Sunday, June 5, 2011

Spotting a Rabbit

Since I am pretty caught up in other things right now, including building a new house, it looks like bus trips are on hold for the time being. Before I devolve into a self-pity session over that fact I have to back up and remember that the primary reason I bought a bus to begin with was so that we would have a place to live while staying in Nova Scotia in the summers after retirement (a state that I have apparently not quite reached yet). So with no trips on the horizon and no scheduled maintenance on my plate, keeping quiet on this blog might be wise; but quiet is seldom my MO, so here we go.

I was on my way to the dump this week hauling our trash (yes, since we live in the boondocks we have to haul our own trash), and I noticed a little car in front of me that looked familiar. It appeared to be a 1970s era Volkswagen Rabbit, but it looked awfully small to me, so I was not sure of its true identity until I got closer. This particular vehicle was painted the same color as a Rabbit my son Scott once drove when he was living with me in California in the 80s, a light blue that was pretty popular at the time, so I was pretty sure of what I was seeing. As I rounded the corner to enter the dump the blue car also entered the gate and I pulled in next to it.

This model was quite popular back in the day and was about the same size as other popular small car makes and models of the 70's. So why did it look so small to me now? There could only be one reason; cars since then have gotten progressively larger and larger. I had really noticed that trend with regard to pickup trucks more than in sedans but here was the proof that the same trend had occurred in cars, because the car parked next to me was really small in comparison to more current models of about every make. By this point I was quite curious and struck up a conversation with the car's owner.

I mentioned to him that I rarely saw a 70s VW Rabbit on the road these days and he said that gasoline-powered models were indeed rare, but this one was diesel-powered and he said that quite a few of them are still around. He is a mechanic and had recently rebuilt the engine and installed a 5-speed transmission, which was not available in this particular (1977) model. He said that if he holds his speed down to 55 mph he is able to get more than 60 mpg while with the 4-speed transmission that was stock in this model the best he could manage was about 45 mpg.

These numbers boggled my mind until I remembered that yes, the mileage of compact cars and trucks back then could indeed be much better than anything we expect today.  I cannot think of any currently available vehicles with mileage numbers that approach 60 mpg. Even the Toyota Prius, which costs an arm and a leg, does not get mileage nearly that good, even with a smaller engine, a highly complex configuration, and a bunch of batteries that are not only expensive to buy but are also full of heavy metals that will ultimately have to be recycled and will have to be replaced in a few years. The tiny Toyota Yaris can get only about 36 mpg on the road and the much hyped Smart car that looks like a glorified golf cart gets barely 41 mpg. But here, parked next to me was a 40+ year old 60 mpg vehicle. The obvious question is "How did we get to this point?"

The history of CAFE standards is more than troubling. The US auto industry used the light-tuck loophole to a large extent to sell the public on huge gas-guzzling SUVs that were exempt from any standards. The industry also lobbied congress ever since CAFE standards came into being in 1975 to reduce the mileage requirements based on their story that compliance would be "too hard to meet and therefore too expensive to the consumer". As a result, the average vehicle in the US gets around 25 mpg while the average vehicle in the EU gets over 45 mpg.  Do the math yourself to decide which option is too expensive to the consumer. Also consider the fact that through the years these huge gas-guzzlers have had a lot to do with the ever increasing demand for gasoline and the resulting price increase (see supply and demand in economics 101).

So while I am a self-admitted conspiracy theorist, here I was parked next to proof that I might just this once, at least partially, be right!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We finally made it to a rally

We had not had the bus on the road since Arcadia in January or since I replaced the front brake pads in April. We had been planning to attend the Palmetto Cove rally last month, but a new job and perfect storm of issues, mostly involving the house that I am building, all came up that week and we had to cancel at the last minute. This week I again had lot of paperwork issues in-work, but I had no subcontractors working and there was even a bit of a lull in my job so we figured sure, why not go to the Bus-nut Gathering 2011 in Fayetteville NC.

The Fayetteville rally in 2010 was the first rally we ever attended so we knew the people and knew it would be a relaxing weekend so we went ahead with it. There were a minimal number of things to do to the bus to get it ready. All I had to do was to check the tires and oil and de-winterize the fresh water system and we would be ready to go. Flora had the week off and did all the packing and food preparation so about all I had to do was throw my clothes in a bag and drive, which was great because the day before we left I worked about 16 hours and then went to a birthday party that started at 10 PM; so I was not in great shape to do much else when I got up the next morning.

