Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shades of Glory

A couple of posts ago, I vented my frustration with the window shades in Phannie, and I really don't think I wish to revisit that rant except to include a few photos that precipitated our visit to McKinney last week and the acquisition of new custom shades:

We had made an appointment with MCD Innovations after reading about other RVers' experiences with this firm.  Upon our initial telephone inquiry, they gave us an overview of the installation process, and we settled on an appointment that would be available in about a month.  (Apparently, they have plenty of RV business.)  They also mailed us a packet of information about the product and the installation and pricing plans, along with some samples from which we could choose shade textures and colors.

The normal installation scheme involves showing up at MCD's headquarters on a Monday morning with your RV, being prepared to leave it there until 5:00 p.m. the following Friday.  They can easily accommodate fulltimers, as they have 50-amp electric hookups serving about 20 spaces in a large concrete parking lot alongside their factory.  (There is no water or sewer, though; you would need to show up with a full water tank and empty black and grey tanks.)  Although McKinney is only about an hour's drive from our house in  the D/FW mid-cities area, we elected to drive up on Sunday and spend the night in Phannie, to avoid the Monday morning demolition derby that is rush hour in the D/FW Metroplex.  

MCD Offices in McKinney

We arrived late Sunday afternoon and, although MCD's headquarters facility was clearly closed, we were soon met by a friendly gent named Mac, I think, who directed us as we backed into our preassigned spot #11 among perhaps ten other RVs.  Mac lives in a motor home near the entrance to the parking area and apparently serves as a greeter and host.  From his vantage point, he can easily see the flow of RVs into and out of the parking area.

RV Parking Area at MCD

All settled in for the night...
After getting settled, we went to Shogun, a Japanese hibachi restaurant for a nice dinner, then came back to Phannie, where we watched a movie and turned in for the night.  

On Monday morning, the order taker, a pleasant young lady, made her way to every coach to finalize the orders and receive the initial payment, which was for the materials ordered.  The installation fee would be paid on Friday, as it is calculated by the hour and based on the amount of time required for the work involved.  We already had our fabric selections picked out (the really attractive ones are more expensive--imagine that!), so it was only a matter of deciding which windows were to be done.  Because of the large number of orders that day, we were among the last to place our order, so we had some time to kill well beyond the 8:30 a.m.  time that we were told to expect the order-taker's visit.    

After our order was taken, a young man showed up to do the measurements, which took only a few minutes. Then he disappeared into the factory, and soon the order-taker reappeared with an invoice, which we paid by credit card.  She said we would pay for the installation on Friday, at which time the installation charges would be known.  We told her that we were planning to pick up our coach on Saturday, so she said we could do the credit card transaction over the phone on Friday.  We left the keys with her and hopped in Mae for the drive home, but not before stopping for lunch at Baker's Drive-In, a legendary local burger joint.

Upon our return the following Saturday, there were only a few RVs in the parking area, and no one appeared to meet us.  We picked up Phannie's keys from the agreed-upon hiding spot and went inside to inspect the new shades.  We were not disappointed; these are the American Duo models with two rollers, one for the day shade and one for the night shade.  The shades operate much like the old-timey roller window shades in that you pull them down to the desired level, then pull again and the springs in the rollers roll them up.  However, these are much improved in that when you pull down on the shade to retract it, you can release it and it will gently rise to the fully retracted position.  Pretty neat!  A motorized, remote-control version is also available, but Sandy and I thought we would probably not wear ourselves out by raising and lowering the shades manually.  

Comparison Night Shade (Left) and Day Shade (Right)
So, everything went just about as planned, and we're very pleased.  The cost?  Well, they are priced according to window sizes, and we had large, medium and small windows to cover which, I suppose, would be the case with most rigs.  For these particular day/night shades (with an upscale fabric choice), you can figure an average of slightly less than $300 per window, including the removal of the old shades and installation of the new ones.  

And the end of my frustration with Phannie's old window shades?  Priceless!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We Meet Boris and Natasha!

This past weekend we had the good fortune to meet fulltimers Paul and Mary, whose exploits appear in two of our must-read blogs, Bullwinkle’s Travels and The Great RV Escape.  These wonderfully friendly folks checked out of the work world at an enviably early point in their lives and are having a fine time traveling the country in their beautiful Winnebago Tour motor home, Bullwinkle, and their trusty Jeep toad, Rocky.  (We like it when people name their vehicles; it makes our own similar habit seem somehow less juvenile.)  
Paul, Mary and Sandy with Bullwinkle

It's always fun to meet fellow bloggers in person after having first become acquainted with them in their words and pictures. We've found that the first meeting in person is generally just a validation of what you think you know about them already and, therefore, something to anticipate with a degree of excitement.  It's much like meeting a personality you've watched on TV for a long time--but one who happens to have watched you, as well!  Because of this, it is a very short and easy step indeed from cyber friend to real friend. There was no awkwardness, just starting a live visit where the last blog entry ended, with the only new thing being the sound of our voices.

