming we spent a minimum two hours together, it would be dark by the time they got to Tusayan, hence they’d never see the Grand Canyon. Instead, we would drive up to Tusayan in the Bounder, go into the national park together where we would retake the photos I had failed to capture yesterday… and this time with the sundown shadowing we never got to see, then drive back here to the Williams campground where we had already paid for the night.
Dick & Dottie wouldn’t be in Tusayan until three or four in the afternoon, so Pat & I had most of the day in the campground to kill. I updated the website and took my first real shower since leaving Oakland. I told the campground staff of our plans and asked that they hold our campsite for when we got back late tonight. We pulled out of Railside RV Ranch at ten after two and headed up Arizona 64 towards Tusayan where we parked at the McDonalds across from my aunt & uncle’s hotel at 3:35. Dick & Dottie finally arrived an hour later and we spent a half hour doing the meet & greet thing after fifteen years of last seeing each other. However, that meant it was now after five o’clock and it gets totally dark around here by 7:30, so we’d have to get a move on if we were to see the sun going down in the canyon, just five miles away.
They went over to their hotel to check in and unload their minivan while Pat and I drove the Bounder over to the Grand Canyon Airport where there was free parking for the canyon shuttle bus. It was 5:45 by the time Dick & Dottie picked us up and we drove into the park arriving at the canyon rim at 6:15, a full two hours after we had left on the train back to Williams yesterday. Long shadows were pouring into the canyon and with the sun so low in the sky, the colors on the canyon walls were brilliant. This time I double-checked the camera’s card slot to ensure I was actually capturing photos.
The sun goes down quickly at the Grand Canyon and in little more than an hour the show was over and darkness had settled in. We drove down to the gift shop at the Hopi House where my aunt and uncle bought some souvenirs to take to their great-grandchildren in Minnesota, the walked over to the El Tovar hoping to have dinner. Unfortunately, the waiting time for a table was over 90 minutes, so we headed out on the patio of the cocktail lounge where we ordered drinks and appetizers. Our table was fifty feet from the canyon’s rim. We couldn’t see into the canyon in the dark, but just knowing we were that close and listening to the loud chirping of the crickets made for a very memorable evening. As it turned out, the appetizer portions were large enough to serve as a meal.
As dinner and drinks wrapped up, I called the waiter over and reached for my billfold to hand him my credit card in spite of my uncle’s protests. No credit card! The slot in my wallet where it is normally stored was empty. I soon realized I must have left it in the ATM back in Williams last night. God, don’t I love getting older and becoming more forgetful! I gave the waiter another credit card while my mind raced with all the problems of not having my regular card for the rest of the trip.
Pat and I left my aunt and uncle at the table and walked over to the rim trail to have an after dinner cigarette where our breath was taken away by the night time sky overhead. The big dipper, Cassiopeia, Sirius, and Scorpio were brilliantly clear around us and the Milky Way ghosted a trail overhead. Dick & Dottie joined us at the wall and were just as amazed. After thirty minutes of stargazing in the warm evening breeze we headed back to the car and drove back into Tusayan where they dropped us off at the Bounder.
A map check revealed that we could shave nearly a hundred miles off our journey if we were to start from here in the morning rather than return to Willams. Granted, we had already paid for the night at the campground back there, but we could stay in the airport parking lot overnight for free. No hookups, of course, but the night air was pleasant and we had no trouble falling to sleep as soon as we got into the motorhome. In the morning we’d call down to Williams to see if anyone had turned in my credit card, in which case we’d drive back down there. Otherwise, the next call would be to Merrill-Lynch to cancel the card.
The Grand Canyon Helicopters woke me up at 6:00 a.m. as they fired up their engines and took off for their sunrise trips into the canyon directly over the Bounder in the airport’s parking lot. I had three hours to kill before any businesses would be open to answering phone calls about my credit card. With no shore power I couldn’t make coffee unless I wanted to fire up the Bounder’s generator and burn through some more gas. I had no internet access either, but at least I could update the files on my computer and upload them once access became available.
After writing the blog, I downloaded yesterday’s photos to the computer. Actually I started to when the laptop’s battery shut everything down on me. So I fired up the generator and got back to downloading the photos. I had discovered too late while shooting yesterday that my camera’s ISO speed had been set to 800 and, sure enough, most of the shots I took were washed out. Guess I just wasn’t destined to get good Grand Canyon photos on this trip!
Nine o’clock finally arrived and I called the phone number Pat got for me out of the Woodall’s Guide for the Railside RV Ranch back in Williams. To my pleasant surprise, Jack, the fellow who had shuttled us to and from the train on Wednesday, answered the phone. No, he hadn’t found my credit card in the van and yes, he would look up the number for the 1st National Bank of Arizona for me. Next call was to the bank and yes, they had found my card. However, they had already destroyed it. Seems their ATM waits a few moments for a customer to remove a card, then draws it back into the machine and shreds it for safety reasons.
Next call was to my financial advisor Tim Score back at Merrill-Lynch in Berkeley. They’d be happy to overnight a new card to me, but none of the towns we were planning to go through had overnight service to them. Ultimately I told them to ship the new card to our house in Oakland and we’d use Pat’s card for the rest of the trip. With that, we pulled out of the Grand Canyon Airport at 10:30 a.m. and set sail for Blanding, Utah, 251 miles away.
Although Arizona state highway 64 goes through Grand Canyon National Park on its way to Desert View and Cameron, we still had to pay the $25 park entry fee. Well worth the money as we drove along the eastern end of the south rim where we pulled over and got some more great shots on this, our third day at the Grand Canyon. And this time I had a card in the camera and the ISO speed set to 200. An hour and a half later we were at the junction of U.S. 89 coming north out of Flagstaff and sixteen miles later we turned northeast onto U.S. 160, the Navajo Trail. The views were spectacular! First the Painted Desert, then bright red mesas and rock formations.
