Setting a New Course, Mateys!
When it comes to RVs, or living mobile, I think one of the reasons that I harp so insistently on figuring out what you want to be doing in what kinds of places ahead of time is because that level of self-awareness is not all that easy when the span of those activities or kinds of places begin to go Jekyll/Hyde on you. RV rigs each come with inherent things that they do well, and things that they don’t. Thanks to the Internet, such limitations can be perceived ahead of time – mostly, anyway. My time to mull things over and reflect was very limited, as was my camping experience. But, I knew I’d rather be living out there than renting a room someplace. It’s kinda like life, I suppose. You do the best you can with what you’ve got, and start doing course corrections when you find that it’s necessary. Having gotten some full-timing experience under my belt since 2012, it appears to be that time now.
As a vehicle to actually live in, with no home or secret rented storage space(s) somewhere to keep overflow in, the travel trailer USS Defiant did and still does work very well. At 26 feet, it just plain works wherever it is, in any weather short of temperature extremes or very high winds. It is a home which can be moved from place to place, which is what I had envisioned. I enjoy getting out to quiet, solitary areas, but have no particular interest in having to battle flies and bees while I’m attempting to cook every meal, having my meal choices depend on what the weather is like, huddling bored inside a cold, dark box or tarp to escape bad weather, moving because of biting gnats, or cleansing my digestive system behind a bush, day or night. “Camping” or “outdoor living” is refreshing for me – for a day or two.
As a permanent lifestyle, that’s not for me. I’m just not an outdoorsy person. I like going outside when it’s nice, just to be outside for awhile. Go see things, feel the sun’s warmth on a cool day, bike around, walk around. I like staying inside when it’s not nice, or when I’ve had enough of the sun, wind, cold or heat, or when I have something to get done. When push comes to shove, I’d rather live inside and have that be more amenable than outside, rather than living outside because the inside is comparatively unpleasant. For me, the escape hatch leads inside, rather than outside. A lot of folks seem to be oriented the other way ’round, loving to be outdoors all day and coming in only to sleep. I think that’s a neat thing, adventurous, but it’s just not me.
I count myself as most fortunate in having the freedom to make choices. We tend to think of “RVers” as the folks touring in copper-colored luxury motorhomes as big as Greyhound buses, big travel trailers and fifth-wheels with roomy slide-outs, and those nice smaller motorhomes that look like badly-overloaded vans with glandular problems. As far as I can tell, that’s the main bulk of RVers. Whether they are out for a couple of weeks or many months of the year, their RV is an add-on to their permanent home somewhere. They are in the midst of what is marketed as “The RV Lifestyle”.
At the other end of the RV spectrum can be found a sizable number of people who, if they were not fortunate enough to possess an RV, would be considered homeless. When I say “RV”, I’m including all vehicles that people live in, whether mass produced or improvised – except passenger cars. This is a sizable segment mainly because of financial issues that make conventional living impossibly unaffordable. Chronic health problems, medical bills, bankruptcy, bureaucratic failings or chicanery within the insurance industry, the business shift from career jobs to minimum wage part-time jobs having no benefits, failing health due to age, age discrimination and any other form of artificial unemployability such as trying to return to the market after raising children, or any other income-reducing scenario of which there is no shortage these days. This may not be the most accurate description, but it’s what I’m perceiving so far for those people who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream. Get sick enough to lose your job and insurance, and you’d be surprised how quickly the whole thing can fold up.
Shunned as undesirables by the the RV Lifestyle crowd both in the wild and in commercial campgrounds, it is also an extension of the Grapes of Wrath story in an increasing number of real towns, where becoming homeless for any reason or circumstance can effectively rate as a chargeable criminal offense, such as falling asleep in your car. Instead of you getting beat up by the marauding locals, your vehicle can be towed and impounded with stiff per-day charges. The bulk of this spectrum of RVers are so limited in income (like Social Security or Disability) that no other lifestyle choices exist. In many cases but certainly not all, they are one transmission rebuild away from living on the street. Once on foot, you are liable for loitering and vagrancy charges. For this reason, those who are not location-dependent for income avoid urban areas and move with the seasons to avoid freezing or baking. In the middle of nowhere, the hassle factor is much lower.