Like all the RV bloggers we've met, Paul and Mary are irresistibly nice people with great personalities and very quick wits. From their very well written blogs, we already knew much about their clandestine plans that led up to their retiring and becoming fulltimers.  They blogged about their retirement preparations for months in advance with cloak-and-dagger subterfuge, using the pseudonyms Boris and Natasha so their imminent departure from their small company would not be discovered.  They were key members of the staff, and the foreknowledge of their leaving would have caused all sorts of complications for them.  It was better, they thought, to give the customary notice for the sake of a smoother and shorter transition.  These episodes in their blog were among the most captivating of all we have read, as the expertly written journal was not unlike a good mystery novel that could only be read one chapter at a time. 

Once notice was given and their identity revealed, Paul and Mary launched on their adventure, and who would they run into but other blogger friends we have met like Ed and Marilyn and Gordon and Juanita, along with others we hope to meet as time goes by.  We were totally delighted when we received Paul and Mary's e-mail announcing their plans to visit the D/FW area; we quickly set a time to get together and visit. 

Paul, Mary and Sandy inside the "Moose"
We had a nice brunch at the Blue Mesa Cafe in Southlake and then took a quick tour of our neighborhood and the little house where we keep Phannie and Mae.  They were gracious in their comments, and we talked of perhaps getting together again in the summer, when we might be able finally to meet Sue and Doug and other bloggers we "almost" know.  That would be a hoot, for sure!
Paul makes some yummy selections at Blue Mesa's buffet
Mary and Sandy, doing a little "grazing"

We continue to marvel at the winsome nature of those we meet in the RV world--a winsomeness that is especially prevalent among RV bloggers.  I don't think I can remember encountering  any RVer who was anything but pleasant and helpful.  Well, I take that back...I do remember a certain lady in Kerrville who was gave us pause, but she was actually more eccentric than unpleasant.  You can read about her in this post from 2005, our first year of RV travel when we had a fifth wheel named Homer.  It is, by the way, a post I most enjoyed writing; I hope you enjoy reading it.  I describe this lady under the subheading, "Take-It-Easy RV Park in Kerrville."

After bidding goodbye to Paul and Mary, we fired up Phannie and drove the short distance up to McKinney in order to make good our appointment to have custom shades installed by MCD Innovations on Monday.  More on this adventure next time...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I Give Up!

Because I am a patient man, it has taken me a while to arrive at the conclusion that the day/night shades installed in most RVs—including Phannie—are, well, of the devil.  While I would not want any harm to come to the person who invented these things, I believe he needs to be tied up like a prime rib roast with these little strings that are the source of my frustration.  Where would he have gotten the notion that the guide strings, upon which these shades are totally dependent for operation, could possibly be something that would work for more than four days?  And the pleats--getting those to stay in place absolutely requires cuss words, and I've sworn not to swear.   (Or did I just swear then?  I'm not sure.)

Mind you, I think the idea is a good one:  A shade that can be pulled up and down that will afford either translucence for daytime or opaqueness for night.  But the strings—I have had to repair half of them on Phannie already, and I had similar luck with the ones in Homer, her predecessor.  And, as those of you know who have had to repair them, the fix is not exactly easy.  In fact, it is downright sadistic.  If I am to be punished, and I have a choice between repairing a day/night shade and a public flogging, I would just go to the courthouse square, bend over and say, “Bring it on.” 

Well, I’m throwing in the towel.  I have an appointment at MCD in McKinney, Texas next Monday for a retrofit of all the shades in Phannie’s lounge.  From what I’ve read in the blogs, MCD’s design seems unchallenged as the antidote for the demonic day/night shades with strings.  I talked to the folks at MCD several weeks ago and made the appointment.  They were very friendly and helpful on the phone, and they invited me to drive Phannie to their facility Sunday evening and stay the night to be ready for Monday’s design session, so that’s what we intend to do.   We don’t think we’re going to bother with replacing the shades in the bedroom, as we never open them anyway.  Besides, I’m halfway afraid to touch them for fear they, too, will break.

We’ll keep you posted on the progress.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Back to Branson

Three years had elapsed since our last visit to Branson, and we thought that would be a good trip to stretch Phannie’s legs a bit and see a few shows.  The Barkers—Bubba, LouAnn and BreAnn decided to join us for this escapade, so we knew we would have a good time.

