Chapter 73 – A New Motorhome
Dave and Helen Damouth
July 14, 2004
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Greetings, after a long hiatus in these reports. We’ve bought another RV and will be traveling again, although on a part-time basis from our existing home base in Golden, Colorado. The Email distribution list for our travelogues is very obsolete, so I’ll expect a bunch of rejection notices when I send this, and also a bunch of unsubscribe requests from those of you who are no longer interested for various reasons.
We’ve been thinking about our requirements for a new RV ever since we made the decision, three years ago, to buy a house and stop traveling full time. The choices gradually narrowed down to a pre-owned medium-sized motorhome. The definition of "medium-sized" kept changing – somewhere between 25 and 35 feet long. And we felt that with the relatively low number of miles we’d travel and our uncertainty as to whether we’d choose the "right" rig for our future needs, we’d be well advised to buy a several-year-old rig, avoiding the high depreciation of those first few years and allowing re-sale without great loss if it turns out that we guessed wrong.
We wanted a compromise RV that would be comfortable for winter trips of up to two months duration and also be practical and convenient for local trips of a few days duration to off-road boondocking sites or tiny Forest Service campgrounds in the nearby mountains.
Helen wanted a small, easily maneuverable, rig that she could comfortably drive on her own, perhaps with a garden club friend as a passenger, when traveling to out-of-town flower shows as an exhibitor or judge. Dave wanted a bedroom that could be closed off from the rest of the rig, since our sleeping schedule can sometimes be quite different, and Dave has trouble sleeping if Helen is awake and active in the same "room". Dave also wanted a big enough rig to be able to tow a small 4-wheel-drive SUV, to allow exploration of the many fascinating but un-maintained mountain roads in the Rockies.
After a couple of years of discussions, dithering, and procrastination, our desire to get back on the road built up to the point where I was almost tempted to make a decision by throwing darts at the RV section of the newspaper want ads. But I’ve also been tempted, from the beginning, by the 32’ 8" Winnebago Journey, a diesel pusher (engine in the rear, like a tour bus). This particular product is well built and durable, moderately priced (for a diesel), and equipped with most of the accessories and electronics I want (plus quite a few things we could do without). So I’ve been watching, locally and on the Internet, for one of these units to become available close enough to us so we could try it out. A few weeks ago, we found one for sale at a dealer in Poncha Springs, about 130 miles southwest of our home. We drove down and spent a couple of hours looking it over and driving it, then went home to think about it. This dealer’s price seemed rather high, and we still weren’t sure we wanted quite so large and fancy a rig anyway.
Then a similar model, a year older, equipped with all the options I wanted (and of course some options I didn’t want), appeared on the eBay Internet auction, offering the possibility of getting it at a bargain price. I carefully watched the week-long auction, exchanged some Email with the owner (actually the owner’s son – the owner wasn’t computer literate), and finally started bidding just before the auction closed. When the auction closed, I ended up as the high bidder, but still didn’t bid high enough to meet the seller’s hidden reserve price – not too surprising since without having personally inspected it, I wasn’t willing to bid up to the full prevailing market price for such products. After the auction closed, I telephoned the owner, asked some more questions, discovered that his asking price seemed well below that suggested in the published pricing guides, and that there was another seriously interested buyer bringing his wife back to look at it the following week. At that point, I decided to fly out and look at it immediately.
This turned out to be easier said than done. I made the decision on June 29th. The coming weekend was the July 4 holiday, making any travel arrangements difficult. The guy was located in Abingdon, in rural Virginia, down near the Tennessee border and far from a major airport. I finally found a long three-leg itinerary via Chicago and Nashville to Kinsgport, Tennessee, about 40 miles from Abingdon, at a price only slightly ridiculous. Helen had obligations at home over the weekend, and wouldn’t be going with me. I gambled that the motorhome would live up to my expectations, and made a one-way flight reservation. Equipped with a cashier’s check, a change of clothes and minimal bedding for the motorhome, I flew on July 1, rented a car in Kingsport, and drove up to Abingdon, heading directly to the owner’s home.
