Breaking Radio Silence: Back from Hawaii and an update on The Big Kahuna

We are back in Concord, near the San Francisco bay area, after a fantastic nine day vacation in Honolulu with friends and family.  If your bus has to break down you could do a lot worse than killing time in Waikiki while you await repairs.  Sure, we have already busted our monthly budget, ’cause Hawaii ain’t cheap, but our heads are back on straight and we are better ready to deal with the slings and arrows thrown our way by a 52 year old behemoth.

Last we mentioned, the Bus Nuts forum members had found us a mechanic in Benicia, where we left the bus before departing to Oahu.  David at bay Cities Diesel repaired the power steering leak, and after a few days waiting for an opening drove the bus 90 miles north to the Coach Maintenance Company, in Williams.  Coach Maintenance specializes in old buses, as you can see from the pictures on their site.  We were quite grateful that David took us in on short notice despite his work load, but had we known about Coach Maintenance a few weeks earlier we would have taken Kahuna straight there.  We don’t yet have an estimated date or cost of repair, but things are looking good: as of yesterday Ted reported that he had identified and mostly completed repairs to the transmission. Hopefully the operational and road test after he puts it back together will not reveal additional problems. As to the alternator, David reported that the symptoms were not consistent or even consitently present, so he was not able to devote the time needed to track down the bad component.  Ted said he will take a look but if the symptoms aren’t there he can’t do a lot for it.  We shall see.

Our big decision today was where to have lunch, and since we are in California and have never experienced In-N-Out Burger, the choice was simple.  We are told this will be much much better than our our experiment with Whataburger in Texas.

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A little perspective, please: Our terrible terrible problems involve taking a trip to Hawaii

Perhaps this should be filed under First World Problems or a Privilege Check.

You might recall our “woes me” post about The Big Kahuna’s mechanical problems and how frustrated we were by them.  I even stooped to the particularly self indulgent and whiny phrasing “this is the closest we have come to wondering if we are doing the right thing.”  So a little perspective: we have the unmitigated privilege of being able to retire decades earlier than many Americans, with a robust pension package utterly unattainable by most workers, governments subsidized lifetime healthcare coverage, and today we flew to Hawaii for a vacation from our incredibly stressful life of travelling around the country full time.  Yeah, its that bad, weep for us.

Through a window, but not a bus window

Through a window, but not a bus window

The bottom line is that things break, and we have sufficient resources to get them fixed.  Even on a retired income we can manage such events as mere setbacks rather than life altering catastrophes. Yes, this is overtly political, but I honestly believe that the American public was sold a decades long bill of goods with the demonstrably false idea that the workable pension programs of the mid century could be replaced by the woefully inadequate and volatile private investment plans of today.  While “only” 15% of the population lives in poverty, another 30-40%, the working poor and barely middle class, are one major catastrophe away from dropping into the poverty ranks.   Rose and I are insulated from such an occurrence, but sometimes its tough to see our own situation objectively.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But if there is one place that will allow us that objectivity, it is Hawaii!  So purely in the interest of recognizing our own privilege we have flown there, and will spend a week contemplating how lucky we are while drinking copious amounts of fruity drinks with umbrellas or flowers in them.   We consider it a duty, to ourselves and to you, our readers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As I mentioned in the overly long post about loyalty programs, we are doing this vacation on the cheap: the airline tickets were paid via our big stash of airline miles, and the hotel is the fantastic Hale Koa, a deeply discounted resort for military and retired military personnel in Waikiki.  Again, privilege. Sometimes we military guys and gals can forget the ludicrous number of special discounts and programs we have access to, such as Hale Koa and half a dozen other military only resorts around the world.  Because of Hale Koa, Honolulu is one of the rare places where we usually choose to pay for the hotel room rather than dip into the hotel loyalty points and stay at one of the fantastic Hilton, Starwood, or Marriott properties in the area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We made it: Safe in the SF Bay Area, bus in the shop

After our three day rest stop in Bakersfield’s Orange Grove RV Park, we broke camp and made the last mad dash towards San Francisco.  Thanks to advice received from members of the Bus Nuts discussion board, I had located a bus mechanic just 10 miles up the road from Rosemarie’s sister’s house, where we would be staying during our Bay Area stop.  David, at Bay Cities Diesel, works on a lot of diesel buses, but usually not one as old as The Big Kahuna, and given how much business he has already I don’t think he would have agreed to take on the work at all without the referral from Geoff at Bus Nuts.  As it is he only agreed to work on the alternator and power steering leak, and to try to contract out the transmission problem.