We had never seen any Christmas shows in Branson, and we got word that this may be the last season for a couple of the longtime stars.  Shoji Tabuchi is retiring, and Andy Williams has been diagnosed with cancer, so we thought this might be the last time we could see these entertainers.  As it turned out, we didn’t get to see Andy Williams, as he was undergoing treatment in California; however, his Christmas show was still terrific.  He left word that he will be performing again next year but, at 84, you have to wonder.  The Lennon Sisters have now joined his show and the Moon River Theatre will be their new home in Branson.  (Yes, they’re still going—well, half of them, after 50 years!  Two of the sisters retired, and one was replaced by a younger sister, Mimi.)
The Lennon Sisters
 Andy Williams’ show was very entertaining and professional, as expected, and I enjoyed seeing the Lennon Sisters again.  These gals are really showing their age, but then, so am I!  They still sound good, though!  I hope Andy’s illness is short-lived and that he is able to do his show as long as he can.  Gotta give him kudos for hanging in there and thumbing his nose at the aging process…pretty inspiring, if you ask me!

I confess to a bit of sadness as I see the aging entertainers with whom I grew up.  I wistfully yearn for a return to the simplicity, innocence, hopefulness and national pride of the fifties and sixties.  Those were great decades, and I’m afraid I don’t fit in very well in many aspects of life in this new century.  While I marvel at the advances in technology, communication, transportation and medicine, I am perplexed at what passes for culture, music, discourse, justice and political leadership.  Never before have I questioned if our country will survive in a form that I will recognize.  But I remain optimistic that at least some of our mistakes will be corrected before long.

I also wonder if Branson will survive after all the old stars die off.  You wouldn’t know it, judging by how the place is growing, but I have a hard time envisioning the next generation of gray-haired folks making the trek there to a "Lady Ga-Ga" Theatre.  There’s just something not right about that.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  Our travel legs from Fort Worth to Texarkana and then to Branson were uneventful, and I was glad to have the chance to drive Phannie through the rather benign Ozark foothills to get comfortable with her power management in an uphill/downhill situation.  I was very pleased with the performance and smoothness of the Caterpillar engine and Allison transmission.  I found that leaving the cruise control engaged, even on moderate inclines, resulted in very comfortable downshifting at the appropriate RPMs.  Soon after acquiring Phannie, I had the Cat techs confirm that the engine computer was set to “soft cruise,” allowing somewhat flexible parameters for holding cruise speed.  This helps to avoid engine lugging, hard shifting and high RPMs to hold an exact speed.  In soft mode, the computer is content to allow cruise speed to vary appreciably when going uphill and downhill.  Neat feature. 

Going downhill required a bit more attention, as I had had the Allison techs reset the transmission to downshift only to 5th gear instead of 2nd when the engine brake is applied.  This requires me to control the downshifting manually if the downhill grade is steep and a gear lower than 5th is needed.  I prefer it that way, however, as I was always alarmed at the huge RPM spike caused by the automatic downshift to 2nd when the engine brake was applied.  I wondered why this default setting would be used in the first place, but settled on my belief that the coach builders have designed it that way to keep inexperienced drivers out of trouble.  This assumes such a driver would be unable to discern that downshifting might be a good idea when embarking on a steep downhill grade and would mindlessly let the rig achieve escape velocity or burn up the brakes instead.  This is another of those dumbing-down techniques by manufacturers—much like their wholesale reliance on idiot lights—that I often rail against with utter futility.      

We stayed at the Stagecoach RV park in Branson, which was not up to our usual standards and too far from the strip.  We got a good deal with Passport America, but the inconvenience wasn’t worth the 50 percent price reduction.  In fact, it could even be said to be silly, considering what it cost to drive Phannie to Branson and back.  It just shows how much people can be influenced by a bargain, no matter how much irritation they will endure to get it.  Sometimes I wonder about myself.

The girls did some shopping (surprise!) at every conceivable opportunity, and I was relegated to chauffeur’s duty while Bubba watched football to the extent possible.  We got some pretty fair barbeque at Famous Dave’s and a so-so steak at Montana Mike’s.  We had never tried either of these before and the one visit was probably enough.  One favorite eatery was the Dessert Station, where we got a good burger and excellent desserts.
Shoji Tabuchi was a very slick and professional production with a good deal of talent variety which was needed, in my opinion.  While Shoji is a talented violinist, it doesn’t take too many violin solos before I begin to yawn.  It was almost worth the price of admission to see the theatre’s bathrooms, which were something to behold.  Imagine a men’s bathroom so large that it has its own billiard room! 

Shoji Tabuchi

On our last day, we toured Big Cedar, a fabulous lodge complex on Table Rock Lake not far from Branson.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the Devil’s Pool restaurant and walked around the beautiful setting.  What a find!  Unfortunately, we will have to return to check out this place further.  Sandy said this discovery was probably the best part of her trip.  Looks like that cinches our return!

The trip back to Fort Worth had to be re-routed due to weather.  Even though we missed most of the thunderstorms, we did encounter some rain in the Tulsa area.  This was the first rain encounter with Phannie, and she did just fine—no leaks anywhere that I could see.

