The Fear Factor
Actually, I should have posted this a month ago, but August 28 marked the anniversary of my moving into The Enterprise as a full-time home, and October 9th will commemorate when I first hit the pavement. Venturing rapidly into a completely unfamiliar lifestyle always has its pitfalls and concerns, but I believe that when you’re handed a one-way ticket to Elsewhere, it’s time to look at what hasn’t worked, and consider something different. Kind of a start-over. What would you do differently, considering the here and now? Make lemonade out of lemons, if you can. The march of time prevents a do-over, but if you’re still breathing, there’s always at least a little time left for a new start. Action movies contain precious little philosophy, but one brief interlude in the film Bullitt has the disillusioned female lead ask her boyfriend, “What will happen to us, in time?” He answers sagely, “Time starts now.” My takeaway is to live deliberately. The future may not be entirely in your hands, but the course you decide to set is.
Many of you live vicariously through this and other similar blogs and websites, enjoying the “adventurous” mobile lifestyle and wishing – slightly – that you could one day do the same. Sure, it’s cool in a way, but you know deep down that you’ve got a lot of other things going on that are much more vital to you, so it will probably never actually happen. Doesn’t hurt to daydream about the possibilities open to you though, regardless of what similar or very different form they may take. Living mobile is just one tiny little niche. Living deliberately is a wide, wide span. Dream that.
Getting shoved into a dream
I’ve found that the waterfall effects of the current economic downturn plus the wholesale export of careers has shoved a lot of ordinary folks into full-timing on the road, though. Some dwell in urban areas in order to try to keep a minimum-wage job, while others host at remote campgrounds or realize that no one’s going to hire them any more and live solely off disability, social security, or other very limited income out in the boonies. Imagine that you had no comfy nest egg, no high-wage pension, no health insurance, no big IRA, and that full-timing looked to be the only real option to lower expenses to the minimum and keep your head above water. For the typical urbanite or suburbanite, it’s kinda scary.
The blind unfamiliarity of trading in a house or apartment for living mobile can evoke a lot of fear, most of it based on not knowing what the major pitfalls and hazards will be, or how you’ll cope with them in very, very different surroundings. Disturbingly, there are a lot of women facing this situation, and it’s even more frightening for them than it is for men. Will I be safe? What if my vehicle breaks down 60 miles from Podunk? What do I do if vital equipment stops working? What if I get stuck? It’s one thing to rent a camper out for a pleasant weekend nearby and then go home, and quite another when the lease runs for a decade or more and there’s no home or hometown to skulk back to any more. It’s a bit like waking up in Botswana, but with everyone there able to speak English. That’s helpful, but only puts a mild dent in the prolonged sense of social and functional disorientation. There is much to learn, Grasshopper.
I’ve previously written about how some folks try full-timing and find that they can’t do without a sense of home – a house, a familiar neighborhood, friends to visit, relatives to annoy or alienate. This post is more about trying to anticipate and adapt to the unknown, Botswana-style. It’s more hardware than social, but that’s another post’s worth.
When cold weather set in and I had to hit the road, I certainly had my issues percolating. The solar system looked okay but had not been combat-tested. Travel trailers are notorious for developing tire and bearing problems. The trailer’s tires looked okay, but with it at full load capacity, would the original 1994 wheel bearings hold up? What would I do if one blew out on the interstate, and instantly overloaded all the other old bearings (and tires)? What if the fridge stops working? It’s old and expensive to replace. What if the truck breaks down? It’s horrendously complex and so cramped under the hood that the only way to access a lot of it is to unfasten and remove the entire cab in one piece! Now and then, the less you know, the better off you are. Is a portable propane heater safe in such things? The byproducts are lethal, and RVs are like tinderboxes. Oh boy.
Then again, I realized that all of this wasn’t new territory. It was only new territory for me. Thousands of people full-time in RVs and what-have-you. Sure, wires short and burn the damned things to ashes. People asphyxiate themselves with propane heat. Wheels fall off on the road. Trailers sway and blow over in the wind. Vehicles break down. But there must be a way to avoid this kind of stuff, because there’s still an awful lot of RVers left out there, still alive and well and doing what they love. My goals: learn how to cope with the unexpected, and somehow get the hang of minimizing the risks. Learn how to full-time as safely as possible. That’s a worthy full-time goal, especially during year one.
So, what happened?
The one-year mark is just getting one’s feet wet. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve repaired a lot of minor issues on the trailer all the while. I’ve also gone through most of the calamities I initially feared, which is not my favorite ride on the learning curve. But I’m still here! What happened?
