Friday, February 27, 2015

It's Been a Cold Winter

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for winter to end. Officially, we still have almost another month of this coldest of seasons.

As I write this, I'm looking out my window. A light dusting of snow covers the yard, but the street is clear of snow and/or ice. We've not had much ice or snow this season, but we've had it frequently, more often than usual for this part of Texas. But none of the storms has dropped much ice or snow on us. We'll probably get a bit more of snow and/or ice today or tonight, but I'm hoping that is the end of it for this season.

So far, we've really not had enough good weather for taking out our new trailer. It will probably be late March before we can get away, as Courtney and her gang of ruffians have scheduled a trip here during their spring break in mid-March. We hope to have good weather after they leave, then spend a week or 10 days really breaking in the trailer and enjoying some spring weather.

I'm thankful that we no longer work, for I would not want to get out in this messy weather every day. Keep safe and warm out there.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck

I like to blame John Steinbeck -- at least, in part -- for my interest in the RV lifestyle. When I read Travels with Charley years and years ago, I really knew little if anything about RVing. That book helped plant a seed for travel and wanderlust in me that still haunts me today.

Steinbeck begins his book trying to explain his own wanderlust disease:

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don't improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable."

I know exactly what he means; Donna and I both suffer the same disease.

Steinbeck is considered by many to be one of the giants of American literature. Arguably his greatest novel is The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I would argue that East of Eden is his most perfect novel as regards structure and theme. In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, though not everyone believed him to be worthy of the honor. Regardless, it is difficult to deny that he produced an impressive body of work.

Travels with Charley, published in 1961, is a travelogue of a trip that Steinbeck and his large standard poodle (Charley) took the previous year. Steinbeck felt the need to travel the country discreetly, without checking into hotels or other places where he might be recognized. He opted for what we today call a pickup camper. Working with a manufacturer, Steinbeck had a camper built on a ¾ ton truck. He dubbed his rig Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse. It contained a double bed, 4-burner stove, heater, refrigerator, chemical toilet, and storage space.

He began his journey after Labor Day, once the children had returned to their studies and people had returned to work following summer vacation. From his home on Sag Harbor outside of New York City, he headed as far north in Maine as possible, then continued traveling about the country in a counter-clockwise direction. In all, Steinbeck would travel over 10,000 miles and through 34 states. 

Steinbeck hoped to meet people, to get re-acquainted with the country he felt he had become somewhat isolated from. Much of the book details conversations he had with people on various topics of the day, including desegregation and politics. He also made numerous observations on how the country had changed in his lifetime; those of us with more years behind than ahead of us can easily relate to these observations.

I've read this book three times now, and each time I've gotten more out of it. It causes me to think a great deal on the topics he discusses. And each time, it makes me want to hit the road. I wish I didn't have this travel disease so much, but gosh, it surely is fun.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Brake Controller for our Trailer

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not real knowledgeable when it comes to technical stuff about our trailer and towing. For example, I know axle ratio is important, but that information does not translate into practical application for me. So, I just get recommendations from reliable sources and go with that information.

But there are some things I feel comfortable with on the maintenance/technical side that I can share.

Before pulling our trailer off the dealer's lot, I had a brake controller installed in our Ram 1500. Technically, a brake controller engages a trailer’s electrical braking system either time delayed, or in proportion to the tow vehicle's brake engagement when slowing down or coming to a halt. In other words, it helps brake and/or stop your trailer. Without a brake controller, you rely completely on the power of your tow vehicle (the vehicle you are using to tow your vehicle) to slow down and stop your trailer. And if you happen to have a trailer whose weight is maxing out your tow vehicle, that is a very scarey proposition.

In the past, most tow vehicles would have a brake controller installed after purchase. They were usually mounted on the lower dash on the driver's side, often in the most inconvenient location for your legs to bump into while operating the brake and accelerator pedals.  Today, vehicle manufacturers are beginning to sell tow vehicles straight off the lot with brake controllers already professionally installed in the dash rather than below it. We did not get such a vehicle, but we did get one with a slot in the lower dash for installing a brake controller at a later time.

When installed after-market, the brake controller usually hangs from the lower dash by a bracket, often right where your legs move while working the pedals. This is NOT our vehicle, but we've had brake controllers installed in the past like this.
So, right before picking up our trailer, I had our local Dodge dealership install the brake controller for our Ram. I like that it is flush with the dash. In fact, unless you are looking for it, you don't even notice it.

Close up of our brake controller
Brake controller and its location in the dash, right below the air/heat controls.
When you adjust the settings for the brake controller, the readout appears in the control panel above the speedometer.