The KOA campground in Fayetteville is only about an hour and a half away so we cruised on down with no issues at all. The bus purred like she always does and the new brakes felt about the same as the old ones. Traffic was light and I used my old ploy of driving a few miles under the posted speed limit (I consider 64 MPH to be a  maximum speed in the bus) and letting the traffic flow around me; this takes discipline on my part but always results in a less stressful drive. We spend the weekend relaxing (which we both needed), hanging with nice people and swapping lies and tales of past bus trips, and we ate far too much good food - aren't those the things that bus rallies are supposed to be about? Our thanks to Gene and Frances for organizing it all yet one more time and we look forward the the Gathering 2012, same time next year!.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Replacing PD4106 Front Brakes

The first time I changed the oil in the bus I hired Robert Moore, who knows these buses inside and out, to teach me the process. While we were at it we jacked up the front of the bus and crawled underneath to do the front end lubrication and inspect the components, including the front brakes. One thing that Robert pointed out was that the front brake linings would need to be changed "before too long". Several thousand miles later (I am not very hard on brakes) in early April we finally got nice enough weather to allow us to do the job in my driveway.

Bus securely lifted onto jack stands
Robert showed up early one morning in his service truck. The fact that he can come out to my place rather than my having to take my bus somewhere is a nice thing. Of course that means working in the dirt, but he has a big sheet of plywood that he slides under the bus so it is not that bad. His truck has a big gasoline-powered compressor, ramps to drive up on, an air-operated jack, and jack stands to hold the thing up. The compressor also runs the air wrench; I would hate to try to get those lug nuts off without that tool.

Getting the bus up in the air and secure on jack stands took a little over a half hour. Because we did not know yet what issues might come up during this little adventure, we needed to make sure we had everything secure enough to hold it up there for multiple days if that became necessary. The next thing was to get the wheels off. The chrome wheel covers are held on by some of the nuts but the air wrench made quick work of removing the lug nuts on the passenger side, exposing the brake drum. You can see the drum with the lug bolts sticking out and the hub cover that holds a bit of oil to lubricate the wheel bearings. I am used to wheel bearings being packed in grease so this was something new. Robert said that the oil in the hubs needs to be re-filled every 5000 miles or so because it slowly leaks out.

Hub assembly with drums on showing retaining screws
The brake drums are secured by some flat-headed screws. Because the previous owner had been good about coating the threads with anti-seize compound when he re-installed them the last time, the bolts came right out after being "bumped" with an air chisel to loosen them. Once those bol
ts were removed, the drum was lifted off to expose the brake components. While disk brakes are more common on newer vehicles (including buses), back in the 60s when this bus was built, drum brakes were used on most vehicles, including the PD-4106. Disk brakes clamp down on the outside of a rotor (like the hand brakes on a bicycle) while drum brakes like these operate by pushing brake shoes out against the inside of a drum. The brakes in larger vehicles like this bus are air-operated, while the brakes in most smaller vehicles are activated by a hydraulic cylinder.

Removed drum
Once the drum was off, it was just a matter of pulling off the retaining springs and two rollers and then the brake shoe assemblies could be "flopped" out. On more modern brakes, the lining material is generally bonded onto either the shoes (drum brakes) or the pads (disk brakes). The brake lining in older vehicles were usually removable and were attached to the shoe with either bolts or rivets. On this bus the linings are bolted onto the shoe so it is very important to replace them before they wear down to the point where the bolt heads start to contact the brake drums, ruining them. Replacement parts for antique vehicles are never cheap and are often unavailable (such parts in the busing world are often said to be made of "un-obtainium). An inspection of these shoes revealed that the bolt heads were still between 1/8" and 1/4" from contacting the drums, so this was the perfect time to replace them since this is obviously not a repair you want to have to make out on the road.

Once the brake shoes were "flopped out" it was easy to use air tools to remove the retaining nuts and bolts. Robert said that in most cases some of the bolts will have to be broken out to remove them but on this bus every one of them was able to be unscrewed with minimal effort. A little bit of wire brushing and we bolted the new linings on with the new brass bolts I bought. We also replaced the springs and rollers when we reassembled and installed the brake shoe assembly.
Newly installed linings showing recessed bolt heads
I was able to buy all the parts from Mohawk for less than $150, which for a bus like this seemed pretty good. We moved on to the other side and things went smoothly. We took advantage of the opportunity to lube the undercarriage (it was sure easier with the wheels off. Robert adjusted the brakes after he installed the drums, put the wheels back on and after removing the bus from the jack stands we were done in record time (about 3.5 hours). It is always a pleasure to work with someone who knows what he is doing!

