Off to London for Cheeky Nandos with the lads, and doing it on the cheap.


From the rooftop of St Paul’s Cathedral, Photo by Linda Perez

The last time the bus was in the shop for a significant period, the timing actually worked out pretty well since we had a previously arranged trip to Hawaii already bough and paid for, so we were able to spend part of that time without a home in paradise.  I’m not gonna say we are spoiled, but our latest bus nightmare also coincided with a planned vacation, this time to London.  As mentioned in the last post, when we broke down leaving the vicinity of Rocky Mountain National Park, we were headed towards Chicago, planning to take a week or so to get there by way of the Dakota badlands.


Panoramic, rooftop of St Paul’s Cathedral, Photo by Linda Perez

Once in Chicago we intended to put The Big Kahuna in storage for two weeks while we flew to England on our American Airline tickets purchase using our big stash of loyalty points.  The transmission failure decimated that plan, so once we got the bus situated at the mechanic in Greeley, CO, we drove down to Denver with our tow truck driver, Jeremy, and flew on discounted one way tickets to Chicago the day before our London flight.  Once again I went through all of the hotel chains for which we have a usable amount of points, and this time selected a Country Inn and Suites, part of the Club Carlson brand.  Though there were a few cheaper options, this hotel offered an airport courtesy shuttle, and at 15,000 Carlson Points, which I value at about $60, this was a great deal for a Chicago suite.IMG_2301

We had a bit of luck with our American Airlines direct flight, in that it was only about 25% full, so Rosemarie and I each had our own row of seats, allowing for a much more comfortable transatlantic voyage.  We have had to adjust to flying coach ever since we retired since I no longer have the frequent international business travel which allowed us to gain elite status and thus frequent upgrades on American Airlines and their associated One World Alliance.  I know, weep for us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In addition to flying on points, the other thing that kept this London vacation affordable was the free housing.  Rosemarie’s Primo Tio Jayson managed to get stationed in London for the summer on the government’s dime, and he and Linda had a two bedroom flat there.  We stayed with them for nearly two weeks, and took advantage of the city’s outstanding and easily navigated public transportation system to explore.


Another from the rooftop of St Paul’s Cathedral, Photo by Linda Perez

The weather was largely cooperative, with half our days there beautiful, a few with merely periodic drizzle, and only a couple with significant rain.  Since we were doing this vacation on the cheap we mostly avoided touristy things with an entry fee.  Fortunately much of London is accessible and open for nothing more than the cost of an Oyster Card, the London tube and bus pass.  We narrowed down our preferred places from one of Rick Steve’s e-books, and managed to see a dozen or so awesome spots.

Celebrating Linda's Birthday with a Thames River Dinner Cruise

Celebrating Linda’s Birthday with a Thames River Dinner Cruise

Aside from the history, the modern achitecture is striking, and the food was fantastic.  I know that’s not one of the things that comes to mind when you think of England, but London is such an international city with so many ethnicities, that pretty much anything you could want you can find. Now I love me some food trucks, and London delivered with no less than three major spots in different parts of the city filled with food stalls and trucks.  So many amazing and affordable choices!  We had Jamaican curry goat patties, a tongue sandwich, beef pot pies, Korean wraps, and too many other things to remember.   And of course, we hit plenty of local pubs, most with an outstanding assortment of craft brews and ciders.  Rosemarie was surprised to find she enjoyed several of the latter.FullSizeRender (1)

I had been to London once before many years back, but only for a day trip when one of my ships pulled in to one of the port cities.  The thing that struck me this time was how accessible the city is for Americans.  Obviously the language is a big part of that, but culturally things seem so similar, unlike many of the other European places I have been.  While there are certainly difference, waking down a street in London feels like just a slightly askew version of walking down a street in the U.S.  It is a wonderful place to visit regardless, but if you know someone that wants to travel internationally but is perhaps slightly uncomfortable with the potential “alien-ness” of other countries, recommend that they get their feet wet with a trip to London, and expand out from there.IMG_4925

*Cheeky Nando with the lads, or just Cheeky Nandos, is apparently English slang for eating at a chicken restaurant chain called Nandos, with the implication that it is something you do, in particular, “with the boys,” possibly as part of a night of carousing.  The phrase achieved modest twitter and internet fame, largely because of the apparent pleasure the English took in explaining it to Yanks using a maximum amount of additional slang so as to render the meaning of the original phrase even less understandable.