I could have picked up a dash mount brake controller for less, but I'm glad I spent a little more and had this one installed. It certainly looks more attractive, and I don't bump it with my legs.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hike Report: Nopales Ridge Hiking Trail, Lake Brownwood State Park

We didn't just play with our new trailer while at Lake Brownwood State Park -- we also took a hike.If you visit the park, you'll get a facilities map when you enter the park. If you go online, you'll also see a trails map. The trails map shows a Nopales Ridge Hiking Trail, which I had not noticed on our previous trip. It's a short trail, just under 3 miles; by my standards, that's really just a walk, not a true hike. But since we were doing so much work on the trailer, we really didn't have much time, so it looked like a good trail for us.

The Nopales Ridge Hiking Trail is a loop trail, and it starts at a trail head on the far east side of the loop. Basically, this is just a walk through a pasture dominated by oak trees, some prickly pear cactus, mesquite trees, grass, tasajillo, and a few other native plants. The most unique feature of the trail is a ridge running more or less north to south. Along the ridge, there are numerous rock outcroppings and thick oak mottes. Otherwise, the trail is fairly level.The ridge is probably an ascent of 30 or 40 feet, so it is very gentle.

If starting the trail where we did, mile markers appear every quarter mile along the trail. We followed the trail in a counter-clockwise direction. We hit the ridge after the half-mile marker on going out, and when coming in we hit the ridge at, I believe, the 1.75 mile marker. A trail junction at the 1 mile marker leads off to the park headquarters, and this trail should connect you with other trails in the northern part of the park if you wish to extend your hike.

Trailhead. The trail goes either right or left. We went right. Sign shows a map of the trail.

Trail weaves through oak thickets and open pasture land.

Trail markers such as this half mile marker appear every quarter mile.

We saw no wildlife on our hike other than a woodpecker. We saw plenty of scat on the trail, though, as well as various tracks, so there is wildlife in the park. I also heard coyotes each night of our stay, so those little rascals are running around out there somewhere. We saw no other folks on the trail, though we saw plenty of human tracks as well as bicycle tracks.

Rock outcroppings along the ridge.

Much of the trail is through open areas such as this.
View of the park headquarters from the trail.

Cactus growing out of a tree

This view of Lake Brownwood from the ridge may be the best view on the trail.

Although the trail along the ridge involves walking over rocks at times, most of the trail is simply a dirt path that's perfect for easy walking. It is well defined and well marked most of the time. However, after descending the ridge on our return loop, the trail momentarily joined a 2 wheel track coming off a nearby paved road. Just after the juncture, though, the foot path veers off to the right. There is no sign marking the foot trail, though, so we were a bit concerned for a moment, but about 100 feet down the trail, we encountered our next trail marker, assuring us we were on the right trail.

All in all, this is a pleasant little walk in the woods. It took us just over 1 hour to make the hike.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Maiden Voyage of the Freedom Express

Donna and I just returned from the maiden voyage of our new travel trailer. It was a good trip, and everything went well.

For our initial trip, we wanted to go someplace fairly close with full hookups. I also wanted to go to a state park so that we could be in natural surroundings. There aren't that many state parks with full hookups in our area, so the choice was obvious: Lake Brownwood State Park. The park is just over 100 miles from our house; by West Texas standards, that's just around the corner. We visited the park about 3 years ago; I wrote 2 entries for the park at that time:
After looking at weather forecasts, we decided on spending 2 nights, Friday and Saturday. 2 nights should be enough to get a feel for the trailer. We had pretty good weather for the 2 days, with highs in the mid 60s on Friday and the mid 70s on Saturday. The mornings were rather cool, especially with typical West Texas winds, but the afternoons warmed up nicely. Nights were chilly, dipping into the low 40s each night.

We put the trailer through its paces, and it passed on all marks. Initially, we got pretty good mileage, peaking at 12 mpg. However, we reached that level after driving for about 35 miles or so on a 4 lane highway where we could drive at 55 to 60 mph, which is my preferred speed when towing. Trailer tires are only rated for 65 mph in most cases, so I like to stay below that speed. And the 55 to 60 speed seems to be the sweet spot for mileage. Once we got to a 2 lane highway, I sped up out of consideration for other cars on the road. By driving 65 mph, my mileage gradually dropped to about 10.5 mpg by the time we reached the park. On the return trip, we faced the wind and got a measly 9.1 mpg.

After checking in, we found our assigned spot. Another site 2 spots over had a better arrangement, so we changed to that site. The trailer was easy to park. The site was not level from side to side, so after placing 2 boards under the tires on one side, we were sitting nice. We blocked the tires, unhitched from the truck, and proceeded setting up.

It had been 2 years since the last time we set up a trailer, but we seemed to remember everything. I especially like the scissor style stabilizing jacks on this trailer. They provide a much more stable trailer than the arm jacks our previous trailer had. I'll address this in another entry.

