On November 8th, Mike and I were enjoying a relaxing morning in Salem. We were just hanging out with no particular agenda in store for the day. I was working at my desk on my laptop and Mike was getting dressed in his bathroom. All of a sudden I started smelling a peculiar smell of ammonia. I felt like it was getting stronger when Mike came into the front room and asked if I smelled anything. I answered with an emphatic “YES”, and we jumped into action. He started moving through the coach to try and determine where the smell was coming from. I got online and googled “smell of ammonia in a home”. My search turned up “burning plugs” and I told him to check for something like that. He went outside to check the exterior of the coach and saw that ammonia was dripping from the outside bay that housed the mechanics to our refrigerator. Yes, the same refrigerator on which we JUST spent $200 replacing the control panel.
When I saw that he had pinpointed the culprit, I googled “ammonia from Norcold Refrigerator”. This time I learned we were supposed to disconnect the fridge from the propane connection in order to prevent a threat of fire. I yelled at him to turn off the propane. It was getting hard to breath, so I started opening all the windows and turning on all the vent fans to try to get some air flowing. I kept thinking about how glad I was that we were home when this happened. If the dogs had been there without us, there is no telling how sick they would have gotten from the fumes going unchecked. Or there could have been a fire. Or we could have been asleep and not awakened before the noxious fumes made us all sick. We had a sucky dilemna on our hands, but our rig and our health were in tact, so the rest we could take in stride.
While Mike was trying to sop up the liquid chemicals on the outside, I kept researching the problem online. Long story short… we needed a new refrigerator. Most of the online forums indicated that we would be throwing good money after bad if we tried to repair the problem instead of just replacing the appliance. Our fridge was original to the coach, so it made sense that the end of its life had arrived a decade after the Monaco was built. This was really going to bum out our Captain. Mike returned indoors and I gave him a brief synopsis of what I had learned. I knew how frustrated he would be, so I took the dogs out for a walk so he could process that bad information with some peace and quiet around him. He’s the boss and makes all final decisions regarding maintenance and repairs, so he was ultimately the one that would need to decide how we addressed the situation.
We had a couple of choices. We could replace the fridge with a full-size residential fridge, or we could buy another one exactly like we had. There is a difference between residential refrigerators and RV refrigerators. Our RV fridge is connected to both electricity AND propane. A residential fridge is powered by electricity only. I prefer the RV model because the propane back-up means it constantly runs even if we lose power, or are not hooked up to electricity at all. When we lived in a regular house, the first concern when the power went out was the food in our fridge and freezer being ruined. If we are without power in the rig, we never have to worry about that. If the electricity goes off for any reason, the appliance automatically switches to propane for its power. The storage space inside the unit is a bit smaller than a residential fridge, but not worrying about whether it is running outweighs the size constraints. I cook a bunch, and we always have an abundance of groceries and leftovers inside our fridge. The size of the unit has never been an issue for me. Lots of RV’rs prefer residential refrigerators, but I am partial to the convenience of a working appliance at all times. Mike knew my inclination would be to go with another Norcold. When the dogs and I returned from our walk, Mike told me a new Norcold was going to cost $3,700 (before labor) … and the Monaco had to go in the shop to install it. Oh joy.
Next step: find a place in the area that could take care of us. Our initial plan had been to leave Salem on November 14th and drive down to Medford for a week’s stay at Valley of the Rogue State Park. That plan was scrapped. Mike called a handful of places and no one could schedule us until the very end of November, the middle of December, or even the beginning of January. If we waited around Portland for such a long time, we were looking at two issues… no fridge for all that time; and, we would be well into the winter season by then – which would make traveling south through The Cascades a bit treacherous because of the inevitable snow and ice on the roads during the cold season. I felt like maybe I should take the dogs on another walk.
After several hours of online research and phone calls, we had an appointment at Camping World in Wilsonville – back toward the Portland metro area. The good news was that they could take us on November 17th. That was only a few days after we had planned on leaving Salem anyway, so it was workable. We called the State Park and cancelled our reservation in Medford, then I went to the office at our campground and extended our stay for two more nights. I bought a couple of bags of ice to try and keep the inside of the unit cold, then I called my aunt and asked if we could store the contents of our fridge and freezer at her house until we had a new unit. The next day we packed all of our perishable food into coolers and drove them to Lake Oswego. We put the frozen meats in my cousin Taylor’s deep freezer, and then we drove over to my aunt’s condo to store the rest of our cold stuff.
Our new plan was to leave Salem on Wednesday, November 16th. We would move the rig to the parking lot of Camping World and boondock there overnight, so we could be ready to hand over the coach promptly at 8:00 AM on the 17th. We planned to stay at Camping World again on the night of the 17th because we had no idea how long it was going to take them to finish the installation. No point in getting on the road during late afternoon rush hour.
