Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, October 31, 2016

Mae Strips...(a Gear)

At the Dallas Metro KOA, Arlington, Texas...

It was bound to happen. I should not have been bragging about how dependable Mae (our Chevy HHR toad and blog namesake) had been all through her life with us. Suddenly, with 80,000 miles on the odometer, she just decided to make me a liar.

I had pulled out of our RV park on Lake Conroe one morning, and Mae's automatic transmission decided not to shift out of first gear. With a little coaxing, however, she would finally relent and begin upshifting as usual, so I thought it was a fluke. The next morning--same thing! At this point, I knew the transmission needed a looksee, so I did a little research and took it to a well-reviewed shop in The Woodlands. I feared the news would be bad, and it was: A rebuild of the transmission would be necessary. They gave me a quote that sounded really high, so I checked with a few other places and found their prices were pretty well in line with each other for this kind of job.  I gave them the go-ahead and began  a mourning period for the upcoming decimation of my funds. 

When I picked up Mae after the transmission job, I noticed a significant crack in the windshield that had not been there before. I pointed it out to the owner of the shop, who said he would reimburse me for the replacement if my insurance didn't pay. (It didn't.)

After the windshield replacement, I noticed one of the headlights had burned out. Replacing the bulb on a Chevy HHR is not all that simple, so I drove to the Chevrolet dealer, and they were able to work me right in. Upon inspection of the headlight, the mechanic found that the assembly--not the bulb--was bad. A new assembly would be required. Who would have thought this job would require a couple hundred bucks in addition to the ridiculous cost I paid to ransom Mae from the transmission shop? Since bad things are supposed to appear in threes, I hope this is the end of the soaking of my poor wallet! You may recall that a brake job had been done on Mae in Colorado Springs a few months ago, but I'm not counting that one.

This brings into focus some judgment calls that need to be made by RVers when deciding what kind of toad to buy and when to replace one. My considerations for buying Mae, besides its obvious eligibility to be towed four wheels down, were that it had low miles (I will always buy a used car for a toad), it was bargain-priced, it got good mileage, it was small and easy to tow and Sandy liked to drive it which, of course, trumps everything. (I wasn't crazy about the red color, but hey--it's easy to spot by other motorists.) 

With that said, there could have been a good argument, I guess, for trading Mae off about this time had the transmission not gone kaput. In fact, I had been thinking about doing just that. We had driven it 80, 000 miles and towed it 40,000 additional ones, so it has given good service over the five years we've had it. Now, however, with the investment in new brakes, a new transmission and the three-year warranty coming with it, it makes sense to keep Mae at least until the transmission warranty expires, so as to help amortize the extra repair cost. After all, a toad's life is hard and is always in peril, so why not buy a used car and get all I can out of it while it's in one piece? Anyway, she's all put back together now and running like new, so I've given her a stern lecture, and I'm hoping for the best.

We've been paused here in the DFW area keeping up with our never-ending medical/dental visits and more happily, visiting with friends. I've been having a problem with facial skin lesions caused by sun exposure over the years. Oddly, my flying career may have had something to do with this, sitting in the left cockpit seat in the bright unfiltered sunlight above the clouds for many hours at a time. The main problem has been on the left side of my face and is mostly treated with cryotherapy. I have also had to have surgery on an area of malignancy. With this history, I have to see my dermatologist quite regularly, unfortunately.

For Sandy's birthday, I had gotten really good tickets for the Broadway touring production of "Phantom of the Opera," and we enjoyed immensely seeing that at the Bass Hall in Fort Worth.

We are not exactly pleased with the KOA here in Arlington. Entry and exit is difficult, the sites and roads are gravel with potholes, and the parking spots are very unlevel. Unfortunately, the DFW area has an extreme scarcity of nice RV parks. The demand is huge, and the parks that are here are always full. I think someone could do very well by opening an upscale park in the area.

We've been doing a good bit more cooking in the coach lately now that we've settled in for a few weeks. Here are pics of a couple of our almost-healthy favorites--taco soup and shish-kebab made with ribeye steak--yum! 

Our next port of call will be a rally in San Antonio in about ten days. Thanks for stopping by, y'all!

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Arkie the Cat

At Sunset Shores RV Park, Willis, Texas...

