"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing"
- Helen Keller

Monday, July 27, 2009

The truck gets a checkup

I've never owned a diesel. I don't know anybody who owns a diesel. A friend of mine works on diesels, but they're the kind you crawl into the engine compartment to work on. When I bought the truck it had 28,000 miles on it and it had a sticker on the window that wanted me to change the oil at 31,000 miles. The owner's manual thought I should take it in to a Dodge dealer after 30,000 miles for some maintenance. The truck now has over 31,000 miles, so it was time. But first a wash and wax to get the truck ready for it's trip to the dealer. Then I made the call.
Thought I would start with an oil change and let the mechanic and the truck get acquainted (I called ahead to make sure they even had a diesel mechanic). They bonded while the mechanic (Chuck) changed the oil and made a list of stuff that it would need for the next 30,000 miles. Turns out big trucks require a special lube and gasket for the differentials (and I have a 4x4 so I have two differentials). $143 for each differential but they would have to order the special big truck lube and the special big truck gaskets first. They promised to stock it in the future in case I needed anymore at my next checkup. Cool.
Then the truck gets a new fuel filter ($70), transfer case fluids ($54), and an air filter ($32). I was expecting it to be more expensive than I was used to for a gas engine, so I wasn't disappointed. But check this out: remember the oil change I requested? $122 including 12 quarts of oil at $6.80 a quart . I was expecting it to require more oil than the 5 quarts a gas engine needed, but 12 quarts? And they recommended I do it again after 3000 miles. Uffda.

The flamingo

So what's with the pink flamingo? Well, we thought a green one would be too weird. Besides, they only come in pink.
The flamingo has been hanging around in the backyard of our last house for years. It got planted in the backyard after the boys and I decided it would be the perfect Mother's day gift. Apparently Janie thought so too, because when it came time to downsize from the house to the apartment, it made the cut. That was after Gabe put in a bid for it. Popular bird for something I thought was destined for the landfill (even the recycling center wouldn't take it).
So the bird was moved to the apartment and even made the short list of things we would have to take with us in the RV. Light weight, quiet, no batteries, and it stays outside when we're parked. The perfect traveling companion.

Janie: I just needed to tell you the year I got the flamingo, John had convinced the kids that this flamingo was the end all and their mommy would be soooo excited. Now he knew very well that yard art is one of my least favorite things, for a week the kids kept telling me how this year they had the best Mother's day gift ever. That day I opened this large very light weight box and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a pink flamingo on a stick. I looked at John who was smirking and exclaimed it was the best gift I could have gotten. Immediately we had to go out and put it in the garden. Funny how over the years I would look out in my garden and darned if that pink flamingo didn't remind me each day of my beautiful little boys and my ornery husband. So today it may be just a pink piece of plastic but it is one of my most prized possesions.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Visit

So we have a big truck, but nothing much to haul. After much pondering, lots of RV shows, and visiting a few RV dealers in our area, we have this idea that we would like to own a fifth wheel built by Peterson Industries called the Excel. Turns out that Peterson Industries is located in Smith Center, Kansas, and Smith Center is just South of Grand Island, Nebraska, where my brother-in-law Gary lives. The Excel web site said we could tour the factory if we wanted to. Sounded like a good excuse for a visit.
We load up the trusty tent and all the stuff we need for camping. I fill up the truck, and since I hadn't used the extended tank yet, I fill that too. $99, a new record. Turns out Cedar Rapids has the highest price for diesel in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Who knew?
We find a nice campground in Grand Island that's right off the interstate. Maybe a little too close, since we could hear the interstate traffic at night. Be nice to have a fifth wheel to cut down on some of the noise, I'm thinking. And air conditioning. That would be nice on nights this hot. The only thing we would hear would be the sound of the air conditioner.
Janie brought her camera and some of the studio stuff so she could take her nephew Austin's senior pictures. That worked out well. On our last day there, we got a tour of the new hospital in Grand Island where Gary works. The tour included breakfast in the cafeteria. You could get individual slices of bread wrapped in plastic. I was surprised it didn't come with a warning to remove the plastic before you toasted the bread. Nice place.
Then it was straight South to Smith Center. Kansas has better roads than Nebraska and is more scenic than I would have thought. It's still hot by the time we arrive for our afternoon tour. We meet Brian Smith who is assigned as our personal tour guide for the afternoon and we get the whole tour. Very impressive. It ends with an interview with the president of the company (another Brian,actually Bryan). He answers our questions, including where to go for lunch and where to camp around that area. He prices out a few things we were interested in and we're done. Time for lunch.
Lunch was at Jiffy Burger, which might be to only place to eat in Smith Center. It wasn't real jiffy since it was still busy at 3 in the afternoon. Didn't matter; I was starving. Food was surprisingly good.
We decided to camp at Lovewell reservoir on our way back to Iowa. It wasn't too far from Smith Center, so we had plenty of time to set up camp. Beautiful place. We were right on the lake.
That night, we left the rain panel open so we could watch the sunrise the next morning. We also got a good view of the big lightning storm that night. I was counting off the seconds between the strikes and the thunder, and I figured the main storm was across the reservoir from us. Then it was right over the lake. Then it was on our side of the lake, and it brought some wind with it. Like that scene in Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan challenges God during the storm at sea.
It was too late to move, or even close the rain panel. When the interval between the lighting strike and the thunder gets to be a second or less, Janie likes to use the “oh shit” method. She can say about four oh shits a second, so when it gets down to a single oh shit, you know the lighting just missed your ass. By that time, the wind was strong enough to collapse the tent. We have this double dome tent that we really like. It has two rooms: one for your gear and one for sleeping in. Plenty of room for two people, and you can stand up in both rooms. The wind came straight at the main entrance; the least aerodynamic part of the tent. I was afraid it would just fill the tent with air like a big sail and away we would go. What happened instead was the front room (our porch) sort of bowed down until it covered the opening between the two rooms, and then the whole tent just laid down. We were in a tent sandwich with a fierce wind trying to scrape us off the camp site. I was a little concerned, but I remember thinking that was the right thing for the tent to do, because now we wouldn't be a big sail. We were still going to die. Janie was convinced we were going to get rolled up into a tent taco and pushed into the lake before we could get out, so she was frantically trying to unzip the panel on the back of the tent. I though she was trying to escape and I didn't want to die alone so I as holding on to her trying to convince her it was even worse outside the tent.
Then the wind stopped, and the tent just stood back up. Amazing. It was even still dry inside. That was exciting, but now we could get back to sleep. Right after we go sit in the truck for awhile in case another storm hits. Janie decided she was going to sleep in the truck (there are some advantages to being short). We were awake, so we cleaned up some of the campsite. Everything appeared to be still there, just blown over. We found out later that all four main poles of the tent were broken, but it was still standing and still dry so I climbed back in. What an awesome tent.
The next morning, we noticed all the Rvs were still upright and it was just business as usual. Another reason for camping with an RV.
Here's the tent (after we removed the rain fly), still standing with broken poles - amazing!