Outside of Tuba City we picked up Tony, a Navajo hitchhiker who gave us a running commentary on what we were seeing (or not initially seeing) along the Navajo Trail. We dropped him off in Kayenta where we gassed up, then headed north on U.S. 163 towards Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. It was a short twenty mile jaunt to Monument Valley and when it came into view we immediately recognized the scenes from the cowboy movies of old. We pulled over two or three times and I climbed up to the Bounder’s roof to get shots of the burnt umber and orange pillars jutting up from the desert floor. Unfortunately, Monument Valley is not nearly as large as I expected… perhaps ten to fifteen miles from end to end which U.S. 163 cuts through the middle of.
With Monument Valley behind us, U.S. 163 treated us to even more spectacular views of rock formations, mesas, ridges, and canyons of all hues. The prettiest spot of all was the little town of Mexican Hat, Utah named for the flat rock perfectly balanced on a tapered column of red rock. Coming into Bluff, Utah, we saw the face of a huge escarpment with a scalloped facade in a rainbow of colors. Further up the road on the north side of Bluff we came upon two vertical columns named the Twin Navajos. When I pulled over into the parking lot of a roadside art shop to photograph them I discovered the Auto Park light on the dash comes on when I put the transmission into reverse and would not allow the motorhome to move. Needless to say, Carlos will have to trouble-shoot the problem but for the rest of the trip we’ll have to make sure we get campsites with pull-throughs.
We arrived at the Blue Mountain RV Park on the south side of Blanding, Utah at five o’clock and were assigned site #13. After hooking up to shore power, sewer, et. al., I fired up the laptop to access the free Wi-Fi signal. No signal! Ten minutes later the power went out. We were told by management that their provider had notified them that internet service is out throughout Blanding. A switch of pigtails restored our power and the air conditioners have been humming away nicely ever since and keeping us cool in the 90º local heat. There is no cell phone signal in Blanding so we’re unable to contact my aunt & uncle who are supposed to be arriving later at the Hampton Inn. With no car, we can’t drive over there. Hopefully they’ll check out the only two campgrounds available in Blanding and find us.
Still annoyed that I couldn’t pick up a wi-fi signal in the Bounder, I decided to do an experiment. I unplugged the laptop, left it on, and carried it across the campground to a spot just below their wi-fi broadcast antenna, all to no avail. No signal whatsoever anywhere. When I went to the office to tell them I found the door closed and locked and all the inside lights turned off. No one was around anywhere.
Forty minutes later, just as dark had enveloped the campground, the power went out again and this time no amount of cajoling circuit breakers or switching to other outlets would restore it. We checked with the one other camper in campground who appeared to be home and found that his power was just dandy. He suggested that we find one of the pull-through sites that had a light on at the pole. After checking I discovered his was the only site with a working pole light. He suggested I back into one of the sites along the highway that had 30 amp power, but that raised our transmission’s reverse problem.
I decided to try backing up anyway. If all went as I expected, I pull ahead then park in the site next to the fellow with the working pole light. Amazingly, the Bounder had no objection to being put in reverse from park; it only wonked out when I tried to go from drive to reverse. A relief of sorts: we weren’t entirely without reverse. Pat guided me back into the 30 amp site in the row behind us that runs along the highway, hooked everything up, and so far the air conditioners are humming along again. The night sky is nearly as gorgeous as last night’s at the Grand Canyon, dimmed slightly by the lights along the highway and shower house in the campground.
Sunset in Blanding, Utah
Pat wasn’t hungry, so I nuked a chicken breast and last night’s left over Spanish rice for myself along with a glass of wine and all three cats joined me at the table to get a piece of the chicken. Pat finally succumbed to fixing himself a bowl of cereal. After eating I got busy writing about the day’s adventures. By nine o’clock we were ready for bed. After all the trouble with the campground’s power and finally resolving the issue, we decided to turn off the air conditioners and open up the windows for sleeping given that the desert had finally cooled down to a comfortable sleeping temperature. The only thing that could possibly disturb our sleep now was the passing traffic on the highway directly behind our rig. It didn’t.
My aunt and uncle never showed up. With no cell service on our own phones, no pay phone in the campground, and the office locked up tight for the night, we have no way of contacting them. Hopefully somewhere down the road, we’ll get access to the internet again, upload this blog, and they’ll be able to read why we stood them up tonight.
Perhaps because we’re further east and the sun is coming up earlier is the reason I was awake by 5:30 this morning, but I managed to stay in bed until 6:00 a.m. When I crawled out from under the covers Pat was already awake and smoking a cigarette. I started the coffee pot then got to work finishing the blog despite the fact that we had no internet service. About 7:30 the campground’s electrician showed up and I went out to tell him what had happened in our first site. He insinuated that we had caused the power failure ourselves by plugging into the pole under load which in turn had damaged the pigtail the campground had lent us. I assured him that we had turned everything off in the Bounder before doing so. Assuming he had not done the original wiring of the boxes I made the comment that only an idiot would install a three-prong outlet with the center ground slot pointing up which in turn had forced us to install our own pigtail upside down, making for a very loose connection. He fired back that everyone was entitled to their opinion.
My morning dump in the campground’s shower house finished with the toilet overflowing. Why was I not surprised? The sooner we got away from this poor excuse for a campground, the better. Despite the fact that we were up at six, it was still 10:23 by the time we pulled onto the road. With the GPS programmed to Hanksville, we had a short 125 miles to cover on Utah 95. Depending on what we found there, we’d make the decision on whether to go the additional 117 miles to Salina.
The best testament I can offer to Utah 95 is that Pat took 354 photos while we drove. At our pullouts along the way, I managed to take another 38. For every one of it’s 117 miles, Utah 95 presented beautiful vistas and changing landscapes from sienna mesas rising into the cloudless blue sky to to umber rock columns to tortured chasms and gorges rivaling the Grand Canyon. Around every bend was another treat for the eyes. By the time we pulled over at Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the 87º when we left Blanding had climbed to 104º in the noon day sun.
We pulled into Blondie’s Cafe in Hanksville at 1:30, having averaged only 39 mph since Blanding. It was a classic country store/eatery and while we waited for Pat’s hamburger & fries and my Reuben and chocolate malt, I made conversation with the cook and cashier. When I asked for a photo of them, the cook came out with a machete and posed behind the cashier as if ready to slaughter him. It was great entertainment for a very laid back day.
