Category Archives: Road Trips

Road Trip #2: Portland, OR to Susanville, CA to Reno, NV

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.

The online reviews for Camping World were marginal at best, but we didn’t feel like we had any other option regarding the installation of our new refrigerator. In the long run, Camping World did a fine job. They let us buy the Norcold ourselves and have it shipped to them (so we didn’t have to pay an upcharge), they got us in when they said they could take us, they got us out within only a few hours, and the fridge still works. No complaints from the Martins.

The Winter Weather Advisory in the blue highlighted section on the map was directly over a large portion of our intended route to Reno.

Siskiyou Summit on I-5, just near the Oregon – California border, is the highest point on that interstate. The elevation is 4,310 feet. The clouds were below us.

The theme of the day was Mount Shasta. Our route had us turning onto CA Highway 89 as we passed by the western side of the mountain. Then we would drive east and skirt the south side of the giant peak. We were going on a modified version of a “Bear Hunt”. Couldn’t go over it. Couldn’t go under it. Couldn’t go through it. Had to go around it.

I didn’t realize Mount Shasta is a potentially active volcano. I just thought it was a regular ole mountain. It last erupted in 1786.

The second highest peak in the Cascades, from Highway 89. I’m glad we made it through this leg of the trip while the weather was still clear enough to enjoy such a pretty view.

It had been a LONG day by the time we reached Weed, CA. We refueled at a truck stop there and checked the map. We were two hours and twenty-five minutes from our hopeful destination of Susanville. It was late in the afternoon, but the eminent storm had us motivated and Mike said he could make the last leg of the drive with no problem. The highway was narrow with only two lanes and no shoulder. We were still in the mountains, so there were lots of ups, downs, twists and turns. There was one passing lane at the beginning and then another one toward the end. There were no other opportunities to pass on this stretch of our path. We got behind a beginner truck driver that drove about how I would – slowly because he was scared. He never went more than five miles UNDER the speed limit. Now you can be sure I don’t love riding in the Monaco on mountain roads, and a slow progression would normally make me very happy. However, it was getting dark. No street lights anywhere. Once the sun went down it would be pitch black out there. I started thinking I would rather us drive the speed limit and get out of the woods while we could still see, as opposed to making our way when we could see NOTHING ahead of us. No such luck. Mike did an awesome job of keeping a good distance between us and the newbie trucker. He never lost his patience. He took it all in stride. It did get dark. It was hard to see ahead of us. We were both intently watching for deer or other wildlife to run out on the road in front of us. Eventually we turned off of Highway 89 onto Highway 44 (The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway) at an intersection called Old Station. There was a short passing lane after the turn. Mike gunned it and we were able to make it around Mr. Brakelights. By this time the dogs were in serious need of a pit stop. We stopped at a rest stop outside of Susanville because they could not wait any longer. As we were walking them around the parking lot, our trucker friend pulled in to use the facilities. When we saw him, we told the dogs their time was up. We scurried back to the rig and got on the road before the new driver ever made it out of the men’s room. Under no circumstances was that truck coming between us and the Susanville RV Park.

After we were settled in Susanville, the storm arrived as predicted. I had no problem watching the wind and rain from inside our PARKED house.

Big deer roamed the campground in Susanville.

When the rain cleared and the sky turned blue two days later, we pulled out of Susanville and drove a short 1.5 hours to Reno.

Highway 395 heading south into Nevada.

A straight and flat road, my favorite.

The traffic was light and the road conditions were great for our arrival into the Silver State.

 

 

Road Trip to the Northeast

When we pulled out of Bluewater Key Resort it was miserable weather. The clouds were dark and heavy, raining a constant drizzle. All we could see in the distance were more grey skies. One thing I was grateful for was that our windshield wipers worked. When Mike flew to Florida to pick up the Monaco and drive it back to Lake Conroe, he immediately discovered the windshield wipers did not work. Every time it rained he had to pull over and wait it out. This time at least we could keep moving forward in the wet stuff.

We had no reservations anywhere and no specific timeline, we just knew we were going to drive as far north as we could get in about four days. We wanted to get to the Northeastern United States while the weather was warm. We weren’t going to get to everything up in that area, but we figured we could do about 8 states in 5 months. We would want to be heading back south again by October. The only real plan we had was to drive about 200 miles (plus or minus), then take a break, then drive another 200 miles and find a rest stop to spend the overnight. We estimated we could get to somewhere in New York after about 4 days of this schedule without torturing ourselves too much.

On the first leg we made it through Miami, whew. I think I have failed to mention up to this point that I am a very nervous co-pilot. I’m a good navigator and I’m helpful with directions and stuff, but this bus is very gigantic and I’ve never really looked at driving from a Trucker’s perspective before. Mike doesn’t even hit the breaks to slow down; he just pushes some button on the left side by his arm rest. Please don’t misunderstand. Mike is a GREAT bus driver and he has nerves of steel, so nothing fazes him.  It is not him that makes me scared; it is just being in this huge vessel looking down on all these tiny cars weaving in and out in front of us. When I’m really nervous I try to meditate about how the FAA trains Air Traffic Controllers with the same software that Race Car Drivers use to practice and enhance their skills. We are always fine with Mike in the Captain’s chair; it is just the other stupid fools on the road that we cannot control. I try extremely hard to avoid back seat driving (since I have no idea how or any inclination to drive this thing), but that doesn’t mean I don’t utter things like “slower”, “break lights ahead”, “what’s the speed limit”. I try to stay occupied with the iPad, looking at directions, or Facebook, but I get motion sickness so I can’t do that for very long spurts at a time.

