Saturday, August 29, 2015

We Travel to Forget

Arrow Rock State Historical Site Campground is situated just north and west of Boonville, Missouri. Nestled right next door to the Historic Village of Arrow Rock, the park is quiet, well-maintained and easily accessible.

Before we left Kansas City, we decided on Arrow Rock as a destination for several reasons:

  • It was fairly close
  • Our rig is stored near US 24 east of Independence, Missouri and US 24 was an interesting route east toward the park.
  • I checked out the campground on Google Earth and StreetView, looking for pull-through access entry and exit*
  • Our other choices - Weston Bend State Park and Wallace State Park just seemed too close to home - we'll try them next time
Our trip to the park was mostly uneventful, though I was sure the twisting, hilly roads of US 24 were going to eat up our fuel mileage in a hurry. West-central Missouri is deceptively up and down and is some beautiful country. Before long, we passed the Higginsville turn-off and the Big Finger on the road to Dover.

We pulled over on the Main Drag at Brunswick, Missouri to stretch our legs and then found an RV-friendly lot to turn around in so we could double back to head south on the Highway 41 turn that I missed earlier. There is a pattern that will develop around events such as these.

Highway 41 is another rolling, up and down road all the way past Marshall, Missouri and on to Arrow Rock toward Boonville. Although I did my Google homework, I managed to drive right past the subtle campground entrance sign at Big Soldier Lake. So south we drove, looking for a place big enough to turn around our 50 foot combined rig. After a thirteen mile bonus trip, we finally reached the junction with I-70 and turned around at a truck stop and headed back for Arrow Rock.

We made the turn at the campground entrance and drove directly to our reserved space - number 47. The space is tree-lined and shady, as is much of the campground. Our space was paved, so when we dropped the trailer, we didn't have to deal with uneven or soft ground. Taking a cue from Twitter pal, full-time RVer and photographer Al White, we shortened or landing gear and stabilizer jacks with a combination of a concrete block and a 2.25-inch plywood platform. The result is a shorter, more stable jack and a trailer that is absolutely rock-solid.

We hooked up power, set camp, and started dinner - grilled chicken breasts, roasted potatoes, sweet corn and salad. This was when we started to realize that we had forgotten a few things. Here's the deal - Kath makes lists. Kath has always made lists. We don't forget things because Kath makes lists. Sometimes we have things we don't need, but this time we got crossed up. Short story, we forgot a few things, maybe more than a few things, but with Boonville a short drive away, we fixed most of our issues and vowed to watch our checklists more closely.

After dinner we set about installing the new LED TV that the lovely folks at Bielstein had sent us. The one that came with the trailer was damaged, and while it showed no signs of damage to the exterior, the unit was unwatchable due to some kind of impact. The new one had been sent to the house and we loaded it with the rest of our stuff to install once we got settled. Turns out it was worse than the first, with visible impact damage to the front of the screen. A quick call to Bielstein set things straight and we'll install another unit soon enough. 

Later, we cracked open a bottle of Drambuie, - we've adopted a sort of Nick and Nora Charles approach to life on the road . . . solve mysteries and have celebratory cocktails -  and sat out in the cool evening air. A reminder, this is August in Missouri - cool evening air usually means low 90s. We were enjoying temps in the upper 70s that by morning would dip into the low 50s. Amazing. August is cicada time around here, and the critters were in full voice, droning from every branch of every tree. I measured their love songs at a grating 73 decibels.

The moon came up over a quiet campground, and we turned in for the night. By the time we arose to the aroma of coffee perking, it was in the high fifties, and we wondered why we had forgotten to bring jackets this time. Ahem.

French toast for breakfast, dishes done and a bit of campground reconnoiter. As I walked around, it dawned on me that this place was nice enough, and quiet, but deceptively downhill everywhere you look. Wound up a few degrees out of level ourselves, and when we looked around, we realized that every space was situated on a downhill slope. It was like one of those Ozarks Hillbilly Mystery Houses where people lean precipitously as they stand on a flat floor.