Catastrophic transmission failure, another tow, and a week trying to find the right repair shop

The bottom line for those that, understandably, don’t want to read this abhorrently long and detailed explanation:  We broke down leaving Estes Park near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, got towed to Sumner Automotive in the small town of Milliken, where they diagnosed sticking solenoids, loose wires and a heavily damaged transmission clutch.  Said clutch was beyond their shop’s repair capability, so we got towed further down the road to Greeley where B&G Equipment removed the transmission, eventually sending it all the way to California for a rebuild after failing to find anyone in Colorado willing to fix it.

Jeremy, owner of Lee's Towing, getting us ready to tow.

Jeremy, owner of Lee’s Towing, getting us ready to tow.

In three recent posts I hinted that we had recently experienced another significant mechanical problem.  Here is the full sordid tale:  As we were departing Estes Park with the intention of visiting the Dakota Badlands before again turning east towards Chicago, The Big Kahuna’s transmission began to force itself into a higher gear, causing us to stall out on a mild uphill grade. This had happened before, during our shift of RV parks while in Moab, but back then the situation resolved itself after a few minutes.  I had nervously hoped that it was just a transient signal; a hiccup involving a sticky solenoid or something.  Alas, the problem came back, and this time my attempts to reset the transmission were to no avail.

Side mirror view of BIg Kahuna under tow

Side mirror view of Big Kahuna under tow

I called around to every mechanic in Estes Park, and only one was willing to even consider working on the bus, but only if we brought it in to their shop, less than half a mile away.  Though with careful use of throttle I could nurse the bus along on a flat or downhill grade, I didn’t think I could make the hill leading up to their place.  I convinced them to send their mechanic for a quick look, they kindly did so, but he assessed that even troubleshooting the problem would be beyond the capability of their car-focused shop.

Tow at night, getting close to Sumner Automotive in Milliken

Tow at night, getting close to Sumner Automotive in Milliken

Lacking any local options, we were forced to call Progressive (again!) and request a tow.  They were at first resistant to doing the research on where to tow us, but after some pushing they checked their database and found a shop.  Meanwhile, I was making my own calls to mechanics in nearby towns such as Longmont or Greeley.  During the course of those calls I learned from a helpful RV repair shop that the company to which Progressive was planning on towing us had been out of business for several years!  Needless to say, the Progressive subcontractor in charge of their roadside assistance and I had some additional pointed conversations, and they got a bit more proactive.  At my insistence they actually called the next intended destination to verify it existed and would be willing to work on The Big Kahuna.

Parked in Sumner Automotive's lot

Parked in Sumner Automotive’s lot

In the meantime, I managed to nurse the bus into the adjacent parking lot of a closed down small business of some sort, giving us a safer place to spend the hours awaiting our tow truck.  Some hours later Jeremy, owner of Lee’s Towing, arrived from the small town of Milliken, and after an hour or so of hard prep work had us lifted and ready to go.  Jeremy also made some calls to Sumner Automotive Repair, a shop in his hometown that worked on all sorts of diesel vehicles, as well as holding the maintenance and repair contract for the local school district’s school buses! Perfect.  Progressive agreed to the change the tow destination, particularly since it was significantly closer than the basic RV repair place they had found.Sumner auto 2

An hour later we pulled into Sumner Automotive, met Branden (the owner) and his family, and got settled into their driveway awaiting service.  Branden had warned us that it would be a couple of days before he could give us any attention due to his busy shop, existing customers, and the bus and truck contracts that took priority.  But he went out of his way to make our stay as comfortable as possible, hooking us up to electricity, providing water for our tank, and giving us access to his internet.  We were, effectively, at a comfortable partial hook up RV park, and we had no problem waiting a few days until he could get to us.

Left side view of the transmission

Left side view of the transmission

The age of our bus and the idiosyncrasies of the system gave Sumner’s mechanics fits figuring out the problem.  We were able to make some progress, partially since I have the original manuals and also because I managed to get Ted from Coach Maintenance Company on the phone with Branden to consult.  They dismantled and cleaned up several possibly sticking solenoids, reattached some loose wires and grounds, and may have fixed the original cause of our problems, but unfortunately they also determined that something was going very wrong with the clutch. By he end of the week Branden had arranged an outside mechanic that used to work older diesel systems like ours to come by for a consult, and he stated with confidence that our clutch was burned out.

Loose wires and sticky solenoids

Loose wires and sticky solenoids

Branden did not feel that his shop could effect a transmission clutch rebuild in a system as old and large as ours, but he used his contacts and influence to find a place that would, B&G Equipment in Greeley, CO.  I am pretty sure that this same place had turned the job down when it was me calling on the day of the original breakdown, but they appear to have given Branden some professional courtesy.  After a tense call with Progressive, they agreed to extend the tow to the new shop as part of the covered policy.  Thus we spent the weekend enjoying the hospitality of the Sumner family, before Jeremy towed the Big Kahuna to B&G on Monday morning.