It is not eliminated, however. I have thrice observed “not welcome here” behavior from RVers themselves when a rig very unlike their own showed up. Two involved small home-converted rigs arriving on public land already populated by manufactured big boys. It wasn’t three minutes before the newcomer was greeted and asked about whether he had the required state permit, something that I’ve never seen or heard about being checked or enforced, ever. In the other instance, a neighbor in an LTVA area didn’t like the looks of a van and small travel trailer about 200+ yards away, and wasted no time in phoning in the local camp host to see if it could be made to move on technical grounds. The third was yours truly being asked by one of a group of clustered vanners to move a half mile or more away. They were behind a hill, hoping for lazy Ranger time limit enforcement, and felt that the Defiant, shallower in on that same trail branch, would potentially lure the Ranger into view. No way to hide the Defiant! I had not unhitched yet, so I moved.
Mind you, there is no shortage of people, young and old, who choose and prefer to be wandering panhandlers, beggars or grifters, though they are a rarity in RVs. Some RVers are of course aging hippies, old-school hipsters, nonconformists, or people who have problems with authority. RVs containing more current “creatives” are no surprise – such as artists, musicians, writers, and the like. To me, that makes plenty of sense. Similarly, some forms of construction pros go from job site to job site, traveling with family. What is surprising, however, is that in regard to the general spectrum of older low-income RVers, the overwhelming number have come from both the blue and white collar solid middle class. They never expected or planned to be here, but corporations, Wall Street, and the financial industry are what they are, so they are literally making the best of their situations and enjoying what they can of it. More surprisingly, there are young RVers who live on the road by full choice, preferring to enjoy each day of a life with no guarantees, rather than plugging away at a conventional life with the hopes of eventual old-age retirement as the reward. It’s not incessant fun and games, but the goal is to make each day the reward. Some are full-time, while others have home bases, and they commonly work at website or database maintenance, or wildlife/nature photography for submission to publications. You can probably name more.
Why I bother to mention all this is that RVing is subject to the same laws of human behavior that all lifestyles are. That is, we tend to validate whatever choices we make, even when it is not particularly justified. That is actually a good thing in my book, because it motivates us to look for the good and discount the bad – something that helps throughout life. As was pointed out to me once by an astute camper, sometimes there is a choice of one, and when an upgrade in accommodations is simply not possible, it pays to develop some appreciation for what you do have and can afford. Doing so will bring much more contentment in the long run. Thus you will find blogs touting the virtues of living close to Nature, or perhaps of learning to enjoy the simple pleasures of everyday tasks. Other blogs may ramp this up to learning and recording the positive emotional and physical benefits (along with the challenges) of simplicity or minimalism. Still others will build one specific approach to RVing as a quasi-religion, assigning the values of good and evil to conformance or deviation from it. That latter one tends to tout nonconformity as the required norm, where failing to conform to a specific new standard of nonconformity represents an epic moral failing. There is humor in that.
For all of my talk on this blog, I’m simply a lifelong suburbanite determined to explore the vagaries of a way of living that is supremely different than the one I’m used to. Like everyone else, I look for the various positive aspects and talk them up. I think it’s called “self-validation”. Having a long history of avoiding the unfamiliar and minimizing personal risk, it’s a bit of a jump to try to get the hang of living in a manner which is entirely foreign to me. In its own quiet way, it’s exciting! On the plus side, experience has shown me that there are no truly safe choices when it comes to big decisions, but merely conventional or popular decisions that may not always work out as assumed. Fortunately, many bloggers and even readers of this blog are way, way ahead of me in taking on change as a positive thing, which makes adapting to living outside of my own norm much more easily approached. It’s a big world out there, where one size does not always fit all.