Our neighbors' fourteen-foot Jayco Swift was pointed to the sky, and I just figured they had some strange predilection for slanty floors.  It wasn't until later that I realized that it was all an optical illusion. They were dead level, but their site was ten degrees downhill. Things were like this all over the campground. No complaints about the campground, but the place is positively disorienting.

All in all, it's a nice quiet campground, made more so by our mid-week visit. The campground host was helpful and able to answer our questions and get us fixed up with firewood.

My major question was how in the hell do I get this massive trailer around the hairpin turn at the end of the pull-through? When I was looking at the camp by satellite, it didn't look all that bad. In reality, it had a fairly sharp radius, trees and a small culvert on the inside portion of the turn.

We finally decided to back the rig out of the space and drive around the long way, thus clearing one obstacle, but creating yet another. Backing this monster hasn't been on my priority learning schedule, but it was about to go front burner the next morning.

We wandered the park after dinner on the second evening, and were able to stop and appreciate the simple beauty of Central Missouri on a late summer day. Smoke from the massive wildfires in the Pacific Northwest gave the hazy sun a golden yellow color, even high in the sky.

Not a bad way to wrap up a couple of late summer days with Highlander. Successfully backed the rig and got on our way after the necessary tank-flushing ablutions. Refueled before the trip home and our fuel mileage was actually better than our trip from eastern Missouri a few weeks back, now up to 11.2 mpg. Hit I-70 westbound and was home in good time, and got the rig swung around, powered down, and parked in its super-secret undisclosed location, ready for the next adventure.

I hope you'll join us.

*In some cases, there would seem to be no information available via StreetView for state parks and campgrounds. However, you can sometimes click on the road leading to the park and "drive" in via the StreetView interface. This tactic got me into our chosen campsite at Arrow Rock.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Eight Lugs, No Plugs

As we loaded up and started back to Kansas City from Eastern Missouri, our two main imponderables were how Highlander II would pull and what kind of fuel mileage we could squeeze out of Tug.

Our trip to pick up Highlander was an all-but-empty truck with a full Retrax bed cover and food for a couple of days. After our excursion to Keokuk, Iowa we filled up and calculated a net mileage of 15 mpg.

The next day we hitched up and after a short stop at Beilstein for adjustments, we hit Highway 61 and headed for home.

The Allison 6-speed transmission behind the GMC Duramax diesel has a trailer mode that eliminates the overdrive and changes shift points. We rolled up the entrance ramp and it felt like we were hauling a load of post holes. Smooth and effortless. The Duramax 6.6 L (403 c.i.) is rated at 397 horsepower and 765 ft/lbs of torque.

Even with some slightly rough patches on the road - this is Missouri, after all - the trailer pulled straight and smooth. Stopping was effortless - the trailer brakes were dialed in after we picked up the rig and were perfect. When our forward speed hit fifty-five, the transmission settled down and we ran at a fuel-friendly 1500 rpms.

I watched the fuel gauge as we drove west on a perfect August afternoon. It dropped steadily, and by the time we reached our double-secret undisclosed location where we were going to store the rig for a while, the needle had dropped just below a quarter tank. The tank is thirty-six gallons.

We cruised back to the house and I got up the next morning and filled up at the HyVee. 10 mpg! I know that doesn't sound like much in a world of hyper-miling and smug Prius owners, but 20,000 pounds of rolling stock ain't no Prius.

Some highways are better than others when it comes to places to rest and refuel. US 36 across Missouri isn't great, but there are options. We only saw one accessible fuel stop - accessible means you can drive a 50 foot rig into and through without getting caught in short turnarounds and dead ends. Worst case scenario is that you wind up backing out after refueling. It's possible, but backwards is not my favorite direction - it requires two people, Forward only takes one.

We will spend more time in the future researching routes and available fuel before heading out next time.

