Monday, January 29, 2007

Right at Home

Here in Crescent City, I noticed that although I'm still in my winter plumage and my beard is getting quite long, I am not the only one. Several people have had longer ones. Today, it seemed like every male face I saw was unshaven.

So, while Mary Ann went into the Post Office to mail off some photos to the editor at Ranger Rick, I did an impromptu survey. While she was in getting postage, I counted 14 beards vs. 3 clean shaven. It was up to 12-0 before some younger guys came by.

This part of California almost seceded from the rest of the state back in the 1940's, and it shows. They have their own culture and I'm quite comfortable here.

Crescent City

So far north in Northern California that it doesn't even feel like California any longer is a small town where we've been camped for the past few days. The campground is right on the bay. At high tide, the water is about 20 feet from the RV. Mary Ann has come here because it's a great place to take pictures of rocks in the surf. I'm here because I like the place. I've even written a novel located here.

Just to the south, and off to the north, redwood forests cover the mountains, taking advantage of the frequent fog. I'm taking advantage of this trip to tweak a few details in that novel I finished a year or so ago.

Unfortunately, I generally have to write my stories when I'm thousands of miles away from the locale. The internet does wonders, especially when I have real memories to mix with the on-line details. However, sometimes I can get things wrong, or just get things bland. Over the past couple of days, I've been able to re-visit the scenes and add a little color. As soon as I finish posting this I'll be adding a new discovery -- just a few words mentioning a mermaid carved out of a redwood trunk.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

In the North

After leaving Malibu, we headed north, taking I-5 to minimize travel time ( and gas costs). It was a straightforward trip, except for a few wrinkles.

We stopped for the night at a highway rest area the first night. California has worse rules than Texas, but at least there are some places where they don't post the No Overnight Parking signs. Then, I noticed that the heater never came on. It wasn't a serious issue, because we were in a hot dry part of the state. That was the second problem. The first was less serious, but annoying. The cigarette lighter was not providing full power, so all the cell phones, GPS unit, and other chargers plugged in there weren't working.

However, sensitized as I was by a few cold days in El Paso, I tried everything. By the time we made it to the Yreka Wal-mart parking lot I knew we were in for a cold night. By now, we were in Mt. Shasta country and the low was 24. Most of the evening was spent with a flashlight and screwdriver, opening hatches and testing fuses. I downloaded the manual for the climate control system and tried to diagnose the problem.

I'm getting too old to crawl around on my knees, and I couldn't help thinking about the movie I was watching. I had bought The Core from iTunes but I was having to download it in pieces because of limited bandwidth, but iTunes allows you to watch shows even before the load completes. So, over the past few days I'd been watching the show in pieces, almost scene by scene, and as I was taking my RV apart to solve problems, so were the actors in their mole machine.

But with thick covers and the electric heater, we survived the night without using too much gas running the generator. I bought parts at the auto parts store this morning, and as soon as I have some time, I'll tackle it again, but now we're safe and secure at Crescent City, with Mary Ann looking at her first 2GB of new ocean sunset photos. We'll be here for a few days yet.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

We're Not in Toronto

Although, I did make that suggestion. Mary Ann's photos are winning awards all over the place these days. She entered a prestigious photo contest, the Toronto Camera Club's 113th Annual International Salon of Photography and it appears she won a silver medal. It would have been a good excuse to go visit Toronto again, but ... our passports need to be renewed, and it was just too difficult to get from Palm Springs in the RV to Canada in just a couple of days.

Instead we headed for Malibu to take a little break. Mary Ann has been working long hours for weeks now, and we're not done. While we're in California, to make best use of the gasoline, we're going to be working our way along the coast so she can get more photos of the waves and the animals and the sunsets. Today, we're heading north, going via the inland route to get up to Oregon. After that, if all things go as planned, we'll slowly move south along the coastline. If we're lucky, this will take weeks.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

False Starts

After two (half-hearted) attempts by Fedex to deliver the repair part, and two trips to the Fedex office by the mechanic to pick it up himself, we finally had the missing piece. He removed the rest of the steering column and after five days stranded in El Paso, I began to have hopes that I'd finally get the RV repaired and back on the road.