And speaking of not always fitting, once I got the Defiant out on the asphalt, I began to notice things. As time went on, I noticed some things more and others less. I began to find out that, once in this new environment, I began to develop preferences about it. They were preferences that I had not been aware of, because I had not been exposed to some choices and options before. The lesson for me was that you can only do so much with book learnin’. It takes you far, but only so far. Sometimes you just have to jump in and flail. I think this is why most RVers will go through several rigs and permutations of rigs until they find the one that really does it for them. (The other reason is that needs change with time and health.) I had set my mind that the Defiant would have to be it, because well, like a lot of other folks, I’m not exactly being hounded by financial counselors. These things cost money!
The things I noticed were not related to some livability issue. The Defiant is equipped to boondock indefinitely, depending upon its tow vehicle to resupply it every two or three weeks with fresh water, and removing its tank waste to a dump station. Apart from occasionally going for propane refills or groceries in the tow vehicle (or on the e-bike and its trailer), the only thing that can force decamping is reaching the policy stay limit set for any given area, reaching uncomfortable seasonal temperatures, or a device or appliance breakdown that cannot be addressed in the field.
Me being me, I of course noticed that noisy campsites were not relaxing for me, nor were campsites with a high sociability factor. I’ll explain that by saying that a few campsites thrive with people who love to get out there and mix, meet and make new friends, and spend time enjoying each other’s company. I think that’s fabulous. However, I’m hardwired in such a way that social interaction is highly stressful for me, because that brain space normally assigned to the ability to correctly pick up on and interpret the most basic physical and verbal social queues is actually occupied instead by the ability to stare off into space and think about things that are not relevant to much of anything. The space that is normally dedicated to coherent speech and thinking on one’s feet houses grainy videotapes of the old TV show Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Think of being thrown into a house party in rural 18th century Japan, where you’ve suddenly appeared just as insults seem to be thrown, and people are taking sides. Further, they also seem to take silence as some kind of insult, your mouth is full of marbles, and you do not speak a word of Japanese. Aw-w-w-kward…
How this applies to the Defiant is that its long rear overhang and miserable ground clearance work against getting me clear of both of these types of campsites, where noise and social interaction seem to be more vital to existence than scenery. I’ve had to forgo more campsites that range from stunning vista to cozy little hidey-holes than I can shake a stick at. It hurts to pass them by. It’s like a pang of regret. “Ohhh, look at that one!” I’ve used the Mighty Furd’s four-wheel drive to scramble up some moderately nasty, rocky climbs, only to discover a small but flat plateau overlooking miles of cacti and distant mountains, or semi-forested, silent solitude. I wanted to stay there. Talk about getting back to nature! These are places hardly anyone sees, let alone stays in. My very first year out, I explored a high-clearance trail in the KOFA preserve south of Quartzsite, Arizona, to find a magnificent raised flat, snuggled into the very base of a steep mountain. It was late in the day, and the thought of returning to the sandy acres of RVs in the LTVA was not real appealing to me.
The Ford F-250 is certainly no narrow, short-wheelbase Jeep, but it can take on some fairly unfriendly conditions, and with a load. Having been a car buff and a product designer, I still get a kinky thrill from watching motive machinery do what it’s designed to do, and sometimes what it isn’t designed to do. (Ever watched a riding lawnmower race?) Idling the Ford pickup over challenging ground is to me like watching the battle of the compromises made in its design to accomplish radically different and sometimes opposing tasks. Carry a very heavy load! Don’t sag or flex! Huge dip here! Stay flexible or we’ll lift a wheel and lose traction! The same virtues that keep it rock-solid on the road also slam your head against the side glass when idling over slightly uneven rocks. Like a conflicted child who can multitask, the F-250 4×4 and its kin are built to do it all, which is not the same as doing it all well. That’s not possible this side of affordable, so you are forced to begin leaning this way and that on compromises, with your customers’ most frequent and most important tasks in mind.