As of yesterday, April 10th, he had found and sealed the power steering leak, which included having to bleed the system to get all the air out.  One of his guys had also begun work on the alternator, confirming that it is indeed an electrical problem and not the batteries, with voltage readings fluctuating all over the place.  Like many electrical problems, the challenge is figuring out the exact bad component in a complicated system.  Finally, he located a vintage bus specialist 90 miles north that has agreed to work on the transmission, but is not sure when he can get to it.  Since Rose and I are leaving town for over a week tomorrow, he even agreed to get a driver to take the bus up to the transmission shop if they are ready for it before we return.

While here we have had a great visit with Rosie’s sister and her family, and a chance to visit my college roommate, Charles, and his wife Leanna, down at Stanford University where he now influences the minds of our bright young things.

Regrouping in a Bakersfield Orange Grove

Last we wrote, we had driven blindly out of Joshua Tree National Park, alternator failing to charge the batteries, power steering module leaking, and transmission missing one of the critical components that other transmission seem to have, i.e., a reverse gear.  We stumbled into the town of Indio, next door to Coachella and just down the road from Palm Springs, and as one might expect in such an area, we paid through the nose for a one night spot in a lovely little RV resort.  A night there allowed us to get our bearings and stop the headlong rush north without the appropriate research.

Orange grove converted to an RV park

Orange grove converted to an RV park

Thus we pulled onto I-10 west, but only for a bit as our research helped us plan a route that avoided the L.A. traffic area as much as possible.  We also had a stopover point defined and an RV campground arranged, one we selected not merely for its location four to five hours down the road and very near the highway, but also for its large number of pull through sites and wide turns within the grounds.  Because of the reverse gear thing.  Because, we can’t back up.

And they let us pick oranges, though at this point in the season us short people needed some tool assistance

And they let us pick oranges, though at this point in the season us short people needed some tool assistance

Late afternoon we pulled into Orange Grove RV Park, which, it will shock you to learn, is in an orange grove.  A portion of said grove has been converted to over a hundred RV spots, with orange trees left in between each spot, but cut topiary style into Dr Seussian discs.  It is a very clean, reasonably affordable, full service (power, water, sewage, cable, internet, pool, clubhouse, etc) RV park with very large sites (ours was 90′ long).

Dr Seuss Tree, obviously

Dr Seuss Tree, obviously

Aside from that, three things set it apart from other comparably priced parks: 1) the internet actually worked pretty well, though the sign in process was unnecessarily complex and required a trip to the front office to get the trick of it. 2) You can pick the oranges from the trees, though short people like us had to use tongs to get a bag full of the very sweet citrus.  3) It was the single most organized RV park we have ever stayed in.  It’s hard to explain this, exactly, but one example: Easter Sunday morning we decided to stay one more day, but the office as closed.  But they had so clearly thought through the after hours check in process: For reservations arriving that day they had a large board with separate envelopes taped to it, and another board for those showing up without reservations with an envelope for each available spot they could select.  But they took it one step further, anticipating that anyone scheduled to leave that day might, like us, chose to extend their stay, so they had specifically omitted those spots from the availability board envelopes. to extend, all we needed do was stay in place and pay the next morning.IMG_1534

Stay we did, three days here, working on the bus, cleaning, reorganizing, and researching. We also met a group of Canadian RVers heading back north fr m Arizona that allowed us to join their Easter dinner.  This went a long way towards assuaging our family loneliness on the holiday.  Look, Bakersfield was not exactly on our list of places we must visit, and it may not be on yours either. But if you find yourself heading through California, either direction, this RV park makes a great stopover and recovery point; we can’t recommend it enough.