I went for a walk, over the McDonalds, and when I came back, they had moved the RV into the main work area and had begun to jack it up so that they could work underneath. They had managed to start the RV in my absence by manually twisting the neutral safety switch.

After liberal use of penetrating oil to loosen stuck parts and reassembly of the column, the mechanic tested all the connections. Everything worked, except the starter wouldn't click. If you will recall. This was the original problem that started this mess. The broken piece in the key switch mechanism happened after the failure to start -- it was a secondary failure. They had changed out the neutral safety switch after the plain evidence that it was the cause of the problem. But now, with a new safety switch installed too, it still wouldn't start.

The safety switch was patiently readjusted. Still no starter. By now, it was nearing the end of the work day and Mr. Fernandez's helper left for the day. After a bit, one of his sons left for the day as well. Now he was determined. He began tracing the wires, beginning with the starter itself, verifying that it worked and working back.

After solid detective work, he found what was probably the real, original, source of the problem. A wire supplying power to an ECM relay was intermittent. He fixed it, and for the first time, the starter worked as it should, from the key switch. Final adjustments were done. The steering wheel was replaced, and the RV was backed out of the lot. I paid the bill, and I was pleasantly surprised. They said goodbye, I got into the driver's seat and felt good as it started right up. I shifted into drive and applied the gas.

The RV didn't move. I checked the emergency break. Not on. I shifted again. No gear worked.

Opening the window, I explained the problem. He dashed back to the office and came back with a sheet of cardboard and crawled under the RV. I worked the gear shift, by foot firmly on the brake pedal, and he located the problem.

Although everything had been working fine as he assembled the steering wheel and backed the RV out of the lot, as soon as I sat down in the driver's seat, a little piece that secured the gear shift cables had snapped in two. Like I've seen many times. The salt air of Galveston, from the time before we bought the RV, had left many things damaged. He held up the broken hook and I could see that it had just snapped from old corrosion.

It was dark, well after normal closing time, and probably impossible to get parts. He took the broken piece and while I sat in the driver's seat, cultivating my patience and serenity, I could see the flash of a welding torch and the fan of sparks from a grinding wheel in his office. Shortly he came back with a part -- one he had assembled himself. In short order he had fixed the problem, and sent me on my way, refusing payment for this additional repair job.

So after three problems; the ECM relay wire, the broken key switch linkage, and finally the gear shift cable hook, I was finally off. I filled the propane and gas tanks as quickly as I was able, and made it to Lordsberg, NM for the night, relieved to be on the road at last.

But I'll remember Horizon Automotive. If I lived in El Paso, I'd certainly have Mr. Fernandez as my regular mechanic.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cold in the Box

It's been an interesting few days here in El Paso. Before Mary Ann left, we could at least hop in the Jeep and go to a restaurant. However, now I'm limited to walking distance, which gives me a choice of three truck stops and a MacDonalds. Due to the cold, I haven't even taken that option except to go get gas for the generator.

Yesterday, the propane level finally bottomed out. I stopped the heater before it went totally empty, reserving the last few puffs for the water heater and the refrigerator.

But that meant no more toasty warm air in the RV. We have a little electrical heater, 1500 watts, but it's not enough. With the temp down into the 20's at night, and with all the glass area, the best I can manage it to keep the air temperature in the 50's and during the day up into the 60's. Needless to say, I'm typing this layered all the way out to my coat to stay comfy.

Theoretically, I should have been on the road by now, gas tank and propane topped up, heading for California. But Fedex has messed up delivery of the repair part. Mr. Fernandez at Horizon Automotive has been very helpful, helping me get more gas for the generator and stringing a long extension cord out to the RV. Unfortunately, ten minutes after he closed up for the night and left, the line went dead -- probably a popped circuit breaker. But at least the generator is doing its job and I'm staying warm enough.

Let's hope FedEx has a driver with a clue today.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Energy Crisis

Being stranded in front of the mechanics shop, waiting for the repair part to arrive has its ups and downs. Our RV is not only our home on wheels -- in many ways it's our office on wheels. Mary Ann has been productively occupied for the past couple of days creating images and printing out the photos she'll be using as portfolio fodder in her NANPA interviews. We are self-contained. Maybe we are a little low on water and have to be quick with the faucets, but the generator and inverter system have kept the printer and the hard drives and the computers up and running. The weather has turned cold, but our propane heater still has at least another day's use.