For the first time since leaving Tusayan, Arizona, I had a cell phone signal and found four voice mail messages waiting for me. Two were from Dick & Dottie: the first reporting they had arrived at the Blanding Hampton Inn at seven o’clock and wondering where we were, the second mentioning that there was a campground right next to their hotel as well as a restaurant, suggesting we should come by. Of course we had no transportation unless we wanted to unhook the Bounder and no guarantee there would be somewhere to park it where they were at. I placed a call to their cell phone to explain what had happened to us and got a recorded message saying I had misdialed the number. Strange considering I had them on speed dial in the phone’s memory and had used it numerous times before with success. Stranger yet, despite my three bars of signal strength, Pat couldn’t get a signal on his phone at all despite the fact it had been charged overnight.
The temperature hovered in the mid to high nineties as we pulled out of Hanksville and headed west on Utah 24 towards Capitol Reef National Park and ultimately Salina. Again with the gorgeous vistas too numerous to recall. My only concern was some of the steep climbs over passes that twice raised our transmission temperature to over 200º. In the middle of the narrow park we stopped to view the thousand-year-old pictographs left by the Fremont Indians at the base of a two-hundred foot high smooth red sandstone cliff.
Having exited the western side of Capitol Reef, we came upon the small farming towns of Torrey, Bicknell, and Lyman. The carefully manicured lawns, the perfect little homes, and streets so clean you could eat off of them all spelled Mormon Country. From there Utah 24 climbed out of the valley onto a high plateau surrounded by 10,000 foot forested peaks. As we climbed the plateau, so did the Bounder’s transmission temperature, the grades occasionally slowing us to 30 mph. Despite the gentle uprising of the plateau, one summit sign in the middle of what otherwise appeared to be flat terrain announced we had reached an altitude of 8,300 feet above sea level. No wonder the Bounder was having a difficult time.
Counting the miles down to Salina, we descended from the plateau through a lush green and forested valley, but at every slight upgrade, the transmission mysteriously went into overdrive. Eight miles short of Salina I pulled over and told Pat we needed to add a quart of transmission fluid as the slightest pressure on the accelerator would engage overdrive. A check of the transmission dipstick revealed we had plenty of fluid in the reservoir and, warned by Carlos not to over-fill it, we decided not to put any more in but rather lumber the short distance into Salina where we’d be able to find a mechanic if the problem persisted. However, turning the engine off on the side of the road for ten minutes seemed to have cured the problem. The Bounder drove into Salina with no further orneriness and we stopped at a Chevron to take on 40 gallons of gas at $3.99/gallon.
The outside air temperature was in the mid nineties despite the five o’clock (six o’clock local time) time of day and just standing outside filling the Bounder’s gas tank was enough to soak my shirt with sweat. We pulled into the Butch Cassidy RV Park on Salina’s southeast side where they promised they had working wi-fi in the park. Camping fee: $21! Better yet, they had a pool which Pat & I promptly took advantage of after hooking up to shore power at our assigned site and turning on the air conditioning for the cats, a priority since Samantha exited the bedroom with sweat-soaked fur just after we turned the engine off.
For the first few minutes we had the pool entirely to ourselves but were soon joined by twelve-year-old Markus Tschernutter from Frohnloh, Germany who, despite his very limited English and our nonexistent German, demonstrated his cannonball technique in the pool and chatted amicably with us. Markus was touring the U.S. with his grandmother, Margit Faltus of Dachau, Germany, in a rented RV. They’d been traveling to national parks in the southwestern states for a month and had two weeks left on their journey. Their destination for tomorrow was Bryce Canyon National Park.
After cooling off in the pool, Pat & I returned to the Bounder for evening cocktails. I finally managed to get a call through to Dick & Dottie who had just arrived in Pueblo, Colorado. Dottie told me that when they went next door to the restaurant in Blanding last night, they found it had already closed for the night. They tried a convenience store in a gas station across the street where they managed to buy some fruit, but were hurried out as it, too, was closing for the night. Apparently Blanding, Utah rolls up its sidewalks promptly at 8:00 p.m. She mentioned that they had indeed driven down to our campground but when they found the office dark and closed for the night, assumed we weren’t there and went back to their hotel.
After the call, Pat read his Brent Monahan book on the sofa while I worked on the blog. Despite the three to four bar strong wi-fi signal in the campground, I had trouble maintaining a connection with my webhost’s server which absolutely refused to allow me to upload the day’s photos. Had I exceeded my space allotment with my webhost? Was the internet service in the campground intermittent? Was my laptop acting up because I was nearing its storage capacity? By bedtime it was cool enough to turn off the air conditioners and open the windows to a light cool breeze and a chorus of crickets. Both of us were sound asleep by 10:30.
Up at 6:30 and it didn’t take long before the evening coolness gave way to daytime heat. I fired up the laptop after turning on the coffee maker and, surprise of surprise, I was able to upload Thursday’s photos! I’m still getting "Waiting For Server" messages, but apparently the files are getting uploaded. Next I set about writing of yesterday’s adventures. It’s now after nine o’clock and if we want to be out of here by ten, I’ll have to work on the photos for yesterday at our next stopping point. Today’s destination is Ely, Nevada, 222 miles away on U.S. 50 which we intercepted in Salina last night. Besides, the outside air temperature is already up to 87º and getting too uncomfortable to work in the Bounder without closing the windows and turning on the AC. Despite an overnight charge, Pat’s cell phone is still not working and we’ve concluded he’ll have to take it in to the AT&T store when we return home.
We pulled out of the Butch Cassidy RV Park in Salina, Utah at 10:30 when the outside air temperature was already up to 90º. We turned left onto westbound U.S. 50 which immediately irritated our GPS, Bonnie, who wanted us to turn right and get on I-70. We were ten miles out of Salina before Bonnie finally recalculated to the direction we wanted to go and stopped telling us to make a legal U-turn. Twenty miles later we turned onto southbound I-15, drove the twelve miles to the U.S. 50 West exit and headed toward Delta. Five miles west of Delta was Hinckley, the last town in Utah and 83 miles from the Nevada border.
