Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Trying to be a Better RV Camping Mentor

Silver City, NM. The other day I took a friend and his dog out for a "field trip" near my dispersed campsite. I soon became aware that I was futilely -- and a little humorously -- proselytizing a man who prefers to stay in RV parks. Real RV camping of the dispersed, hookup-free kind has given me much pleasure and satisfaction over the years. It was not an original invention. I was influenced by other people to take it up. 'What goes around...' is the old adage. So why haven't I returned the favor to the world?

The most brutal explanation is that this is pure snobbishness. RV park dwellers are the "ignorant masses," you see, and ol' Boonie doesn't want to waste his wisdom on them.

Most of the time the other person is the male half of a couple. The minute I realize that there is a woman in the picture, I lose all motivation to preach boondocking. And rightly so.
But in this case the man had no such encumbrances. It's always confusing to me to see single men not taking advantage of their opportunities. At any rate I soon dropped the proselytizing and turned toward his dog, who responded with great enthusiasm to the opportunities at hand, or rather, under paw. I certainly have no reluctance to corrupt a dog with elements of this lifestyle.

Although I've benefited from using solar panels over the years when camping outside campgrounds, and even though I was pulled into it by other people, I've never tried to be a solar mentor. Recently the neighbor of a friend, that I was staying with, wanted some advice on converting his "house", a trailer that never moves anymore, to solar.  It is easy to smirk at this if you are looking at it purely in economic terms. 

I've never understood the messianic appeal of solar panels to RV campers. Solar panels have proven themselves to be useful tools; but so too have small quiet generators, such as the Honda or Yamaha 1000 Watt models. Combined with a 40 amp battery charger, a generator can put in 80% of the energy that the four batteries are ever going to soak up, in 30-40 minutes. After that, running even a quiet generator gets obnoxious and expensive. Completing the charging and maintaining it during the day is the great advantage of solar panels. On the other hand, camping under the shade in summer is one of the most delicious pleasures of RV camping; how do you square that with solar energy production? Furthermore, not every day is sunny, even in the Southwest. Solar production really craps off in the afternoons when the summer monsoons hit. Am I supposed to just suspend life during those (relatively rare) days?

Anyway, there I was, acting as a consultant to a solar newbie. He was charged up with the zeal of the newly-converted. I was confused about how to act, never having played this role before. And since he didn't know my history of skepticism towards solar messianism, there was a humorous irony to the situation. Mostly I just listened to him, while considering the next move.

Now think of the famous beginning of the original Godfather, when Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), on "the day of his daughter's wedding," listened to a Sicilian immigrant explain a tragedy which occurred to his daughter. Don Corleone sat in his big desk chair and toyed with a half-grown kitty. Through visual information alone that scene introduces the Godfather  to the viewer with such insight and economy. He was diplomatic, smooth, and manipulative, all with the threat of danger lurking in the background. (Amazingly enough, that wonderful scene was accidental. The cat was just a stray that was found wandering through the sound stage.)

Although barely able to control a smile, I listened to the solar newbie gush about his project. It was a beautiful thing to behold, actually. A 70-ish man feeling young and enthusiastic about a new project. He and his wife had been so friendly and kind to me. The Godfather and kitty cat simile went poof. I became protective and gentle with their solar project.

One of the early daguerreotypes showing a relative of mine in her Little Bo Peep phase.

Avoiding mistakes is the first place to start. For a mentor that means resisting the opportunity to show off how much he knows; he should keep it simple for their benefit. If they needed to hear endless arguments about tipping angles and wire gauges, they could go to a discussion forum.

Also it meant gently lowering their expectations of how well the solar project would work (at reasonable cost.) This doesn't mean undermining the project. It meant trying to maintain a playful sense of humor about it, especially with the poor wife who would be impacted all day, every day, by their solar system. Although the solar newbie did an excellent job of selecting equipment, he had no fuses in his system. So I put in a rather insistent advertisement for them, and made sure it was heard by the wife.

There are other examples of trying to be a mentor. Let them wait until next time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Are Light Travel Trailers Safe?

An Epilogue follows at the bottom, since I originally wrote this post when I had a double axle travel trailer (4500 pound GVWR), and was thinking of going to a single. I have indeed gone to a single axle trailer since writing this post.

Thus an epilogue is added at the bottom.

This isn't an RV "how to" blog. I avoid practical discussions because 1) it should be left to people who make a few nickels and dimes from Google ads, and 2) practical details are terribly boring to read, because they don't carry over well to somebody else in slightly different circumstances. (Which is true 95% of the time.)