Shifter assembly missing a bushing

Shifter assembly missing a bushing

During the weekend, as our path forward had become clear, we finalized a plane ticket from Denver to Chicago in order to catch our long ago purchased flight to London to visit family. Jeremy came through for us again as it turned out that after dropping off the bus in Greeley he was scheduled to go down to Denver for a job, so he gave us a ride, which saved us an expensive taxi or Uber trip.

I can’t say enough good things about three major players during this entire fiasco: Progressive Insurance came through with a double leg tow fully covered by our policy, Jeremy at Lee’s Towing got us safely to two mechanics and dropped us off in Denver, and Branden and his entire family at crew Sumner Automotive who showed us such hospitality during our stay in his parking lot.  We are hopeful hat B&G and the subcontractor in California doing the transmission rebuild will leave us as satisfied.


Rocky Mountain National Park, our sixteenth NP this year

We approached Rocky Mountain National Park from the east, our research having indicated that the other options would entail steeper and twistier climbs and downhill grades.  Further, we stayed in a private RV resort, Elk Meadow Lodge and RV Park, just on the edge of RMNP in the touristy town of Estes Park.  RMNP operates a shuttle system, and Elk Meadow is quite close to one of the shuttle stops, so it worked out perfect for us.  Given the size of our rig, the nature of the roads actually inside RMNP, the difficulty in securing reservations at the actual RMNP campgrounds, and the questionable quality of some of the subcontracted full service RV sites in other national parks, the private park was our best option.Elk Meadow sign

Elk Meadow Lodge is full hook up, with reasonably spacious and level sites, though we found the positioning of the service connections quite awkward.  The electrical connection was so far back in the site that we had to reverse all the way to the edge just to allow our shore power cable to reach. The TV cable connection is similarly positioned, and a 25′ coax was insufficient to reach it from our connection point on the side of the bus.Elk Meadow site

Fortunately, Elk Meadows is focused on excellent customer service, and they went out of their way to solve any problem we brought to their attention.  The maintenance staff went beyond expectations, finding me a cable extension with a female to female adapter.  They offered to move our spot if the electrical connection did not work.  And when I mentioned that their internet was “RV park typical,” i.e., generally unusable in our location, they pointed me to the sitting area next to the antenna for their alternate network, giving me the password for the wifi connection usually reserved for employees.

Live music at Elk Meadow lodge

Live music at Elk Meadow lodge

Elk Meadows is definitely operating in the RV Resort field rather than just a plain RV campground/park.  In addition to the nice sites and excellent customer service, they have a pool, large playground, putt putt golf course, bar/restaurant, and live music venue.  On our third night we attended a high energy live music event, mainly classic rock covering several decades, from a quite competent and enjoyable band in the lodge.

Though the RV resort was great, we were there for the national park.  As mentioned above, RMNP operates a shuttle system, though unlike in Zion, the park does not restrict private vehicle access, the shuttle operates merely as an alternative.  We knew from google maps that Elk Meadows was the closest private park to any of the shuttle pick up points, but after consultation with the Elk Meadow staff, we learned that if we walked to the rear of the resort and stepped over the low wood fence, then we had only a quarter-mile roadside walk to the Beaver Meadows visitor center and shuttle pick up point.

Thus we were able to view both of the park movies, explore the learning center, and consult with the park rangers about hikes on our first full day.  We headed up to Bear Lake, adjusted our plans based on conversation with the shuttle driver and other hikers, and undertook a four mile round trip hike to visit three crystal clear lakes: Nymph, Dream, and Emerald.  Each lake was more fantastic than the last, all were brimming with salmon, and surrounded by shamelessly begging ground squirrels and chipmunks.  We were fortunate enough to pass Nymph Lake right as an elk and her faun were drinking from the edge of the lake not 50′ from the trail.Elk and fawn

And of course, I was able to take my usual swim in the less crowded Emerald Lake at over 10000′ altitude.  The water was deceptively cold, with the top foot or so being quite tolerable, but a rapid thermocline led to bone chilling water a few feet below the surface, which I discovered too late after my dive from the rocks.

About to take the plunge from the rock to the right.

About to take the plunge from the rock to the right.

The next day we took a different shuttle line to the Fern Lake trail head and did a six-mile round trip hike to Fern Falls.  We connected with a lovely couple of hiking and park enthusiasts, John and Doe, for most of that hike, which gave us some much needed social interaction as well as kept Rosemarie’s photo taking down to a reasonable level, stopping once every 100 feet rather than every 10 feet for pictures.  A real win-win for me.  While the company was great, the hike was not nearly as pleasant as the previous day’s Emerald Lake loop, and if you have only one day of hiking I would recommend the Bear Lake area rather as a priority.