1] The solar panel system didn’t work in the field. Earlier posts have detailed this, but one thing is for sure: I refrained from using a lot of electrical power because 3 out of 3 battery packs were getting no charge from solar at all. The most essential pack was rechargable from the tow vehicle hookup. I called the tech line for the solar controller manufacturer and played Stump the Stars for a few weeks. Once at my endpoint in Quartzsite, AZ, I eventually found out though another vendor that my solar chargers were unable to cope with what my panels were pumping out, and I had to replace them. I did, and stopped trying to cheap out. The system now works spectacularly well. Lesson: Don’t expect cheap equipment to work as well as quality equipment at the lowest price you can find. Pay up for quality and people who know what they’re doing.
2] Each of my four solar panels are big – about 5.5’ x 3’. That’s a lot of sail area.I knew that wind would be an issue, but once I discovered the type of windstorms they had in the Southwest, it became more of an issue. Perched off one side of the trailer, they are vulnerable to high winds. I’ve improvised tie-downs and, so far, the panels seem adaptable to 45 MPH winds in any direction without the tie-downs even coming into play. How high can they withstand? I don’t know, but 70 MPH gusts are historically the max, and I don’t care to find out – especially with the rather poor weather forecasting here – so I tie them vertical or even bring them in if things threaten to be especially bad.
3] The 2008 Ford F-250 diesel is too new to break down, so it didn’t. I can accept that. I did learn that those $100, 15-quart, 5,000-mile oil changes are important for the long run, and that the recommended 5-year coolant changes are about 2 years too long to wait, for the 2008 diesel. I also learned that scheduled preventative maintenance is critical to minimize later repairs. Yeah, I’m with that already, but it’s critical here. This is not only because of repair costs, but because all of the qualified and experienced Ford diesel mechanics are east of the Mississippi. They’re like hen’s teeth out here. All dealerships are comparatively small, and it makes no financial sense for them to train and equip for servicing diesel pickups.
4] The Ford also prefers hot, dry desert to wet, cold Midwest winters. I had been plagued by dragging brakes because of rust. Not here – they’re staying cool as a cucumber. Ford engineered it to haul trailers up long, punishing grades in high temperatures without a hint of overheating, and it does that easily. But that gigantic radiator and water pump also keep it from staying warm during idle in low temperatures, which can eventually make the valves stick because of varnish buildup. Even where I camp, it does occasionally go below freezing at night, but overall, prolonged idling in the cold is not much of an issue here. I expect it to live a bit longer here than it would elsewhere.
5] One trailer wheel bearing blew out approaching Quartzsite, Arizona during my maiden voyage. It basically grenaded. I got it fixed locally. Another bearing blew at the start of my trip back. Damage was less this time, so I was able to do most of the work myself. I replaced the remaining three bearings. Lesson: “When one bearing blow, all gots to go.”
6] One trailer tire developed a threatening bulge while sitting in Quartzsite over the winter, and I pulled and replaced it with one of a higher load capacity. All of this made me wonder about whether the trailer was overloaded, so I had each wheel load separately weighed on the whole kaboodle. (Google “Smartweigh”). I was okay there, but was also told that every tire I had (except for the single new one) was somewhere over 10 years old, judging by the date codes. Normal replacement maximum is 7 years, considering the load they carry. Since the spare was the wrong size, I replaced the remaining 4 tires with ones of a higher load capacity. That pained my financial soul, but it’s better than a blown tire 50 miles from nowhere, struggling to jack up a leaning trailer on a soft shoulder with semis blasting by. It’s a peace of mind thing.
7] I learned by observing others that exceeding the rated maximum speed of trailer tires reduces their rated capacity, and they’ll blow out, sure as shootin’. There’s no calculation needed, since all trailer tires are load-rated at 60 MPH. Because they’re always near their load limit on RVs, running faster really is tempting fate. I’ve uprated my tires to the next-higher weight class, but if I went faster, then I don’t have the math skills to figure out when I’ll arrive at my next stop! A mile a minute is fine with me. Lessee, divide 197 miles by 60…that’s 3 hours, uhhh, ummm…17 minutes, right?
8] As for heat, RV furnaces are notoriously inefficient, using heaps of both propane and electrical power. Mine keeps kicking in its overheat sensor as well, so it barely works. No matter, as I wasn’t going to use it at all anyway. A Mr. Heater ceramic-type portable heater easily does the trick and is rated “indoor safe” to boot. So, given the mediocre weather sealing on this tin tub, extra ventilation isn’t needed. I did get a surprise when a hose connection to the heater ignited once, emitting a rather enthusiastic flame. It went out fairly promptly when I shut off the tank valve feeding it. It was exciting, though. No need to pull the fire extinguisher. It seems that the inline filter needed to keep plasticizer in the supply hose from ruining the heater had pathetic quality control on a sealing surface, and was leaking gas. I torqued it really hard and it sealed again just enough to work until I could get a replacement hose that didn’t need a filter. That new hose works great, but you can be sure I’m kinda paranoid-obsessive now each time I hook things up for a go. Unlike the furnace, it’s a silent, pleasant heat. The furnace sounds like a 747 idling on a runway, and it’s a far cry from being white noise.