So I had no worries when Mary Ann finally printed her last photo and she packed and headed off towards Palm Springs in the Jeep. I had my own activities on the computer to keep me occupied, and the repair ought to be completed tomorrow.

But a couple of hours after the sun went down, and the temperature dropped to freezing, the generator stopped. I restarted it, but it only ran a minute or so before stopping again. The symptoms were clear. The generator had run out of gas.

Our RV is a gasoline rig, and the generator feeds off the same gas tank. The salesman, oh so long ago, said the generator probably took a gallon per hour, but I've never checked it out. We've stayed places for as long as four or five days before, using the generator for a few hours per day to recharge the battery system. We'd started following that same pattern, but due to the heavy office work, and perhaps a sense of complacency, we'd run it more hours per day than we'd done before. The problem was visibility. With the steering column in pieces, I hadn't been able to turn the key and look at the gas gauge. I'd been running blind.

So I quickly turned off most of the lights and considered my options. I didn't really need 110vac electricity, except a little to charge the laptop. But I did need 12vdc. The propane heater had some LPG left, but it still needed 12 volts to run the fans. I'd run most of the day off the battery system and it was down to 11volts and dropping. I'd started to recharge it with the generator when the gas ran out.

I can survive the freezing temperatures, out of the wind in my comfortable box, but I'd have to lay on the blankets.

However, I was only a little less than a mile from a truck stop. Why not give it a shot?

I bundled up in my ski-slope jacket and gloves and went for a walk.

The Petra station was strictly a truck stop. It was clear they had no gas pumps, only diesel, and no gas can to buy in the store. But next door, and probably run by the same company, was a Mobil station, and a 2 gallon plastic gas can. I bought my gas and trudged back to the RV. Adding it to the tank, I started the generator and it came right back up. I'll run it until it stops again. As I type, it's pumping 50 amps into the battery charging system, which ought to bring me back up to full power after awhile. And I'll time it, giving me a better idea of how much gas the generator uses per hour.

At worst, I can always go for another walk.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Parked at the Horizon

I have some lovely pictures of the tow truck lifting our RV, and the guy crawling underneath to disconnect the drive shaft, but Blogger is being obnoxious about uploading them, so if you really want to see them, just send me an email and I'll pass them along.

For all the things that have gone wrong, it has still been a nice day. At first, every mechanic in El Paso was turning down the opportunity to work on our RV, but then Jesus Fernandez at Horizon Automotive took us on and started work almost immediately.

Unfortunately, looking for the broken part in our steering column was a long and involved process. Of course I learned a bit more about that post that holds the wheel than I ever wanted to know. Did you know there's even a separate tool kit for pulling a steering wheel off? I didn't know that. He was nice and friendly, approaching his 31st wedding anniversary. (I've got 35.)

But once the break was located, none of the four dealerships in town had the part. I'll be parked here in front of his shop at least through Tuesday. That puts Mary Ann on the spot. She needs to be 700 miles away on Tuesday, setting up for her conference, so she'll be taking the Jeep and heading off without me. I tend to think of that Jeep as the shuttlecraft to the RV's Enterprise, and we've made heavy use of it over the years. It's coming up on 256,000 miles.

But for now, the bustling traffic of I-10 goes by about a quarter mile away, and the sky is aglow with El Paso's lights. Hardly scenic in the traditional sense, but I can live with it.

Waiting for Triple A

This morning, I steeled myself for the process of starting the RV. Last night I had researched the problem as much as I could, and I was ready to locate the starter wire and 'hot wire' the RV if necessary to get it started again.

First problem -- I couldn't get it out of Park. This has happened before, so I went back to the Jeep, still attacked by the tow-bar, and shoved at the RV, hoping it would remove some strain on the linkage.

The gear shift moved, and then, the key switch moved. It moved far too easily. I could tell instantly that the key switch mechanism was broken. Now I couldn't even turn on the ignition, and of course the starter.