The rig turned out to be just as described on the phone. It’s a 2002 model, but with very low miles, and always stored in a garage, so it was showroom-pristine. The owner purchased it in April 2002, and immediately built a garage for it on his property. He and his wife took one fairly long trip, after which his wife decided she didn’t like RVing. So from then on, he drove it locally, just enough to keep it exercised and lubricated. The motorhome had been driven 4530 miles and the diesel generator had 25 hours of running time. The gas cook stove, and some of the other appliances, had never been used. Some of the carpet was still covered with the temporary plastic protective sheets applied at the factory. The owner, knowing that I intended to immediately drive it back to Colorado if I bought it, changed the engine oil and filter before I arrived, using expensive synthetic Amsoil, and left another case of this oil and several filters in a storage compartment in the motorhome.
So after a test drive, I handed the owner a check and found myself the owner of a motorhome. After getting his permission to park it on his property overnight (his 16 partially wooded acres provided plenty of places to park without inconveniencing him), I called to cancel my motel reservation, made a quick trip to a local grocery store to pick up a few supplies, then turned on the generator and air conditioner and settled in for the evening to study part of the huge collection of instruction manuals.
Next morning, I fired up the built-in coffee maker (after removing some packing material – it had never been used), and made a full pot of coffee to last me for a long day of driving, pouring some in my insulated mug and leaving the rest in the pot for later refills. I phoned my insurance company, signed up for a new RV policy, and had them fax proof of insurance to me (at the previous owner’s nearby business), then headed to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to get a temporary permit which would enable me to drive back to Colorado.
The airport was on my route back to Colorado, so the previous owner saved me quite a bit of time and mileage by offering to drive the motorhome to the Kingsport Airport where I had to return the rental car. A procession of him in the motorhome, me in the rental car, and the guy’s sister in another car to drive him back, headed for the airport in mid-morning July 2.
At the airport, I discovered that I had already made what will probably be only the first of many mistakes in my learning experience with this very different vehicle. The not-very-tightly covered coffee pot sat securely in the overhead coffee maker, but half the coffee had gradually sloshed out during the drive. Fortunately, much of the liquid had landed on the dinette table, splashing out slowly enough to partially dry, and left only a few small spots to be cleaned on the formerly pristine upholstery and carpet. With nothing in which to store coffee, I’ll just have to forget brewing it and settle for the lousy coffee from gas station/mini-marts along the way.
I left the airport at around 11 AM Friday, July 2, bound for Golden, 1500 miles away, 1498 miles of it on limited access expressways. Helen is scheduled to be at the hospital for outpatient surgery Tuesday morning, July 6, so I need to be back Monday evening. This should be no problem, barring unforeseen difficulties. I could only hope that I had absorbed enough from browsing the various manuals to allow me to drive this 300 horsepower six-speed 20,000 pound, 12-foot-high, 8 ½ foot wide, monster by myself. (Actually, counting the big bus-style mirrors that hang out on each side, I measured the total width at 10’ 5". Some highway lanes are only 10’ wide!)
The first leg of the route is southwest on I-81 and then west across about half of Tennessee on I-40. From the Interstate, few towns are visible. The scenery is very attractive – rolling, mostly forested terrain, with relatively small farms in the strips of flat bottomland. I’ve been away from the East, living in semi-desert, for three years, and the impact of all this intense, lush green foliage is powerful. Even obscure and insignificant rivers are wide and deep compared to the West, and are full of rapidly moving water – startling after living where even the major rivers are reduced to a lazy trickle of water for much of the year.
The holiday traffic doesn’t seem bad, until I hit Knoxville, where I encounter multiple lanes of bumper to bumper stop-and-go traffic for mile after mile. At Nashville it’s the same thing again, at the worst possible time – 5:30 p.m. on the Friday evening before a long holiday weekend. I miss the turnoff for Briley Parkway, an outer loop (and I’m not sure whether motorhomes are allowed in the parkway anyway), and so will have to go through central Nashville. The expressway is many lanes wide, most of them filled with huge trucks, and all crawling slowly. I don’t have a navigator and don’t yet have a mounting stand for the laptop, so the map on my laptop computer, which is sitting on the floor beside me, is barely visible from the driving position. I’m constantly worrying about which lane I need to be in for the upcoming interchanges.