The old linings and springs, ready for recycling
We have a trip to the NC mountains next month and I look forward to having new brake linings.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bussin' 2011

Last year, after I was bitten by the bus bug, I had hoped to be able to drive down to Bussin’ 2010 in Arcadia FL for New Years. It would have been a good opportunity to see a lot of buses and get a lot of my questions answered and boy, did I ever have a lot of questions! But when the time came, I couldn’t get enough vacation time to make it happen. I had already taken some time off without pay earlier in the month for our trip to Hawaii and didn’t think it wise to push my luck by asking for yet more time off. In the long run I guess it really would not have mattered much, since they ended up laying me off three months later anyway. But this year we actually had a bus, I was without a job to tie me down, and Flora had the time off, so I made the reservations early and sent in the money.

The first Christmas storm since 1947 (already our third of the season) came close to scuttling the plan, but on Monday afternoon we checked the roads, found them clear enough, and we decided to leave the next morning. The only thing standing in our way was the snow and ice in our driveway. I had spread the ashes from our woodstove over the snow around the front of the bus as soon as the snow stopped falling, and that had helped to melt some of it, but getting out was still a little iffy. I have found that a very thin dusting of dark soot on top of the snow really helps to absorb the heat and melt the snow. It was 17 degrees when we got up to leave and I was really glad I had turned on the bus block heater. The engine started on the first revolution, I untethered us from the power cord, made a final check around the perimeter of the bus, and we were off. The new rear tires never spun a bit on the ice.

It’s 750 miles from Chapel Hill to Arcadia, too far for a single day in the bus, so we planned to stop for the night in Savannah, GA. Later on I compared notes with several other bus people at the rally and found that most of us prefer to travel no more than 250 miles in a single day, but we were on a tight schedule since Flora had to be back at work the following week so 2 days on the road each way was about all we could spare. We finally managed to leave home at about 9:30 AM and later pulled into the Pooler GA Wal-mart at 4:30 in the afternoon. With the sun so low in the sky this time of year, it had been shining in my eyes much of the day and the peepers were letting me know that they had had just about enough. I have noticed that my eyes tire much more quickly than they did when I was a pup and now they are much more sensitive to bright light.

I subscribe to a Yahoo group that maintains a list of Wal-marts that allow overnight parking and on that list, the one in Pooler was listed as not allowing overnighting. But I had been told by someone on the bus board that he stays there often, so I thought I would go and see for myself. There were a few RVs in the lot when we arrived and by dusk there were nearly a dozen, so I figured it would probably be OK, even with “no overnight parking” signs posted. Worst case, if we were asked to leave we could always drive across the street to the Sam’s Club, which had no such posted policy.

We woke up at about 8:00 AM, after a cold and restless night, to a temperature of 26. We realized that had we parked at the other end of the place we would have already been in the sun warming up. Sometime in the night my friend Dave Evans had arrived in his GM 3903 and I finally got to put a face with the name. It was Dave’s write up about the previous year’s rally that had made me really want to go to this one. Dave was also the one who turned me on to Robert, my bus mechanic. We stood in the cold and talked buses for a while but all too soon it was time to go with a full day’s drive ahead of each of us.

The rest of the trip was uneventful; the portion of I-95 that had been under construction the previous year was now finished (and really nice and smooth) and we pulled into the fairgrounds in Arcadia at about 5:00 PM, which was nice since I really hate having to try to park the bus after dark. There were buses everywhere (over a 100); I had never seen so many. There were at least 17 4104’s and lots of 4106’s, so I would have plenty of other GM’s to look at for ideas. I found us a space between a gorgeous Scenicruiser and a big Dina; compared to them my 4106 looked pretty small and insignificant. We met Lou and Rene who had a huge Neoplan two spaces down from us and they gave us the tour. Diezel had many other dogs to watch through the window, I had buses to explore, and our bussing weekend was off to a good start.

During the rally I attended some great seminars, met a lot of great people, and talked buses from dawn to dusk. Sean’s plumbing seminar covered the basics well and I could also apply much of the content to my upcoming house build. There was a defensive driving seminar and I was sorry than I missed the first half of it since I covered a lot of the questions that I had had from the first time I drove one of these huge machines. For example he talked about braking techniques on steep roads, something we all have to deal with from time to time. Since these seminars were simulcast over the Internet, I hope that someone will eventually post the recordings on the bus board so that I can catch the part I missed.

I also bought and installed some LED replacement lighting for the inside of the bus. When we are drying camping (running off of our own electrical power as opposed to being plugged into shore power) the thing we use power for as much as anything else is lighting. All of our lighting is 12 volt and consists of either incandescent bulbs or florescent tubes. You can touch a light bulb and tell that much of the electrical energy is wasted as heat. Fluorescents are more efficient but not nearly as efficient as LEDs. Since LED lighting is fairly new it is also still pretty expensive. We paid about $25 each for replacement bulbs that were slightly brighter than the incandescent and used a small percentage of the energy. Since we will have to replace our batteries every few years (at more than $1000 each time) I figured that even with the high price of the LEDs, they would be worth it in the long run by reducing the number of batteries we require. We replaced only a few at this time and are hoping the price will come down a bit before we do the rest but so far we really like the quality of the light they produce. I would also like to eventually replace the two six-foot fluorescents that provide out main living room lighting.