One solution we're looking at is an additional fuel tank. Another 36 gallons gets us 360 miles farther along our way. One thing you don't to do with a diesel is run it out of fuel. The restart process isn't impossible, but it's a pain in the ass.

When we finally reach the road, we'll be another 2,000 pounds heavier, but we're encouraged by our first foray into diesel RVing.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A slightly longer stay

 We settled into our campsite at the Boulder Lake campground at Wakonda State Park. "Campsite" sounds wrong, somehow when you're parked in a fifth-wheel with air conditioning, a king-size bed and all the comforts of home. Anyway, we occupied campsite #12, a pull-through with ample - 50 amp - electrical service. Right next door were the volunteer campground hosts, Orville and Rhonda Crow, and they got our permits stapled and posted to the campsite. A few campers in the area had wood fires burning, and the sweet smell of oak smoke drifted throughout the camp.
Boulder Lake

Boulder Lake Campground

We were prepared for August conditions - hot, humid and a boiling sun - but cooler forces prevailed, and the mercury never got out of the middle eighties. Spring conditions, to be sure. No complaints, kids. 

Our original plan was to spend one night in Wakonda and then start the trek back to Kansas City, but as we watched the weather maps develop, we kept seeing forecasts for heavy downpours all across the state, and especially around Kansas City. 

Highlander II Panorama

I already had an advanced case of the yips just thinking about my first trek across Missouri pulling our City on Wheels and the thought of learning to drive the behemoth rig in a driving rainstorm nearly sent me into seasick mode. We decided to spend another night and wait for things to settle down. Know when to be a hero, know when to call one in. Besides, where we were going to park the rig was a grassy area next to a friend's barn, and it didn't sound like a rain-friendly spot with ten tons of rolling stock coming in.

The Flood of 1993 remembered.
So we stayed another night, checked in with Orville, and made plans to wander the area the next day. Waconda is just thirty miles or so from the Iowa border, and since in my younger days I had somewhat of a history in Keokuk, we decided to hop up there and have a look around.

Keokuk, a river town on the Mississippi, was, judging from some of the houses in the older parts of town, quite the destination for the moneyed classes at the turn of the last century, beautiful Victorian homes, bungalows and the draw of the river created a bustling community. In more recent times, the river has been tamed by Lock and Dam Number 19 - the Lock, holding some 38 million gallons of water, provides a step-up or step-down for the river's barge traffic. The barges, nearly a quarter-mile long carry corn, wheat and coal from the upper reaches of the midwest to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
A stump

We rubber-necked our way through the town for a while and I showed Kathi my points of interest and infamy from forty-five years ago. We grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch, hit the Hy-Vee for dinner stuff and headed back to the park.

Chief Keokuk
On the way back we remembered why we stayed an extra night. The sky grew darker and darker, and by the time we were ready to find our refueling exit at Canton, it was a full-on toad-strangler. It eventually passed and we filled up Tug and calculated the mileage. We had managed exactly 15 miles per gallon on the way up and on the Keokuk side trip. Not bad for a four-ton monster. Now we could calculate what tax our 13,000 pound Highlander II would levy on the system on our return trip. Tomorrow we'd find out.

The Christening

Our first evening in Wakonda State Park, we began thinking about names for our new home. We had originally thought about "Heart of Gold" from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This was, after all, a journey of infinite improbability, but it didn't scan right.

A few years ago, I piloted our Firefly balloon, "Highlander". The name was a nod to our Scots-Irish heritage, and the heights to which we aspired. We had some great adventures with Highlander, but the time constraints of running a photography business proved to be too much, and we gave up the balloon* in favor of terrestrial pursuits.

Note: The two worst mistakes of my life - buying that hot-air balloon and selling that hot-air balloon.
We discussed it for a while, and over a pair of clinking old fashioned glasses full of Drambuie on the rocks, we settled again on Highlander, now Highlander II. We met hundreds of amazing people when we flew, and we expect to meet hundreds of interesting people on the road.
Highlander II
* Highlander Is still flying, now with Andrew James at the controls. He renamed it "Budzilla". I'm honored.