But safety is special. Recently I had the wheel bearings repacked with grease and the brakes inspected/adjusted, on my 4000 pound travel trailer, with tandem axlesThe wires to the electrical brake were broken on one of my four wheels. (And it wasn't the first time.) No wonder I had noticed the rear end wiggling when braking.

'Noticed,' I said. There was nothing drastic about losing one brake out of four. I need to think about that when I get tempted to buy a lighter travel trailer that only has one axle rather than two.

I'd love to hear from someone who has actually experienced both types of arrangements, with the same tow vehicle. You could look at trailer brochures until the eyes fall out of your head, and you won't learn anything about this issue. Salesmen can't (or won't) say anything "bad" about anything.

Tandem axle trailers must be safer than singles for other reasons as well, such as blowouts or broken springs. Besides greater safety, tandem axles lower the weight on the hitch and might get you out of the bother of using weight distribution bars on a light trailer (my next one will be under 3500 pounds loaded.) I've always wondered what it feels like to go through a dip with only one trailer axle. Also, tandem axle trailers can carry a couple thousand pounds more cargo.

On the other hand, eliminating the second axle lowers the weight by 300 pounds, and keeps you from wearing out tires by scuffing. But a single axle means faster wear on your brakes and bearings. Worn tires are easier to inspect.

Epilogue: I went from a tandem axle trailer, 4000 pounds loaded, to a single axle trailer, 3000 pounds loaded. I do indeed notice the trailer wiggling more during hard breaking, but there is nothing frightening about it. My 3/4 ton van is rated to tow 6500 pounds.

I am not sure if I notice any significant differences in dipping when going through holes and bumps.

The single axle trailer came from the factory with load rating C tires. For another $20 per tire, I can switch to load rating E tires, which are "taller", that is, 1" bigger in diameter. How nice.

After a year of full-time use, I haven't had a flat or a blowout. But switching to the higher load range should mitigate some of those concerns.

Double axle trailers wear the tires quickly during sharp turns on pavement. It seemed like I was buying a new pair every other year. But with a single axle, there is less temptation to run the tires down to bald: after all, you only have to buy two of them, so why take a chance?

Newer epilogue: I wondered why I wiggled during braking.  Did the brakes need adjusting? That can be done by sticking the brake adjusting tool (from any auto parts store) through the hole in the inboard backplate, and tweeking the star adjuster inside. But it is easier to do this if you can see the star adjuster. So I waited until one year of usage, when it was time to have the bearings repacked.

The mechanic found that two parts were missing on one side! The guys who had installed the brakes aftermarket had really screwed up. It was an easy fix.

Shame on me for being so lazy and delaying this brake inspection and bearing repacking! 

The moral of the story is that my brakes were only working on one side for an entire year, and although it was noticeable, it did not prove dangerous, despite this being a single axle trailer!

But don't try this stunt. Your results may vary!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fire and Ice

Silver City, NM. Today confirms an ever-strengthening prejudice of mine that pain and pleasure are linked in a dialectic, and that Comfort is the great false Idol of the tourist and RV newbie. There is a pleasure unique to a morning like this.

On my drive back into New Mexico I saw tumbleweeds ensnared in the upper horizontal members of utility poles. "Only in southern New Mexico," I smirked. But actually the wind has been howling in this entire quadrant of the country. It doesn't bother me as much as it does some people. Still, it does take its toll on you. You begin to feel like you are under constant assault.

And now this. Perfect calm, perfectly blue skies, clean air. At my dispersed campsite, a turkey vulture is searching vainly for a thermal; it is too cold. Until then it can only do languid spiral loops over the grassland. 

The inside of the trailer reached the low 30s F this morning. I slept in until sunrise. Never underestimate the pleasure of morning sun into a frozen, uncomfortable RV.  Sure, I've already praised it many times, and now I will again. Few things are finer than the opposition of scalding sun and cold, dry, calm air. And don't think for a moment it's because they neutralize each other into bland and meaningless Comfort.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Within a couple hours, news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings had become repetitive and predictable. Every uniform or badge was a "hero"; endless drivel about "pulling together"; bravado about American fortitude; "how did you feel when..." questions; platitudes from politicians trying to assume a mock-Churchillian pose; and all the rest of it.

Let's assume, until something definite is known, that the perpetrator was a Middle Eastern terrorist. There is something good that could come out of this bombing, if we could just channel our shock and disgust in the right way, that is, sieze the moment to ask questions that normally never get asked. The most draconian dictatorship could not impose tighter censorship than we impose on ourselves, voluntarily it would seem.