And speaking of conflicted, another basic issue that reared up with the Defiant has been its steering similarly to the Queen Mary. Last year was particularly disappointing during the voyage from the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to Parker, Arizona. A couple of times, I saw turnoff signs for new-to-me things that sounded worth stopping and checking out. In the quarter mile it takes to slow to sub-warp speed, I was always the equivalent of a day late and a dollar short. State highways out west are lonely and featureless stretches of two lane. There is little more than a shoulder half a lane wide at best, and the nearest place to turn around that will handle the Defiant always proves to be 5-10 miles further on. Executive decision: pass. Part of the problem is that even those few tourist-oriented places I know about ahead of time can only accommodate cars and up to Class B & C motorhomes, the van-based ones. Cracker Barrel Restaurants often have dedicated diagonal slots that can accommodate the big 40-foot buses and motorhomes. With the Evelo perched tidily in front in its carrier, my entire rig is now 55 feet long. That’s enough to chop off aisle and drives. A full-size Class A also has a tighter turning circle than I do. I won’t even mention my attempt to trace a length of Historic Route 66. It was scary. Or what it’s like to maneuver it through downtown Columbus, Ohio or Denver, Colorado. Animal tranquilizers would possibly help.
Part of that executive decision is based on schedule, too. With the Defiant, rare is the chance to be able to just luck into a boondocking site on a whim. All overnights need to be planned ahead of time, with each stopping point scoped out on Google Maps, along with finding any comments about slope or noise. Serendipity is a concept never actually seen. If a stop seems questionable in any way, having a Plan B alternate is advisable. Sometimes, stops or campgrounds are full, at least to the degree that the spots that can accommodate the Defiant are already taken. Any surprise attraction, however genuinely interesting, can play havoc with The Schedule. If you’re used to camping on a whimsey (which is a wonderful thing), it can be difficult to get how it is that the Defiant could not do the same thing. In practice, having tried it now and then, that is an inappropriate approach. The result is generally fatigue, a long day into sunset, lots of extra miles at 10 MPG, some time wasted trying to jam 5 pounds into a 3-pound bag, and an interrupted, rotten night’s sleep. Stick to route, stick to schedule.
In being so good at staying planted, the Defiant makes for an awkward sightseeing device. Some national parks and monuments lack the space to park it. While on the road, it depends solely on its small coach batteries, the massive side-mounted solar array and battery pack not being practical or safe to deploy. One overnight can be accomplished, or two at best. Then the next prearranged leg of the trip needs to be begun to recharge the coach batteries. For a tour of more than five days or so, a workable dump station needs to have been located – the main frame is already bent from a previous owner traveling with full waste tanks.
That’s the core issue of the Defiant, and what made me begin to have second thoughts about me proud beauty. It’s a fairly big boulevard trailer, modified and with enough added systems to keep her stationary and in service for a very long time. But that’s all it’s really good at. To improve but not eliminate its core issues, it needs a new weight distributing hitch, new taller straight axles with new leaf springs and more responsive brakes, welded on structure underneath to brace up the frame, a replacement door to get rid of the sagging original, added bracing in the frame area underneath the doorway, and a practical solution to an amazingly persistent roof leak. Kept as a boondocking device, it needs its water pump to have its own independent circuit from the coach batteries, a heavier-gauge wire run to its sole interior 12V outlet, and a true big-ass RV dump valve grafted onto the Tankmin water/waste tank system. The front office battery pack adds too much weight to the hitch, and must be moved rearward and rewired into the living area. Not much can be done about moving my library of books and references rearward to take more hitch weight off. Throwing all of this at a well-used 1994 TT should give pause for thought. It did for me. That, and the thing about it still not being able to go where I found myself wanting to go – badly.
