Friday, January 20, 2012

Alaska or Bust

This story begins years ago with TV programs showing the grandeur of Alaska. And friends were making the trip. Dick Wilds and Sandy drove in tandem with another couple each in their own pickup living in a camper whose top raises up mounted in the bed.  Dick said it was about 13,000 miles that they covered in three months with lots of driving. Joyce and I purchased a similar unit and tested it on a trip to Branson, Missouri and again on a trip to Key West. Joyce claimed we were driving a “cruck” and living in a “cramper.”  We would need dual wheels on the rear axle heavy duty truck to support carry a fixed height camper in the bed for us  to go that route. We have owned several motorhomes previously and we gave that a whirl next with the purchase of a 22’ class B motorhome, one that has both a driver’s and passenger’s side doors.  We liked it a lot for its maneuverability and ability to park in a standard car spot if the “bustle” could hang over a grassy lot perimeter. Because of the enormous driving distance I hatched the plan of taking an older unit one way, figuring if it was cheap enough we could sell it in Alaska and fly home.  No need to ditch the 22’:  that’s what my annex, or the “toy box” as Joyce calls it is for.  It will await our completion of the Alaska trek and serve us well for less ambitious jaunts in the future, or possibly an overnight with the grandkids on the “Ponderosa” portion of the yard overlooking Janet and Duncan’s pier.  There’s even a fire pit where we enjoy sheskabobs, dogs, and S’mores and nobody has to sleep in a tent.

We bought a 1989 27’ class B, a unit that has a van front, for $3,000, put another $1000 into it, and it was ready to go. About that time nephew David was building a house and had to move out of his rental home before the house would be completed. Cheryl and David planned to “camp out” in the unfinished upstairs while finishing the work. I remembered that when Allen built his waterfront house he and Carol bought a camper and used it on site.  I also recalled how much David and Cheryl had admired our little motorhome when we visited previously. Allen, how about it?  Let’s split the cost on this old motorhome and give it to the kids.  Allen was all for it.  On a date that suited both Allen and me we drove to Shannon Farms in Virginia and happened to “drop in” on Cheryl and  David which we usually do when we travel south.  David’s attention strayed back to the tasks yet undone on his construction project as Jim proceeded to show him—in great detail-- “our” latest ride.  To David’s relief we asked to see how their house was coming along which gave David a chance to hit a few licks before the sun set.  Jim even pitched in tacking in place part of the rustic ceiling for the master carpenter to hammer solidly in place later.  Driving back to their rental home we passed another car heading up the hill toward David’s site.  It was Carol and Allen looking for all of us.  They just happened to be coming that way that day too.  We all went back to where the kids were.  Jim quietly removed our Maryland tags and personal affects from the motorhome while David chatted with his Dad. Jim returned, handed the keys to Allen who in turn handed them to David, saying “Here, it’s yours.” Best Christmas present ever!  A napping Indigo on Cheryl’s lap was flung, well laid in a chair and the whole family flew out the door. The kids moved aboard immediately. Cheryl and David have movie “dates” there when they can oust the kids. “Excited” doesn’t encompass the mood.  And Cheryl and David have taken their family on trips, not such an easy thing to do when there are eight in a vehicle with the youngest ones required by law to be in bulky child safeties and boosters:  they took the whole brood camping on the Atlantic coast with their camping friends in Ocracoke that summer.  Couldn’t have turned out better.

Back to Craig’s List to search anew for an old beater that wasn’t yet beaten to death. Most retirees who use motorhomes get a large class A (Greyhound-bus style) of 34’ or better, and with such a long trip I thought a larger unit would be more comfortable (you have to be newlyweds and have a limber body to live for 2+ months with floor space ½ the amount in a powder room as we did in 1969 in our VW.)  With gas prices up and used motorhome prices down we settled on 1995 34’ Bounder from an estate sale with 46,000 miles, well used and dirty, with several mechanical issues, but priced right. Well, the Bounder turned into a money pit, with problem after problem, and about $9,000 later it was more or less ready. Oh, and while advertised as a 34’ it turned out to be the 31’ model. Still huge compared to the 22’ B, and the largest motorhome we have owned, the previous ones being 21’, 24’, 29’, 22’, 27’, and 31’.  I think of it as a “trainer” class A. Since this trip will be a partial re-do of our original trans-continental trip in ’69 in the VW camper that had a 100cc (red) street/trail motorcycle on the rear bumper, I decided to take along a 650cc (red) Kawasaki motorcycle on a rear hitch carrier, and two bicycles, none of which will make it back to the lower 48.