The only indignity suffered was with Mae, who looked much like a mud pie.  The road spray from Phannie definitely took its toll on the usually-pristine little red car. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tales From the Front: First Monday Trade Days in Canton

Sandy and our daughter, Mindy, along with Brenda (Sandy’s sister) and LouAnn, formed the group of hens who dreamed this up.  On only one other occasion, years ago, was I forced to attend the shoppers’ monthly feeding frenzy in Canton, Texas.  I told myself then that it would take a team of Clydesdales to drag me there again. It wasn't exactly a team of Clydesdales, but it was a bunch of horses--about 350 of them, that would indeed take me back to Canton.

Phannie's RV Port, with all lights on preparing for next day's departure to Canton

Sandy gives Phannie's wood cabinets a drink

Mason and Sandy, ready for departure 

It’s not that I begrudge my beloved an occasional pilgrimage to this vast assemblage of flea-market Bedouins for reasons that only females, I think, can fully comprehend.  Most guys (with, uh, some exceptions) just don’t get it—the fascination with all things cute and kitschy.  And I can assure you that is an apt description of all of the stuff these gals felt compelled to buy rather than to hold on to the money burning a hole in their purses.  But money just isn't cute, and it is entirely acceptable for them to exchange it for something that is.   Frankly, I would rather have squirreled away the money or spent it on something worthwhile, like the latest electronic gadget I think I might want.  The problem is, I can't really use this as an argument, because I get way more of these than I should.  So, I wisely keep quiet, smile a lot and keep the cash flowing.  Perhaps to demonstrate her annoying selflessness, Sandy limited most of her purchases  to those for our grandson, Mason.  This is fine with me, and I take no small degree of satisfaction in the fact that his parents--and not us--will have to find a place to put all that stuff.  (Sorry, kids!)  
It’s okay, though, that we guys don’t have to understand or appreciate the female mind which, the ladies will probably tell you, has attained a far greater level of sophistication than that of the male.  Male brains, according to them, have either atrophied or even regressed in the eons since we guys emerged from the primordial soup. (Yes, to hear their side of the story, it was only the male of the species who evolved from swamp slime; females, obviously, could only be a Divine creation.  My reaction to this illumination was, predictably, a rather neanderthal-like grunt.)  But I digress.

Main gate at the older section of Canton First Monday park

My role in this Canton escapade, which I happily accepted instead of going into the mosh pit of shoppers at the vendor sheds, was to be (along with Bubba) the bus driver, taxi driver and ATM while they shopped.  No arguments here; parking would have been almost impossible on Saturday, because every piece of Canton's open land was occupied by vehicles for miles around the sellers’ sheds during this weekend and all the rest of the first Mondays.  This was an especially busy weekend, as the sellers had all their Christmas-themed wares available which, for this group of shoppers, was like waving a pork chop in front of a coon hound.  Saturday at the park proved to be a zoo, and our ladies claimed they were unfairly constrained by the crowds from looking at everything they wanted to see.  What a pity, I thought.  
Sandy and LouAnn find bargains!

Sandy with sister Brenda

We had not been able to secure RV space in our desired park—Mill Creek Ranch.  This is a very nice park with beautiful facilities and some very nice park model cabins for those visitors without RVs.  However, bookings are required several months in advance for trade days weekends.  We stayed instead at Canton I-20 RV Park, a very serviceable facility with a friendly and accommodating staff.  Warning:  Reserve your spaces well ahead of time if you’re planning to park anywhere near Canton on trade weekends!
Saturday night’s restaurant selection proved quite successful--
the Red Barn at the Wills Point exit off I-20.  This is a very modest joint, open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, serving some fine catfish, shrimp and all the fixins, not to mention some killer cobblers.  We would definitely go there again.  For a great breakfast at a quaint little local dive, try the Bluebird cafe in Wills Point.  A word to the wise: Stay away from Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant in Canton; we’re not sure whose idea of Mexican food this is, but it’s not ours.  Really insipid stuff.  
The ladies’ quest for shopping treasures having remained unrequieted by the constraints of the vast crowd on Saturday, they determined that Bubba and I would return them to the melee on Sunday morning.  This proved to be a much better experience, as the park was far less crowded.  (I have to assume that most folks were in church and not being backsliders like us.) After picking up the girls, we had a nice pizza lunch at Jerry’s on highway 19 and made our way home.  All in all, it was a good weekend trip, and Phannie’s comfortable easy chairs and HD TVs were a perfect place for Bubba and me to kick back until we received the next summons for taxi service.

Sandy, Mason and Mike arrive back at the RV port.  (Mason LOVES RVing!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Phannie's Back!