Easter dinner with four of our new friends

Easter dinner with four of our new friends

Attempting Joshua Tree, total campground anarchy, and yet another mechanical problem

Perhaps foolishly, given the two lingering mechanical issues we are dealing with (a likely bad alternator and a power steering leak), we thought we could nurse the bus onward for a few more days and swing through Joshua Tree National Park before turning towards the coast or north and a mechanic.  Our research suggested that as long as you arrive on a weekday other than Friday, you can find a site in one of the half dozen campgrounds within the park.  We even called the park an hour before arriving to confirm, and they told us that the most appropriate campground for our rig and arrival point, Jumbo Rocks, had eight spots left.  We hurried in, the ranger at the gate basically told us good luck but don’t get your hopes up.  We plugged along anyway, driving the 17 miles into the park to Jumbo Rocks only to find… total chaos.

Most of our Joshua Tree National Park pictures are from the bus windows, since driving is about the only thing we did there

Most of our Joshua Tree National Park pictures are from the bus windows, since driving is about the only thing we did there

I can’t speak to the management of the park as a whole, but this campground is the single worst managed site of any national, state, or county park or recreation area we have visited, and it’s not even a close call.  Let me correct that statement a bit; to say that it is poorly managed implies that it is managed at all.  Rather, it seems that somewhere along the way the park manager just through up his hands and said “let the people work it out, whats the worst that could happen?”  Despite being full, and unlike every other national or even state or county park we have visited, there was no volunteer camp host, thus there was no one, absolutely no one, who actually knew if there were any available spots and where they might be.  You basically had to drive through every side loop, some of them quite narrow and winding, and examine every post marker to see if it had an updated orange claim receipt on it.  Eventually I parked beside the road while Rosemarie explored on foot amidst the scores of families and children and at least half a dozen other campers coming in every few minutes also looking for a spot.

Very large, even jumbo rocks near the campground of the same name.

Very large, even jumbo rocks near the campground of the same name.

While Rose walked, I maneuvered the bus out of the road I was blocking, and in the process somehow lost reverse gear.  Unlike the previous and now repaired reverse gear problem, which was simply a shaky solenoid operated air relay assembly failing to tell the transmission to go into reverse, this issue appears to involve the tranny itself.  My light indicators show that it goes into reverse, the bus will even back up a foot or three before a horrid grinding brings it to a halt, and further back it will not go.  Deeply frustrated, we continued out of the this campground and continued along our path towards the southern end of the park and our last hope for a campground spot near the Cottonwood entrance.  Unfortunately the warning sign for the campground turn off road was within feet of the turn itself, and we missed it.  With the bus unwilling to back up the distance necessary to make the curve, we continued forward several miles trying to find a turnabout large enough for to make a 180 degree turn without reverse gear.  While we rumbled south, four more large motorhomes passed us going north, and we assessed our odds of getting a spot were approaching nil.  So out of Joshua Tree we drove, turning west on I-10 towards the unknown.

More very large rocks

More very large rocks

This may have been our lowest point since fulltiming.  Even the full on break down in Big Bend resulting in a 200 mile tow, 11 days in a hotel, and a major repair bill did not phase us as much as our current state of disrepair.  Partly from having it occur so soon after we had dealt with that mechanical work, and partly from it coming on top of the two other continuing problems, this is the closest we have come to wondering if we are doing the right thing.  We were numb enough that we didn’t properly stop, take stock, and develop a revised plan.

Tired of views from our front windshield?  Then we shall vary things with a side window shot.

Tired of views from our front windshield? Then we shall vary things with a side window shot.

All we could come up with was to head straight for San Francisco, where we have both friends and family, and thus some options, and use the intervening time to get some referrals for a mechanic.  We didn’t really plan a route or stopping points, we just drove west to intersect the northern routes.  Near sunset we pulled over in a random town and researched our nearest park options, and thus suffered the consequences of RVing on the fly: we had driven straight into the heart of wealth, in-between Coachella and Palm Springs, and the campground prices reflected this.  We are lucky that we did not happen to pull into this town one week later, when the actual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival would be in full swing.  We pulled into one park that, per our rapid internet research, seemed reasonably priced, only to discover an incredibly rutty dirt road, a large hump that bottomed us out at the entrance, and a park that looked like it might double as a dog-fighting arena.  Facing reality, we humbly called the overpriced resort nearby and reserved their last pull through site, necessary since we could no longer back into a spot.

and back to the front window

and back to the front window

Thus we found ourselves at Shadow Hills RV Resort, a lovely place, but the most expensive one we had every paid for.  We used that one night to recharge ourselves and the bus, and to make somewhat more detailed and careful plans for the rest of our journey north.