Mind you, all of the above applies to the Defiant, not newer TTs, which range from good to impressive ground clearance, lesser tongue weights, good manners, larger water and waste tanks, more robust wiring, and so on. If you’re reading into this post that my complains are generic to all travel trailers, it’s because you don’t like them yourself. I do. A dislike is okay, but to base it on a two decades old, hard-used example is erroneous. They can pose problems in maneuvering, and can suck more gas than a smaller rig, but they generally work pretty well.
Once you strip off the boondocking add-ons, the Defiant is still at its core what it was originally designed to be: a full-hookup pavement camper intended for weekend visits while it sits in a seasonal slot of a commercial campground close to home. It can travel for extended weekend vacations somewhere, if you bring along some water jugs to refill its 20-gallon tank. Use water like at home, and one person can burn through 20 gallons in three days.
Whether from age deterioration, design limitations or loading, the Defiant is not particularly happy on the road, going places. It’s even less so on trails, where it’s easy to box in with raised shoulders resulting from grader maintenance, or ruts made by water erosion. Structurally, neither its past owners nor weather have been kind to it. Though the Defiant is no entity that you can lay your hands on to see what’s going on inside, kind of like The Horse Whisperer, I can take in its original design intent and my mods to it, its physical condition and, as a result, gauge its most probable physical future. What is it the very best at, and under what conditions? What would slow down its Midwest-inspired deterioration, or at least help make it not matter? Is it worth it?
I’ve done quite a bit of research and soul-searching this year, as I decided to find out whether the Defiant needs to be replaced with a smaller, higher, lighter version, or supplemented with something else, or what. Or, just keep going with it, and accept that being more of a tourist and camping in breathtaking solitude is just something that I will have to live without. There are rather strict financial limitations as to what I can do, anyway. Many of the obvious “best” or “easiest” answers are not possible.
What I’ve done is to break this process into several stages:
- First, what does the Defiant “want”?
- Second, what type of rig fully accomplishes everything that the Defiant cannot?
- Third, is there a rig (an affordable rig) which does it all and, if not, what approach is presenting itself?
- Does the possible solution appear realistic?
I won’t post separately on each of these, but merely break the string of decisions in half and omit a huge amount of tedious exploration and detail work. You’re welcome. End game on this one: the Defiant does too good a job at providing a true living space to get rid of. I like spending months in it at a time. But, I do want to play the tourista, explore, trace parts of old Route 66 and US 30 (the Lincoln Highway), be able to camp in an improvised way, make unplanned stops, and camp in those areas that draw me. When push comes to shove, how badly do I want these things? I’m cheap, and my resources are pretty limited. I ain’t getting’ any younger, and even the basics of what the future might evolve into become too much of a guessing game. What is “safe”? What is most important? What is most needed? And how is the welfare of others (whom I care about) potentially affected by my decisions? How comfortable (or desperate) am I to sacrifice one thing to get another? On my own, I tend to play multiple strings of “what if” scenarios in order to come to the most adult-like, mature and reasonable decision, at least partially addressing as many possible results as can be managed. That’s wearing, and rarely seems to anticipate how things actually wind out. I think it has something to do with being human. “If I had known then…” I have long since come to think that I’d prefer to retain the inability to anticipate everything, and leave out that wear-and-tear part of trying to think through all possibilities. Jesus said something like, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for today has enough problems of its own.” That’s pretty good advice. It’s not a call to be thoughtless or careless, but does seem to wave off playing “what if” to exhaustion, don’t you think?
So decision one, simplified, was to let the Defiant revert to doing what it does best, and put it in an environment where it can do that for the longest possible time. The physical location may change as new things come to light, but its environmental needs for a longer service life don’t change. As such, it will need to bask in the glow of a relatively rainless and low humidity location where hard freezing temperatures are very unlikely. As much as possible, it will not need to be moved again. I will be supplementing it with its functional antimatter opposite. That will in turn physically require the Defiant to give up its long-term boondocking capabilities, most notably the rather handy Tankmin water/waste system. Solar power, with hefting its heavy panels overhead, will also thankfully go away. That’s an age thing, since I won’t be able to wave those panels around forever.