Fort Worth Freightliner called and said Phannie was ready after nine days in their possession.  The good news is that the problem was with a broken wire in a connector near the engine bay.  The bad news is that it took them enough hours of troubleshooting to snag $700 from my wallet.  Following the regular troubleshooting guide led the mechanics down a rabbit hole to the throttle sensor, causing them to replace the accelerator assembly ($1232 plus overnight express fees), only to discover that wasn’t the problem. 

Astonishingly, Fort Worth Freightliner initially tried to bill me for the $1232 part that didn’t fix the problem.  After a non-productive conversation with a service manager, I called up Freightliner’s corporate headquarters in Gaffney, South Carolina and let loose with a stream of invective that I struggled—successfully, thankfully— to keep clear of expletives.  They agreed this was not according to their corporate policy but stopped short of any suggestion of relief, as Fort Worth Freightliner is an independent franchisee.  However, my conversation next day with the local facility was much different; the $1232 charge for the ineffective part had been removed from the bill.  I’m not sure if Freightliner headquarters had influenced the decision, but I’m grateful for the reversal.

I’ve already droned on in the previous post about the breakdown and what I’m learning about motorhome ownership, so I guess I could best serve the reader by describing my experience with the repair facility and the extended warranty that I purchased along with Phannie.

Fort Worth Freightliner is a very large and very busy place.  It is open 24/7 and, parked on the acres of concrete surrounding the facility at any time, there are more than a hundred vehicles in some stage of repair.  I had asked the wrecker driver to take Phannie to this place for two reasons:  1) Phannie has a Freightliner chassis (kind of a no-brainer), and 2) it was open on the weekend so that the coach could be secured behind a locked gate and monitored by video.  (With $12,000 of new electronics, I didn’t want to leave her parked just anywhere in this urban area.)  When I arrived at the facility with the wrecker, I figured it would be weeks before Phannie could get in line for service, given the huge number of Freightliner trucks parked on the property.  I was surprised to see that only one other motorhome was there—an older Phaeton like Phannie that looked kinda tired. 

I was astonished when the service writer said they could probably start work on Phannie in a couple of days.  I asked him about all the other vehicles that appeared to be ahead of me, and he told me that most of them had already been repaired but were awaiting pickup by their owners or drivers.  Intrigued, I quizzed him further, because I was incredulous that businesses could allow so much rolling stock to sit idle instead of being on the road making money.  The service writer said that I would be surprised how many of the units were not being released due to non-payment of repair bills.  I hadn’t expected that answer, but I guess no business has escaped the bad economy.

Fort Worth Freightliner is a facility that services heavy trucks almost exclusively, as was evidenced by the dearth of motorhomes on their property.  Behind the service desk was a harried service writer, a young man in his mid-twenties who darted in and out of the small area on his side of the stainless steel counter.  Behind him was a starkly bare and well-worn open area with tables against the walls where two computers were set up.  Other unidentified employees, most of whom wore soiled clothing, would wander through here from the shop area, perhaps sitting at the computers for a few minutes or just stopping to chew the rag.  

The distraction of this parade of unkempt personnel and the incessant ringing of the unanswered telephone gave evidence of a facility that was poorly designed, poorly managed and anything but customer-oriented.  I had entered a steel door to the service writer’s office and found myself in a closet-sized alcove across the counter from him.  There were no seats in this tiny space, and I took my turn, standing among several other men who, judging from their attire and conversation, were obviously truck drivers attempting to transact business with the service writer.  To the young man’s credit, he made an obvious effort to be pleasant to those present, although he was clearly overloaded.  This was evidenced by his occasional curtness with the drivers, some of whom were pressing him unmercifully for updates.  And again, there was the constant ringing of the telephone that was hardly ever answered.  The service door opened directly into a large shop area with perhaps 30 service bays, all of which contained Freightliner trucks in various states of disassembly.  Customers had to make their way along the periphery of the shop area to enter and exit the service writer’s office. 

Outside the building, a wide concrete apron extended to the customer parking area, and upon the apron had been placed several picnic tables where drivers and Freightliner technicians tended to congregate for a smoking break while looking out over the parking lot.  I sometimes stopped by to check on Phannie after leaving the office, and I couldn’t help but feel out of place, judging by the stares of these picnic table-denizens as I arrived or departed.  I guess I would have blended in better if I had changed from my business attire into jeans and swapped the Escalade for a pickup.  My point is, this is a facility for trucks; servicing motorhomes is obviously a rarity, and a motorhome owner is considered, well, just another truck driver.  Don’t expect special treatment from this place just because your motorhome is being serviced.   

Another unpleasant surprise came as I attempted to make use of the extended warranty that I purchased at the time I bought Phannie.  It seems Interstate National Dealer Services, the provider, elected to pick up only $96 of the repair after the deductible was applied.  I didn’t fuss too much about this, as I guess I don’t expect much more than a ripoff with these things.  That’s why I almost never opt for an extended warranty on anything I buy but, in the case of something as complex and expensive as a motorhome, I just thought I needed to roll the dice.  I suppose I will just hope for the best from Interstate if something really expensive breaks during the remaining warranty period.  I would be interested in hearing from others who have these kinds of contracts as to which ones perform well for them.