Joyce had just finished with a 50 guest 90th birthday party for Aunt Rosemary, and we had an upcoming baby shower for daughter-in-law Sarah for which she wanted to sew so she stayed home while I took advantage of the good weather and headed south and west on a “shakedown” trip which will also knock off some of the mileage through familiar territory.  It was the official start, Day 1of “Alaska or Bust” on Tuesday January 10, 2012.

Day 1, Tuesday 1/10/12:  First stop was the gym for a last cardio workout before those many hours sitting behind the wheel. Drove over the Potomac and down 95 past Richmond to one of my favorite I-95 stops, the Smithfield Cinema parking lot in mid-North Carolina, fixed some dinner aboard and took in a movie. The free night’s “sleep” was, of course, occasionally disturbed by the mournful whistle of a passing train on the nearby tracks.

Day 2, Wednesday 1/11/12:   Up at 4 a.m., fix coffee, and pound down the highway into South Carolina, then right on I-20 to Columbia where I linked up with niece, Tricia Perrie Durham. She manages an upscale Holiday Inn, and treated the hungry traveler to breakfast and a tour of the facility. Rain was pelting down when I drove into Georgia and stopped near Augusta where I had completed my Basic and Advanced Military Training in the Army in the summer of 1969 at Fort Gordon, leaving a tearful bride of a year behind.  Augusta is located at the headwaters of a canal that was built in the mid 1800’s to bypass the rapids of the Savannah River and provide hydro power for early 19th century industry. The rain let up long enough for a walk along the river. A bicycle path wound seven miles to a visitor center in downtown Augusta, but that will have to wait for a dryer day. Continuing west I spotted a state park sign with camping and by 4 p.m. I was unloading the bikes and motorcycle for a tour of the Alfred H. Stevens State Park. Stevens was a multi-term congressman from Georgia and later Governor who served as the vice-president of the Confederacy with Jefferson Davis. His restored antebellum home is a centerpiece of the park and is open for tours but only on weekends. I was the lone occupant of the campground. An elementary school built in what is now park land is forlornly surrounded by chain link with scruffy trees sprouting on its former lawn.  Too bad the Jefferson Davis memorabilia that had been housed in the house where he sought refuge on the Gulf Coast following the defeat of the south could not have been housed in the abandoned school.  All that remains of the Gulf museum which we toured pre-Katrina is a set of marble steps that once led to a house.  The park is near the town of Crawford which is just about defunct: a couple businesses, bank, post office, police station, senior center, courthouse, numerous vacant structures, and mostly rundown older homes. With the interstate diverting traffic around it it has become the town that time forgot. The railroad tracks run straight through its center but freight largely moves by now by truck.
On the way to Steven’s Park I had passed numerous homemade signs for “Heavy’s Bar-B-Q”. The repeated messages had the desired effect, and I hungrily followed the path four miles back, to find a quaint little place with antique cars and tractors decorating the yard, and two pit bulls snarling and snapping, guarding the property which was, I now learned: only open weekends. Oh well! Back to the camper for dinner, a movie on the VCR, and a lovely, quiet evening sans trains. Safely out of the freeze zone I de-winterized the water system, filled the water tank, turned on the hot water heater which had worked fine last fall:  no hot water! That was then.  This is now.  Oh well, this is what a shakedown trip is about.

Day 3, Thursday 1/12/12: Everyday a surprise. No propane at the stove. Re-switching the electric propane switch seemed to restore the gas flow, but this could be the harbinger of a future problem. Mostly driving today, but stopped near Birmingham, Alabama at a Wal-Mart to get two new batteries for the motorhome interior lights and jumper cables so I could charge them from the engine while driving. Noticed transmission shifter getting recalcitrant, to the point that when I stopped in Eutaw, Alabama for the night  behind a “Piggly-Wiggly” grocery store I left the engine in neutral, jumped out and set wheel chocks rather than shift into park, sprayed WD 40 on the transmission linkage, and hit the sack.

Day 4 Friday the 13th!: No trains but the trucks were noisy so up at 2 a.m., blitzed through Mississippi in the dark and arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana at 9 a.m., and fetched up at a truck repair facility to attend to the shift problem. Got lucky and arrived during a lull in business, so was underway in three hours with a nicely shifting shifter and a shockingly low tariff.