Picking Up The Rig

We set out Tuesday morning from Kansas City, bound for La Grange, Missouri and the fine people at Beilstein Camper Sales to pick up our new Heartland Oakmont. La Grange is across the state from us and close to Hannibal and the Mississippi River.

We stayed close to the speed limit and used cruise control when possible in order to get a baseline highway MPG for Tug.  We chugged along US 24, which hurt our mileage some, as there are numerous towns along the way that require you to slow down as you enter each burg. Then, back to 60 again. A recent close call on our way back from a Lyle Lovett concert makes short breaks to stretch our legs mandatory.

We stopped for a few minutes in Brunswick, Missouri. The last time we came through, there was a Friday night wine and art walk going on. Tuesday mornings are more mundane in Brunswick, but we happened upon a table set up right on the main drag, unattended, with tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes the size of basketballs, and a honor-pay box.
Brunswick honor syste
We saw a man come up, pick a melon, pay and even make change for himself. This is not the city.

We rolled into the Beilstein lot around 2:30 and were escorted to the prep garage where our new fifth-wheel was waiting. I have to say, a large trailer sitting indoors looks even larger, and I started wondering if just maybe we had made a huge mistake even considering hitching up such a behemoth and dragging it around the country.

A very small part of the Beilstein lot.
The techs in the service department had the trailer ready to go, and as we attempted to hook up to our new Reese R20 hitch, we discovered that the hitch had other ideas. The pin would slide into the hitch, and the jaws appeared to close, but the locking lever never returned to the full locked position. The guys tried everything - they took my truck to another trailer with a similar pinbox, no luck. They checked for burrs and casting flaws. Nothing.
Reese R20 Hitch
They removed the hitch's lube plate, same result. Finally, I called Reese customer service, and I was informed that the problem was operator error. the guys had been opening the hitch jaws before trying to hook up, but the Reese hitch prefers to have an unlocked, but closed set of jaws. Then, after the pin is properly seated, jog the truck into drive and back into reverse. Badda bing, the hitch clicked, we locked on and everything was as it should be.

We got the full walkaround and had all the features explained to us, many of which seemed to bounce right off our brains. It is an awesome vehicle, and as I watched the landing gear retract and saw the full weight settle onto Tug and the hitch, my palms started to sweat. I had never driven anything quite this large - the trailer, nose to tail, is just shy of thirty-eight feet long, and it hitches directly over Tug's rear axle. For the sake of argument, let's call it fifty feet of truck and trailer.

We went inside and settled accounts, and they bade us farewell, took our picture, and sent us on our way. I cannot say enough good things about the people at Beilstein. Chuck Oberling handled most of our business dealings at Beilstein, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to anyone buying an RV, travel trailer, or fifth-wheel rig. The service department is top-notch, and all our dealings there have been first-class.

We buckled up, looked at each other and said, "Here we go!". This same phrase has been our launch code for any number of new adventures over the last thirty-three years. Transmission in D, trailer mode engaged, pedal down.

Tug easily started the rig rolling and we cruised all of a mile and a half down the frontage road to Wakonda State Park to spend the night and see what the trailer had in mind for us.
First stop, Wakonda State Park

We figured if we got hung up, the Beilstein guys were five minutes away. After a couple of tries, I got him centered in a campsite, and Kath and I started the setup process.

Let me say this, the old way of leveling a trailer is for the birds. The Oakmont comes with a Lippert auto-level system that manages all that trial and error on its own. A few keystrokes and we were straight and level.

As we unpacked and started thinking about cooking dinner, it the enormity of our decision to hit the road really began to sink in. The enormity of our new home on wheels also hit me - this was a comfortable place for two people to travel together without constantly bumping into one another. Plenty of room to do  the things you would do in a house, except a slightly smaller scale, plus the added advantage of never being chained to the earth.

This is how we'll live, this will be our new home.