I still don’t have the knack for keeping the rig in the middle of my lane without constant attention. Being used to a much narrower vehicle, I tend to drift to the right whenever my attention wanders. Often, I have big trucks on both sides of me. Their width at the mirrors is at least as great as mine – about 10 ½ feet, and we’re each in a 12 foot lane, leaving at most 18 inches between our mirrors and little room to wander. We’re constantly passing and repassing each other as the traffic moves in fits and starts, and I nervously watch the mirrors, waiting for them to collide with a neighboring mirror. It sure seems like a lot less than 18 inches. In a construction area, the lanes narrow – perhaps down to 10 feet which is narrower than the vehicles. Fortunately, the construction barriers are low and the trucker’s mirrors in the outer lanes are hanging out over the barrier, with the rest of the vehicle just inches away from the concrete barriers. I’m staying in the inner lanes, never knowing when an outer lane will become "exit only" with no escape. Talk about white knuckles! Fortunately the motorhome seems to reliably go where I point it, especially at these low speeds.
Finally out of that mess, and somehow on the right expressway headed north, I drive for another hour and then pull into a rest area somewhere in Kentucky. I spent a while trying to get the GPS to talk to the computer without success, and then took a nap. I’ve been stopping at rest areas or truck stops every 100 miles or so, to stretch, walk around a bit, and generally try to relax.
The place names are interesting. Back in Tennessee, I passed the turnoff for Frozen Head State Park – there must be an interesting story behind that one. And then went by the towns of Damascus (first time I’ve seen this Syrian name in the United States) Palmyra (originally Syrian, but quite common elsewhere) and Pandora (origin in Greek mythology?). And then there was Crab Orchard. (I hope it was short for crabapple).
It’s been overcast, and raining intermittently, since the beginning of the trip. Now, with sunset approaching, the sky begins to clear in the west and the road turns west. First opportunity to figure out how the sun visors work. The front window is huge and the visor is relatively small. It’s got a lot of vertical adjustment range, but no sideways adjustment. For a while I’m driving while leaning to the side, trying to keep my head in the shadow of the visor. I’ve got my wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to help the situation too. Finally, the sun sets and ends that problem. One of the few available options which this rig doesn’t have is the electrically-operated roll-down full-width sun shades for the front windows, which could have been used to shade the entire upper portion of both big windows. I wonder if they can be added?
At about 9:00 pm, before it was fully dark, I decided to call it a day, and pulled into a big Pilot truck stop (I think this was just before leaving Kentucky, in the western outskirts of Paducah. My notes are a bit vague about this). I circled through their parking area twice, unsuccessfully looking for a parking place. Then I noticed a smaller independent truck stop just down the road, with their parking lot only partially filled. I found a spot at the back, among trailers that had been dropped off, and therefore somewhat quieter than in the rows of huge idling trucks. I walked around a bit, then stopped in the deli/mini-mart and picked up a sandwich to augment my meager supplies. This small independent truck-stop had quite a different personality than the big national chains. The food selection at the mini-mart included an ordinary home-style crockpot, full of gently bubbling, apparently home-made chili. After eating, back at the RV, I again spent a while trying to get the GPS to talk to the laptop – successfully this time (a dial-up telephone connection process was active, and was monopolizing the serial port, so that the GPS couldn’t communicate. Killing the dialup window solved the problem).
I slept from about 10 p.m. until 2:00 a.m., and then found myself wide-awake. So I went for a walk, picked up a cup of coffee at the mini-mart, and started driving again at about 2: 45a.m. The truck stop is lit up like daylight – no problem maneuvering in the middle of the night. At this store, I also found a very long-handled trucker’s windshield washing squeegee. This is at least the third truckstop where I’ve looked for one – you’d think every truckstop would stock them.
Soon, I’m crossing the Ohio River into the southern tip of Illinois, heading north on I-57 and then northwest on I-64. Illinois has a 55 mph speed limit for trucks and motorhomes, and I slowed to match the speed of the convoy of big trucks in which I was traveling. As the sky brightened before sunrise, I was approaching East St. Louis, with Eero Saarinen’s gigantic Gateway Arch visible ahead of me, glowing in the strange red early morning light. At about this time, I also re-entered civilization, denoted by my finally coming within range of a National Public Radio classical music station. Fittingly, they were playing the Saint Saens Organ Symphony. The timing was close but not quite right – the sun couldn’t quite make it above the horizon in time for the great fanfare in the symphony.