Everything worked well. We enjoyed hot showers each night of our trip, and the heater worked great. The fridge cooled perfectly, and the gas stove and microwave also worked without problems. We encountered absolutely no problems during our stay. On our last night, we tested the table-top grill that came with the trailer, and it also worked just fine.

Really, the only problems we experienced were a result of human error. There were several little things we forgot to bring along, but we've made our list and we'll be sure to have those on our next trip.

And that is the experience you want with a shakedown cruise. Now we can look forward to a longer trip in our new trailer.

Our new trailer. You can tell the site was not level front to back.
We enjoyed a nice view of the lake from our campsite.
We have a single, shallow slide. It accommodates a sofa and a wardrobe.
The back of the trailer, where the kitchen is located.
And to top off an already great day, a beautiful little friend came to visit.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

We've Got Wheels Again

Last week, after quite a bit of searching, we finally decided on a trailer. We have been looking off and on for almost a year now. We've visited dealerships in Lubbock, Abilene, and other places like Rice, Texas, not to mention our local dealerships. We attended the RV show in Dallas last fall. After all that, we finally bought a trailer right here in San Angelo, Texas.

Our new trailer is a Coachmen, a subsidiary of Forest River. Precisely, it is a Freedom Express 246 RKS. If you click on the preceding link, you can see the floorplan, the specs, and some interior pictures.

It's an attractive trailer. It weighs almost 1,000 pounds less than our previous trailer, but is only about 2 feet shorter. We considered going smaller, but because of some future plans we have we may be living in this trailer for 3 or 4 months between houses, so we opted for a bit more room than we had at first thought we would go with. Although the bedroom does not have a door providing full privacy, the position of the bathroom yields a bit of privacy. So, I should be able to go to bed early while Countess Dracula stays up late. Then, when I rise early, I shouldn't bother her too much. And there is a privacy curtain that will help some.

We actually closed the deal last week, but we waited until today to pick up the trailer and do the walk-through. During the interim, I've been running around getting other things ready. First, I had a brake controller installed on the truck. I also had to order a hitch. I secured insurance on the trailer. And I had to find a place to store the trailer since we do not have room at our place. The storage issue actually works into our future plans and an upcoming move we plan to make. But I'll discuss that more in the months ahead.

We'll start stocking the trailer with equipment and goods, such as linens, clothes, pots, pans, dishes, food, etc. I need to get all the hoses and gear we need. So the next few days will be busy. Then we'll start planning a first trip. We just need to go someplace close for a couple of nights so that we can check everything thoroughly to make sure that (1) everything works and that (2) we know how to do everything. We're pretty experienced with travel trailers, but you never know, especially with a new trailer.

I'll be posting pictures soon, so check back.

I'll see you down the road.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

We Survived -- Barely

The little monsters have returned to their home, and Donna and I are still breathing, but just barely. The little guys were pretty rough on us this time. They kind of act like tag-team wrestlers. One will come into the ring and work us over for a while; in the meantime, the other one will rest up. Just as we think we're getting control of the situation, they tag and fresh blood comes into the ring to work us over. It's a pretty constant battle. I'm thankful Xander is so easy going; of course, he's getting older all the time. He really is a big help with his little brothers. He's so agreeable and willing to help out.

Jensen is a happy baby. It doesn't take much to make him smile. Almost anytime a new face pops into view, he smiles. He really would like to crawl to follow his brothers around, but he can't quite get the hang of it. He can sit up from a lying position all by himself, though, and he does sort of wallow around a bit. We'll see him again in March, and I expect he'll be scooting around all over the place then.

Camden is the handful of the Trio of Doom. He's tireless, and he's into everything. He has no fear of anything. If he could, he'd climb up on the roof and jump off. You have to watch him constantly, and he's very, very quick. Take your eyes off for a moment, and he'll surprise you. This morning, I rose from my chair to take a book to my bedroom. It took all of 5 to 10 seconds. As I came back into the room, he had already climbed into my chair (which he knows he's not supposed to do) and snatched my glasses from the table beside the chair. He was crawling off the chair when I returned, just in time to save my glasses. Of course, then the little con artist acted like he was bringing them to me.

I snapped the pictures below that show well the difference between the two little ones. They are really night and day. Unfortunately, the pictures I took of Xander did not come out well; they were quite blurred.

This is how Jensen looks most of the time; he's just happy to be doing anything.
Sheriff Camden, looking quite serious as usual. He was really engrossed in something on the television at this time.

When the little ogre noticed I was snapping his picture, he gave me this look of disdain. Note the lower lip, which has been his trademark since birth. He's really a no nonsense type of guy. I'm kind of scared of him.