We had timed our trip badly, just missing the return tip bus, having to wait half an hour for the next, which only took us to a connection stop and another hour of waiting for the final leg of the trip home, Fortunately one of the park shuttle drivers was finishing his shift and offered all four of us a lift home since he was headed that way.

We spent part of our last day in the town of Estes Park.  It is very touristy, with gift and ice cream shops seemingly every 20 feet, but much of the downtown runs right beside a river and is very cute with lots of pedestrian friendly activities and cafes.  RMNP was a great stop for us, particularly the fantastic service at Elk Meadow, the park shuttle service, and the incredibly beautiful day hikes.

Fern Falls

Fern Falls

New Windshield!

Have I mentioned that we like national parks?  Would the fifteen we have visited during this trip provide some indication of that?  But just in case we have been unclear: we love national parks. Not to the exclusion of other options, but all things being equal we will usually head for a national parks as our primary destinations, and aside from visiting family, they tend to define our route.  Thus Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) was high on our list, a must see for Colorado.

You can see the major crack to the left of Rosemarie's foot, and the "bullet hole" above her foot in the clouds

Major crack to the left of Rosemarie’s foot, and the “bullet hole” above her foot in the clouds

But first we had to get to Greeley, where we had arranged with our insurance company, Progressive, to have a new windshield shipped.  It turns out that if you have insurance based in Florida, state law mandates repair or replacement of windshields with no deductible!  The Big Kahuna had two major chips, and due to an embarrassing and dangerous braking incident that I will leave a mystery, at least in this venue, we also had recently developed a major multi-legged crack nearly two feet long.  Since we are regular readers of Technomadia, full time RVers in a vintage GM bus just like ours, we new about the FL insurance replacement law and how to go about getting it done.

Another view of the damage. "Bullet hole" above the mountain to the left of the road

Another view of the damage. “Bullet hole” above the mountain to the left of the road

The Technomads had educated us on the best way to source the windshield (surprisingly easy due to how many different bus models had the same glass), and what to look out for in terms of installation.  Progressive didn’t bat an eye, correctly applying the law to our policy, and worked with us to arrange shipping and installation based on our route and timing.  We have become big fans of Progressive this year, and by way of foreshadowing they would come through for us again a week after the windshield replacement.  Moffat Glass

As arranged, we pulled into Moffat Glass and Paint late Thursday morning, and the job was done half an hour later with not a dollar spent!  Fantastic, clear, perfect new glass, finally free of the annoying “bullet hole” chip that interfered with Rosemarie’s front facing road pictures.

New, crack and chip free windshield

New, crack and chip free windshield

Heaton Bay, White River National Forest, and crossing the Continental Divide

After leaving Ami’s Acres we continued east on I-70, entering the extensive White River National Forest.  This included a significant climb up trough the Vail Pass, 10,600 feet in elevation, which we took very slow with a couple of stops to verify coolant temp along the way.  Big Kahuna managed it without a problem, giving us confidence in the even higher elevation we would experience a few days later crossing he Continental Divide.

Of the many campgrounds in White River, one of the more popular is Heaton Bay, nestled on a large aquafer only a few miles off the interstate.  We had been unable to secure reservations, butfrom the online site we could see that a number of first come first serve spots should be available.  The hook up loop was completely full, but we managed to snag one of the few available spots in the dry camping loops.  This campground reminded us of how much we like the national recreation areas and forests for short stays: affordable, accessible yet remote enough to feel in nature, and generally beautiful.heaton bay 2

Our site was quite large and reasonably level.  The spots were spread out with plenty of green between them all.  The camp host was very helpful, personally greeting each new arrival to get them set up and take payment on the spot rather than the national forest/recreation area process of filling out payment slips and dropping them off at a central location.heaton bay 3

heaton bay 4

We remained at Heaton Bay for two days before continuing east towards the continental divide. Just as we had with the Vail Pass, we took it slow, often down at 14 mph, but cleared the clearing the 11,158′ elevation without incident, and entered the Eisenhower tunnel and the downhill run into east Colorado.

heaton bay 5DSC_0024

On the outskirts of Denver We turned north on I-25 towards Boulder in order to visit Rosemarie’s cousin, Daniella.  It was surprisingly hard to find a campground near Boulder, with only a few private parks and a handful of state options, and every one of them was full.  Talking to some of the RV park managers, they had no idea why but this season has been unusually full in Boulder. Our last option was the county fairgrounds, and we were fortunate enough to grab one of only a couple of spots available due to no shows.