Some things I feel like I can fix myself. I grew up with simple electronics in cars and although I was never the guy who built a drag racer, I had some minor skills with a volt-meter.

But I can't make a broken switch heal itself. So Mary Ann called the AAA number. We have the RV-Plus coverage for this kind of problem. We called. They called back. We looked up numbers.

Now we wait.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Chasing the Sunshine

I had planned to stay a couple of more days at Lake Tanglewood, visiting my parents and walking the two blocks from my sister's house where we had parked the RV and the folk's house. The little hike was nice, because there were always deer and turkeys at hand -- sometimes close enough to make me worry about those antlers.

But the weather forecast turned bad, and we had to get Mary Ann to Palm Springs for her NANPA conference and unless we left early, we were likely to be locked in by ice and snow. So, we finished up our activities and packed all our junk. It's amazing how cluttered an RV can get when you carry along clothes for a month, three computers and a dozen external hard drives.

Friday morning, we woke and looked out. There was a dusting of snow. The front had moved in early and we had to get moving. We said our goodbyes and dashed back to the RV.

It didn't start. Just on the trip before, the battery was good, but the starter didn't move. With more snow coming down, and the temperature dropping by the minute, I tried one thing and then another. Nothing worked. It was time to call out the big guns.

I called by brother-in-law, Walter Solomon, the reigning authority on all things mechanical. He came down and after a couple of minutes, he crawled under the RV and 'shorted the starter'. The engine ran, and until we stopped for the night just 50 miles out of El Paso, I never let it stop. Through snow and ice, until we ran out from under the cold front, we kept going.

Once I stopped for the night, we raised the satellite dish and I started researching the problem. By best guess is a bad 'Neutral Safety Switch'. I guess I'll see what happens in the morning.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Chat in the Den

Mary Ann and I are in Lake Tanglewood, parking the RV in my sister's driveway and spending the next few days at my parents house a couple of blocks away. We'll be here for about another week before heading off to California for Mary Ann's next event.

I had a nice long talk with my father, aged 87, today, talking about his history. Every time I do this, I learn new things. I thought I'd share my notes:

While on a troop train heading for the Pacific, Gene stopped in Amarillo and had a brief few minutes with Evelyn, but by the time the train reached California, Hiroshima had happened and VJ day declared and he was no longer headed for Okinawa. The train unloaded in San Bruno in the San Francisco area. He was stationed at the Naval Station in Richmond for six months or so until he was released. (Oakland Navy Yard? Supply Depot. Mare Island?) He and Evelyn and the two children Roger and Mary lived in a housing project in Richmond, struggling with war time rationing. She had to beg the store owners to sell her items they'd hidden out of sight for their special customers. Gene was within a 20 minute walk to where he worked. They had no car. He remembered a visit the observatory at Mt. Hamilton just outside of Richmond.

He had gone into the Navy as Seaman First Class because of his radio experience and was placed in radio supply.

While living in the bay area, his uncle Bill Melton, brother of EJ Melton Sr., who lived in Oakland, working for Ford Motor company, visited and they spent some time together. He had a motor and they rented a rowboat and fished in Frank's Tract, a marshy area nearby where they caught striped bass.

Grandfather Thomas Jefferson Melton was Methodist cricuit preacher and rural postal deliverer. Dad's father Gene Sr. was a pharmisist.

Uncle Luther was a candymaker. And later lived in the ozarks. After his company closed in the depression, Luther and Gene Sr. lived together in Oklahoma City and made candy in the garage. They made candy canes and peanut brittle and fudge in a black cast-iron pot. They had a big roll of cellophane to wrap the candy bars in. Those they sold in the drug store. Dad got sick of it. He was in high school. He lived on beans and candybars. Every day for lunch he had fudge or peanut brittle bar in his lunch box. Peanut patties five or six inches in diameter. Candy canes were made as a taffy and then pulled through an opening and twisted.

Uncle Arville. (Dad grew up thinking it was Orville.) Went to Phoenix. Had two boys. Killed by spider bite in Arizona. Lost track of him. 'Melton family was never one to be close.'

I hope for more visits like this in the next few days.