Now, getting back to the big picture… Our route for the Lower 48 in 48 Tour has been governed by a very vague set of stipulations since we started our trip: North in the summers, south in the winters, east to west. We filled in the rest of the details as time went along. Each year of our trip during late fall, we found ourselves trying to out run the snow as we move from north to south. This year was no exception. The two states we had left after Oregon were Nevada and California. The two months we had left were December and January. We were getting nervous about getting over the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountain Ranges during winter months. Up until this point, we had a loose plan of traveling from Portland down I-5 toward the Sacramento area, then east over the mountains on I-80 to Reno. The more we dwelled on this route, the more we realized the mountain range that separates California and Nevada could get tricky when the weather turned cold. We revised our strategy and decided to go straight to Reno as soon as possible. We thought we could get through the mountains before the winter set in, make our way south through Nevada, and then spend our “month of California” in the Palm Desert area. Winter is very mild in those sections of the U.S., so we felt like this approach would be much less stressful.
Our revised game plan was to leave Camping World on Friday, November 18th and drive to Reno. The drive would take about 12-hours in total, so we would to do the trip in about three days… drive about 4-hours and boondock somewhere each night until we finally reached Reno around Sunday the 20th.
On Friday morning, we got up and started our regular routine in preparation for a travel day. I took the dogs for their morning walk and came back to start prepping the inside of the rig for the road trip. Mike was doing his thing: familiarizing himself with our intended route on google maps, and checking weather and road conditions along the way. It was about 8:00 AM when he came back to the bedroom and told me there was a winter weather advisory scheduled to begin at 10 that evening for portions of our route in southern Oregon and northern California. Snow and ice were coming. We had to get over the mountains before that night. He suggested we get on the road and drive all the way to Susanville, CA that day. I looked at the map. He was talking about a 10+ hour drive. No way. When he saw the petrified look in my face, he told me we had no choice.
Since I am a terrified passenger, a three or four hour drive in the Monaco is about as much as my nerves can handle. We’ve made a few trips that have lasted five or more hours, and it was all I could do to hold myself together toward the end of those journeys. I thought we would be risking a serious mental breakdown for me if we had to drive more than 10 hours in one day on mountain roads the entire way. However, he was right. We had no choice. I asked him to please eat a good breakfast so he would have adequate brain power and energy to pilot our rig. He told me to trust him. I told him he was a good driver and I knew he wouldn’t do anything that would infringe upon our safety. Then I put my big girl pants on and kept prepping the rig so we could get out of there as soon as possible.
We pulled out onto I-5 before 9:00 when the weather was still nice. The roads were flat and straight for a little while, then the terrain changed. We spent the rest of the day climbing and descending. We stopped in Medford, at the same park where we had hoped to camp, so we could walk the dogs and stretch everyone’s legs. We got back on the road and drove another 1.5 hours to Weed, CA, where we stopped for diesel. The skies were only partly cloudy at this point, but the wind picked up on this stretch and it got a little scary. We were heading into 40 – 50 knot gusts and the Monaco was getting blown all over the road. Mike clutched the wheel with both hands and held on tight. We would have normally just pulled off and waited it out, but we couldn’t. This was just the beginning, the weather was going to get much worse. By the time we pulled into the truck stop for fuel, it was so windy I didn’t even take the dogs out to pee. All three of us would have been blown to the ground before we finished our business. The wind was howling so much that people outside had to literally yell at each other to be heard.
After Weed, we turned east onto Highway 89. The wind abated after this turn because we were back in the forest where the trees blocked most of the gusts. We then turned onto Hwy 44 and made our way through Lassen Volcanic National Park until we hit Highway 36. We drove for a short distance on 36 until it dumped us out of the mountains at Susanville. During a brief moment when I had enough cell service to make a phone call, I had called Susanville RV Park to see if they could take us for the night. The lady in the office arranged for an after-hours arrival and we were happy we had a destination that included full hook-ups. We pulled in around 7pm… about 10.5 hours after we had left Susanville. We were all exhausted. I took a long hot shower in the campground laundry because we didn’t have enough energy to hook up the water connection until the next day. Mike cooked us some chili cheese dogs while I was in the bath house. We ate, walked the dogs again, and collapsed into the bed. I spent a few minutes meditating on prayers of gratitude for a safe travel day before I fell into a deep sleep. Mike was snoring before I even had my pillows situated. I can’t imagine how tired he must have been. He did all the work while all I did was fret.
The weather came in behind us that night, and we ended up spending three nights in Susanville. We needed all of that time just to decompress. On the third morning, the sun came out and it was time to hit the road again. We had a quick 90-mile drive to Reno and it was time to go when the highway was clear. As we were hooking up the Honda to the tow bar before we left the Susanville RV Park, a lady in a rig next to us stopped to ask us a question. We started chatting and she said she and her husband had gotten caught in the weather. They had also come from the same direction as we had, but they were traveling a day later than we were. At one point, they had reached a closed highway and had to turn around and find another thoroughfare that was open. Then she told us that the motorcoach parked next to them had gone AROUND a barricade on a closed road and ended up sliding off the highway. A tow truck had to pull him out of the ditch. Once again, we counted our blessings for listening to warning signals and taking action to ensure our safety.
We checked into Sparks Marina RV Resort on Monday, November 21st. I cannot tell you how happy I was that our spot there was reserved for 28-days. I was gonna need that much time before we had another travel day. We accomplished our goal though, we beat the weather.