Friday, May 9, 2014

Counting Expenses and Blessings

             May 7, as I gently guided the Monster down Highway 95, in California, through The Mojave Desert, through what I believe is the ugliest natural scenery I have ever survived, I thought of a cliché:  “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.”   Here I was in middle of ugly, driving on an unsatisfactory roadway.  The previous weeks, we have been sojourning in what I just might think is the most beautiful part of the nation—the Colorado Plateau.  Mesa Verde to Zion, Arches to Grand Canyon. But we had certainly left stunning beauty behind.   No pinks and roses, greens, and stark whites.  Here every color faded into shades of dull grayish brown.
Leaving Las Vegas
Although I have driven in Michigan and in Louisiana—the states with the absolute worst roads—I was developing an earnest dislike of Highway 95.  It was only two lanes, and two narrow lanes at that, with unpaved soft shoulders.  Except for an occasional wide bend, the road was straight as a ruler, for dozens of miles at a time.  The only variance in the road was its altitude.  If one is generous, one could say that it was alike a ribbon, fluttering, up and down, varying in height maybe five to fifteen feet.  Up a little bit, down a little bit.  Up, down, up, down.  If one were a scientist, one could say it was like an audio wave on a dull brown screen.  If one were an environmentalist, one could feel all soft inside knowing that the road followed perfectly the contours of the desert floor.  Bull dozers had been relatively tender here.  If one were a parent, one would worry as one’s children in the back seat go all soft inside, and their stomachs begin to re-experience, in an unpleasant way, their sodas and Pringles Potato Crisps.  When will this rise and fall ever end?
            The day had not been going well, unless one is a Voltairian optimist, which I can be at times, and was certainly practicing as a semi-spiritual discipline this day.  About 11:30 or so we pulled into a Mobil station just off the highway in Needles.  Our trailer, The Monster, had been popping and pinging and snapping for some time, and we had grown more or less used to it.  We just sort of thought, “Wow, trailers sure make a lot of noise.” 
            Not so, it turns out.  With a kind of diligence and eagerness that certainly made me paranoid, a fellow from the station stepped out of the repair bays toward our trailer to help me pump the most expensive gas we have purchased yet.  Quickly, he began asking questions, walking around, inspecting the trailer.  “You’ve got something going on here, buddy.  We heard you pulling into the station.”
Mid Repair
            He’s quick, he focused, he’s determined.  I’m afraid.  I feel like an opossum with a dog sniffing and grinning, inspecting, and contemplating lunch.  First, he finds a tire, the steel belt separating. 
            “Let me tell you what to do.  Pull that trailer back around and park it in front of those bays and we’ll get that changed. “  Woah, things were moving pretty fast.  But I took a deep breath, bent down to inspect the tire.  Yep, it was beginning to separate.  This problem is not new to me; in fact just the day before we had replaced another tire on the other side of The Monster, one that I had noticed when I was setting up the trailer two days before.  In addition, we had replaced another tire that had developed a bubble a couple weeks prior in Carlsbad. 
These were facts that could not be denied.  We bought the 2006 Durango Trailer used.  We did not know how many miles were on it, but we suspected not a great number.  When we bought the trailer, it was in pretty good shape.  Still, we did not know.  The tires may have been the rig’s original.   We have driven over thirty thousand miles ourselves since August.  I have a mantra about driving vehicles on the highway, especially vehicles that weigh five tons, are attached to the pull vehicle by a little metal nut, and affect the safety of my wife and two of three sons in the truck:  don’t fuck around with the tires. 
            After a quick inspection of the fourth tire, I decided to replace it also.  We would now have four tires, all new within the month.  I could live with that.
            But the fun had only just begun.  As the tires came off, all sorts of trouble began grinning at us.  In the interest of time, and your patience, I will spare you the step-by-step revelations, the rise and fall of my emotions, my moments of shock and awe.  This was one of those Einsteinian periods in which time and cost entered into some weird Twilight Zone.  As time moved forward, arithmetically, cost progressed exponentially.  It turned out that, first, we discovered that three of our four shock absorbers on the trailer had broken, popped loose, and were just dangling, useless. Next, an equalizer had torqued or something like that.  Then the springs had sprung.  When it was all said and done, we basically required an entirely new suspension system, and two new tires. 