This is an unabashedly feelgood story involving some good friends of ours, Steve and Jackie, who are also fulltiming RVers and Phaeton owners. In fact, they generously give us credit for having influenced their recent purchase of the Phaeton instead of a new fifth wheel, as was their intention. But that's another story. This is really about the goodness in people and the incredible good fortune of a kitten named Arkie. 

Mention cats in a conversation with several people, and you'll find a rather broad spectrum of opinions regarding the furry little creatures. We have friends who absolutely love them and others who believe they are of the devil. I confess that I rather like cats, but that may be due their snarky, nonconformist attitude, snobbishly deciding whether a mere human is worthy of their affection. I guess I just appreciate individualism and eccentricity as interesting qualities in both animals and people--as they are in some of our friends who are reading this right now. Yes, you know who you are; I will be merciful and not name names, though.

I like dogs, too, but sometimes I think they take the slavish adoration thing a little too far. I can't help but think of Dickens' Oliver Twist and his fawning, "Please sir, may I have another [bowl of gruel]"--something any dog would do for, say, a pat on the head. A cat, on the other hand, would probably make an obscene gesture, if it could. (Now don't write me letters--I said I like dogs, too; I just wish they were a bit more cool.)

Okay, back to the story: Steve and Jackie were on a trip in their Phaeton from their home base in Austin, Texas back to Chillicothe, Ohio, where they lived before moving nearer kids and grandkids in Texas. This trip would take them through en route stops in Forest City, Arkansas and Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Tired after their long first-day drive, Steve pulled the Phaeton into a Forest City Wal-Mart parking lot among some other RVs, and it wasn't long after dinner until they were on their way to dreamland in their comfy Sleep Number bed. Just before drifting off, they heard a faint "meow," which they attributed to a cat outside the coach looking for food. Steve made a mental note to share some leftovers with the cat if it was still around in the morning.

They had forgotten about the cat the next morning as they readied for departure, and the drive to Bowling Green was uneventful until they dropped the jacks and extended the slides at their  RV park. At that point, they both heard the same "meow" as they had heard at the Arkansas Wal-Mart parking lot. They looked at each other, and both realized the cat had obviously hidden itself somewhere in the bowels of the coach chassis upon leaving Forest City.

Steve grabbed a flashlight and crawled under the coach on his back, shining the light upward into all the nooks and crannies he could find, looking for the hitchhiker. This was to no avail and, once back inside the coach for a while, he and Jackie realized that they had heard no more meowing, so they hoped the cat had found its way out. They couldn't be sure, of course, and Jackie continued to have the nagging fear that the cat might be injured and unable to move.

After a quiet night, Steve and Jackie got on the road early and decided to stop at a Blue Beacon truck wash in Glendale, Kentucky for a wash job. Steve was quite pleased with the result and was gratified that the attendants washed the underside of the coach thoroughly. Still not sure that the cat had exited, he asked if any of the guys had seen a cat run out, what with all the spraying going on. They replied that they hadn't. His expectations were buoyed, then, that the hitchhiker had indeed left the coach at Bowling Green.

Reaching Chillicothe and extending the slides at their new RV park, they heard the now familiar "meow," which caused great alarm for Jackie, who was wondering how this poor creature had survived the journey with no food or water and perhaps having been injured, all the while avoiding the flood at the truck wash.

So, back under the coach went Steve with his flashlight, but again, no kitty was visible. It was at this point that I got a call from Jackie, wondering if I had any ideas about how to find the cat. I suggested that they first call the city animal control department and humane society--which they had already done, including the fire department, and none of these offered any help. I then suggested that they remove the engine cover in the bedroom and see if they could get a look from another perspective. Steve took the cover off, but again couldn't see the cat's lair.

Jackie put a small bowl of canned tuna on top of the exposed engine, then Steve replaced the engine cover and the two of them left the coach and went into town. Upon returning, the bowl was licked clean. From this evidence, they were relieved to know that the cat wasn't stuck somewhere and could exit the coach if it wanted to, which it, in fact did, as the cat could also be heard in and around a small shed in back of the coach at times. This cat was obviously not going to leave, as it now had a second home in addition to its hiding place in the coach!