If one must drive a big RV across the Mississippi on the I-70 bridge, 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning is a fine time to do it. This is a very complicated spot, with a messy interchange just before the bridge and another just at the west end of the bridge. But traffic was very light. I had no problem changing lanes as indicated by the road signs as I followed I-70 through the maze. Truck traffic was heavy on I-57 and I-64, but after I turned on to I-70, it thinned out, and I’ve seen few trucks since leaving St. Louis.
The rain started again in St. Louis and has continued. With the relatively flat, straight, expressway and light traffic, the drive across Missouri was fairly relaxed, in spite of truly awful highway maintenance. The road is one big collection of patches on top of patches, and quite rough. The air suspension is soaking up the bumps quite well, and I’m comfortable. My instincts are finally getting calibrated and I can now stay near the center of my lane with little or no conscious attention.
The rain stopped and the clouds began to dissipate at the Missouri River as I cross into Kansas, around 11 a.m. The quality of the highway also improved dramatically. After leaving Kansas City, I-70 becomes a toll road for a while. But the toll was modest. Even my big vehicle cost only $1.85 for the full distance.
The stereotype of Kansas is endless flat corn fields. But in fact most of the country is gently rolling, and I saw relatively little corn, most of it in the eastern portion. After that, it was mainly recently harvested winter wheat or pasture. I charged on across the state, cruising at 70 mph and making occasional brief stops for gas, rest, or catnaps. By 6 p.m., I was most of the way across, and only 318 miles from home, so when I saw a sign advertising a KOA at WaKeeney, I pulled in at 6 p.m. and decided to get a good night’s rest. The RV park was pleasant and half empty. I was greeted with the news that they were serving free watermelon on the patio right now, and would have a nearly free all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast the next morning. I enjoyed the watermelon – a nice ending to a long day of driving. But I woke up at 4:45 a.m. and was underway by 5:30 a.m. and so missed the pancakes. At 8:15 a.m., I refueled at Limon, Colorado (71.2 gallons for $131.50!!), and was parked in my driveway in Golden at 10:30 a.m.
The 1500 miles took 48 hours, of which a little under half was actual driving. Nearly all of the trip was on limited access expressway, and on most of that I traveled at 70 mph, matching the speed of the big trucks and often moving in convoy with them. Fuel mileage for the trip was about 9.5 mpg. Most of our travels will be at lower speeds, and I presume the diesel will also improve its mileage a bit as it gets broken in, so I can hope that our future mileage will be somewhat better than that.
Along the way, I discovered a few minor problems with the rig. Most importantly, the cruise control doesn’t work, and it took me half the trip to master the art of maintaining a reasonably constant speed without constant attention. That will have to be fixed soon. Most of the other problems were easy to fix in the week since I’ve been home, and some turned out not to be problems with the rig but rather problems with my understanding of how it was supposed to work.
There is frequent discussion in the internet forums of the potential instability of these short-wheelbase diesel motorhomes. My purchase decision was based partly on favorable reports by a few other owners, and I found that it was easy and relatively effortless for me to control under any conditions I encountered on this trip. It does occasionally require some active steering – a firm correction when being passed by a big truck in a crosswind, and frequent steering correction at high speeds on an uneven undulating highway surface. But I don’t have much experience with other motorhomes to compare against. In any case, the handling so far gives me no cause for concern, and I’m delighted with the very tight turning circle, giving impressive maneuverability in almost any situation.
Now comes a few months of familiarization, furnishing, fixing the remaining problems, and customization. I need to install the solar panels and Link 2000 battery monitor which I removed from our travel trailer before selling it. I need to acquire a suitable car to tow (and to be our second around-town car when we sell our truck), and to get it outfitted with tow bar and towing brakes. I need to get the RV weighed, before and after filling it with all of our "stuff". Hopefully we’ll have it fully ready for an extended trip well before the snow flies here.