During the 83-mile trek across the desert and a mountain pass, a new problem cropped up: our gas gauge needle started fluctuating wildly between full and empty. Knowing we had just filled up back in Salina, I wasn’t overly concerned but this was definitely a new development that Carlos, our mechanic, would have to look at when we got back home. All other systems appeared to be working normally.
It was one o’clock when we pulled into the Border Inn at the Utah/Nevada state line and went into Grandma’s Kitchen in the back of the casino for lunch. On the way out we got into a conversation with two of their workers who had the day off, found them interesting, and invited them into the air conditioned Bounder to chat. Devin asked if he could hitch a ride with us to Fallon, we agreed, and we drove over to his trailer where he ran in and got his things for the trip. Devin was 22, a dishwasher at the Border Inn, and had decided he’d had enough of living in the middle of nowhere.
We pulled into the Ely KOA around four, got a site, and set up for the night. After a few cocktails and snacks, the three of us walked around the campground and Devin joined into a volleyball game on the grass. Pat & I sat on a picnic table and watched the volleyball game until it got too dark to see the ball and broke up. The three of us headed back to the Bounder and bedded down for the night by 9:30.
It was 8:10 by the time everyone awoke this morning and I got the coffee pot going. Our plans were to take a ride on Ely’s Ghost Train which was scheduled to depart at 9:30, so we needed to speed things up from our usual slow-paced morning routine. We broke camp by 8:50 and drove the three miles into Ely to the East Ely train depot and bought three tickets. We had heard about the Ghost Train on one of our home TV shows called Bay Area Backroads which had done an episode on The Loneliest Road in America. Devin, who had grown up in Nevada, had always wanted to take the trip, so we bought three tickets at $24 each, quite cheap after the $316 for two tickets on the Grand Canyon Railroad.
Of course the Ghost Train was a much shorter run, much like the Big Trees Railroad in Felton which we had taken twice before. The train pulled out of the station promptly at 9:30 with 18 paying passengers and a handful of children, the diesel engine leading the two passenger cars, open air flat car, and caboose. The famous steam engine had been pulled from service when they discovered cracks in its axles the previous year and the town was now trying to raise $250,000 to have them repaired.
We circled around Ely, then out of town via two tunnels and paralleled U.S. 50 up through a canyon to a gold mine where we turned around for the return trip, a docent talking over a speaker system the whole time calling out points of interest along the way. Frankly, there’s nothing scary about the Ghost Train, the scenery is nothing more than sage and a few cottonwood trees through desert like hills sloping gently upward a few hundred feet to either side. The name is intended more as a preservation of the small town’s past as a mining community and a great marketing ploy to attract tourists to a place in the middle of nowhere that really has nothing else going for it. The $24 ticket price should have been a clue: you get what you pay for!
Back at the train depot by 11:30, we drove the two miles back out of town to the Sinclair station on the sliver of an Indian reservation where the gas was 10¢ cheaper than in town and filled up. The advertised price on the signs was $3.89 but the small print on the pumps advised it was $3.93 if you used a credit card. Price in town was $4.07.
We set sail by noon for Fallon, 258 miles to the west and I decided to baby the transmission today by kicking out the cruise control while climbing grades and manually applying the accelerator to keep from racing in overdrive. The passes and valleys of Nevada’s Great Basin were much cooler than the temperatures we encountered back in Arizona and Utah, fluctuating between the mid-80s to the mid-90s. My manual control of the accelerator on grades seemed to pay off as the transmission’s temperature reached 200º only twice despite the fact we crossed ten different summits all above 7,000 feet. At one point Pat asked if I wanted him to drive, but with a fuel gauge that kept inexplicably fluctuating back and forth, a squirrelly transmission, and crosswinds gusting across the valleys, I decided it best that I stay behind the wheel to monitor any nuance of change in the Bounder’s performance.
Devin mostly slept on the sofa while Pat and I chatted in our seats, listening to the iPod playing light jazz, and watching Bonnie, our GPS, tick off the miles to Fallon. We passed through Eureka and eventually came to the 10% switchback grade that snaked its way down to Austin which we slowed to 25 mph to negotiate. Several more valleys and ranges to cross, but nothing to inspire the oohs and ahs of the past few days. Pat did take a few photos, but the first time I pulled over was at the shoe tree featured in the Bay Area Backroads piece and by then we were less than 50 miles from Fallon. Another three miles up the road we pulled off into Middlegate Station, also featured in the TV show, went inside and photographed the hundreds of dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. Back in the Bounder, we continued westward another fifteen miles and pulled over to photograph Sand Mountain, a popular huge white sand dune squeezed between a mountain range and the eastern terminus of a dry lake bed used for four-wheeling. We were twenty miles from Fallon.
Back on the road and back up to speed, we should get to Fallon around 5:30. The transmission had behaved well all day and all of the dashboard gauges had stayed in normal operating range except for the fuel gauge which went from indicating normal fuel supply to swinging back and forth like a psychotic metronome. Suddenly, a thump followed instantly by a dead engine, a chattering transmission, and a steering wheel that had lost it’s power steering and became barely maneuverable. We were driving over the dry lake bed, the highway built like a levy ten feet above it, and had no shoulder to pull onto. Of course I also had no engine and could only coast to wherever momentum would take us. Just ahead was a turnout that descended to the lake bed and wide enough in the process to allow me to get the Bounder off the pavement without tipping over. It was a tight squeeze and required some hard pulling on the steering wheel as well as some hard pushing on the brakes without the benefit of hydraulic power to either, but I managed to get the rig into the spot with just the driver’s side front tire touching the roadbed.
It was five o’clock and the GPS indicated we were sixteen miles from Fallon. We had long since concluded that Pat’s cell phone was toast and would have to be checked by the AT&T folks when we got back home. My cell phone showed no signal available. When we opened the door to go out and check the engine, the winds gusting across the lakebed sucked the door out of our hands. The temperature outside was in the low nineties. A check of the dipstick revealed we were low on oil, so we added two quarts. Back inside I tried to start the engine. It turned over but wouldn’t start.
