31 March 2010

Postcard from Texas

24-26 March 2010
(Conroe, TX)

We had an easy drive to Conroe, TX... it helped having been here before. Garmin directions are useless but this time we arrived from the East and had no trouble spotting the KOA sign.

Conroe KOA (N of Houston about 50-60 miles) is a high-end facility but I hate staying here. Last time we had the landing gear replaced on our previous Montana, so I was planning on just a single night here so we could leave before Murphy found us again. No joy.

The next morning we hooked up. I was rushing to get away and sadly, "the hamburger was not in the bun", (the king pin wasn't safely located between the jaws of the hitch). I pulled forward to test the trailer brakes and was greeted by a loud ker-thunk! as the king pin landed on the bed saver. Thank you Mr. Blue Ox!! The truck would have had a crushed bed without the bed saver.

We called CoachNet.com emergency road service (similar to Good Sam roadside assistance; we got this with the new Montana) and soon a 50-ton tow truck arrived. It was huge! In a matter of 15-20 minutes he had us back on the landing gear. With the truck out of the way I could see the cable from the trailer that attaches to the truck had been mashed. So we set off to an automotive store where I bought a crimping tool and some splices. It took most of the day but I got the damaged wires spliced and everything put back together.

I wanted to get out of town before the next disaster, so we left for a one-niter in Rusk, TX followed by Leander, TX and Kerrville, TX. And that's how we were introduced to the hazard of making reservations too far in advance.

26-29 March 2010
(New Braunfels, TX)

We were on our way thru some gorgeous countryside headed for Rusk. We found that Texas has some wonderful roadside picnic stops that had room for the Montana. We were able to rest and eat comfortably. A short while after pulling back onto the highway the alarm for the trailer-brake controller went off. It said the trailer wasn't connected. "Oh yeah?! Well I can see the bloody thing right where it's supposed to be!"

My first guess was that I hadn't gotten one of the connections spliced properly. The really scarey part was the failure meant we had no trailer brakes. We had to rely solely on the truck brakes to stop all 23,000#. God help the person that cuts in front of us.

As we drove West, the Admiral got busy on the phone and we rerouted ourselves thru San Marcos, TX onto I-35 and then to Camping World in New Braunfels, TX. We made it there without too much pucker-factor only to be told they'd be happy to schedule us for repair in about 6 weeks. Clearly Camping World, a Keystone dealer by the way, is not a place to rely on in an emergency.

I'd noticed an RV park about 5 miles North of CW, so we turned around and went to Canyon Trails RV Resort and managed to get a space. 'Managed' because the park was filled with Hitchhiker 5th wheel trailers. Turned out a West Texas chapter of the national organization of owners was having their annual rendezvous (rally? whatever).

We called a mobile RV repair guy willing to take a look at the problem. He re-did all the work I'd done and found we still had the same fault. Then he discovered that the problem was actually in the connection between the after-market connector in the bed of the truck and the Ford wiring harness. The brake failure had nothing to do with the repairs I'd done to the cable. He suggested using the Ford connector down by the lower hitch till we got back to Santa Fe and have the truck wiring repaired. He also found that the fuse in the truck that feeds the trailer battery as we tow was blown (not surprising since a lot of things had been shorted when the trailer dropped). We took his suggestion and switched to the other connector and had no further trouble unless I tried to turn too tightly.

Canyon Trails is an older park which had recently re-done their short-term rental sites (don't recall if the long term renters had new sewer connections and patios). So it had the appearance of being a new park. Plus they have a good sized dog run in front, so everyone was happy.

About using the KOA reservation system: we managed to lose the cost of one night of camping at each of 3 KOAs because we weren't able to cancel at least 48 hrs ahead of the reservation. We use KOA a lot because theirs is the only on-line reservation system available to RV campers. But there's a risk associated with using their system and we paid the price.

29-30 March 2010
(Junction, TX)

With the repairs and work-around in place we left New Braunfels and went to Junction, TX where the KOA is right next to the Llano River (pronounced YAW-no). Many of the campers brought fishing gear and spent the day fishing. The park was very open when we were there at the end of March, so we could really enjoy walking thru the campground. The only problem is the park is filled with pecan trees which aren't harvested. So the ground was covered with them. Annie did here part to clean up the fallen nuts by swallowing as many as she could whole. I swear she rattled when she walked but she was a happy girl.