Three Months of Fulltiming, March 2015 Report

The Distance: 2,271 miles, or longest month yet, nearly twice as far as we drove in January.  The differences between our January and February driving patterns are even more pronounced: we travel further between spots out here in the West, and we have not yet slowed our frequency of movement at all. If anything we increased our frantic pace after being stuck in Odessa for 11 days in February and March.  Our total mileage since starting fulltime RVing at the beginning of the year: 5,402 miles.

The Places: Since we finally left Odessa on March 9 we have stayed in 12 different places, including three national parks (Guadalupe Mountains, Grand Canyon, Death Valley), a state park, a country park, three private parks, a BLM campground, a national recreation area, an unknown boondocking site, and a residential neighborhood.  We also visited without camping in two other national parks, Carlsbad Caverns and Saguaro.  Of the 23 days on the road since Odessa, we had hook up campgrounds 13 nights, dry camping sites 4 nights, and free boondocking 6 nights.

The Budget: Totally blew the budget, and I am not even counting the major bus repair cost in Odessa as that came out of our set aside bus upgrade funds. We went nearly 30% over our monthly allocation.  Four main causes: Diesel fuel, Odessa hotel, unaccounted for bus repairs, and clothing. We spent $583 on diesel this month, $133 more than our estimate. Obviously those 2,271 miles of travel came at a cost.  Though we were able to use points for the first seven nights of hotel stays in Odessa, I elected to shift to a government/military rate cash payment the last four as I could find no reasonable rate of return on the brand of hotel points we have after expending all the Marriott ones.  Even if I average that hotel rate out over the entire eight day March stay, it comes out to way more, $260 more, than our average daily budget estimate for lodging would allow.  The potable water system breaks that cost us $250 to repair while in Carlsbad where entirely avoidable and self-induced, so I am counting them against our monthly budget rather than taking them our of our dwindling bus improvement set aside.  Lastly, and most significantly, we spent over $400 filling in our winter and outdoor active clothing, and this is not even a designated line item in our budget, simply falling under miscellaneous expenditures.  The only bright spot is that aside from the Odessa hotel, we finally brought our average daily campsite cost down to $20/night, much closer to our hoped for budget estimate than we achieved in earlier months.  The significant increase in dry camping and boondock sites interspersed allowed this, and we hope we can continue the trend in coming months.

The Drama: One would hope, after our ridiculous repair bill in Odessa, that we could go a couple of months without bus related drama, but no.  We had the cold weather induced water breaks, easily repaired in two hours in Carlsbad, and our messy but basically free to fix sewage problem, but that is nothing compared to the new problems that developed at the very end of the month.  We have a power steering leak, which I am still tracking down exactly where it is occurring, and even more significantly our two big bus starting batteries are no longer getting recharged while driving, which strongly suggests an alternator problem.  Unfortunately, as we will reveal in an upcoming post, those are not the most significant problems; one more major issue hit us on April Fools Day as well.

The Improvements:  Hmm, very little to say in this department.  The water repairs in Carlsbad mean that my hose hook up is much easier and doesn’t leak like the old one.  Our storage situation continues to improve as we get rid of unneeded items and find better ways to place our stuff, and we are getting better at finding free boondocking or affordable dry camping spots.

Things get worse. Stealth camping and cascading bus problems.

Death Valley broke us a bit.  The Big Kahuna was not running quite so smooth as in the before time, and the dust and heat had taken its toll on our bodies as well.  We resolved to move on, driving without rest for hours and even into the dark, which behind the bus wheel I hate, heading towards some point vaguely south of the valley, one that offered us a choice.  Loop around northwest to Sequoia National Park?  Continue south to Joshua Tree?  Southeast to Ventura and the Channel Islands?  We were thinking the first option, right up until we pulled into a Barstow gas station, light all but gone, trying to get a bearing on a place to stay for the night, and met up with a European couple in a rental RV who had recently come from Sequoia.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In between our mutual efforts to find an affordable RV park with an office that was still open (and really KOA? $53 for your campground? Pshaw), we discussed where each of us had been and was heading. They advised strongly against trying to take The Big Kahuna up the entry road into Sequoia National Park, a recommendation that would prove, after further research, to be absolutely accurate.  But for tonight, the problem remained: it was dark and we needed a place to stay.