Rather than lay out these questions in a point-by-point, policy-wonk style, I choose a concrete representation of all those questions. Let the questions arise indirectly when millions of Americans watch a remarkable movie about the French-Algerian War of the 1950s and 1960s. It's called the "Battle of Algiers", was made in Italy in the mid-1960s, and was partly funded by the Algerian government, just a couple years after their war of independence succeeded.

Even Bible-believing, Israel-worshiping, soon-to-be-Raptured Republicans could watch this movie and have completely different sympathies than if this were a Hollywood movie about God's Country (America) and the evil AAArabs. Even they would ask, "What the heck was France doing in somebody else's country?" Somebody might answer that Algeria was legally a part of France at the time. But what is so sacred about "law", when it's whatever 51% of a body of French politicians say it is.

And why were the French, self-professed champions of a Grand Civilization, torturing their prisoners? (The movie doesn't show it, but torture took place on both sides.) Torture -- now that's something God-fearing Americans would never tolerate!

An American viewer of this movie might feel enmity towards the very idea of the French Empire or any other empire of decadent old Europe. Most Americans are (justly) proud of having kicked the British Empire out of half of North America.

The American viewer might even sympathize with the Algerian freedom-fighter, patriot?, terrorist?, when he was captured and paraded out in front of the French press for questions. One of them asked him, "Isn't it cowardly to put bombs in women's baskets, and leave them in crowded buildings?" He answered by comparing Algerian methods to the military advantages of the French Empire: "You give us your planes and tanks. We will gladly give you our baskets."

The American viewer of the movie might catch himself wondering what the difference is between Algerian terrorism and the normal military operations of the French Empire. Numerically the legitimate governments of the world kill far more (innocent) people than the hit-or-miss methods of amateurish, low-budget terrorists.

It fascinates me to even imagine millions of Americans watching this movie. It would highlight the strange inconsistency of most Americans being anti-imperialist (or anti-colonial) as long as the bully is any country other than America. But as for our own un-American Empire that followed upon World War II, most Americans will just passively accept its necessity, legitimacy, and permanence. Then there is a terrorist act that kills Americans and we just can't understand why somebody would do such a thing.

On a lighter note: the movie has a soundtrack half-composed by Ennio Morricone.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Layer of Forest Floats Off

It never ceases to amaze me how specific any particular person's likes and dislikes can be. The other day Coffee Girl and I were mountain biking on the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, when we saw something that drives me a little crazy whenever I see it.

Ah well, the reader probably can't even tell what I'm praising. But it jumps out at me from miles away. Here's a close-up.

From a distance all you can see is something "funny." As you get closer, you get suspicious that it's nothing more than trees on a ridgeline, which appear to be delaminating from the earth. The most precious moment is just before you realize what you are looking at. Delamination isn't the most glamorous word. Delamination is what happens to paint on old wood.

Perhaps because you are looking up at it, and you are under the influence of endorphins, a nobler word seems more fitting; a word like 'evanescence.' The trees seem to be undergoing a "phase-change" from Material to Spirit. Now don't worry, I'm not going to get Platonic, mystical, or New Age-ish on you. But you have to let your imagination run in order to have fun in the mountains, unless you are newbie-enough to be content with a tourist/postcard level.

Many people are content to take mere prettiness and puff it up into "beauty". They shouldn't settle for that, when it is more interesting to think of some general idea that is expressed by what you are looking at. A brain -- not an eyeball -- is needed to see that kind of beauty. It makes outdoor trips a mental challenge, as well as a physical one.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Discussion Forums Need to Get Better

My head hurts. There are few things that will cause brain-pain as easily as reading discussion forums on the internet. Grim determination is indispensable. With enough patience you can actually learn a few things. But most of the contributors seem to want to make you suffer first.

These days I read some of the pickup truck and tow vehicle forums. Let's hope the next generation is learning in school how to write on a discussion forum, the same way that my generation learned how to write a business letter or how to type. Until then, the forum reader will have to endure dumb jokes, habitual contradiction, sidetracking, ad hominem trollishness, misspellings, and the worst written English imaginable. Can any of those forum-mongers write two sentences without obtruding abbr. & acronyms? And don't even get me started on that LOL/IMHO crap ... because those people R the biggest PITA!!!! (LOL!!!!)

The frustrated comedians are even worse. For one thing, they are hardly ever funny. Secondly the reader is there to get some work done, while the relentless and tedious quips waste his time.

Let's say you have just learned of a new sports-utility-vehicle (SUV). The opening paragraph should quickly categorize it: is it front wheel drive or rear wheel drive? The former means that I probably don't want it for pulling a trailer. Is it a car-like unibody construction or a truck-like box-on-frame-rails? If the latter, it will weigh 6000 pounds, and the fuel economy will probably suck (pun intended).