We had arrived at the campground early in the day and were able to nose around the area a little including a stop at the local market. We picked up a few odds and ends and while waiting in line, Celia struck up a conversation with the guy behind her. Turns out he had just turned 96 and also had just finished shelling 1,200# of pecans. Yikes! He told Celia he used to do over 3,000# but he was getting too old to do that much. We were mightily impressed! Judging by the respect given him at the market, locals are very proud of their old timer.

Junction was a one-niter since we needed to get to Santa Fe to start doing taxes. Next stop... Van Horn, TX.

30-31 March 2010
(Van Horn, TX)

Van Horn is an odd stop. The campground is on the south side of town and happens to have the best cafe in town. We stopped here on the way East and now knew to plan on eating at the campground. There are a couple truck stops in Van Horn, so diesel is easy to find. We looked around the town a little but the truth is it's a desperate looking place that doesn't make you feel like "I wouldn't mind living here." But it is perfectly located between Junction and Las Cruces, NM, so it's a popular stop that fills up every night. Btw, the park is also very horse-friendly offering corrals and exercise area.

Next morning we were up early (for us!) for a long run to Las Cruces. I wanted to be sure we passed thru El Paso, TX before the commute started as the highway there scares the crap out of me!

24 March 2010

Postcard from Louisiana -

22-24 March 2010

We really enjoy the KOA at Lafayette, even with all the traffic noise from the Interstate. It's run by the 3rd generation of the same family and we find the folks very friendly.

This time we knew where a good restaurant was: we had to make a stop at Fezzo's. It's a small local chain and, in our limited experience, the etoufe is exceptional. But we figured there were probably several places in the area that might please our palate.

We asked a neighbor- they were here when we passed thru in January- where they had found to have dinner that they thought was really good. Their response was "Prejeans!" They pronounced it "pree-jeens" which didn't sound right, so we asked a local. They chuckled and said we needed to use the French pronunciation... it sounded something like "pray-zjons". Even Mr. Garmin got it right!

We had a great meal at Prejeans, plus there was a local band for dinner. Nothing like Cajun food with the sound of Zydeco filling the air. Like Fezzo's, Prejeans was expensive, but the food was superb. Major grin-factor!

On a hunch, Celia asked if we could find beniets anywhere in town. We were going to miss New Orleans this time, but she wanted to get the flavor anyway. They told us to ask at any of the Chinese fast food restaurants. Huh?! You gotta be kidding, right? Celia gave it a try and came back with a dozen beniets, so no, they were not kidding! The beniets were so-so, but what the heck. Sadly, after the home made doughnuts from Doug & Pat nothing comes close!

Just 2 nights in Lafayette, then we were off to Conroe, TX... the place I love to hate.

22 March 2010

Postcard from Alabama

20-22 March 2010
We left E Tallahassee, FL and headed for the KOA in Lillian, AL... the Gulf Shores facility on Perdido Bay. It's just over the bridge from the tip of the Florida panhandle where NAS Pensacola is located. For our 37' Montana they have only 3 large sites suitable for transient use (their "supersites") and we were assigned one of them. Thankfully I didn't have to attend another meeting of the Brown Knee Society... I've managed to remember that it's important to keep the drain valves for the black tank (the one used by the toilet) closed after disconnecting from the sewer.

We tried a fish place down on the strand (not sure that's what locals call it), but by the time dinner was over we'd decided we should have stayed home. The next day, however, we ate lunch at Hazel's (our second time), also on the strand, and enjoyed an inexpensive buffet. There are probably dozens of places to eat around here but we struggled finding them. So for now, Hazel's is the best we can suggest.

Off to Lafayette, LA.

20 March 2010

Postcard from Florida- 5

18 March 2010
(Wildwood, FL)

We had stayed an extra day in Clewiston so we could enjoy the St. Patrick's Day dinner at the KOA. By the time we waddled home we were glad we'd done it.