As always, the time flew by; before we knew it it was New Years Eve and we would be leaving the next morning. At the rally we saw a lot of expected things and some not so expected. In the latter category was a flock of Sandhill Cranes that liked to hang out in the field in front of our bus. We got to hear them sing and dance every time someone would walk their dogs nearby. Our final evening Flora finally got close enough to get some pictures. We have noticed that seeing the wildlife is always the most memorable part of any trip. We still reminisce about the wildlife we saw years ago on other camping trips, for example the Roosevelt Elk in Olympic National Park and the Bison in Yellowstone. Where we live now there is an abundance of deer, which we love to see, while other complain about them.

On New Years Eve most people dined on barbecued ribs and I enjoyed the baked beans and cole slaw. Music was supposed to be 50s/60s but was mostly 50s and most of it was not very danceable. Note to organizers, you have to keep it on the upbeat and keep us old folks moving if we are going to make it until midnight! By the end of the evening there were only about 25 people left in the pavilion and we could see a few other outlying groups gathered around campfires. Just before midnight we made the rounds to wish everyone a happy new year and headed for our bus. Florida is so flat that we could see fireworks all around but surprisingly none of the bus people lit anything off; I might have to do something about that next year.

Early the next morning (New Years Day) buses started leaving. I had missed opportunities to see some unique conversions, including Sean’s Odyssey and that big red Scenicruiser that was parked next to me, but I guess it is impossible to see everything. We finally got away mid-morning as planned and headed north for another night at the Pooler Wal-mart. The sky was overcast, which is my favorite kind of driving weather. Traffic was fairly light because of the holiday with hardly any truck traffic and we arrived as it was getting dark. The parking lot was full of RVs, many of which had very noisy gasoline generators. I discovered just how well insulated our walls were and we both slept like a log. The next morning we left early, stopped and took on fuel and dumped our tanks, and arrived home just in time to watch the Tarheel basketball game after getting the bus up on our ramps. It was a great trip and a great rally, but we were very happy to be home. As I get ready to post this we are waiting for our 6th snowstorm of the season and it was 58 in the house when I got up this morning; Florida weather is sounding pretty good right about now!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Trip to the Mountains

I grew up in Colorado and have missed the Rocky Mountains ever since I left. So when it comes to choosing between a trip to the beach or a trip to the mountains here in North Carolina, the mountains win out just about every time. One of our favorite mountain destinations is Asheville, NC. Filled with history and good restaurants, what's not to like?

We have been traveling to Asheville every autumn for several years and have traditionally stayed in one of the downtown hotels. Now that we have the bus we thought it would be nice have our own digs while we visited. There are several campgrounds within a few miles of Asheville and after researching them online, I chose one called Mama Gerties in Swannanoa. From the user comments it looked like everyone enjoyed the accommodations and although a few people commented about the steep access road, most said it was no big problem. I made our reservations and started preparing the coach for another trip.

A few weeks before we were heading out, I received a call from a prior employer and they offered me a 5-week project. Since I had been out of work for 20+ weeks I jumped at the chance. The prospect of seeing the bank balance increase for a change did not seem like a bad thing. The only problem was that the scheduled Asheville trip fell during the second of the five weeks. I talked it over with my project manager and we agreed that because the nature of the work did not require me to go in to the office every day, I could pretty much do the work from anywhere; so it was all set.

Flora did her usual great job of planning all of the meals and laying in supplies and before we knew it it was time to head out. I got the car loaded on the dolly and we were on the road by about 10:00 as planned. As usual, I pulled off at the first rest area on I-40 and checked the car only to find out that the tie-down straps had loosened a bit and the car had shifted some on the dolly. I tightened everything up and we got back on the road.

I-40 between Chapel Hill and Asheville is somewhat hilly but when you get within a few miles of Old Fort there is one part in particular over which you climb for a few miles at a 6% grade. In our bus that requires second gear, which limits the speed to 39 MPH. We climbed that with no problems but I kept an eye on the heat gauge; the engine temperature climbed about ten degrees but then held steady at about 170 degrees.

We exited I-40 and headed for the campground access road. The grade got steeper but the engine was pulling fine in second gear when we rounded a sharp corner and the grade went to something like 15%. By that time my RPMs had fallen well below where I usually downshift and in the blink of an eye we were stopped in the middle of the narrow road on the steepest hill I had ever driven up. We were now officially in what could easily be termed "a pickle". With a 25,000 pound vehicle and a standard transmission it is not possible to start from a stop on a steep hill. The two-lane road was paved but the lanes were barely a foot or two wider than my coach, which meant that backing down the hill towing a car was not a possibility.

