Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Itch de la Hitch

Low sun look toward the Kishwaukee River.

A low sun look toward the Kishwaukee River.

With my scheduled departure approaching late next week, I find myself with a natural mix of dread and anticipation. Dread of the necessity of shoveling out the Defiant’s interior to make it ready for travel, swapping wheels to get the new tire mounted in place and to put the spare back on its perch, and hefting those big panels. What can I say? I’m lazy, and all that’s too close to being actual work.

Yet, there’s the anticipation of getting out to the big sky and solitude. A lifetime of points East and their own wonders makes me pine for less familiar terrain. True, the West is technically a place of relative desolation, but the connotation of a bleak and barren wasteland doesn’t cut it for me. It has its own rewards which cannot be matched here. Each area has its appeal, and the West’s is Spectacle.

Here's something you don't see every day - except here.

Here’s something you don’t see every day – except here.

Mind you, the trip out there won’t have much entertainment value. I’ll be leaving at the start of the Labor Day weekend, a Duly Authorized Holiday Camper taking my allotted space just hours after I yank the Defiant out. All campgrounds from here to Seattle will be packed with them. So, it will be Interstate rest stops for me, all the way out to Wyoming. Rest stops are, on average, quieter and less closely packed than truck stops.

With a full two months before I will roll into Yuma, Arizona, four two-week stops are planned. That’s how the Defiant is oriented. Find access to a perfectly level or at least correctable spot, unhitch, break out and hang the solar panels, and put interior accouterments into a living arrangement. From there, it’s a matter of supplementing its 20-gallon freshwater tank with the pickup-mounted 70-gallon Tankmin, and likewise transferring waste via a macerater into the lower section of the Tankmin in order to avoid towing a trailer with full waste tanks, or having to break camp in order to visit a dump station mid-stay. Reasonably careful use of water can net you an uninterrupted three-week stay if warranted, and frankly, the 26-foot Defiant makes for a superbly comfortable long-term living space. That’s pretty much what I envisioned when having to hurriedly transform a well-used 1994 holiday travel trailer into a mobile place to live. It works. Original goal #1 accomplished.

But before I can pat myself on the back, I have to recognize what it doesn’t do so well – the various trade-offs that compromise all RVs. I also have to take into account what I expected to find out on the road, and how my expectations have changed, now that I’ve been out here a few years. There are two principle failings of this unit to my purposes. The first is its either/or nature. With Spartan use, its coach batteries can last up to two nights maximum. Beyond that, the  vehicle’s engine must be run (which is a big no-no), or at least one solar panel must be unpacked, hung and angled upward. In practice, this limitation trims its usage to a choice of either an overnight during transport, or full deployment with a stay of more than a week. Once you start dripping over into multiple night stays, you are engaging the waste system and now need to become aware of a dump station in the vicinity, if any. Towing with a non-empty waste tank is also a no-no, and requires breaking out the macerater and hoses from the bed of the truck to get it into the Tankmin. Staying for “just a few days” requires a full deployment.

The other failing has more to do with access and, basically, this resulted from my having no wild idea what I would find when I went out west. But hey, RVers with considerably larger rigs wander about all the time, so how bad could it be? My research had indicated that the only real issue was taking a forest road to an effective dead end, and having to back up for very long distances just to find a turn-around spot. This wasn’t the whole story, in my case. Despite being only as long as the trailer part of a semi-tractor rig, the Ford+Defiant’s turning circle is markedly larger. It’s a beast. Stopping at a grocery or even a gas station on route can be nice-nice, or produce quite a bit of apprehension depending on the roominess of or lack of same in what you discover. It’s always easy to get in, but not necessarily to be able to maneuver through or get out. This has to be correctly assessed just before making any entry.

As a boondocking rig, the Defiant’s exterior is a poor basis. Length or width is only an an occasional issue. The problem is that turning circle, and the inherently poor ground clearance found in most pre-2000 travel trailers. The Innsbruck in particular is what I call a boulevard camper, originally designed and outfitted by Gulfstream merely to sit in a seasonal space at a local commercial RV park. For the more adventurous, it can also travel from one full-hookup commercial camp to another. And for that special holiday – like Labor Day – it can leave the pavement to camp out for a long weekend, as long as you’ve plopped a pair of big honking batteries into the front carrier. As such, it began life especially low to the ground. It’s since had the axles relocated to be below the leaf springs, which jacks the trailer up a few inches. Most 4x4s would be happy with a 10″ ground clearance, but when that’s the ground clearance under a nine-foot rear overhang, it’s not nearly enough. Significantly longer fifth-wheel trailers can go where I cannot, and have.