            I had not told you, previously, about why we were delayed in Williams, Arizona two weeks ago.   See this post.  We had been hearing some pops and hisses in The Big Ass Truck.  Someone has told us our rear carrier bearing was making the noise.  So we had that checked out.  It turned out that that little apparatus, whatever it is, was fine and dandy.  The cause of the noise, instead, was the fact that the cab was about to fall off the frame of the truck.  It turns out that the truck has six bolts that attach the cab and all its contents (like the family!) to the frame.  We were missing four of those and the other two were loose.  We had also thought we had transmission leak.  We did, but it was a minor repair.  But what we were really seeing was a small leak in the fuel rail line.  Replacing that part was expensive.
The Cost of Labor
            I think everyone who travels has great fears, of many things, but one that stands out is the double/triple fear of breaking down on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, helpless, and thereupon either meeting up with some dangerous folks with cruel intentions or falling prey to shyster repairmen.  Knock on wood, The Caravan of Wonder has so-far avoided the original fall from grace.  We have made repairs in a timely (enough) fashion.  In August, in Akron, Ohio, we replaced and/or maintained brakes on both vehicles.  In October in Plymouth, Massachusetts, we purchased all four tires on The Big Ass Truck.  In January, in Wilmington, North Carolina, we replaced the electrical converter in the trailer.  In March, in Wills Point, Texas, Dr. J. and I repaired the roof trim on The Monster—I had cut a corner a little too closely to some low branches.   Along the way, I have repaired drawers, cabinets, and one faucet.  Then, as I have said, in April, in Flagstaff, we reattached The Big Ass Cab to The Big Ass Frame and corrected a fuel leak.  And now, in Needles. California, we replaced our suspension system in The Monster.  In the past month, we have purchased tires for the trailer in Carlsbad, Las Vegas, and Needles. 
Did we get screwed in Needles.  I don’t know.  I am going to do some research about costs.  But I am pretty certain we needed the work done.  The sounds have stopped and the ride is much smoother.  Even with the terrible roads.  I don’t know, but maybe with greater diligence, I could have avoided the problems with the suspension system.  If anyone reads this and has an opinion, I would appreciate hearing it.
On other matters, I am not so sure it was not the campground’s funky electrical systems in Wilmington that blew the converter.  But I am certain about the two most important repairs, and the most expensive.  Dr. J and I had noted the leak on the fuel rail in a stop at Cline’s Corner, New Mexico.  We were probably lucky we did not catch the truck on fire at some point.  And in Needles, the broken shocks were dangling loose and torqued equalizers were obvious.   I am always afraid of my ignorance and lack of know-how.  My admiration of the men and women who moved west in wagon trains grows daily. 
            So this is why I choose to be Voltairian about all this:  It is the best of all possible worlds. Our truck is six years old; the trailer is seven. What do we expect?  It was impossible for us to purchase new vehicles.  And it is impossible, by the laws of physics, to haul five or six tons of mechanical equipment around the country for month upon month and not expect friction to take its toll.   In Needles, all the repairs delayed us merely three hours. 
The Monster Parked in Joshua Tree National Park

And, you know what, we are now camped, boondocking (by choice) without water and electrical hookups, in Joshua Tree National Park.  We are alone.  No other campers are in sight.   It is desert, but, Oh Man, this is beautiful desert.  The high elevation Mojave Desert.  The morning is cool.  From the window, as I have typed this, I have seen a kangaroo rat hurry across the sand, a young Black-tailed Jackrabbit inspect the Brittlebush, and a couple of LBB (Little Brown Birds) flit from rock to bush and back.  It is quiet, except for the key strokes on this computer.  Stone Quiet.  The Joshua Trees rise above the Brittlebush and Smoketree shrubs.  Later today, I am going to ride my bike about 18 or so miles from the Key’s Lookout back to the Belle Campground, where we are bivouacked.  My heart will get its workout.  And now, I will cease typing for a while.  Everyone is safe, the credit card is tucked back into the wallet, and I remain thankful.

Soundtrack Double Feature:  Sheryl Crow:  "Leaving Las Vegas"

Slaid Cleaves:  "Broke Down."

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