I attempted backing up anyway and all too quickly I literally ran into a brick wall (with the side of my coach). Trying to get away from the wall, which was grinding into my bus, I ended up blocking the traffic going both directions, a steady procession of school buses and people trying to get home from work. About this time a guy from the campground showed up on a golf cart. Together we tried to back up farther but it became clear that it was a losing battle and that the only way to back up effectively meant first uncoupling the car.

One issue with that process is that there is no way to hold a 25,000 pound vehicle on a steep hill with the emergency brake. Fortunately I was able to engage the air brakes with the fast-idle switch, but the idea of trusting it while I crawled under the tow dolly to unhook things was not sitting too well with me. So I had Flora sit in the driver's seat just in case the bus started to move and I got out and started to unload the car. I got the straps off of the wheels but when I crawled underneath to remove the safety chains that were wrapped around the car axles, I found that when the car had shifted slightly earlier in the day it had pull those chains tight and there was no way to loosen them. I was lucky to have a hacksaw in my toolbox and so I got it out, got back under the car, and proceeded to saw through the chains. I was then able to back the car off the dolly and out of the way. Tom and I then removed the dolly and rolled it into a nearby driveway.

At that point, with Tom guiding me and directing traffic, I was able to roll the bus back down the hill for about a quarter mile to a spot that was not level but was not nearly as steep as where I had gotten stuck. I was then able to start back up the hill, and let me tell you I did not slow down to enjoy the view. The bus pulled the hill fine in first gear and I cruised on up to campground registration. Tom showed up a while later towing the dolly behind his golf cart. I could then see that the entire campground was built into a steep hillside with steps carved out for each RV site so I knew I had some more work to do.

I was still a bit on edge as I signed in and paid my money for the week. When I was done we started back up the hill and with the mighty 8v71 cranking out the horsepower we negotiated the hill and pulled into our space. I could see that when it was time to leave, making the turn and getting up enough momentum to pull the hill but not so fast that I could not make the tight corner was going to be tricky, and there would be no second chances; with that we unpacked and hooked up the utilities. I lost sleep all week dreading our exit form that space.

We got there on a Monday and would be staying through Friday morning. I was hoping to be able to work everyday and enjoy the evenings. Fall in the mountains is a glorious thing and this place was situated in middle of a gorgeous forest with leaves of every hue. During our stay the people were friendly and the campground was kept spotless. Flora had a multi-day seminar to attend and while she was gone I set up my workstation and spent my time converting a MS Word formatted 200-page book into DITA XML. The work went well, the bus was comfy, and I got to camp with my family (Flora, Diezel, and Opal) for the week. Each day Diezel and I took a nice walk into the surrounding hills and enjoyed the spector of it all. Each evening we enjoyed each other's company and the joy of camping in such a place.

At night the temperatures were falling into the lower 30s but a small electric heater kept us toasty and in the mornings we could quickly heat the place up with our propane furnace. We ate well (as always) and twice during the week we traveled up to Asheville to dine at Doc Chey's Noodle House, one of our favorites. Before we knew it the week was over and it was time to head back home. After dreading the exit all week long we were able to accomplish it with no big problems. Back on I-40 the only worry left was that of going back down the long 6% hill. I followed the advice I had been given, which was to go down a hill in the same gear you go up in, and so we went back down at 39 MPH and made it down just barely having to use the brakes. I was careful because that is one of the maintenance tasks I have yet to do: replacing the front brake pads. The drive home was easy; I have now driven the bus over 5000 miles and am pretty comfortable with driving it except on steep hills.

Our next trip will be to the Bussin 11 rally in Florida around the holidays and after my 5 week job is done I will have to complete the dashboard conversion and replace the front brakes. With a 50 year old bus there is always one more thing that needs to be done.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Trip Back Home

The Trip Back

It was a beautiful morning and although we had intended to get up early and be out at a reasonable hour, the bed felt too nice so we slept in until after 8:00 AM. It took a while to get the car loaded on the dolly, fill the water tank, and say our goodbyes and we ended up not getting on the road until after 10:00. The drive to Moncton was uneventful. We hit a little rain near Halifax and had a little bit of sunshine, but for the most part the skies were overcast, which is what I prefer. Just like two weeks earlier there were seven other RVs at the Wal-mart where we stopped, but this time even though we pulled into the exact same spot as before, the rest of them stayed on the opposite side of the parking lot, which was fine with us and allowed us to run our generator guilt-free.