Believing it a Divine inspiration for her to rescue this cat in one way or another, Jackie began trying to find a live trap somewhere. She called the animal shelter and tried posting on Facebook, but no help. Finally, Steve's brother came up with one, and they set the trap with another bowl of tuna for bait. 

After a while, they checked the trap and found the tuna gone and the trip plate intact. So, they set the trap again, and this time--success! In the trap was a very scared calico kitten about four or five months old. 

Jackie's plan was to take the kitten to the vet for a cleanup, exam, shots and spay/neuter the next morning, then to look for a rescue group to help find it a home. She was relating the story to a couple in a nearby RV, who said, believe it or not, that they love cats and had been looking for one! They asked to see the cat and fell in love with it, gladly taking it and naming it "Arkie," in honor of its birthplace. 

The new owners of the cat soon left the park and returned to their home in Columbus, sending back to Steve and Jackie photos of its adjustment to the new surroundings, much to their delight.

Now perhaps this story is a little schmaltzy, especially to those who aren't sure why God made cats, but in a world as crass and uncaring as ours seems today, it gave me a warm feeling that we count good people like Steve and Jackie among our friends. For if they would go to such trouble and potential expense to save a mere kitten, I can't imagine what they would do for their friends and loved ones. God bless you good folks; we're so honored to know you!  

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Calendars, Checklists, Organizers and Cooking Soup

At Sunset Shores RV Park, Willis, Texas...

When we're not traveling, I tend to write blog posts less often--usually around once a week--and then only after a subject coalesces in my mind that I think may be at least mildly interesting to readers. Today's subject was prompted after reading the fine blog of Patsy Irene's. She and her husband, Bill, are newly-retired Canadian fulltimers who are about to embark on their first trip to warmer country as snowbirds. Their excitement makes for a fun read. 

Patsy was explaining their means of organizing themselves using to-do lists and checklists, and that got me to thinking about our own means of organizing our lives. We too, have a to-do list and a checklist, along with a paper calendar. Since we are fairly computer and smart-phone literate for older geezers, we have successfully moved from a paper to-do list to a list on our iPhones. Since Sandy's and my phones are cloud-connected, the to-do list is shared, using the "Reminders" app that is on every iPhone screen. When either of us adds to or deletes from the to-do list, the change appears on both phones. It works fine for us, and it was a relief to get rid of the little pocket notebook I used to carry.

Going to an electronic calendar, however, proved to be fruitless. There were too many changes and too much keypunching to suit us. We finally gave up on trying that and printed our own looseleaf calendar that always resides in the pocket behind the driver's seat. We make entries in pencil mostly, due to the need for corrections as our plans change. There's just something about having the paper calendar in our hands that makes it easier to ponder and discuss our upcoming plans. This has become more important since we began fulltiming, as our plans need to be made farther ahead to ensure we have the appropriate reservations or appointments wherever we go.

As far as checklists go, I definitely use a departure checklist. The importance of using a checklist when piloting an airplane was not lost on me, obviously, because I am still alive after 15,000 hours of flying. Operating an RV, of course, is not nearly as critical as a jet airliner, but it is still a big, complex machine that can humble your pride and your pocketbook pretty quickly if you forget something important. My checklist is nothing exotic, just a printed list affixed to the wall just to the left of the driver's chair, and I refer to it without fail before each departure. So far--knock on wood--this has served me well.

As far as organizing things in the coach, we don't go overboard here because excessive organizing seems to defeat the purpose of being retired; it's like having a job again! We've read about folks who keep up a detailed inventory of every single item they carry aboard their RV; well, that's impressive, but I think I had rather just misplace a few things now and then. The same thing applies to keeping a detailed budget. I admire folks who are that organized, but our budget is to spend money when we have it and not to spend it when we don't. We maintain a modest slush fund on the side to take care of unforeseen expenses and vehicle maintenance and then manage the major investments according to market conditions.