Our fancy stealth camping spot for the night

Our fancy stealth camping spot for the night

The young Europeans, with their no doubt genetically engineered night vision funded by some secretive U.N. collective, elected to continue west towards more reasonably priced areas.  I honestly don’t remember what we “decided” because Kahuna vetoed all options by refusing to change gears or do anything other than idle in place.  Seriously, even the turn signals would not come on.  We shut him down, set up the generator and battery charger, and “consulted” with the young man behind the counter at the gas station currently hosting our big hunk of non-moving metal.  He seemed… unconcerned with our predicament or our intention of staying the night right there.  OK then.DSC_0279

An hour or less of charge did the trick, and we maneuvered ourselves back into the large paved shadowy area adjacent to a restaurant, the Jenny Rose, currently closed for renovations.  And so we found ourselves “stealth camping” in an open lot behind a gas station near an I-15 exit.  We slept well, and undisturbed.

We took the restaurant sign as an, er, sign.

We took the restaurant sign as an, er, sign.

Into the valley road the ’63… Death Valley

We left Saddle West Casino and RV Park refreshed and ready for Death Valley, making only one wrong turn on the way. Unfortunately that wrong turn cost us nearly an hour, but it was not an unpleasant drive across the NV-CA desert-country border.  We slid down into the valley in early afternoon and pulled into the visitor center to watch the usual, high quality movie in the theater and get advice on the various available RV camping options.  We selected Sunset Campground near Furnace Creek because it had the very important feature of having availability, plus it was close by and had the most generous generator hours.  I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you are beholden to electricity magically created from your Honda box, then you pay attention to the holy writ of generator hours: the longer you can run, the better your fridge and freezer keep things cold.    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunset campground was little more than a large gravel parking lot.  It had basic bathroom facilities and deep sinks for washing dishes, but no electrical, water, sewage, or shower facilities. Being less than 10% full, it provided plenty of space, but we can’t really compare it to the other nearby campsites in Furnacce Creek or Texas Springs.

Can you see me? I am lizard.  Do you have a bug? If so, give it to me.

Can you see me? I am lizard. Do you have a bug? If so, give it to me.

We weren’t there for the facilities,, we were there for the surprising and at times shocking diversity of vistas and life.  In this we were not disappointed.  From the winding, miles long entry road to each scenic overlook, Death Valley defies expectations and encourages a wonder even in the jaded cynic. We managed to see Zabriskie Point, offering a peek at the Golden Canyon on the first afternoon before setting up camp.  Yes, we hit a high temperature day, about 102 degrees, but the lack of humidity and the continuous breeze made it tolerable, and as the sun set the temps dropped rapidly towards comfort with a significant increase in winds.

Us, golden canyon behind

Us, golden canyon behind. We look awesome.  Canyon is alright too.

The next morning we broke camp and headed north, spotting a coyote rambling along near the camp as we drove out.  Strangely, he did not respond to my specialized coyote call.  We visited Salt Creek, a high salinity area home to the endangered pup fish, a minnow sized little thing that is very active in the shallow creeks, and we were fortunate enough to observe them during mating season. Mating, it turns out. Boom chicka wah wah.

Lone coyote, pondering his next Acme purchase. Rocket skate? Giant slingshot? Yes... all of those.

Lone coyote, pondering his next Acme purchase. Rocket skate? Giant slingshot? Yes… all of those.