As a result, I’m often having to camp where other, larger rigs are, complete with gas-powered generators, external speakers, and yapping dogs. I prefer solitude, which to me means no one within sight or sound. In solitude is where I can contemplate the world and my place in it, and other weighty matters, like whether Velcro shoe straps in place of shoe laces represents progress or mere change. These are the things which consume me. Why do we park our car on a driveway, yet drive it on a parkway? But solitude for such weighty contemplations is a comparative rarity. Millions of acres of Federally-owned land are available for camping free of charge – it’s just that most of them are not readily accessible. I’ve noticed that National Forests now restrict dispersed camping (as it is also called) to only a certain few trails. This is to limit damage. Those usually present problems with high shoulders from grading them, and many approved branches are eroded and navigable only by high-clearance 4×2 or 4×4 vehicles. Many easy-access, crowded areas are surrounded by rougher alternatives. Many’s the time when I’ve four-wheeled into some area and felt that it would be an ideal campsite. Couldn’t happen though – it was interesting enough just to get the big Ford back there. No way the Defiant could do much more than make the initial turn, and use that to turn around to leave.

Once I started out on my little adventure, I found that many people are already out there boondocking, and that the great majority are concentrating in a limited number of set areas. Though wonderfully comfortable in all weather, the Defiant is not able to access much more than these high-pressure areas. It’s 7,000-pound weight also poses additional risks in moving within remote areas in bad weather, though its ability to camp for sustained periods tends to allow a prolonged delay for better trail conditions.

On the highway, its size and weight also work against it. Many worthwhile points of interest lack a preceding fanfare of signage. By the time you can read the sign or pointer, you’re as good as past it. If you’re in a car on a state route not heavily traveled, you can hit the binders and get two wheels off onto the narrow shoulder, then either turn around, or back up. With a heavy 8.5′-wide trailer having a huge turning radius, neither of the above are options. It is to your advantage to simply reengage the speed control and put it out of your mind, since the nearest area usable as a turnaround is likely ten miles away, and depending on the attraction, the facility may well not have room to accommodate the rig. This is common, since a “tourist” and a “camper” are rarely the same thing in the more popular venues.  Given the terrain, to the south and east of Prescott Arizona are two state highways which bar any vehicle longer than 40′, due to hairpin turns and a limited lane width. Readjust route to suit. The Defiant is more oriented toward Interstate roadways mainly because they are smoother, pose fewer challenges, and have shoulders wide enough to pull over on. State highways are okay, although pulling over to service a tire problem can be a real issue. The sometimes charm of rural roads is not a serious possibility with the Defiant: width becomes worrisome, and the 60 MPH limit imposed by the trailer tires encourages a lot of passing, some of it either foolhardy or suicidal. Then you arrive at your destination and wince when you open the trailer door.

I also didn’t anticipate the need to hold to a tight stop plan. That’s a mixture of the Defiant’s inflexible tow-it-or-plant-it character, and space limitations in some overnights, be they Walmarts or city parks. Walmart parking lots are often tilted enough to throw a propane-powered refrigerator’s efficiency off, requiring cranking up the temperature control to compensate. A few shopping centers lack any safe accommodation for a 53′ long vehicle. Beside physical maneuvering issues and the need to unhitch in order to fit, many free or low-cost city parks clog up on weekends. It pays to plan while wide awake, and then stick to it once underway. It also pays to carefully examine each planned stop on Google Maps first, note which way to turn to get to the right type of parking, and have a Plan B alternative stop on the sheet if anything looks less than certain. Whimsy is not much of an option for this type of travel, unfortunately.

This is the physical accommodation I was hoping for, but not the type of travel. My first goal was to create an affordable, true living space which could “follow the weather” according to season. That part worked. I have a hard time coming up with some interior issue that could somehow be significantly better than it is. Maybe better insulation, but the Innsbruck was never intended to somehow be a four-season trailer, and it’s a little late in the game to ask that of it now. Full, working office. Living area with decent-sized TV and couch, dining table and seat, full kitchen, bed, full bathroom, and ample storage.