We do have a few helpful gadgets like these stackable trays (Container Store's) in the overhead bins. They pretty much double the usable space:

In the belly, we have in one compartment a pullout tray that slides from either side of the bus and, in another, this plastic drawer unit we found at Target:

In other places inside the coach, we use a lot of these plastic tubs to contain things that would otherwise tip over and roll around when enroute:

Fortunately, Tiffin is generous with storage space, so we don't feel jammed at all. Sandy would say that Tiffin wasn't generous enough with closet space, but I think she would say that if the entire coach were a closet. I will give her credit where it is due, however; considering the closet(s) she had in our stick and brick houses, she has done a remarkable job of paring down her wardrobe for fulltiming, and it's still an ongoing project, as she finds clothes now and then that she rarely wears and removes them.

In the refrigerator, we keep things in these clear plastic trays to keep jars and beverages from tipping over and spilling. We learned the hard way on this one.

All of the important papers we need to have accessible can be housed in this accordion folder (Wal-Mart). Critical documents and valuables are in a fireproof safe in an undisclosed location. Operating manuals for the coach are kept in a briefcase behind the driver's seat.

This chairside table has a lid that opens up. Outside and inside casual shoes are kept in there.

So that's about it in terms of being organized. There is a storage compartment under the lift-up bed, of course, and certain other areas of private access that we don't advertise.

As far as keeping up with Phannie's maintenance schedule, I used to obsess over that a bit, but I have mostly turned that over to Bay Diesel in Red Bay, Alabama or Inland Truck in Irving, Texas, where I let them keep up with it on annual visits. They do a comprehensive analysis and take care of what's needed. I've grown to trust them after nearly six years, and the results speak for themselves.

We had the first cool front of the season to arrive rather meekly a couple of evenings ago. It was just cool enough to inspire me to fix a big pot of vegetable soup. It was really good, but it made a lot. We'll have some to freeze and give away.

This is one of those soups that doesn't really have a recipe. I just clean out the refrigerator and voila'!  This one has tomatoes, onion, cabbage, green pepper, carrots, corn, beans, sausage and ground beef in a tomato and beef broth. The seasoning? Three envelopes: Onion soup mix, vegetable soup mix (Knorr's) and ranch dressing mix along with a small amount of ketchup. Super easy and oh, so good. Wish you were here; I'd give you some to take home.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Enjoying Fulltiming Freedom Near Conroe, Texas

At Sunset Shores RV Park, Willis, Texas...

Over a leisurely breakfast, Sandy and I were talking about our impressions of fulltiming at nine months into the lifestyle. I'm not sure what sparked the subject of our conversation; perhaps it was our beautiful view of the lake out our window or watching the squirrels play in the tall trees nearby in the near-perfect weather. Perhaps it was our anticipation of the grandsons and their parents coming out to the lake for a cookout.

It's probably not unusual for new fulltimers to take an occasional assessment after having changed their lifestyle so radically. It is only human nature to wonder if we made the right choice and whether there are any regrets in selling the house and reducing our living space by 80 percent. I'll go ahead and tell you that the answer is a resounding NO!  No regrets!

It seems odd that our outlook on living arrangements could have changed so radically in such a short time. All it took was a two-month motorhome trip to the Pacific northwest for us to see that continuing to maintain a house didn't make much sense. We were rarely there, and we've already written here about the time, expense, effort and worry that went along with home ownership. It also seems odd that we view differently now the grand houses we drive by whose owners we once envied; we actually find ourselves happy we're not in their shoes!  Why? Because they are walled in, tethered to one spot and not free to be wherever else they would like to be. We realize, of course, that this is driven largely by our awareness that we have fewer days ahead of us than are behind us. Forty years of keeping up a house was enough; now it's time to be free of it and indulge our dreams.

That brings us to our month-long stay near the kids and their visit to our RV park at Lake Conroe. We cherish the freedom to come here and be near them for as long as we wish, careful not to be underfoot so as to create extra work for them in their busy lives. We also try to help them logistically as much we can, our goal being to contribute more than we take away. It seems to be working, as they have not moved away and left no forwarding address. Here are some photos from their visit to the lake and some other places we've taken the boys:

Our spot at Lake Conroe
Our Adopted Family of Ducks at our RV Space
Watching the boats go by

Pryce and his dad, Tyler, doing some fishing

Pryce and Mason relax at our lakeside RV spot

Arriving at Trader Joe's. This store will never be the same.
A crown is a must at Burger King
When spoons just get in the way
So, you can see we're having a grand time; we think this is the best season of our lives. 
Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.