We moved on to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a giant expanse of, you guessed it, huge sand dunes, then parked at Stovepipe Wells, another dry camping spot in a wide open gravel lot.  The plan was to claim a site, then head out to visit several more spots within the park.  Unfortunately, Kahuna disagreed with the plan and refused to restart after lunch.  After some, and again pardon the tech-speak here, “jiggering around” with the parts and pieces, I deduced that the batteries were, mysteriously, dead.  I hooked up the battery charger for an hour and voila, it started.  A bit spooked, we took stock and elected to break camp fully and just visit a bunch of the key sites and decide on our plans for the night as the afternoon progressed.

Salt creek, pup fish habitat

Salt creek, pup fish habitat. They are doing it. Nonstop. We watched.

We drove nearly an hour down to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation dry point on the continent, 282 feet below sea level, complete with salt flats from evaporated saline water.  It was interesting, but neither of us could escape the cold feeling that Kahuna was still unimpressed, and sure enough when we made to leave, he wouldn’t start again.  With growing worry, we charged for another hour, started him up, and decided we had had enough of Death Valley; it was time to head back towards civilization, or at least cell phone access and a greater density of diesel mechanics.  Besides, after a couple of weeks in New Mexico, Arizona, and now the driest parts of California, we were more than a bit tired of the desert, the heat, and the dust.

A valley.  Apparently of Death.

A valley. Apparently of Death.

We left Death Valley with mixed feelings: tired of the desert heat and dust, but realizing that we had not given it a chance, had not really had the opportunity to see some of the more extraordinary sites, like Mosaic or Artist Canyon, or Darwin Falls. Maybe next year.

\Badwater Basin, look closely: Big kahuna lower left, sea level sign up right

Badwater Basin, look closely: Big kahuna lower left, sea level sign upper right

Accomplishing things without forward progress; Like everyone else, full time travel RVers often have to spend a day doing the mundane

We are a bit behind on this blog.  We have moved three times since the Lake Mead post, but a challenging couple of days dealing with The Big Kahuna combined with limited cell reception in Death Valley have worked against us.  We departed Lake Mead mid morning a few days back, intending to take care of a few chores and errands before driving all the way to Death Valley across the Nevada-California border.  We found a laundromat and managed to knock out several weeks worth of stuff in a couple of hours, then headed for the Hoover Dam for a look see, which turned into a much more, er, exciting drive than I had planned with steep downhills and twisty turns, but still nothing as bad as the Sedona incident.

Sometimes you just want everything to be flat and straight

Sometimes you just want everything to be flat and straight

Hoover dam really is an impressive and beautiful structure, but given all the things we had to accomplish that day, we spent just a couple of hours driving down to it and across one way and then turning around back around for the return journey.  By this time it was getting towards late afternoon and we still had several chores to knock out.

Pat Tillman bridge from the Hover Dam

Pat Tillman bridge from the Hover Dam

We found a post office to mail out some ebay stuff (always clearing out…), a Camping World to return some unneeded items from our potable water pressurization repair, and about this time I noticed a significant binding in the steering, particularly during left turns.  I found what I thought was the general area of a leak, consulted with one of the Camping World mechanics, managed to locate the well hidden relevant dip stick, and sure enough: almost empty.  Fortunately this was a free temporary fix: it turns out that our power steering system uses the same automatic transmission fluid as our transmission, so I had over a gallon of the stuff available… of course I figured this out only after spending well over an hour in the Walmart parking lot pouring over the manuals and investigating via the internet.  Fluid refilled, we headed down the road towards Death Valley, but by this time it was nearing dark so we only made it as far as Parhump, NV, a small town with a lot of casinos, perhaps because it is just across the CA-NV border?  Given Kahuna’s rather paltry headlights and my aversion to driving him at night, we elected to stop for the evening and regroup.  After a few false starts with an overpriced Best Western RV center, a full resort a few miles off the main route, and a few unanswered calls we stumbled upon the Saddle West Casino and RV Resort.  Full hook ups for $25, a decent sized lot, typically shaky RV resort WiFi, and immaculate bath and shower facilities.  After three days of boondocking, we needed the battery recharge, water fill and sewage dump, and relished a night with full services.

The next morning, on to Death Valley.  Rosemarie excitedly spotted a sign for a Cherry Patch and Ranch, which lead to an interesting discussion about exactly what kind of Cherry Patch one would have in the Nevada Desert.  It’s this kind, so we skipped it:FullSizeRender (1)