Our Nine Final Days of Geo Tracker Repair Drama (Plus Lake Manatee, Oscar Scherer, MacDill AFB, and a Cracker Barrel)

To review: On Christmas Eve I blew the engine on our 1997 Geo Tracker while driving on I-75 through the Everglades. After eight impatient hours observing swamp flora and fauna I got it towed back to the edge of Florida Gulf Coast civilization and coordinated a follow on tow to a mechanic in Fort Myers. Said mechanic was willing to do a full engine rebuild and installation at a reasonable price, but could not find a replacement engine block upon which to begin the process. With a bit of internet/google luck I stumbled upon a Tampa area Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker specialist, Xtreme Zuks Offroad, whose owner, Richard, agreed to do the rebuild and deliver it to the mechanic in Fort Myers. Which he did. Whereupon our man in Fort Myers began the installation process while we anxiously lingered in the area. During our six days at W.P. Franklin we learned of yet another stumble in our painfully long Geo Tracker repair process.

Gassing Up! Not filling up the big RV tank was nice for the couple of months we were in Sanibel, but its time to hit the road.

The new problem: following receipt and installation of the fully rebuilt engine, our Fort Lauderdale mechanic could not get it started. He spent days trying: redoing wiring, cleaning terminals, installing a new distributer, and even renting a compression machine to determine if there might be a problem with the valve job. I have paragraphs of text from him explaining all that he tried, but it was to no avail, and he was convinced of either his inability to solve what might be a very idiosyncratic Tracker/Sidekick problem, or that the engine rebuild job was flawed. You can guess how the latter might have sat with Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad, who described to me repeatedly and in detail the detailed and repeated instructions he had left for the installer.

The two pieces of good news in this evolving fiasco is that we at least had the ability to tow the Tracker ourselves, even with a broken engine, and that Richard said to bring the rig up to his shop and he would sort it out. So on Friday morning following our sixth night at W.P. Franklin we broke camp and swung by Fort Myers to pick up the truck (new engine installed, old engine in the back,) and towed it up to our South Tampa area campground for the weekend.

Life Pro Tip: If you might be the go to over the phone tech assistant for any of your technically challenged relatives, keep a picture of their remotes readily available. It will make walking them through procedures a bit easier.

Speaking of which: two posts back I gave an unnecessarily long explanation of our campground hunting method and updated it the next post with some happy results from this odd period of tow vehicle limbo. Even before the latest Tracker bad news we had started looking slightly north of the previous geographic triangle (between Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples) to one centered more on the Sarasota region. By expanding our search to include state and county parks at which we had never stayed, we managed to secure a week’s worth of reservations split between Lake Manatee and Oscar Scherer State Parks.

Trying to eat a bit healthier, though sometimes that just means fresher ingredients.

While writing this post it occurred to me that we tend to divide all Florida state parks (and to a lesser extent, county properties) into three categories, in preference order: on the ocean (Gamble Rogers, Bahia Honda, Topsail,) around freshwater springs (Rainbow, Wekiva, Gilchrist Blue,) and everything else (Koreshan, Lake Monroe, Trimble.) That prioritization is pretty much the same as every local and tourist in the state, regardless of the season, which makes our winter Florida campground hunt quite challenging.

Our site at Lake Manatee State Park

When such availability constraints force us outside of our accessible internet histories, half-hazardly curated webpages, and duplicative phone contacts, we often find unexpectedly fantastic places, as has been the case these past few months. We only recently “discovered” South Bay, this month we found W.P. Franklin, and this week we stumbled upon Lake Manatee State Park. Lake Manatee is what I would describe as a beautifully typical South Florida state campground: spacious but basic sites in a quite, often lakeside, lowland, scrub oak forest. I don’t know the ecological and botanical conditions that result in this type of woodland, but we thoroughly enjoy the combination of palms and heavily twisted oaks surrounding ever campsite, and strongly prefer it to the fully cleared and carefully manicured landscapes of most private parks in the state.

Some goodies from the Englewood Farmers Market

On Monday after our three day weekend stay at Lake Manatee State Park (which should not to be confused with the nearby Little Manatee River State Park) we drove north of Tampa and delivered the Tracker to Xtreme Zuks in Land O’ Lakes. We then back tracked a bit south to Oscar Scherer State Park in order to visit Rosemarie’s mom, brother, niece, nephew and family in the Venice region. Oscar Scherer is our third “go to” spot for this particular family visit area. We started with the wonderful Rambler’s Rest, a nearby private RV resort located on the Myakka River, but a few years back after they were bought out by the huge RV Resort chain, Encore, they drastically cut back on Passport-America discount availability. Unwilling to pay their full $60 a night, we sought out other options.

And our site at Oscar Scherer

For a couple of years we made do with a quite affordable, semi-official storage situation at Venice Ranch Mobile Home Estates where we parked the RV while actually staying at Gloria’s house. Eventually this too became untenable, and we reverted back to hunting for low cost options on the state and private markets. This month we got lucky with a four day opening at Oscar Scherer. We have stayed here before, and like Lake Manatee State Park, quite enjoy the dense woodsy environment. While here we were able to not only visit Gloria and Jerry, but also to hold a casual BBQ night with the rest of Rosemarie’s local family.

During our stay we got word from Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad that the Tracker was good to go (he had it running within half an hour of us dropping it off, then smoothed things out during the next few days) and that we could pick it up at our convenience. On Friday we left Oscar Scherer and headed north an hour or so to MacDill Air Force Base’s Family RV Campground. Despite more than six years of full time RVing, an ever increasing dependency on low cost military campgrounds, more than a third of each year spent in Florida, and stays at 15 different Air Force spots, we had never stayed at MacDill.

Now we have. The large campground boasts more than two hundred sites, most of which are reservable, some of which are first come first serve, but you’re dreaming if you think you can get any of those on short notice during the winter. They do, however, have overflow sites, by which I mean a grass field (with no services) where you can stay for $12 a night. It was fine, it was safe, it was convenient to our needs, and after working through the typical military gate security and campground administrative check in process (registration and insurance paperwork for the RV and tow vehicle mandatory) we settled in for a one night stay. Honestly, it’s a nice campground right on the bay, and should we have the opportunity for a real stay there, we will likely take it, but it just wasn’t working for us for a full weekend.

The only picture we have from MacDill AFB’s overflow camping site

So Saturday morning we left the base and headed north a bit to pick up the Tracker. Though our Fort Myers mechanic had not been able to get it started, he did a professional job of installing the engine, and Richard only charged us a small fee (less than two hours labor) for the additional adjustments and checks he conducted to get things running right.

We had reservations for the last week of February and the first half of March locked in, but this weekend was still a hole despite our usually successful hunt for cancellation created availability, so we drove five miles up the road to the nearest Cracker Barrel. Like many RVers, we have stayed at our share of big box parking lots, usually as a one night stop over along a planned route. While Walmarts and Home Depot’s are often just fine, we prefer Cracker Barrels: the restaurant chain has designated bus/RV parking, allows overnight campers (unless city ordnance prohibits) and usually feels a bit more secure than the big lot options. Water tanks full and batteries charged, we settled in for a two night stay, taking the opportunity to stock up and make preparations for our upcoming travels.

And thus ends our nearly two month tow vehicle drama. Next up: two more new state parks to close out February.

This is not exactly a glammer location shot, but we are so glad to have our little truck back.