The Truck

Just to recap: we sold the house, said goodbye to a lot of our stuff, moved into a two bedroom, one bath condo, and purchased a truck. All this began as an exercise in preparing to haul a fifth wheel around the country as “full timers” also known as “homeless people with big trucks”. It's a really sweet 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 with the 5.9L Cummins diesel and dual rear wheels. It's a beast. You can tell because it sort of growls when it idles. This was the last year Dodge made the 5.9L diesel. By January of 2007, Dodge was putting their new bigger/better/cleaner diesel in their trucks to meet the federal standards for 2010. I figured they had worked out all the problems with 5.9L by then, plus the previous owner had installed an extended tank, added a trailer brake controller, step-up bars (it's a very big step up into the cab without them), bed liner and stuff I would have added to a new truck. And it was cheaper than the new 2009 version without all the added stuff.But the amazing thing was the Dodge dealer had both a brand new 2009 and this 2007 3500, both with dual rear wheels, sitting in their inventory. We were unable to find any new Ford, Chevy or GMC trucks in this class in our area and the only other used truck we found was a well used 2004 Ford F350. Test driving the F350 was an education. It was the first diesel I ever drove, and the first thing I wanted to do was merge with the busy traffic next to the used car lot. No problem, just wait until I had an opening in the traffic (both ways) and away we went – at what felt like a snails pace. What looked like plenty of room was not near enough room to merge with the traffic. I'm glad everybody's horn worked. But we survived, which I later took to be an omen that I should own a big truck. When I pointed out to the dealer what a pooch their big F350 was, I learned the engine controller will limit the throttle response of a cold diesel engine to prevent damage from over-reving the engine. Good to know. Anyway, no harm done and we didn't find another truck until Janie saw the two trucks sitting on the Dodge lot when she was shopping for running shoes at a nearby store. We test drove both of those but I told the dealer I wasn't ready to buy a truck just yet. That was fine. Three weeks later Dodge told them they would no longer be a Dodge dealer so they gave me a call and asked if I was ready yet. I guess I was. I still don't what it is I'll be hauling with it, but I know it'll be big enough. It's like that scene in Dirty Harry when he pulls out his 44 magnum and starts his classic speech about it being the most powerful handgun in the world. If you don't know what it is you want to shoot, you might as well carry the biggest hand gun you can, just in case you want to kill a car or something. This truck is just loafing hauling Janie and I around town and on some short camping trips. It's not a work truck (too pretty) but you can tell it was bred to haul some serious weight. Later maybe. Right now, we're just getting used to how big it is and how much room it needs to turn around and how much wider it is. So far I've dinged it twice, and crunched one traffic cone. Janie has yet to score. My first ding was within days of buying it when I backed into a parking place and nudged a sign back a little further from the curb. The second ding I need to tell you about. You feel like a real working man driving this thing. You even get to fill up at the diesel pump just like the big guys do. But any pretense at being cool came to an end on our last camping trip when I pulled into a small gas station to fill up. Since this truck can burn any diesel (not just the ultra low sulfur the new engines require), I tend to go for the lowest price I can find. It didn't start out well: the pump's credit card scanner immediately rejected my card. No problem, I figured they could scan it inside and get it to work. Wrong. The pump was still locked up from a previous credit card and I would have to change pumps since the attendant wasn't able to clear it. Still no problem. Except I forgot the hose was still in the tank from my first try when I pulled away from the pump. What happens, for those of you who haven't done this before, is the hose disconnects from the pump at a joint designed to do just that without starting a big fuel spill with towering flames and the like. I also broke the pump handle and the latch to the truck's gas cap cover. I did manage to fill it up without further incident, but by then I knew it wasn't going to be as cheap as I first thought. $368 to fix the pump (I'm still waiting for the bill, but they called to tell me the total). Not sure about the gas cap latch, but the truck definitely won. I'm thinking of adding a little pump hose symbol on the side of the truck so diesel pumps know who they're messing with in the future.