But oh no, they can't be bothered to discuss anything like that. They are too busy discussing the CD player, the cup holders, and the bad experience they had with one car of that brand 40 years ago.

The vast majority of discussion participants don't have any kind of technical orientation. Even worse, their mindset is not that of an adult who is trying to optimize a set of tradeoffs. They seem to base their decisions on the emotional appeal of adjectives and slogans. (Maybe they should stick to voting.)  They avoid numerical estimates, probably because they sound technical and nerdish.

Hopefully those hypothetical school teachers are training the next generation to compare apples with apples on future discussion forums, and to resist attacking strawmen. So much of good decision-making is starting with a valid comparison.

Discussion "threads" always seem unraveled to me. That is what causes the brain-pain. The human brain wants to see a certain smooth flow in a discussion. It wants things to stay pertinent and make some progress. But instead you get the fractured half-thoughts of clowns and illiterates.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Looking for a Lower Cost Tow Vehicle

Note that the title did not say "Looking for a Tow Vehicle with better fuel economy." For the most part, this post is about a tow vehicle pulling a travel trailer.

How does an RVer escape a full-sized van or pickup truck, with its length, large turning radius, 6000 pounds of weight, and thirsty V8 engine? The simple answer is: don't. Stick with a brontosaurus and then drive it fewer miles per year.

My current brontosaurus is a 3/4 ton Ford Econoline 250 van, used to pull a 4000 pound travel trailer. The original engine and transmission still work well at 225,000 miles. What if I had purchased a lighter-duty vehicle at the beginning of my RV career, got slightly better fuel economy, but then needed to replace the transmission or engine at 150,000 miles? Would that have 'saved money?'

I used to drive about 15,000 miles per year. These days I've managed to cut that in half. I feel really good about that, because it's also beneficial from a safety and environmental point of view.

For this post, let's just admit that you can only go so far with "odometer downsizing". At some point it starts to subtract options from your lifestyle, and after all, we didn't choose a mobile lifestyle to be immobile. Thus we must now run to the other end of the basketball court and see if we can improve our game there.

In shopping for a new van or pickup truck to pull a lightweight trailer, the first thing you notice is how stupid it is that they no longer make small or mid-size vans (Chevy Astro) and pickups (Sonoma, S10, Ranger). I recently read an article explaining that this is a quirk of how the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations are calculated. Whatever the reason, it is hard to work around.

In the old days you might have opted for a lackluster V6 engine in a so-called half-ton van or truck (i.e., Ford 150, Chevy 1500). This will only save gasoline when you are unhitched, which might be true for half the miles that you drive annually.

The good news is that there are some far more interesting V6s put into half-ton vans and pickups, these days. And the automatic transmissions have 6 or 8 speeds, and the gear can be selected manually when climbing hills. It's great that traction control is standard equipment on vans and trucks, since that obviates expensive, fuel-sucking, four-wheel-drives, at least for those with lightweight trailers.

This isn't mere speculation. I've done a lot of dispersed camping on public lands with a rear wheel drive van, over the last 16 years, and have only gotten stuck three times. Somebody who wants to unhitch and drive to the top of a mountain would not agree with me. But this is the advantage of being a mountain biker/walker who tries to start from the front door, rather than being a hiker-peak bagger-tourist who typically drives 20 miles to the trailhead.

More good news: as debauched as the modern pickup truck is (from pandering to suburban cowboys), the traditional entry-level "trim" is still available. The "work truck" trim means the plain vanilla jobs with vinyl seats and roll up windows, and without all the frivolous bells and whistles inside.

And even more good news: cargo vans seem to be going through a renaissance, with the new Nissan NV van on the market, as well as the RAM C/V cargo van, the new Ford Transit, and a new Chevy van in 2014. What's going on here? Again, it might be due to CAFE regulations coming down hard on pickups and vans over the next couple years. Heretofore, the buying public escaped unpopular CAFE requirements on cars by giving up on cars and running to truck-based SUVS and full-sized pickup trucks. That gig is up.

No matter how diligent and studious you want to be, is there any way to really know whether these possible improvements in engines and transmissions are really just false economies? Will the turbochargers on your new Ford Eco-Boost engine really last a quarter million miles? What about 8 speed automatic transmissions? And what will be the maintenance and replacement costs? Automobile reviewers at Edmunds or Motor Trend aren't going to tell you that -- because they don't know either.