The next morning we got up at 5:00 AM, an unheard of hour for us, but it allowed us to be on the road early so that we could get to Scarborough Maine by mid-afternoon. It was a tough drive of about 400 miles with a lot of heavy fog in the morning and then down in Maine we were buffeted by gusty winds all afternoon. I am sure that only the old geezers among us remember how driving a vehicle with loose steering used to back before modern power steering took all the slop out of it, but this old vintage bus still has the old style steering and with probably more than a million miles of wear on the components and the huge flat sides of the bus, the winds push the thing all over the lane and kept me busy trying to keep from drifting into the constant stream of 18-wheelers passing us.

After an 8-hour drive, I was happy to finally pull into the Cabela’s parking lot where we would be staying for the night. We were now traveling toward the west and these 61 year-old eyes do not handle driving toward the sun as well as they once did. In my youth I could drive over 12 hours straight with few problems but that was then and this is now. We finished the day with a dinner of Pad Thai, a drink, and a final Cabela’s shopping spree and we turned in early. I wanted to get an early start again in the morning but when I looked at the clock and it said 5:00 AM I just could not make myself get out of bed. For once the cat had not jumped on the bed in the wee hours hoping to be fed. The next time I checked the clock it was 6:00 AM, so we got up. The funny thing was though that Flora had forgotten to set the time forward when we had crossed back into the Eastern Time zone so we really had gotten up at 5:00!

We were on the road by shortly after 6:00 and hoped to make good time, but first I had to refuel in New Hampshire. I should have gone to the same truck stop I visited a couple of weeks earlier but that one was located several miles off of I-95 and was a little tough to get into so I queried the GPS for a different place; that was my first mistake. The GPS said that the place I chose was 1.8 miles from I-95. That is one shortcoming with our GPS unit; buses don’t fly the way crows do. The other problems are that it does not give you any indication of whether a particular gas station has diesel, whether I can get this 55 foot long “train” in and out of the place, or what the access roads are like. We ended up heading down a little country road, into a subdivision that had a “no vehicles over 5 tons” sign posted (we weigh in closer to 13 tons), through the middle of some town with very narrow streets, and then another 10 miles through more subdivisions. We ended up at a convenience store with no way to access the single diesel pump. I stopped and got out and walked around and decided that if I could drive out, cross the street and enter a parking lot on the other side, and then turn around and drive back into the pump area I could probably get close enough to the pump to fuel up. So I started the thing up and made my move but by the time I had turned around and pulled back in, an old man had pulled his car up to the pump I needed so that he could gas up, and of course he was having trouble with his credit card. It would not have been so bad but when I pulled in behind him, the car I was towing was blocking the exit to the store. He fiddled with the pump, washed his windshield, went inside to pay, and after what seemed like an eternity I was finally able to pull up to the pump and fuel up. Of course it took several minutes longer than it should have because I had to do 4 separate transactions since the credit card companies limit each purchase to $75. Each time, I had to remove the hose, shut down the machine, answer some questions, wait for a receipt, and then re-insert my credit card and go through the whole process again.

The way the convenience store exit was structured I could see that there was no way to pull out without backing up. The tow dolly instructions had explicitly said (and the guy who sold it to me re-iterated) never to attempt to back up with the dolly attached, but here I was with no other option except uncoupling the car and the dolly, a half hour procedure. I finished my business, started the bus, put her in reverse, and hoped the world would not end as I started to back up. Everything went fine and we got out without ruining anything, and after retracing our steps we got back on I-95 having wasted an hour and a half and driving an extra 30 miles. New Hampshire apparently has strict laws forbidding many kinds of signs on their highways, which sure makes it tough to find anything. In retrospect I would have been better off to have paid the extra fifteen cents a gallon gas tax while I was in Maine and been done with it – lesson learned.

At long last we were back on the road with very heavy traffic and constant stoppages on the Massachusetts Turnpike; it was already a very long day. In the late afternoon we finally decided to pass by the Wal-marts at both Fishkill NY and Newburg NY and aim for the one in Pittston PA, where we had stopped on the way up. We knew that the parking lot was not very level and that there would be truck noise, but it was at least a known quantity so we drove until we got there at the end of a 10-hour day, the longest so far.

For the first time in over two weeks we had to use the air conditioning and tomorrow was forecast to be much hotter. After two weeks of highs below 70 we were not sure we were ready to re-enter the blast furnace that this year had been in the south. We stopped at a rest area in Virginia and I changed into some shorts and we were back on the road with another hour and a half to drive before our stop for the night in Staunton.