But, with her sagging frame thanks to past abuse, the start of wood decay in her thin body structure, and the various events over her longer voyages, she has been trying to give me a message. The perfect living space wants to be just that, but little more. She cannot take me where I want to go, nor encamp me where I yearn to spend some time. No inhabitable trailer could, as it turns out. That part of the “see America” plan did not work out as hoped. But then again, until I got out on the road, I wasn’t aware of enough to be able to hope specifically or realistically – one reason why I relentlessly harp today on knowing where you plan to go and what activities you plan to do in order to find a good fit in rig types. With no experience, it’s a difficult assessment. Who knew I would find man-made noise so intrusive, or get all excited every time I saw a side trail taking off into rough country? What the USS Defiant can do best, without relying on modifications, is to serve well as a semi-movable home base of sorts. Think of it as a docking station, with the facilities to restore and replenish a crew from the rigors of exploratory travel. The “see America” part will have to evolve from an entirely different type of vessel.

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12 thoughts on “Itch de la Hitch

  1. Love those yard ornaments! Much nicer than all the pseudo Christmas clutter in an earlier post. I understand the itch to get on the road too. After 3 months in the mid-west, I’m wishing to get with it again. Must wait until mid-October tho.

    • Oh, if you like yard decoration, you’d want a slow lap around this place, Pam. I suppose I should take some snaps. Next week is my own 3-month point, and I’ve become all to happy to just sit and type. Getting on the move will at least get me perambulating again!

  2. I am glad to know that your departure date is on schedule. As I recall, at one point, there was a possibility that you might be delayed. Delighted to know your on target.

    I’m looking forward to seeing you after you get to Winterhaven. I am also looking forward to hearing more about the alternative mode of travel. 🙂

    • Still technically a possible delay, but I should get a routine medical lab confirmation by the time I skate out of here, which will turn the “everything looks good” into “…and tests confirm it. Go cause trouble someplace else.” I’ll wind up about 40 miles from Winterhaven, but should certainly get within striking range on some errand or other. I’m really hoping to catch a shot of your styrofoam sailboat sinking on her first launch into the reservoir.

      • “Everything looks good” sounds great to me! You already told me you were not going to be back at the BLM LTVA but that you’re going to wind up being close. Close enough to still be annoying once in awhile. 😉

  3. Gmornin Doug! The Defiant due to your abilities is giving you more than was ever intended. I am proud of her!!! That being said it’s time for you to start looking at a replacement. They are out there in the west but a lot have been lived in versus vacationed in. The sweet Susan and I bought a travel trailer that was 9 years old and had been taken on vacation every year. I have seen some killer deals on campers. But you gotta be patient and wait for one to happen right in front of you. If I were you I would put a solar panel on the back of the Defiant and let in run all the timr. I think a 100 watt would do fine. I have seen several mounted that way. Amazing how much a 100 watt can churn out and since the voltage is only 18 at max there is no advantage to a MPPT charger so you can use a $20 charger. Next you need to replace the 12 volt house battery with two 6 volts wired together to make a 12 volt. That would make your short 2 day stay double to 4 day. With a permanent 100 watt panel I think life would be good. Remember charging off s vehicle will never top off your battery. You are a electrical genius so you already know this but I had to say it for the readers. Sussn and I have 4 Trojans wired into what equals two twelve volt and we have 375 watts of solar and we just have a world of power to microwave potato and popcorn, blow dry her hair, make drip coffee and watch TV etc. We never go below12.4 watts and seldom go below 12.5 and are usually fully charged in Az by 11:00

    I love solar!!!#

    What I really want is another electric bike!
    Ahh well gotta save those pennies.

    Good traveling Doug and maybe our paths will cross again this year and we can meet and greet!

    • Thanks for the advice, Bill. I won’t be replacing the Defiant or modifying it further, but will simply let it go back to doing what it excels at. And I won’t be buying a smaller version, either. These won’t really answer what I want to be able to do during the active touring seasons. Enjoy your time on the road!

  4. This post was very helpful for me. I have been living well in my tiny Escape Pod (we’re in the Poconos at the moment) but dreaming of something bigger……but not as much bigger as I started out thinking I wanted. I started out thinking I wanted to eventually have a travel trailer. I liked the idea of having a whole house behind me.