Sorry this was long and rather humorless, but there wasn't much about this experience that made me laugh.  Next weekend should be a hoot; we’re taking a bunch of family and friends to First Monday in Canton.  Look for a post after that, for sure.

At last, back home and put to bed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oh, the Humanity!

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is a tad over the top.  My alarm over the indignity suffered by Phannie last week could hardly compare to the anguished phrase famously uttered by WLS reporter Herb Morrison as the Hindenburg burst into flames as it landed in New Jersey in 1937.  Even so, it was indeed painful to see the proud coach towed away ignominiously from the shop where I was having another gauge installed (you know how I hate the idiot lights).  When the installation was done, I fired her up and noted that the dreaded “check engine” light was on, causing me to emit an audible gasp!  For modern vehicles like Phannie, increasingly controlled by computers, this light can strike terror in the heart of the driver, much like the horror of the “blue screen of death” so well known by PC computer users.  I prayed that the fault announced by the light was something relatively innocuous like a filter obstruction or that Phannie was just miffed at having been parked outside all day.  Alas, it was not to be.  Noting that the engine was idling smoothly, I put Phannie in gear, released the brake and pressed on the accelerator.  Nothing.  Pushing the accelerator to the floor failed to advance the rpm at all.  
I  shifted back to neutral, set the brake and turned off the ignition, hoping it was all a bad dream.  Then I cranked it up again, hoping for something different.  No dice; there was the nefarious yellow light, taunting me.  Sure enough, there was no response from the accelerator; nothing had changed.  

The longer I stared at the light, the more I came to realize that the engine computer (which I have now named Hal) had decided to lead a mutiny against me, having determined that I was too stupid to deal with whatever condition was making it uncomfortable.  (While this may be true, I resent Hal's sudden evolution from what I thought was a provider of helpful information to becoming a member of the Gestapo.)  I mean, really!  What did Hal think I was going to do, take out my pistol and fire a slug into the radiator?   
Since it was late afternoon on a Saturday, I knew any attempt I would make to find help on my own would be a challenge, so I turned to my membership in Good Sam Emergency Roadside Assistance to find it for me.  This turned out to be a revelation in just how inept this service could be.  Without going into the maddening details, I suffered eight hours of indifference and incompetence from this dreadful outfit.  A mechanic showed up about 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, hooked up a computer to the data port, flashed Hal (I think the pervert liked it) and determined, after consultation with Caterpillar, that Hal's disablement could not be fixed in the field.  

Good Sam could not explain how it could possibly have taken eight hours to get assistance to me, perched in none other than the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and surrounded by dozens of road service providers.  I had planned to switch to Coach Net when my Good Sam’s contract runs out in February, and now I wish I had done it earlier.  For years, I had had fairly good service from Good Sam for minor things like locked keys or tire changing, but when it comes to a big rig, I don’t recommend them at all.  I'm now thinking that Good Sam is somehow in collusion with Hal.  It's all very troubling.   

Is this not sad?

As perhaps their last service for me, I had Good Sam arrange for a wrecker at 10:00 a.m. the next day to tow Phannie to the Freightliner facility in Fort Worth.  This, surprisingly, went off without a hitch (pardon the pun) and, as of this post, the problem is still not resolved.  We’re at one week and counting, and we missed an RV trip we were planning to Houston this weekend.
So, what how does this event play into our observations so far from our new relationship with Phannie?  Well, let's see:
We love the ride, comfort and convenience of a diesel pusher.  However, it is a complicated piece of machinery with a myriad of systems that will, inevitably, need repair at times.  When repairs are necessary, they are usually expensive; that's why most owners purchase a maintenance agreement, in case there is a catastrophically expensive repair required at some point.  

Fuel mileage is abysmal; you have to be prepared for breathtaking numbers on diesel fuel pumps and try not to think of how much fuel costs per mile driven.

I really resent the degree to which the manufacturers have dumbed down the engine operation.  They use a computer and idiot lights instead of good ol' gauges to allow the driver to use his intelligence and determine what's going on.  On the other hand, I understand why the manufacturers do it:  They have to build these coaches for the lowest common denominator among the potential owners, and there will always be a few who would have no clue what the gauges could tell them and could indeed damage the engine needlessly.  Even though I know all this, it still ticks me off.  I suppose that is because I spent an entire career operating machines of far greater complexity--turbojet airliners--and I seem to have made the correct operating decisions when things went wrong.  (And this was before the proliferation of computerized systems among modern airliners that you see today.)  My flying career did just fine without Hal, thank you.