Having had luck with the shifter I stopped at an RV dealer to have the hot water heater checked out and a couple other electrical problems besides. Three more hours and $427 later I found the nearest RV park, Diamond Jack’s Casino, ceremoniously hooked up the cable TV for the first time and got what?? two channels? One was Seinfeld re-runs, so it was OK. Whoops! What was that rumble? Typical luck! The picturesque old railroad bridge 100’ behind the camper was the busiest in the state, with a train every 30 minutes. Luckily, they slowed down to a crawl later in the evening and blew no whistles, so I could sleep through it. Frustratingly enough, still no hot water, despite all efforts, so had to make do with a sponge bath with water heated on the stove.

Day 5, Saturday 1/14/12: Up at 6 a.m., tested the toaster, ok, tried to figure out cable TV, but with the cable hookup, antennae, switching box, signal converter, and VCR, all connected to two TV’s it was too complicated to sort out, then played with the hot water heater, trying different wiring when suddenly it dawned on me that this heater had a winterizing bypass valve to allow draining the hot water tank rather than filling it with anti-freeze. I had forgotten to open the valve: there was no water in the heater and the RV technicians didn’t catch on either since this is an uncommon but highly desirable feature. A quick turn of the valve, the tank filled, heated, and “Hooray!”  Hot water at last!

Back on the road and into Texas, left I-20 for Rte. 79 South towards Austin. Lots of flat, fenced ranches with cattle. Finally made it to McKinney Falls State Park near the Austin Airport where I was graciously directed to their overflow lot. Seems the park is popular with locals on the weekend and it was packed. Unloaded the bikes and motorcycle and headed to the local watering hole for a couple beers to celebrate my arrival in Texas.  Recalls memories of a rodeo/stock show we attended in 1969 in which I quizzed members of the Chicken Club if their entries laid more eggs, grew to maturity faster, or had more tender meat.  “Eat them! We don’t eat them.  We breed them for their variety of plumage to enter into competition for recognition at rodeos.  That’s what Chicken Club members do.  All I had heard on the radio for days were quotes on what the various animals at specified ages were bringing at market, or the “Sow Bones Report” as I dubbed it.  Never occurred to me that there were animals bred on ranches just for fun.

Day 6, Sunday 1/15/12:  Happy Birthday!  Jim turns 65 today: “Hello, Medicare.” Used to be a big deal but it has muted somewhat since the “retirement age,” the age at which you could collect full Social Security benefits has been moved up to 66 to avoid penalty. How did I celebrate all on my own? First with a three mile bicycle ride on a paved path, whew! Then over to the airport to check out RV parking and get a ticket home. Being newly 65 did save me some $s on the ticket. With the day to kill I road into Austin and took a meandering ride around town to get a little more familiar. The capitol building looked awesome, then saw the creepy  ”Texas tower” at the University of Texas where on August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman shot 48 innocent students, killing 16 and wounded 32. After a BIG Tex-Mex lunch it was back to the camper for another bicycle ride, this one over three miles over much more difficult terrain, including portaging a rocky streambed. Returned to the camper exhausted; definitely grateful for the hot shower; time to load up the bikes and prepare for an early morning departure flight back to Maryland. The motorhome will await my return to Austin next week, and Joyce’s debut to life aboard the S.S. Bounder. Wait, that name would be for a sea passage. One thing my friend Wally Szot taught me though applies land or sea:  when you are done packing take out half the clothes and put in twice the money.  In fact the word “Boat” is an acronym:  Break Out Another Thousand.  But, I better let Joyce continue telling our tale so I don’t have to keep details like what to name our Conestoga wagon straight.  Say, didn’t our ancestor’s head west on Prairie Schooners?  A good thing or I would be a fish out of water.  With enough duct tape, Wal-Marts, hardware stores, garages and banks, God willin’ and the cricks don’t rise as Paul Svenson was fond of saying, you can sit back and enjoy the ride with us from the comfort of your easy chair.  Mark Talbott will pick us up at 9:45 to head to BWI for our flight to Austin, and we’re on our way.

And in case you are wondering how two “oldly-weds” will fare in 31’ of space for months on end I’ll let you in on Joyce’s secret.  She made me a sign with the two phrases guaranteed to make any marriage hum along:  “Yes, Dear,” and “What else can I do for you, Dear?”  Puts me in mind of the gentlemen who shared his secret for his 50 years of marital longevity thusly, “When we got married we agreed that I would make all the major decisions, and she would make all the minor decisions.  So far nothing major has come up.”

Schooner Cap’t Jim and His Bouncing Bounder Betty

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