    As I’ve traveled, I’ve grown more accustomed to the daily rhythms of living in a minivan. It’s good, but a bit cramped. I’ve noticed a couple things, one of which is that I stop to visit friends and family and they aren’t really using all that extra space they have. And they talk about what a burden they have with all that space and stuff but they don’t realize that’s what they’re saying because they also say they can’t live like me, because they need their space and stuff.

    Whereas for me right now the only burden is that I’m still struggling with having a good writing space so I can finish this book that was already supposed to be with my publisher and editor by now. I look at my enhoused people’s struggles over stuff and space and know I don’t want to go much bigger.

    Another thing I’ve noticed — and you’ve really brought it home because your rig is much smaller than the ones I’ve been noticing — is that a lot of people look like they’re dragging the whole planet with them. I’ve seen rigs with a pulling vehicle, a massive trailer, a trailer hitched behind the trailer with two toys on it and a toad behind all that! I look at set-ups like that in awe because, as the cool kids say these days, I can’t even.

    And it’s not an “I want that” awe. It’s a “good lord I’m thankful that’s not me” awe.

    Your post clinched it for me. I’ve been looking at Class B vans lately and they look like little palaces, compared to the Escape Pod. They are also pricey, so all I’m doing right now is dreaming. The Escape Pod is doing well. She just got new front tires yesterday (by force, not choice) and otherwise she’s holding up well. Like most people when they first hit the road, I’ve put a lot of miles on her — 10,000 in about three months, which kind of boggles my mind. Before hitting the road, I usually put about 600 miles on in the same amount of time. But I think she’s got another good ten years in her, especially since my rate of travel will slow down in a year or two, when I’ve visited all my far flung people and started staying longer in fewer places.

    And I’m comfortable. And I’m happy (at least most of the time. I got to Virginia to finally meet the fella I had been long-distance dating for the last three years and right there, 100 miles away, he said don’t visit him. He said his heart is too weak to take it. He said I have changed too much and when I asked what that meant, he says I talk about shower tents now. Yeah, I do love my new shower tent. But before, I talked about my washing machine that hooked up to my kitchen sink and that was okay. Whatever. So I haven’t been ecstatically happy lately, but I’ve been stitching my life up around the boyfriend-sized hole and I think it’s even better now.)

    There are still logistics to work out, but I’m settling in well. I’ve been out 1/12 the amount of time you have. But already I love this life. I love the freedom, I love the travel, I love getting to see people I haven’t seen in years.

    I might meet you this winter. I have Thanksgiving plans in Florida and I’m scheduled to be in California in April, so I will be passing through Arizona some time in between. I’ll keep an eye out for where you are and ask if I can drop by when I get closer. You’ve been an inspiration and education for me and it would be good to meet.

    • That’s a thoughtful comment. Thank you. It is funny that when we try to sort through what’s what with the myriad of types of RVs, or simply take a second look at “normal” life once we’ve gotten halfway used to our own rig, we start noticing things more than before. Perhaps it’s kind of a cross-check that we’re either on the path that’s working for us, or on one that needs a tweak. Like checking a map to make sure we are where we think we are.

      My condolences on your dating situation, and for the loss of your emotional investment over that time span, only to have the end be so puzzling. He must have simply chickened out when the reality hit. To change the topic from washing machines to shower tents is not real seismic, in my book. Washing machines to fashion or the meaning of life, possibly. 🙂

      This life is quite something, perhaps just because it is so different, with its own challenges and rewards to discover. I’m glad that it is proving enjoyable for you. I plan to be just east of Yuma from November through sometime in March (depending on temperatures), so hopefully you might have an opportunity to survey the wreckage. This assumes that I haven’t been ejected by park management at that point, of course. I appreciate your kind compliment, as it’s rewarding to find that in some small way, I may have helped to either corrupt or derail a good, productive life somewhere. 😉

  5. I understand a lot of what you are saying. I live in a 6 ton 34′ x 9′ x 12.5′ motor home. lol. It’s a moveable house. I park it and explore around it.

    • And if that works for you, you’re golden! 34′ is actually a workable length for a motorhome, in my view. That width would unnerve me at times on highways, but you’re probably pretty used to it by now. I’ll bet you’re not having to force yourself to enjoy it! 😉

      • I enjoy it. I need to work on my boo docking though. I’m not up to speed on that at all. I’ve been living in state and federal parks, COE campgrounds, Escapee campgrounds, and a few private campgrounds.

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