Itch de la Hitch
With my scheduled departure approaching late next week, I find myself with a natural mix of dread and anticipation. Dread of the necessity of shoveling out the Defiant’s interior to make it ready for travel, swapping wheels to get the new tire mounted in place and to put the spare back on its perch, and hefting those big panels. What can I say? I’m lazy, and all that’s too close to being actual work.
Yet, there’s the anticipation of getting out to the big sky and solitude. A lifetime of points East and their own wonders makes me pine for less familiar terrain. True, the West is technically a place of relative desolation, but the connotation of a bleak and barren wasteland doesn’t cut it for me. It has its own rewards which cannot be matched here. Each area has its appeal, and the West’s is Spectacle.
Mind you, the trip out there won’t have much entertainment value. I’ll be leaving at the start of the Labor Day weekend, a Duly Authorized Holiday Camper taking my allotted space just hours after I yank the Defiant out. All campgrounds from here to Seattle will be packed with them. So, it will be Interstate rest stops for me, all the way out to Wyoming. Rest stops are, on average, quieter and less closely packed than truck stops.
With a full two months before I will roll into Yuma, Arizona, four two-week stops are planned. That’s how the Defiant is oriented. Find access to a perfectly level or at least correctable spot, unhitch, break out and hang the solar panels, and put interior accouterments into a living arrangement. From there, it’s a matter of supplementing its 20-gallon freshwater tank with the pickup-mounted 70-gallon Tankmin, and likewise transferring waste via a macerater into the lower section of the Tankmin in order to avoid towing a trailer with full waste tanks, or having to break camp in order to visit a dump station mid-stay. Reasonably careful use of water can net you an uninterrupted three-week stay if warranted, and frankly, the 26-foot Defiant makes for a superbly comfortable long-term living space. That’s pretty much what I envisioned when having to hurriedly transform a well-used 1994 holiday travel trailer into a mobile place to live. It works. Original goal #1 accomplished.
But before I can pat myself on the back, I have to recognize what it doesn’t do so well – the various trade-offs that compromise all RVs. I also have to take into account what I expected to find out on the road, and how my expectations have changed, now that I’ve been out here a few years. There are two principle failings of this unit to my purposes. The first is its either/or nature. With Spartan use, its coach batteries can last up to two nights maximum. Beyond that, the vehicle’s engine must be run (which is a big no-no), or at least one solar panel must be unpacked, hung and angled upward. In practice, this limitation trims its usage to a choice of either an overnight during transport, or full deployment with a stay of more than a week. Once you start dripping over into multiple night stays, you are engaging the waste system and now need to become aware of a dump station in the vicinity, if any. Towing with a non-empty waste tank is also a no-no, and requires breaking out the macerater and hoses from the bed of the truck to get it into the Tankmin. Staying for “just a few days” requires a full deployment.
The other failing has more to do with access and, basically, this resulted from my having no wild idea what I would find when I went out west. But hey, RVers with considerably larger rigs wander about all the time, so how bad could it be? My research had indicated that the only real issue was taking a forest road to an effective dead end, and having to back up for very long distances just to find a turn-around spot. This wasn’t the whole story, in my case. Despite being only as long as the trailer part of a semi-tractor rig, the Ford+Defiant’s turning circle is markedly larger. It’s a beast. Stopping at a grocery or even a gas station on route can be nice-nice, or produce quite a bit of apprehension depending on the roominess of or lack of same in what you discover. It’s always easy to get in, but not necessarily to be able to maneuver through or get out. This has to be correctly assessed just before making any entry.
As a boondocking rig, the Defiant’s exterior is a poor basis. Length or width is only an an occasional issue. The problem is that turning circle, and the inherently poor ground clearance found in most pre-2000 travel trailers. The Innsbruck in particular is what I call a boulevard camper, originally designed and outfitted by Gulfstream merely to sit in a seasonal space at a local commercial RV park. For the more adventurous, it can also travel from one full-hookup commercial camp to another. And for that special holiday – like Labor Day – it can leave the pavement to camp out for a long weekend, as long as you’ve plopped a pair of big honking batteries into the front carrier. As such, it began life especially low to the ground. It’s since had the axles relocated to be below the leaf springs, which jacks the trailer up a few inches. Most 4x4s would be happy with a 10″ ground clearance, but when that’s the ground clearance under a nine-foot rear overhang, it’s not nearly enough. Significantly longer fifth-wheel trailers can go where I cannot, and have.