Let's not get sucked into seeing fuel cost as the most important cost of transportation just because it is the most visible. Or in the words of Weaver in "Ideas Have Consequences": "the apparent does not exhaust the real." I admit to being a bit of a retro-grouch with new technologies that are mandated by politicians and bureaucrats. Their only concern is nominal success at 'protecting the environment'. The long term cost-effectiveness and headaches are the customer's problem, not theirs.

In the past I was forced to reject "egg" trailers (molded fiberglass), such as Casitas, because 5'10" is the maximum height of a person hoping to live in one, full-time. Too bad, because they are the only way I know of to keep the loaded trailer weight under 3000 pounds, unless you want to convert a small cargo trailer. That would be the maximum trailer weight for other categories of tow vehicles such as mini-vans or smaller SUVs. (The RAM C/V Cargo Van is a beefed up Dodge caravan minivan, with front wheel drive and low ground clearance. The Ford Transit Connect has no towing capability.)

But recently I learned of Parkliner (fiberglass molded) travel trailers. They have a nominal standing height of 6'5". It would be exciting to get away from 6000 pound trucks and vans as the tow vehicle. Alas, the lighter vehicles usually have car-style ground clearance. The world seems to be out to frustrate me!

In summary, think of how scissors work: a pair of blades is needed. Beating the high cost of transportation needs slicing from two directions: 1) fuel economy and, 2) more deliberate and selective driving habits. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Falling in Love IN -- not WITH -- Tombstone

It has always been a noble and unselfish thing on my part to leave the tourist kitsch of Tombstone AZ for others to enjoy. I've never set foot in the place until yesterday. But I offered to take a woman to dinner, and we knew there would be some places open in Tombstone on Easter. Under the right circumstances even a ridiculous place can be enjoyable.

Naturally, after lunch, there was the obligatory and painfully slow tour of so-called art galleries, aka, bauble and trinket shops.  What is this perverse fascination that colorful junk holds for women?

Now a music cue should break in. The romantic music should swell, as the two lovers run to each other in slow motion from opposite ends of a flowery meadow. This is no April Fool's joke. And I even have a witness. On the far wall was a large painting that wowed me. This was only the second time in my life that a painting appealed to me. This seems odd, so naturally it must be explained.

In Arizona it's hard to believe that somebody would paint an object other than a saguaro-in-front-of-colorful-sunset, a kokopelli, or, more locally, a windmill on the grasslands. But here was a painting of a shallow vertical sidewall of an arroyo, with plant roots exposed. You can walk by so many examples of this in the Southwest. They might only be a few inches tall, or maybe 30 feet. Regardless of the size, I have always been attracted to them.

15 foot high vertical side-wall of an arroyo in NM.

For years this confused me. Appreciating geology can be difficult. It can be off-putting to consider how old visible geology is. Processes are so slow that geology seems static.  It's easier to get pulled into geology when you can visualize it as dynamic processes; the limiting case of this is a topographic feature that could conceivably be drawn in the landscape during a human lifetime.

Thus a small sidewall helps you appreciate the topography/geology in much the same way that a dog helps you appreciate any number of things in the outdoors world: they both serve as stepping stones that enable your first baby-steps from the confines of the Self. Once that process is started, you could eventually melt into the outdoors world.

So I have nothing but compliments for the artist of that painting. They added pleasant southwestern colors, which looked lush in this painting because of the austere subject matter. In fact the contrast was violent. 

There is a violent contrast of that type all over southeastern Arizona right now. Despite the winter rain, the grass is yellow and decrepit. The mesquite looks lifeless. Even thorns seem to lack their usual higher sense of Purpose. Tawny yellow/brownness sounds merely boring. But the contrast with the young green leaves of the cottonwoods (that delineate the rivers) will stop you dead in your tracks.

To a stereotypical woman, natural beauty in a painting means little more than that it's color scheme matches the window drapes. To a stereotypical macho knuckle-dragger, natural beauty means anything that's vertical and freakishly large. 

But there are so many qualities that are real and interesting in nature: cruel necessity, harshness, stubborn survival, discomfort, courage, youthful play, maternal sacrifice, and many others. That is why this painting is so important. It encourages the viewers to take that first step towards liberating themselves from the tyranny of trivial prettiness. How that painting ended up in Tombstone is a mystery.

Let's conclude with an analogy. We all know that people are least likely to be funny when they are too obviously trying to be funny. I am suggesting that the same is true of artists  who are focusing too directly on producing beauty: they glob on layer after layer of prettiness until they think Beauty will result. They would be more successful if they thought more about one of the qualities mentioned last paragraph, and let beauty be produced as a byproduct of some conflict. When the viewers don't think the artist is spoon-feeding them, they are more likely to imagine beauty.