The term Loneliest Road in America now became prophetic as we realized we had already been there ten minutes and no vehicles had passed us in either direction. Devin then mentioned that his uncle worked at a mine down the road past Middlegate Station and took this road home to Fallon every day when he got off at five o’clock. He guessed his uncle should be passing by sometime in the next fifteen to twenty minutes. In the interim we flagged down the first car that came by heading towards Fallon. It was a large cab pickup truck with two men returning from a hunting trip. We tried calling AAA with their cell phone connected to the local Fallon cell provider but kept getting the message, "Sorry! All circuits are currently busy. Please try your call later."
My biggest concern was that although the Bounder was 95% off the pavement, it was still close enough to get hit by a drunk driver not paying attention. Putting our orange cones out would be futile: the strong winds would blow them off the road and into the dry lakebed in seconds. And once the sun went down, no one would see us in the dark until it was too late. Emergency flashers? They stopping blinking after thirty seconds! Same with the right turn signal. We were sitting ducks. I asked the hunters to call 911 when they got to town and have the Nevada Highway Patrol sent out.
Ten minutes after they left, Devin managed to flag down his uncle who stopped a quarter mile past us and backed up. The uncle also had a large cab pickup with three co-workers in the back seat and another in the passenger’s seat. He promised to send his wife back out when he got to town and left. Sweating in the convection oven that was the dry lakebed we had stopped in the middle of, we went back inside the Bounder. With all of the disaster and financial problems fluttering around in my head, it was a few minutes before I realized I could turn on the Bounder’s generator and have air conditioning.
Devin’s aunt and cousins pulled up around six o’clock, he said his thank you’s and goodbyes and headed into town with his family members. At six-thirty, officer Winchester of the Nevada Highway Patrol arrived, pulled around behind the Bounder, and turned on his flashing lights. My anxiety over our predicament dropped ten points immediately. After notifying his dispatcher of his arrival and location and getting an overview of our situation, he asked for my AAA card and said it would take him awhile to make some arrangements. I went back to the Bounder and wiped the sweat off my forehead, sat down inside, and tried to cool down in the A.C. while I waited.
Twenty minutes later the officer knocked at our door and informed us that getting a tow truck large enough to tow the Bounder was proving to be a challenge. We were sixteen miles from Fallon, 75 miles from Reno, and 60 miles from Carson City. But the Burning Man festival, held every Labor Day weekend, was being set up this week at Black Rock Desert, some other event was going on at Carson City, there had been a rash of accidents and every tow company for a hundred mile radius was busier than a three-legged mule in a kicking contest.
A muted orange and yellow sunset gave way to dark and the night sky over Nevada was nearly as beautiful as at the Grand Canyon. At 7:30 officer Winchester was radioed that a tow truck was on its way up from Carson City and would arrive in about an hour and a half. He stood inside our stairwell with the Bounder’s door closed behind him, but for security reasons, never sat down. We talked about his twenty year Army career and how he ended up working these past fifteen years for the Nevada Highway Patrol. We showed him videos of the recent accidents on our street as well as the video of the raccoon on our back porch. He couldn’t leave until the tow truck arrived and we certainly couldn’t go anywhere.
Valley Towing arrived at 9:15 and in the process of trying to turn around on a ten-foot high road with no shoulder, backed too far over the edge and got stuck, blocking both lanes of U.S. 50. After ten minutes of making a bad situation worse, the driver gave up and left the rig blocking the road. He talked with officer Winchester and it was beginning to look like they’d have to get another tow truck out to get the first truck back up onto the road. The driver went back to his truck, presumably to call his dispatcher, then ten minutes later managed to get the truck’s back wheels up onto the pavement again. After a few more K-turns, he was headed back in our direction, passed the Bounder, and backed up to it.
Unable to disconnect the drive shaft with the Bounder’s present location, the truck towed us two miles up the road to where he could pull us over onto a concrete siding. With the drive shaft disconnected and the rear mud flap tied up with baling wire, the three of us climbed into the truck and drove into Fallon where he pulled us into Frank’s Auto & Diesel Repair, two miles west of downtown. By the time he unhooked us and settled the bill ($572 - $200 from AAA = $372 from us), it was 11:40 p.m. as he drove away. A check of the front door of Frank’s indicated the shop opened at 8:00 a.m.
The night was cool enough that we didn’t need the AC on. I had a quick Beam & 7 while Pat read a little of his book, then lights out and we were both asleep by 12:30.
This morning we set a record for the latest we have slept since leaving home: 7:15. I fired up the generator, then made the obligatory pot of coffee. It was 8:05 when I walked into Frank’s office which was already full of customers; not a good sign. When my turn came at the counter, I explained our situation and was told that they were so busy that they doubted they could even look at our motorhome before mid-afternoon.
I returned to Blue Boy where I drank coffee, rolled cigarettes, and did some writing for the blog. Around ten o’clock I called Carlos back at Moturis in San Leandro. He sounded even worse than when we talked to him last week while waiting for repairs in Kingman, Arizona. After describing what had happened yesterday and telling him where we were, he said we most likely needed a new fuel pump but that it was also critical that we check the fuse that controls it. Likely both would need to be replaced. Napa Auto Parts is next door to Franks and I went over there to inquire on the availability of a fuel pump for a 1997 Fleetwood Bounder. They had one in stock! Price: $150. Assuming 3-5 hours of labor this job might come in under $500 and have us out of here tonight. One could hope.
Pat alternately read his book and played solitaire at the dining table. By eleven o’clock we were both bored out of our gourds and decided to take a walk. Frank’s receptionist had mentioned Wal-Mart was half a mile down the road and we started hiking in that direction. I decided to turn back when I realized there wouldn’t be enough time to shop and get back to Frank’s by 1:00, while Pat went on without me.