As a result, I’m often having to camp where other, larger rigs are, complete with gas-powered generators, external speakers, and yapping dogs. I prefer solitude, which to me means no one within sight or sound. In solitude is where I can contemplate the world and my place in it, and other weighty matters, like whether Velcro shoe straps in place of shoe laces represents progress or mere change. These are the things which consume me. Why do we park our car on a driveway, yet drive it on a parkway? But solitude for such weighty contemplations is a comparative rarity. Millions of acres of Federally-owned land are available for camping free of charge – it’s just that most of them are not readily accessible. I’ve noticed that National Forests now restrict dispersed camping (as it is also called) to only a certain few trails. This is to limit damage. Those usually present problems with high shoulders from grading them, and many approved branches are eroded and navigable only by high-clearance 4×2 or 4×4 vehicles. Many easy-access, crowded areas are surrounded by rougher alternatives. Many’s the time when I’ve four-wheeled into some area and felt that it would be an ideal campsite. Couldn’t happen though – it was interesting enough just to get the big Ford back there. No way the Defiant could do much more than make the initial turn, and use that to turn around to leave.
Once I started out on my little adventure, I found that many people are already out there boondocking, and that the great majority are concentrating in a limited number of set areas. Though wonderfully comfortable in all weather, the Defiant is not able to access much more than these high-pressure areas. It’s 7,000-pound weight also poses additional risks in moving within remote areas in bad weather, though its ability to camp for sustained periods tends to allow a prolonged delay for better trail conditions.
On the highway, its size and weight also work against it. Many worthwhile points of interest lack a preceding fanfare of signage. By the time you can read the sign or pointer, you’re as good as past it. If you’re in a car on a state route not heavily traveled, you can hit the binders and get two wheels off onto the narrow shoulder, then either turn around, or back up. With a heavy 8.5′-wide trailer having a huge turning radius, neither of the above are options. It is to your advantage to simply reengage the speed control and put it out of your mind, since the nearest area usable as a turnaround is likely ten miles away, and depending on the attraction, the facility may well not have room to accommodate the rig. This is common, since a “tourist” and a “camper” are rarely the same thing in the more popular venues. Given the terrain, to the south and east of Prescott Arizona are two state highways which bar any vehicle longer than 40′, due to hairpin turns and a limited lane width. Readjust route to suit. The Defiant is more oriented toward Interstate roadways mainly because they are smoother, pose fewer challenges, and have shoulders wide enough to pull over on. State highways are okay, although pulling over to service a tire problem can be a real issue. The sometimes charm of rural roads is not a serious possibility with the Defiant: width becomes worrisome, and the 60 MPH limit imposed by the trailer tires encourages a lot of passing, some of it either foolhardy or suicidal. Then you arrive at your destination and wince when you open the trailer door.
I also didn’t anticipate the need to hold to a tight stop plan. That’s a mixture of the Defiant’s inflexible tow-it-or-plant-it character, and space limitations in some overnights, be they Walmarts or city parks. Walmart parking lots are often tilted enough to throw a propane-powered refrigerator’s efficiency off, requiring cranking up the temperature control to compensate. A few shopping centers lack any safe accommodation for a 53′ long vehicle. Beside physical maneuvering issues and the need to unhitch in order to fit, many free or low-cost city parks clog up on weekends. It pays to plan while wide awake, and then stick to it once underway. It also pays to carefully examine each planned stop on Google Maps first, note which way to turn to get to the right type of parking, and have a Plan B alternative stop on the sheet if anything looks less than certain. Whimsy is not much of an option for this type of travel, unfortunately.
This is the physical accommodation I was hoping for, but not the type of travel. My first goal was to create an affordable, true living space which could “follow the weather” according to season. That part worked. I have a hard time coming up with some interior issue that could somehow be significantly better than it is. Maybe better insulation, but the Innsbruck was never intended to somehow be a four-season trailer, and it’s a little late in the game to ask that of it now. Full, working office. Living area with decent-sized TV and couch, dining table and seat, full kitchen, bed, full bathroom, and ample storage.
But, with her sagging frame thanks to past abuse, the start of wood decay in her thin body structure, and the various events over her longer voyages, she has been trying to give me a message. The perfect living space wants to be just that, but little more. She cannot take me where I want to go, nor encamp me where I yearn to spend some time. No inhabitable trailer could, as it turns out. That part of the “see America” plan did not work out as hoped. But then again, until I got out on the road, I wasn’t aware of enough to be able to hope specifically or realistically – one reason why I relentlessly harp today on knowing where you plan to go and what activities you plan to do in order to find a good fit in rig types. With no experience, it’s a difficult assessment. Who knew I would find man-made noise so intrusive, or get all excited every time I saw a side trail taking off into rough country? What the USS Defiant can do best, without relying on modifications, is to serve well as a semi-movable home base of sorts. Think of it as a docking station, with the facilities to restore and replenish a crew from the rigors of exploratory travel. The “see America” part will have to evolve from an entirely different type of vessel.