Daniella picked us up for a night in town with her and boyfriend Andrew.   Boulder reminds me a bit of Portland OR or Asheville NC; lots of street activity and very music and arts oriented.  We attended a small street festival with live music on Pearl Stree, had a nice meal at a local restaurant, and finished the evening at a great local pub.

Continuing East Through Colorado

After leaving Black Canyon of the Gunnison we made our way back toward I-70 to continue our eastward trek, but not before stopping at county fair in Olathe.  The overflow parking attendants let us park in the hard packed lot for the same price as a car ($10), but combined with the $10 entry fee per person we were already paying a bit much just to enjoy a small fair for couple of hours.  Despite the cost we had a great afternoon with live music, a dozen or so food trucks, and a beer tent with nothing but local craft beer and wine.

Spending the afternoon at the fair meant we would not be putting in much driving distance for the day.  As late afternoon approached we pulled into the town of Rifle’s excellent rest area and information center.  It is not often you find a rest area with an RV dump station, which we took advantage of since we had been without the ability to do so in Black Canyon.  The very helpful staff at the information center pointed us towards two nearby highly regarded state parks, but calls to the ranger stations indicated that they were both full for the night.

This would be an ongoing trend, for whatever reason Colorado parks are unusually full this year. We were lucky to get our spot in Black Canyon earlier in the week, unable to get a spot in two state parks this day, and would experience further challenges over the next week near Frisco as well as in Boulder.  Undeterred we used the information center’s computer to check reviews of private parks in the area, and settled on a Ami’s Acres, 26 miles further down the road.Ami's Acres

Ami’s Acres is a quaint RV park right off I-70 situated on terraced mountain side.  The check in people were very helpful as well as candid about their free wifi, suggesting that our spot was too far from the park antenna to get a decent signal strength, but we were welcome to come up to the nice group seating area right next to the antenna for adequate internet access.  The RV sites were not particularly large, but all had full hookups with a nice view.  Though not cheap, at $37 a night, all in, it was a reasonable deal considering the unusual high demand in the area, and we liked this park as a stopover along I-70.  During our short research to find a place we came across a few negative reviews, but it really looks like management has worked hard over the last year to improve the place and deal with some of the things past RVers disliked.

Our site on the terraces at Ami's Acres

Our site on the terraces at Ami’s Acres

We stayed two days at Ami’s Acres, departing on a weekday, largely to increase our chances of getting a walk in spot at our popular next stop, Heaton Bay Campground in the White River National Forest.   Next up:  Heaton Bay, crossing the continental divide, and visiting another cousin.

Seven Months Fulltiming: July 2015 Report

Yes, we have fallen a month behind on this blog, but rapid updates coming, hopefully one per day over this next week to catch up.

The Distance: 2320 miles, one of our longer months.  We went all out in July, crossing into Idaho, Wyoming, back to Idaho, deep into Utah before finally ending up on Colorado.  We did this big mileage run despite being broken down in between Yellowstone and Grand Teton for three days, another four in Idaho for non-emergency maintenance and repairs, and three days in Salina for coolant system work. Total distance for the year: 11,002 miles.

The Places:  We hit 14 places in July!  I suppose some would count that lower, perhaps combining our initial one night breakdown spot at the Yellowstone Snake River ranger station with the two night stay at the Flagg River Resort parking area once the mechanic towed us that two miles. Same with combining the one night stay at the Blackfoot fairgrounds with our three night stay in the Blackfoot Super 8 since that was all for the purpose of getting repairs done.  But aside from those, we hit the wonderful Salmon River in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, two campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park, a nice private park in Wasatch, UT, Zion National Park, a quick stay over in Salina for the coolant repair, two campgrounds in Moab while visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Park, and finally Black Canyon of the Gunnisons National Park.  We had full hookups for 18 days, power only for 2, stayed in a hotel for 3, and drycamped for 8.

The Budget:  Ah well, not every month works out, and after staying well under budget in June we blew it this month, going 35% over. A lot diesel for the high mileage run, some pricey areas and expensive new footwear for me added up quick.

The Drama:  Oh so much drama!  The catastrophic roadside breakdown in Yellowstone resulting in a ludicrous mobile repair bill was the worst of it, but our coolant problem in Utah resulting in another, thankfully short and easy, mobile mechanic continued our mechanical nightmares.

The Improvements:  Our brakes work amazing now!  Our new flex shaft is incredibly solid, and we learned so much about our coolant system, allowing us to handle even long steep up hill runs on hot days in high altitude.