I returned to the Bounder and went back to work on the blog. Pat startled me by coming in the door at 12:30 and one of Frank’s mechanics knocked on our door at 1:05 asking if I had the bolts for the detached drive shaft Not thinking about it at first, I handed him the baggy containing them that the tow truck driver had handed to me last night and I heard him crawl under the rig. Something didn’t seem right about the situation and I went outside to ask what he was about to do. He said they needed to get the Bounder up to the shop to work on it. Makes sense, I told him, but why hook up the drive shaft if all you’re going to do is tow it there? “Oh, we can’t tow it there,” he said. “We’re going to drive it over there!” Clearly by the time what I had told the office clerk our problem was had filtered down to the mechanic, the fact that the Bounder was not driveable had been left out. Time for Plan B.
He quickly determined that no power was getting to the fuel pump and started looking for the fuse box that controlled it. Sure enough, the fuse (behind the dashboard gauges) was blown. Next, check power to fuel pump. Good! Next, reconnect drive shaft. By two-thirty, we turned the Bounder’s engine, it started, and I drove it around alongside Frank’s building. Next step: drain our fuel tank because the fuel pump is located above it and it must be removed for access. Getting the calculator out, I quickly determined that our tank had over 500 pounds of fuel in it. No wonder he needed to drain it first!
However, draining a fuel tank is quite time consuming. The mechanic informed me it would take until closing time at five o’clock to complete, then he would return in the morning to work on the fuel pump. But that would leave us with no gas for the generator, hence no electric for the AC or the laptop. Their nearest outlet was more than a hundred feet away, so running an electric cord out to our rig so we could get comfortably through the night was impossible. Instead, he agreed to stop draining fuel for today and resume tomorrow morning. So, here we sit at nearly five o’clock with work to resume tomorrow. But the generator is running, the AC is on, and I’m able to write on a fully charged laptop. Also, the cell phone is fully charged and we have 2 bars of signal!
I got as much of the writing done as I could on the blog before the office closed and took the laptop in to upload the files via their wi-fi. Within an hour Eray called, having read the updates. After forty minutes on the phone, I started processing the photos for the past few days and by 8:30 took the laptop to the front of the building where I could pick up the wi-fi signal and uploaded them. Pat and I lounged around for another hour or so, then went to bed.
Pat was up at seven; I laid in bed ’til eight. By the time I came out into the living room, the mechanic had already restarted the siphoning of our gas tank. By 8:30, the tank was bone dry. Since he’s working on another job in the shop, he won’t return until 9:30 to begin pulling the gas tank out so he can access the fuel pump. I assume things will go fairly quickly after that. No gas means no generator, so I fired up our coffee pot in the office. Pretty much caught up on the blog and everything uploaded, there wasn’t anything I could do with the laptop either. Just twiddle our thumbs as the sun climbed into the air and the temperatures followed close behind.
We had been advised by friends that changing out the fuel pump was something we could do ourselves. After watching Derrick, the shop’s mechanic working on our rig, struggle under the chassis for several hours removing the gas tank, the levelers, and god knows what else in order to reach the fuel pump, I concluded this was not a job for an amateur. After his noon to one o’clock lunch break, we heard Derrick back under our rig running his air gun from a fifty-foot hose leading out of the shop. By one-thirty, he was siphoning our gas from their 55-gallon barrel back into our tank and it began to look as if we would be on our way by two o’clock.
However, two o’clock brought its own new problem when Derrick turned over our engine and fired it up. After a couple of false starts to work the gas up the lines from the tank to the engine, the purring sound of “back on the road” took over, but the gas gauge needle started its dance immediately. It took Derrick another hour to track down the electrical problem and I began to wonder if we would be leaving today. After some adjustments to a resistor behind the dashboard gauges, he pronounced us ready to rock and roll with one proviso: he suspected that the circuit board in the dash that controls electrical impulses to the engine’s various working components might be failing, hence the erratic readings and operation. However, he believed it would get us home where our own mechanic could explore the issue in depth.
Pat and I went into the office to pay the bill and expecting, given all the trouble Derrick encountered with part removal, part replacement, and electrical difficulties, something in the neighborhood of $1,500 to $2,500. I think we both nearly fainted when the final bill was presented: $598.56! Frank’s Automotive & Diesel Repair, 2645 Reno Highway, Fallon, NV 89406. Good folks if you ever have trouble in the Fallon area. Friendly, knowledgeable, and reasonable!!!
We pulled out of Frank’s around 3:15 and continued westbound on U.S. 50 towards Carson City where we stopped for gas. With temperatures in the low nineties and Derrick’s warning of a circuit board on the verge of failure, I kept a close eye on all the gauges, particularly the transmission temperature gauge. The 3,000-foot climb up from the Carson Valley to Lake Tahoe would likely be the ultimate test of whether we were going to make it home without any further trouble. To make things just a tad more challenging, U.S. 50 up the pass to the lake was under construction, forcing us to stop three times for fifteen minute intervals and shut the engine down until our lane was permitted to drive past the construction zones. Between the traffic in Carson City and the climb up through the Sierra, the transmission temperature gauge hit 204º twice, but cooled back down during the stops.
Pat called ahead to the KOA on the west side of South Lake Tahoe which took our information over the phone, but advised they closed their office at six o’clock. It was 5:35 and we were a short 16 miles away, but with the construction and traffic around the lake, it seemed unlikely we’d arrive before they went home. If we arrived after six, we were to find a spot, then pay at the office in the morning… standard campground etiquette. Then came the fun news: they had no sign along U.S. 50; the state wouldn’t allow them to put one up. Instead they gave us “precise” mileage from the intersection of U.S. 50 and California 89: 4.75 miles which we carefully added to our odometer reading when we reached the intersection and monitored. The state Agricultural Inspection Station over the road tried to wave us through, but I stopped anyway and asked if they knew where the KOA was. Just a half a mile up the road on the left; you can’t miss it, we were told.
We both spotted a two-foot square sign on the trunk of a Ponderosa pine that, hand-written, read: KOA, 2nd left ahead. We turned at the 2nd left into the woods and soon realized we were on the wrong road. A passing bicyclist told us to turn around up ahead, return to U.S. 50, make a right turn, go 100 feet, and turn into the KOA. We did so and found ourselves turning into an apartment complex. Turn around again, left on highway 50, pass our first turn to the next driveway, a hundred feet past our first turn and Voilá! It was ten after six.