We've learned that the handier you are with mechanical things, the less expense you will have in keeping up your rig. Unfortunately, I am not particularly gifted in this area, so my wallet usually takes a hit. 
We’ve also learned that RV repair facilities generally do not operate with the same sense of urgency as those that service automobiles and pickups.  I suppose this is because there is a conception that RV travel is a leisure-time activity and that timeliness is not necessarily a priority.  This has proven true in all the years we owned fifth wheels, and it is certainly true with Phannie.  How do you deal with this if you're in a hurry?  It presents a dilemma when negotiating with RV repair shops:  Do you get better results from being aggressive, demanding and threatening or can you do better with smiling, stroking and charm?  I think that, in most cases, the charm thing works better for me, but I’m not particularly given to polemics anyway.  The bottom line is that most everything you do with an RV is time-consuming and expensive, so it may not be a good fit for folks with double type-A personalities or those with a modest travel budget.

It's really too early to determine the level of dependability of Phannie; I'm still taking a bit personally Hal's treachery (especially galling after all the praise I have lavished upon Phannie in this rag) and I'm still a little worried that Western Freightliner has not yet rendered a diagnosis.  We will be standing by, however, chewing our fingernails, and we'll keep you posted.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Discovering, Uh, Our Home Town

It was all due to a Groupon.  I don’t know how many people use these things, but we just can't resist them.  Half off of stuff is just too good to pass up, so I guess we’re just cheap.  We mostly use the restaurant coupons because we eat out, well, too much.  A few months ago, a Groupon popped up for admission to the Japanese Garden at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, so I bought it.  I kept it, downloaded into the iPhone, throughout the summer because the weather was just too hot to enjoy outdoor activities.  Since it turned out to be a beautiful autumn day yesterday, we decided to go take a look.

I am almost embarrassed to admit how long I have lived in this area without visiting the botanical garden complex in Fort Worth, but that seems to be the case regarding quite a number of attractions in the DFW Metroplex.  For some reason, owning an RV seems to have given me the impression that it is necessary to travel somewhere else to enjoy new sights and adventures, so it hasn’t really occurred to me before that I may have missed something in my own back yard!
We drove Mae (our toad) to the garden complex off University Drive.  Why?  Well, it’s a matter of miles per gallon.  Phannie gets 7, the Escalade gets 13 and Mae gets 26.  (I told you I’m cheap.)  We were struck by how large an area is occupied by the gardens, and on this Saturday there were many townfolk wandering around the manicured grounds.  There were few parking spots left at the Japanese Garden, as two wedding parties were there holding ceremonies.  We learned from the gate attendant that four weddings were booked on the day of our visit.  It’s easy to see why this is a popular wedding venue:  The place is beautiful!  Sandy and I have always enjoyed the simplicity of Japanese gardens; I know of no others that evoke such a sense of serenity.  I’ve included a few photos to illustrate:

New bride at her photo shoot

My bride, still beautiful after 35 years!
After enjoying the garden, we were (naturally) hungry, so we checked the old iPhone for our Groupon collection and, lo and behold, found Tres Jose's, a fine Mexican restaurant nearby that we had almost forgotten about.  We enjoyed an excellent meal with fajitas, enchiladas and tacos, and after applying the Groupon, the bill was eleven bucks!  (Yes, the Groupon cost a small amount, but we were able to knock $15 off the bill with it. Not bad!)

What a great afternoon!  When we pulled into the driveway later, we noticed Phannie, nosed into her RV port, as though she had been sent to the corner by a schoolteacher.  We felt, oddly, a little guilty.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Night on the Phannie?!!

Having only recently transitioned from a fifth wheel to a motorhome, it hadn’t quite occurred to me that this rolling carriage could have a use other than transporting us over long distances to places we want to go when on vacation.  It was Bubba who, in an uncharacteristic frenzy of neuron activity, came up with it.

Sandy and I had been talking about a day trip to Sherman, Texas, a bit less than a hundred miles northeast of Fort Worth, to eat dinner and attend a gospel concert. (Yes, we are fans of some of the groups.)  We mentioned it casually to Bubba and LouAnn, and that’s when Bubba’s pilot light was lit.  He knew his mother and dad were coming to visit that weekend and that he and his family would like to spend some time with them.  They all enjoy gospel music, so why not make it a two-family event, he thought. 

I really didn’t clue in to Bubba’s thought process until he began asking how many passengers Phannie would hold.  I knew that, as an avid RVer himself, he was dying to take a ride in our new coach, and it finally dawned on me that he was trying to conjure up a road trip for all of us in Phannie!

The more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me, and Sandy thought it would be fun, too.  So, we ordered concert tickets for everyone and settled on a departure time. 