We found a rest stop after about 3 hours just as the rain let up a bit. We parked on the edge so we could put out the two passenger side slides. I walked the dogs around, we ate lunch, watched television, took a nap. This was the stop where we noticed the windshield wiper in front of the passenger’s side was dangling down in front of the bus. Hmmm. Not good.  At least it was not on the driver’s side, so we could keep moving in the rain. After we picked a truck stop where we could get fuel, and located a rest stop where we might spend the night, we got back on the road. That evening we made it to a rest area near San Augustine and slept in the parking lanes with all the other 18-wheelers. I had to crawl over Mike to get in and out of the bed because there was no room to expand any of the walls on this overnight. Our windshield was filthy with all the rain muck, so Mike was out on his ladder cleaning the windshield the next morning before we took off again. Turns out the wiper issue was just a loose bolt, so with clean windows and properly working rain equipment we finally left Florida.

The second day we drove through Georgia and South Carolina, sleeping just near the southern border of North Carolina. Most of the drive was through the Low Country and the view was so scenic. The Rest Area in North Carolina was actually a Welcome Center because of its proximity to the state line. This means it was much larger than a regular rest stop. It had a pond and small walking trail. It also meant that we could park in a remote corner and expand all four of our slides.

I woke up at 4 AM on the third leg of our trip because Mike was awake in the living room with all the lights on. I thought he might want to get an extra early start, so I got up to let him know I was willing to begin the day if he was anxious to get moving. He was reading a section of the owner’s manual – which I thought was curious – and told me to go back to bed, to which I happily complied. It wasn’t until we woke up again at a normal time, walked the dogs, and had coffee that Mike informed me we had an oil leak. He had noticed oil splatters on the back of the coach and on the front of the Honda. He was waiting until 8AM to find a Truck Stop along our morning route. The plan was to drive it to a shop, have them check out the leak, and then keep moving north.

The first couple of Truck Stops that we called could not accommodate us for various reasons. We were starting to get a bit nervous. Then we had a break through! We remembered that one of the top three things on our original list of criteria was a Cummins Engine, 500HP or more. We stopped googling Truck Stops and started googling Cummins Engine Repair. Presto! There was a Cummins Atlantic on I-95 about an hour north of us. We called and explained the problem, they asked us how quick we could get there, and we were on the road.

After we arrived to the shop they determined a seal needed to be replaced. We agreed to have the seals and filters replaced, along with an oil change. After our “order” was processed, we disconnected the car and headed into the nearest tiny town. We had some fried chicken and BBQ at a local Mom & Pop establishment, found a car wash and tried to get the grease off the front of the Honda, then found a park with a fence so the dogs could run around a bit.  We had wasted as much time as we could stand so we drove back over to the Cummins shop to see if they might be working on the bus yet. Sure enough, it was in the bay.

We still had to wait, but at least we knew the mechanics were working on it. We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves, so we parked the car under a shady tree in the parking lot of the adjacent Pilot Truck Center and tried to veg- out while we waited. That was fine and comfortable until the grounds crew arrived to cut the grass. We drove back to the Cummins parking lot and tried to wait there, but the parking lot had no shade and it was hot. I went inside the Cummins place to find a Ladies Room and discovered they had 2 WAITING LOUNGES! One for truckers and one for RV’rs. We had no idea. I promptly asked if our dogs would be allowed in the lounge and the nice lady said no problem. What? We have been out sitting in our car when we could have been inside with bathrooms, couches, television, WiFi and A/C! The Cummins people got the work done just before they closed at 5pm, so we were back on the road without too much drama or chaos. That night we made it to a rest area just past the Virginia state line before we stopped around dark.

Day four. One more day of this was doable, but we had to find somewhere to park that night where we could stay a week or longer. It was time to chill for a bit. We did some research that morning with coffee and found a place in Gardiner, New York in the Hudson River Valley. They had open spots at Yogi Bear’s Lazy River RV Park so we booked a reservation and planned our route for the rest of the day. As we prepared to leave, I was washing my face and I kept thinking I sure was splashing a lot more water than usual on the floor. Upon closer inspection I figured out that all the water I was running down my sink was coming out the bottom of my cabinet. Oh joy… I couldn’t wait to tell Mike the news! We got the water sopped up with towels, he found the spot of the leak, and we decided to deal with it later. I would just use his sink until mine worked again. We pulled out and drove past the D.C. area, then north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.  We didn’t really have a long break this day; we just stopped to refuel and kept going.

You might be thinking of the geography of our route as I explain our travels. Yes, we were headed north, UP into the Mountains. If you remember earlier when I explained I was a nervous rider… up until this point of our trip we had only been in some rolling hills in Alabama. These were mountains with emergency runaway lanes for out of control truckers going too fast down a steep slope. Now I was starting to utter words like “downshift”, “don’t use the runaway lane”. Mike knows I’m scared, so he is pretty tolerant of me – but I’m sure it is very annoying to him. The good thing was that we tackled the mountain drive during the daylight and arrived to Yogi Bear’s before dusk. Our traditional first-night-in-camp martinis were particularly delicious on this evening.

 

This was the view out of our window for many of the stops over our 4-day trip.

This was the view out of our window for many of the stops over our 4-day trip.

 

We tried to decompress in between drives by watching tennis or golf on the television.

We tried to decompress in between drives by watching tennis or golf on the television.

 

I think this was the view from my window when we slept at a rest stop in North Carolina.

I think this was the view from my window when we slept at a rest stop in North Carolina.

 

Nap time in the RV Lounge at Cummins.

Nap time in the RV Lounge at Cummins.

 

Thank goodness the windshield wiper on the driver's side still worked!

Thank goodness the windshield wiper on the driver’s side still worked!