Nestled amongst tall Ponderosas and huge boulders, the campground was full of narrow twists and turns, but we finally managed to work out way into pull-through slot #12. Too close to the hookup pole, Pat asked me to move the Bounder closer to the other side of the site. It took a few tries, but I finally persuaded the transmission to go into reverse and maneuvered the rig away from the pole. This positioned our door directly in front of bows from the Ponderosa pine on our right side and Pat clipped them off so we could enter and exit our rig without having to push them out of the way. After the deserts of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, this place was a welcome sight for hot and sore eyes!
As best as we could see in the dense forest, there were but five or six other rigs parked in the campground. No surprise given how difficult it was to find its entrance. We walked over to the rig closest to us and started up a conversation with the couple and their college-aged daughter who, like the grandmother and her grandson back in Utah, were from Germany. I ran back to the Bounder to get the sheet of paper on which the grandmother had written down their names and hometowns and showed it to these new Germans in our lives. They said these were typical Bavarian names and towns and started giggling. Of course Pat and I didn’t get the joke but walked away wondering if Germans from Bavaria were the equivalent of American hillbillies.
Our last showers had been taken back at Salina, Utah and it showed. More to the point, we stank! Off to the KOA’s showers we went, coming out feeling like born again human beings. Back in the rig I cooked us up an eight-egg frying pan full of scrambled eggs, tossing in sauteed onions, last night’s leftover Spanish rice, and shredded cheese. By nine o’clock it was cool enough in the woods to turn off the AC and open the windows. By nine-thirty, we were in bed for the night. It felt good to be back on the road and sad to realize we were no more than half a day’s drive from home, but given the Bounder’s still unresolved issues, it was best to go directly home.
Pat was up at 6:30 and I crawled out at 7:00 to start the coffee pot and roll my daily supply of cigarettes. We eased into the morning, waiting for the campground’s office to open at eight o’clock. The campground supply store doubled as a typical born-again Christian gift shop. Best to slip into “straight-acting” gay mode. Behind the counter were several Yes On 8 stickers prominently on display and three more taped to the back of the cash register. The gal behind the counter was pleasant enough, had answered Pat’s call last night, and proceeded to tell us that after thirty years, she was selling the campground and moving to eastern Tennessee. The Christian gift shop motif now made sense. Not remembering which was Proposition 8 on the upcoming California ballot in November, I asked her. “Oh, that’s the marriage between a man and a woman initiative,” she said then quickly went back to telling us about her three grown children who had moved to L.A. In fact, Proposition 8 is an amendment to the California constitution that would rescind the state supreme court decision last May that allows gay marriages. At last poll, Proposition 8 is losing and we will certainly do our part by voting against it in November.
By nine o’clock we broke camp, turned onto U.S. 50, and started our ascent out of the Tahoe Basin to Echo Summit at 7,387 feet. After Echo Summit, the highway is mostly downhill all the way to Sacramento, so I stopped worrying about the transmission overheating. Like U.S. 50 on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, the highway was undergoing re-paving on the California portion across the Sierra as well and, within fifteen miles of the campground, we found ourselves stopped and engine off in a line of traffic waiting for fifteen minutes to be allowed to pass. Five miles later we were blocked again, I coasted to a stop behind a Toyota Prius, put the Bounder’s transmission in park before turning off the engine, and removed my foot from the brake pedal. We started to coast on the downgrade and I quickly hit the brake pedal before I could hit the Prius’ back end. I applied the emergency brake and as soon as I lifted my foot from the brake pedal, we started coasting again. This was a serious new development! Driving through the Sierra with only one braking system out of three was pretty frightening. However, the brakes, when applied by the pedal, seemed to be working perfectly.
I checked the GPS and realized we still had 70 miles to go to Sacramento. If I could just get safely out of the mountains and down to a four-lane highway at least forty miles away, we’d be in a much safer position. Much to the annoyance of traffic behind us, I drove at least ten miles under the speed limit in anticipation of curves ahead to allow myself some brake testing prior to entering the curves. I kept scanning the side of the road for objects I could steer into should the brakes fail altogether and nervously counted down each mile as we descended to the central valley.
By Placerville we were on four-lane divided freeway. When we entered the ten-lane section of freeway east of Sacramento, we were once again on flat terrain and I began to relax. Plenty of room to pull over safely to the side if needed. Now, if the electrical circuit board would just hold until we got home, a concern revisited by the gas gauge needle returning to psychotic metronome mode.
We got through Sacramento, then Davis, then Dixon. Then Vacaville and Fairfield. We usually fill up the gas tank just past Fairfield at Cordelia but decided to just keep going this time. I wanted to get the rig home and there was less than forty miles to go. Turn off I-80 to I-680 southbound, over the Benicia bridge into Martinez, and past the JC Penney Home Store where Pat works in Concord. Twenty-five more miles and everything seems to be working fine.
Through Walnut Creek and turn west onto California 24. Hello BART! The local commuter train tracks between the opposing lanes of the freeway were a sure sign we were nearly home. It was 1:30 when we got to the traffic jam at the entrance to the Caldecott Tunnel and the fifteen minute crawl at 3 mph to the tunnel’s entrance shot our transmission temperature up to 208º with the outside air temperature clocking in at 106º. Extremely rare high temperatures for the Bay Area, virtually identical to what we had left behind in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. On the Oakland side of the tunnel, the heat dropped to 93º. We got onto the 13 freeway southbound, just seven miles from the house. Little by little the transmission temperature dropped to the 180’s and finally the standard operating range of the 170’s. Down the last hill, 1.5 miles from the house, the engine died and the power steering froze up again. I arm-wrestled the Bounder to the shoulder just half a mile from the exit to Seminary Avenue.
The outside heat was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my twelve years of living in Oakland. My attitude to this latest breakdown, however, was resignation rather than worry. Pat could walk home from here and get the car to take the cats to the house. I could call Carlos at Moturis in San Leandro and have him bring me a replacement fuse. Caltrans had left an orange safety cone in the brush alongside the freeway which I quickly claimed and posted it a hundred feet behind the Bounder atop the right-hand white lane stripe when, like back in Nevada, my four-way flashers stopped flashing. It was two o’clock when I called Moturis and asked for Carlos. They couldn’t find him but took a message. I called back half an hour later and they still couldn’t locate him. Pat started hiking home leaving me and the cats behind. I fired up the generator and turned the AC on.