Shortly after two o’clock, I fired up Phannie’s engine and backed her slowly out of the RV port attached to our house, up the driveway and into the street, curbside.  Now it is worthwhile to explain that the departure and arrival of this leviathan is not something that goes unnoticed in our neighborhood. The houses are built fairly close together, and the rumble of the big Caterpillar diesel engine can be felt as much as heard in the houses adjacent to ours.  This usually results in the appearance of an impromptu gathering of observers, perhaps out of curiosity to a degree, but more likely in anticipation of some calamity as I carefully negotiate the very tight 90-degree turn onto the street.  I don’t like to think of my neighbors as bloodthirsty, but why else would a NASCAR race be so popular if there weren’t some anticipation among the fans that a horrific crash could occur at any moment? 

When we built our house, it was designed to accommodate the storage of our fifth wheel under the RV port.  We hadn’t anticipated trading up to a class A motorhome, so the navigation of Phannie into and out of the driveway is fraught with hazards like rocks, trees, shrubbery and mailboxes—not just ours, but our neighbor’s across the street as well.  It takes very precise maneuvering to avoid these hazards, and I can truthfully say that if we had acquired a motorhome even one foot longer, it would have to be parked elsewhere. 

Phannie's Snug Quarters at Home

On this day, my neighbors would be disappointed; I got the geometry right, and Phannie settled obediently at the curb with no mayhem involved.

Sandy, as is her custom, joined me in the cockpit once the demolition derby was over, and we motored over to Bubba and LouAnn’s house, which is located in a rather hoity-toity neighborhood, and whose homeowners’ association enforces a ban on RV parking longer than 24 hours.  As we rumbled through the streets toward Bubba’s house, it was clear that the residents were unaccustomed to having their peaceful and manicured surroundings invaded by such a monstrosity as Phannie.  People working in their yards dropped their tools, and I’m pretty sure I saw one guy pick up a rope and make a noose with it.  Bubba’s house is situated on a corner lot, and I had to park in a configuration on the street that made it difficult for cars to squeeze through.  Although traffic is almost nonexistent in this neighborhood, this would be the day that several cars came along, and some of the drivers vented their frustration by honking their horns at the notion of having to drive carefully for 40 feet as they navigated past Phannie.  It is not clear what they expected the horn-blowing to accomplish, as the driverless Phannie paid little attention to the noise and certainly made no effort to move.  Although I could not read the lips of the drivers, I could tell from their animation that I was not particularly high up on their dance card. People have such short fuses these days!

In short order, everyone piled into the coach, with LouAnn providing beverages in a cooler and trays of snacks for the road.  Everyone oohed and aahed appropriately over Phannie and then settled in for the trip.  
The Barkers Check out Phannie:  Barry, LouAnn, (Sandy), Breann, Algene and Baby Carter  Duniven
The Old Captain Awaiting a Snack

I must say, it was a great deal of fun for our group to be together in roomy and comfortable surroundings as we cruised smoothly and silently toward our destination.  Being served our drinks and snacks up in the cockpit reminded Bubba and me of our former careers as airline pilots, when a flight attendant would appear on every leg to bring us food or drink.  We both agreed that the flight attendants of yesteryear were somewhat more cooperative than our wives, who, oddly enough, were not inclined to pay us the same deference as that to which we were accustomed as airline captains.  For example, we never once heard a flight attendant tell us to “get up and get it yourself” as we did on this trip.  While Bubba didn’t have much of an excuse to stay in his seat, I finally convinced the ladies that, in order for me to get up out of my seat, I would have to leave the steering wheel unattended at 60 miles per hour.  When this tidbit of information was finally processed, they reluctantly brought me my snack. (They brought Bubba's too, but only because he was wearing an arm sling after recent shoulder surgery.)  Tough bunch of stewardesses, these gals.

Fortunately, we had not consumed enough goodies to shrink from eating a fine catfish dinner at Huck’s in Denison, Texas, just north of Sherman.  This legendary catfish joint was almost full of patrons, even though we arrived before 5:00 p.m.
My Plate at Huck's (I'm so ashamed.)

Bubba and Catfish (Not sure which is which.)

Barry and Sandy Make Out at Huck's (She's so fickle!)

Algene and LouAnn Boarding at Huck's 

Upon our arrival at the concert hall in downtown Sherman, Phannie made such an impressive entrance that the parking attendants directed us to a VIP parking spot.  Do you suppose they thought we were one of the groups to perform that evening?  Maybe, but we didn’t say anything and kept our spot all evening.

The gospel group we had come to see was Ernie Haase andSignature Sound.  If you like gospel music and haven’t seen these guys, you are missing a treat. 

After the concert, we cruised back home, driving Phannie for the first time at night.  This proved to be a beneficial exercise, because I had not previously figured out all of the lighting controls on the coach.  By the time we rolled in the driveway, I was an expert.

Bubba, of course, was smitten with Phannie…bigtime.  My guess is that he will make the leap to a motorhome as soon as LouAnn lets him.