I was very happy to stop, pull the blinds, and sit in the cool air conditioned air for a while. 95 degrees in late September is just plain wrong and we still had a few things to learn about cooling the bus. For one thing, I had turned off the defroster hot water and assumed that the hot water that fed it would therefore be cut off, but there was one helluva lot of hot air blowing from under the dash, which did not help a bit. Additionally, it took some doing before we figured out how to close the rear-facing air conditioner vents, which were at the time directing at least half of the cold air toward the back of the bus rather than toward us in the front. After we parked I double checked the valve and yes, it was turned off, but I did find a little door under the dash that directed warm air toward the driver, which would be nice in the winter but not so nice when it is 95 degrees outside. As for why hot water is presumably still going into the defroster, I need to add that to the list of questions for the mechanic when we get back.

This proved to be the most aggravating of our Wal-mart overnight experiences. Because we cannot back up, I always try to park with enough room that I can pull straight out in the morning. Maybe I need to also get some parking cones to put in front on the bus because it seems that there is always some jackass who wants to park right on my front bumper. This time some guy pulled in a parked in front of us for about 6 hours while he used his cell phone; this was apparently his traveling office. Additionally, we were wedged between a guy with a very loud generator that ran all night on one side, and an 18-wheeler with a generator that ran all night on the other side. The weather cooled down enough to open the vents by about 9:00 PM and the generator sounds lulled us to sleep.

We got up at 6:00 AM and left early to beat the heat, not wanting a repeat of yesterday’s baking performance. The settings I made to the defroster and air conditioner seemed make a big difference as we powered on toward home. I had one final stop to dump our tank at a Flying J in Graham but after having trouble negotiating the parking lot and with tempers wearing thin, we left without accomplishing our goal and headed for home after topping off our fuel. It was 95 degrees as we pulled up out front and began unloading the car, which was again liberally coated with engine oil from the bus. Pulling into the parking spot I high-centered the bus when a front wheel rolled into a depression and I added filling the hole to my to-do list for the upcoming week. We were happy to be home even with the intense heat.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Camping for a Week in Nova Scotia

Camping for a Week

After relaxing for an afternoon and evening, the next morning I was ready to work on some items from my maintenance checklist. The first thing I did was to caulk the molding around the driver’s window frame. During a downpour in Moncton we must have been parked at just the right angle to funnel the water from the roof down and around that window, because we ended up with a pretty large gusher at the corner of the window. I hoped that caulking this molding would cure that problem. Also, while getting out my tools for that job, I was poking around the inverter and saw that the breaker on the side of the inverter appeared to have been tripped. I re-set it and it appeared to start charging the batteries again. If that permanently cures the charging problem then I will be pleased, although I still suspect that I will eventually need to replace my 3 – 4D house batteries with 4 – 6 volt golf cart batteries before I am happy with their capacity. This will mean building a new air-tight battery box for them (since the old one will probably not hold the new configuration) and buying all new cabling, so it will be fairly expensive ($1000+) and a big enough job that I don’t want to rush into it if it will not be necessary. The performance of the current system on the trip back should tell me what I need to know.

In most ways I was really glad that I bought a smaller (35’) bus rather than one of the larger newer models. In 1998 we had lived in a 26’ class A motorhome with relatively little storage space for nearly a year and by comparison we have what seems like all the space in the world. The GM PD4106’s from the early 1960’s were manufactured mostly from lightweight aluminum using aircraft technology and were propelled by powerful 2-stroke Detroit Diesel 8v71 engines. Coupled with the 4 speed Spicer transmission, this relatively lightweight bus (about 22,500 pounds empty) had few corrosion issues and could get better than 10 mpg, good for such a large vehicle. By comparison, our old 26’ motorhome had seldom gotten more than 6-8 mpg and mileage for the newer larger 40’ buses is usually in that same range. Sure, we have a big Rottweiler to stumble over daily, but I don’t think that would be any different no matter how large the bus since all buses are only 8 to 8 ½’ wide and slide-outs are an expensive option. The difference in length would get us room for a desk, which would be nice, and maybe a slightly larger kitchen, but the relative cost in fuel consumption is just too high for me.

When I mention to people that we travel to Nova Scotia just about every summer, most have only a vague idea where Nova Scotia is and fewer know anything about it. I have found it a wonderful destination if relaxation during a vacation is the goal; if you are looking for big cities, night life, and amusement parks, then this is not it. Most of Nova Scotia lies on a peninsula located directly east of Maine. Since it is surrounded by water, the climate is somewhat more moderate than Maine, but maybe foggier and wetter. Nova Scotia means “New Scotland” and the weather is somewhat similar. Summer days occasionally reach the mid 80’s but seldom higher, and nights are always cool. The area is dotted with lakes (more even than in Minnesota) and most of the province is covered in coniferous forest. Halifax, located on the east coast is built around a big natural harbor and is where the majority of Nova Scotia’s population lives. The Clare region that we visit is on the opposite coast, on the Bay of Fundy with its famous 20’ plus tides, directly across from Maine. The coast is dotted with colorful fishing communities and I always say it is like stepping back in time since most big corporate chains have chosen to ignore the place with their McDonalds and strip malls. Popular summer activities include walks on the beach, clamming, and camping. The local cold water fish is among the best I have ever found, especially the lobster. If I used s single word to describe the Nova Scotia experience it would be “quiet”. I can relax for a whole week here while camped in someone’s yard and not hear a plane, a helicopter, or a car horn, or experience a traffic jam of more than 3 cars.