Three o’clock and still no Carlos. Three-twenty and Carlos calls me back on my cell phone; he’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Pat arrives with the car and starts emptying the refrigerator. Plan now is to get everything perishable and what we need for the night out of the Bounder, then drive it directly to Moturis. Carlos arrives at 3:40, locates the burnt fuse in the dash, replaces it, and it promptly blows out again. He fries three more fuses before he advises me we may need a tow truck. He tries a fifty-amp fuse in a thirty-amp slot and the engine’ jumps to life! Carlos will follow me to Moturis in San Leandro.
Pat, the cats, and the Bounders contents drive home and I pull back onto the freeway with Carlos in his pickup behind me and holding my breath that we can get the motorhome down the road another seven miles. I got off on Seminary and drove the two miles to the end of the street where it intersects San Leandro Street, same street in San Leandro that Moturis is located on. Rather than risk the additional load on the electrical system, I opted to keep the dashboard air conditioner turned off, adding profuse sweating in the sweltering heat to my anxiety of getting the Bounder all the way to Moturis. I pulled it into their backyard lot at 4:20 and felt the day’s tension melt away. Carlos had just saved me a $500 towing bill!
One would think that, pending Carlos’ repair of the Bounder, that now would be the end of our troubles for this trip. Think again. I called Pat to pick me up and he arrived twenty minutes later. The downstairs of the house was reasonably comfortable due to the central air conditioning that Pat had turned on as soon as he entered the house at the end of his mile and a half walk. I promptly climbed the pull-down stairs to the attic where it was 103º and turned on the AC up there. Next I ran around plugging in modems, computers, TV cable boxes and the lot. Pat fed the three girls who were already chomping at the bit to go outside (permission denied) at 5:15, then went out to the back porch to feed the neighborhood strays as we did every morning and evening when we weren’t away.
Pat came back into the house and asked if I had moved thus-and-so around in the garage either before we had left or after we had returned home. I hadn’t. A check revealed that someone had rifled through our garage and made a bed up for themselves with an old love seat stored in there along with all of the other stage props kept in the garage. Also, the back door to the garage which in my twelve years of living with Pat, we had never been able to open, was ajar. Later we discovered that the window door prop that normally lies against the fence between our house and next-door neighbor Tony’s garage, had been moved. Clearly we had a squatter living on our property!
Well, he wasn’t on the property at the moment and once he realized we were home again, he’d probably stay away. There really was nothing of value in the garage save for two bicycles that were still there and a cursory inventory indicated nothing was missing. Tony next door pulled into his driveway around 8:30 and I called to him through the dining room window to let him know we were back. When we told him what we had discovered in the garage, he told us he had seen a kid jump the fence to our property next to the yard light on his garage a few nights ago and had promptly called the police who didn’t show up until one o’clock in the morning. Apparently the police had found nothing and left.
Three Jim Beam & 7’s and two episodes of Carnivale on DVD later, I headed off to bed with Wheezie and Mouse right behind me. Sammie had chosen to sleep with Pat for the night.
Wheezie and Mouse started scratching at my bedroom door to get out at 5:30 a.m. and, awakened, I used the opportunity to visit the bathroom before going back to sleep. At 6:30 I heard a crash from somewhere in the house and got up to investigate. Two cats were walking back into the kitchen from the back porch, I saw nothing awry, and decided that whatever they had managed to knock over while playing could be dealt with later after I got up.
I heard Pat in the kitchen feeding the cats at 7:30, so got up myself and started to load my office coffee pot. When he went to the back porch to feed the neighborhood strays, he came back in and asked if, for some reason, I had closed the door to the garage last night. I hadn’t. A check revealed that not only was the garage door closed, but it was locked from the inside. Pat started pounding on the door to get in; it wouldn’t budge. He tried kicking it to no avail. He went in the house and called the police. I heard a clamor from inside the garage and ran to the back just in time to see a five-foot-ten black male with white T-shirt, blue jeans, and black knit-cap on his head climb over our backyard fence onto a neighbor’s property and head through their yard to the street behind us.
Pat was still on the phone to 911 when I walked back into the house and announced that the intruder was gone. He handed me the phone and I gave a description of the suspect. Twenty minutes later two Oakland police officers arrived looking haggard from the near end to their twelve-hour shift and told us there had been a lot of problems with the halfway house for girls around the corner behind us. Apparently their boyfriends had been sneaking into the facility to be with the girls and, when caught, took off into the surrounding neighborhood to lie low until the heat was off at the facility. Great! Given Oakland’s status as the crime capital of the U.S., this was hardly a priority for the police who left ten minutes later.
An hour later Pat went out our back gate to the driveway to get a pack of cigarettes out of his car and discovered two white trash sacks filled with recycled cans in the driveway. A check of the red plastic trash can inside our gate which contained the cans we recycle revealed it was completely empty. We save the cans all year and donate the cash we get for them to our vet’s emergency fund. Not only was our garage being used as a no-tell motel, but our trash was being used as an ATM. An hour later, our new neighbor next door rang our doorbell and reported finding a third plastic sack of recycled cans in her yard as well as two bicycles stolen. We got the third of our five stolen bags of cans back from her and urged her to call the police and file a report.
Early afternoon, Pat drove down to the AT&T store in San Leandro to see about the problem with his cell phone during the trip. They replaced its SIM card with a new one, restored his address book, and advised him to come to the store every four months or so to see if there was a new SIM card update. Home now nearly twenty-four hours, you would think I have started to transition back from being away for two weeks, but given the excitement we found at home I still feel un-tethered.
Epilog: During the holidays of 2008, we received a Christmas card from Devin thanking us for everything and letting us know that he was back at the Border Inn with his partner Jace. As of January, 2009, the Bounder still needs additional repairs to its rear braking system.