The Defiant will be semi-permanently planted in Wellton, Arizona, which is about 20 miles east of the Foothills section of Greater Metropolitan Yuma. Like most of Arizona, Yuma is kind of a scruffy, sprawling, improvised town, but it’s perfectly usable for my purposes. There’s a commercial park there offering unusually wide spaces, and at rates which I can afford for the foreseeable future. After the foreseeable runs out, I’ll deal with things as they come. Thus I will be there from November through early March, leaving the Defiant there to take off and tour in its alternate-reality opposite for the next 7 or so months. Then I’ll return the next November to discover what has melted or been destroyed in Yuma’s brutal summer heat. Sound like fun? You bet.
So, just for completeness, all four of my beloved 18V-nominal residential 195-watt solar panels will be looking for local homes there. FYI, these require an MPPT controller to deal with them, as only that type can convert the higher voltage into additional charging amps. Just so you electro-heads are not confused, nominal ratings are not the same as the maximum voltages that panels actually produce. A 12V RV panel will often charge at 18 volts, and under no load can pop up to 22V or so. These 18V Evergreens can range up to 33 volts no load, which can make short work of your common PWM charge controller if it is not sophisticated enough to protect itself and shut down. Just saying.
The not-quite-as-beloved Tankmin will reside either in someone else’s truck bed, or in a local landfill if a victim cannot be found. The latter would be a shame, since the Tankmin is the best road-going solution I’ve found to greatly expanding water and waste capacity by 70 gallons each. The usual conversion of round 55-gallon drums is great for local service, but plays havoc with safety, weight distribution and handling during cross-country travel. Small so-called blueboy towable tanks aren’t travel-oriented either. The landfill approach is especially a shame because the Tankmin’s one weakness has finally been addressed but not yet implemented. That’s occasional clogging of its upsized drain hose, which requires a skillful rodding out at the dump station. This can provide some excitement when the hose finally clears. Early in the year I managed to locate and acquire an assembly of fittings to replace the offending drain parts, which includes a genu-wine 3″ remote cable-operated RV valve and slip-on 3″ hose. Despite the waste tank’s relatively small port, this new setup simply cannot fail to drain properly. The cautions: the empty Tankmin weighs 100 pounds, so it can’t be shipped. Any user also has to have a standard-width (full-size) bed with the start of the wheelwells at least 22″ back from the forward lip of the bed. Said user also has to be willing to drill four bolt holes in his bed to secure it, as well as use a common wood hole saw to drill something like a 3″ hole for the waste drain assembly to pass through. It can be smaller, but the location accuracy becomes all the more important. I found drilling these holes in a pristine truck bed to produce some angst.
A 12V macerator that’s slipped onto the Defiant’s waste tank drain is used to fill the Tankmin’s waste tank, and that has to find a home too. I’ll probably post a note on the Winterhaven LTVA bulletin board for this stuff. I have no idea what the prices should/will be because I’ll be trying to find homes rather than get every last buck. They’re all the same age: 3 years. The panels started life at $225 or so, the Tankmin at about $650, and the macerator at about $225, I think. Now…well…”used” and “depreciation” are the key words. The only reason I’m including these components in this post is not to foist them off on any of you, but to avoid posting in November that I got rid of something, only to get a comment that somebody here would have wanted it and been willing to swing by to inspect and carry it off. Did you ever hear, “Well, I sure wish you had told me!!” ?
Part two, the alternate-reality remainder of the solution, has already been set in irretrievable motion earlier this week. I’ll post about that little mini-fiasco in a separate story. Since the Defiant does its one thing well, I found that I would rather take a tack that answers my perverse lust to get way the hell out there, than to settle for a single rig that addresses neither edge of the spectrum very well. Until they invent an affordable RV that offers spectacular space, comfort and convenience, along with the ability to climb like a mountain goat and maneuver in tight quarters with a small footprint, this is how I’ll roll. Just be glad that you’re not afflicted with the same perceived ying-yang needs.