9] I learned that vintage trailers are basically boulevard trailers, meant to go from concrete pad to concrete pad in commercial trailer parks along paved roads. With dropped axles and long overhangs, they just don’t have the ground clearance needed for many dirt roads in national forests or remote BLM areas. My trailer’s axles have already been relocated to the bottom of their leaf springs, so 10-1/4” clearance at the rear skids is about as good as it’s going to get. My rear skids have little caster wheels attached, and they occasionally go into action on poor gas station exit aprons. Yes, I sometimes get Clearance Envy when I see modern trailers with straight axles and thigh-high frames, but on my budget, this is it. So, I pre-research locations, trails and descriptions carefully, and then stop, get out, and walk ahead a bit on arrival when I come to a potentially questionable section. Turning around a 31’ trailer with a 22’ vehicle can also be a real issue at times, but my assume-the-worst methods are working out nicely so far. The Enterprise is considered to be only a mid-size trailer, but it’s slightly nutzoid to be boondocking remote trails with something this big and low to the ground. Oh, well. The only thing my existing procedures can’t save me from is getting trapped in mud during late summer monsoon season down here, when some areas of some trails suddenly turn to deep goo. In such a bad trail choice, the good news is that since the truck can carry 3 weeks-worth of fresh and waste water, only the trailer might be trapped. Maybe. The truck itself has a halfway chance despite its balding street tires. Naturally, I hope to be pretty picky about trails to use in the summer, pretty picky indeed. Most of the problematic areas are at altitudes that I consider to be a little too low and hot in the summer anyway.
10] Rough, rocky roads and lots of sunlight and dry air are tough on tires. I found that out when I started noticing little chunks of tread missing at the Ford’s outer edges a few months ago. They’re 6 years old. At over $300 a pop though, I need one more season out of them. I cover the sunlit trailer tires with a tarp when parked long-term, but the Ford has to run a bit too frequently to make tire covers convenient to use. So, I’m trying out a spray UV protectant made specifically for the job, which needs to be applied once a month. We’ll see how that goes.
11] Wind, wind, wind again. A stiff headwind can drop towing fuel mileage from the normal 10-11 to 7 MPG. A sidewind drops it too, because the tires are having to steer into it to maintain direction. In a 200-mile trip, it’s effectively a slight 200-mile skid. By sheer luck, my rig’s weight dynamics make for a surprisingly stable combo in sidewinds. But, I never forget that a 26’ x 8’ sidewall makes for one mighty effective sail. I’ve watched semi trailers go way up on two tires in sidewinds, nearly going completely over. Lots of folks blithely pulling campers in sidewinds turn ‘em over. This is one of those things that, if I think I’m going to be unduly preoccupied with it while driving that day’s stretch, I simply stay put another day. I have no reservations or appointments to keep. This is my home and sole asset, not a disposable vacation camper. It’s not worth the stress of kicking in more or less steering and monitoring how much the trailer is constantly wavering out of line. Sometimes there’s a fine line between “adventure” and “crazy”. This isn’t one of them.
12] Never having gone 4-wheeling (driving on rugged trails with a 4WD vehicle), I always wanted to try it. So, once I got to Quartzsite and Prescott, Arizona, I did. It was both fun and unnerving. It was fun because, well, it just was. It was unnerving because first, I’d never gone offload on more than a wet suburban lawn. It was all new. Second, the Ford F-250 is clearly designed for getting heavy loads of equipment to sloppy construction sites. Its huge, loaded 9,000-pound bulk is not designed for tight, suspension-twisting little Jeep trails. I realized that if I got it hung up or otherwise stuck, it would be a thirsty day’s walk back to a cellphone signal and help, and who would I call? It has no shields to protect the oil pan, exhaust or fuel tank, and it’s long 158” wheelbase is an invitation to ground out unprotected components. With a budget of zero for repairs and the warnings of local Jeep clubs to never, ever go out solo, I quit doing that. Problem solved.
The Not-So-Pithy Summary
A lot of the problems involved with unfamiliarity can only be overcome by getting in there and fumbling through things. The rest can be approached by pre-research and advice. Many feared situations tend not to materialize or even be realistic when put to the test, while you may find yourself blindsided by situations that nobody mentioned. Of course, one needs to do one’s best to recognize, head off or be prepared to deal with potential problems. No point in tempting fate. When trouble comes though, it’s handy to view it as a process that just has to be slogged through. Learn a workable way to deal with it for next time, even if you learn what not to do. The process is never fun, but it also tends to build a sense of confidence that this RVing thing is do-able after all. In the end, the heart of the issue is rarely “the problem” – it’s one’s fear of it looming out there somewhere in Botswana land, just waiting to pounce. Plan the best you can, and then get out there and live it. Others have. Why not you?