The Clare area of Nova Scotia is the other French-speaking part of Canada (aside from Quebec). Since I speak not a word of French, I would be totally lost except for the fact that people here are mostly equally conversant in English. Conversations automatically change over to English once I say something in English. I am probably at least as comfortable here as I am back in North Carolina and we own land here where we intend to settle once we are both retired. Because the area is still a bit off the beaten path, a nice house can still be purchased for less than $100,000. I have not yet experienced a Nova Scotia winter and I understand they can be brutal as compared to our relatively mild North Carolina winters. The ideal lifestyle then, as long as we are able, will be to spend much of each summer here and the rest of the year, including winters, back in Chapel Hill. That is the main reason we bought the bus.

We camped in Kim and Gaston's yard for most of our stay. They have 3 big dogs and we were not quite sure how Diezel would interact with them. Ted is an aging Golden Retriever and I didn't anticipate any problems with him since he is pretty mellow. He and Diezel sniffed each other and that was about it until Diezel decided to try to mount him and Ted was quick to let him know who was the boss (and it was not Diezel for a change). Aside from that, those two go along fine for the rest of our stay. Kim also has a pair of Bernese Mountain Dogs and while the make of the pair turned out to be just as mellow as Ted, the female seemed to not appreciate having another big male dog in her yard and she gave Diezel holy hell every time he went near her. All in all it went very smoothly and I was glad I had spent time socializing Diezel before the trip; having him eat the dog of a family member would not be good etiquette.

One thing we enjoy here a lot is the music, as the area seems to have more than its share of talented musicians. This week we sat in on a rehearsal by the local Neil Diamond tribute band, which is composed of 8 very talented musicians (3 from Flora’s family). We had a great time watching and listening. We also enjoy the frequent family jam sessions where everyone gets to play their favorites in an intimate home setting after a supper of rappie pie, the favorite local delicacy.

Day 8 in Nova Scotia: This was the day I was to move the bus back over to Janice and Eric’s and reconnect the car dolly for the trip back home. On the way there I stopped and dumped the waste tank and got drenched in a driving rainstorm while I did it. Afterward I stopped by an RV repair shop to have them take a look at the propane burner on the fridge, which had stopped cooling on the trip up to NS. I had taken it apart the day before and seen that it had a flame, but apparently it was not enough flame to do the job. We had frozen fish to take back so it was essential to have a fridge the keeps things cold. All it took was a blast of compressed air to clean out the burner and the thing was back working normally. Thirty two dollars and I was back on the road.

Friday night was a big family get-together with rappie pie, music, and way too many beers. We played music and partied late into the night and finally I had my designated driver deliver me back to the bus. After the previous day’s rain, the weather was warm (for Nova Scotia) and not a cloud in the sky. I was hoping that the weather would hold for our departure early the next morning. We planned to take the same route back down that we had followed on the way up, and hopefully we would be stopping for the night in the same places. Since it was our final day in Clare we used it to tie up the loose ends. I had wanted to take Diezel back to the beach. He and I had gone there once a few days earlier but it had been nearly high tide (meaning that most of the beach was covered with water) plus our time was limited. Today Flora had some errands to run and agreed to drop us at the ocean on her way. The first time I took him there was the day after he had been washed and I knew that if I let him run free he would be rolling in all kinds of awful stuff and would end up smelling of it all week. This time though, right after we got there I cut him loose. What a place for a dog this beach was. There were dead smelly things and big patches of seaweed and it was right next to the fish plant with smells that could only appeal to a dog continually in our faces. Naturally he had an absolutely splendid time. He ran and he sniffed and he rolled in God only knows what kinds of things and by the end of it he was as playful as I have ever seen him. He has a good life with us, but because of where we live he practically never gets to run loose so he took full advantage of this opportunity. On top of that he even got to ride back home with his head out the window, another thing he never gets to do at home. In the evening Flora got her lobster dinner, something she had been looking forward to all week. We each had 2 – 2 pound lobsters, which is way too much for me (I ended up eating only the claws) but not too much for the lobster queen, Flora, and since Eric also had a pizza delivered afterward, apparently no one in that family finds lobster as filling as I do.