In the morning we had a couple visitors including Doug & Pat who brought home made doughnuts. My God they were good! Thanks guys. We patted our happy tummies, said our farewells and headed for Wildwood, FL.

Wildwood KOA isn't great as KOAs go, but it's friendly and convenient. And our site was wide enough to be easy in/out.

Wildwood is also the home of the The Cotillion restaurant. If you like dessert, yuh gotta stop here! Dinner was great but it got in the way of the 10" tall angel food cake I had. I thought my mom's Aunt Aggie was the master of angel food cake, but her reputation is being challenged! Amazing. We didn't have reservations (might be smart to call ahead) and just managed to get the last available table.

When we got back to the Montana we were greeted by a wet floor. The new washing machine had overflowed which usually means a full or blocked tank. My habit is to connect the waste line to the sewer and then open the drain for the tank that collects the galley sink water and (on the new rig) the washing machine. I knew it was open so clearly the problem had to be the new Montana. I called a mobile repair service and was told $125 just to show up plus labor for whatever it takes to do the repair. His parting shot was "The last time I had a call like this it turned out the drain valve wasn't open. Anyway, call me back if you want me to add you to the schedule." I thought 'here we go again!' More repairs.

At Celia's insistence I checked the valve which I knew was open and... oops! It wasn't. Damn. Then I opened the drain valve and watched in panic as the flexible drain line connected to the sewer straightened and stiffened to the point I thought it might burst. Yikes! We've never had another problem with the washing machine, but to this day I cannot recall closing the valve after having first opened it. Gremlins I guess.

While I was outside I was treated to a great sunset... cluttered by power lines, but a delight nonetheless.

19 March 2010
From Wildwood we headed for E. Tallahassee and found ourselves in an older KOA in a rural setting. Lots of tall pine with mostly sand on the drives and sites. Unfortunately our site had some damage from the night before. One of the leveling jacks on a heavy Class A had punched thru the tangle of roots beneath the sand and left a deep 12" pothole. In fact the park golf cart leading us in nearly capsized when he hit it (not an exaggeration!). I tried to like the site but eventually we asked to be moved as there wasn't room for the slides.

Don't know if they still do it, but we were greeted at the office with an invitation to stop back later for fresh chocolate chip cookies which were cooling and not quite ready. Hmmm... last nite angel food cake, tonight God's own chocolate chip cookies. I fear we're enjoying ourselves way too much! :)

Time to leave Florida and go to Lillian, AL.

18 March 2010

Postcard from Florida- 4

28 Jan - 4 Feb 2010
(Sugarloaf Key, Ramrod Key & Key West)
Sugarloaf Key KOA at night
KW street fair
Out for a walk on Noname Key
The trip to the keys was great: cafe con leche with cheese toast at 5 Brothers on Ramrod Key every morning; trips to town to get connected to the internet (voice & data cell service 300-400 yards off the Overseas Hwy is crap except for SMS messages); visited some old haunts; went for a great walk with Michael & the dogs on a key that was used by the military to train for the Cuban invasion; we cursed the noseeums a lot; got the truck serviced; and generally enjoyed ourselves. The last day the heavens opened up and we had a real gully washer... sans gullies. Must be time to leave.

2 Feb - 18 Mar 2010
(Clewiston & Sefner, FL)
We pulled out of Sugarloaf on 2/4 with the engine acting weird. It was misfiring at certain speeds and running poorly at others, so it made for a vary nervous drive to  the Miami area. The keys aren't where you go to find diesel service and there's no Ford dealer until you get to Miami. So we pushed on, avoiding the worst engine speeds. There is nowhere to pull off to the side of the road with a big 5th wheel in tow till you arrive at Largo.

We finally made it to Florida's Turnpike and pulled off at the first rest area where I stopped the engine. I was digging for the Good Sam emergency road service card and for no good reason I tried to restart the engine... which ran perfectly. Oh great. Does this mean I could have stopped and restarted the engine 100 miles back and not had the miserable drive?! I don't want to think about it. [ Note: After we got back we learned we had 1 bad injector which was replaced under warranty by Bob Turner Ford in Albuquerque, NM ]

Burning cane nearby
So off we went to Clewiston where we stayed for a couple nights. Then 2 nights stretched into 4, then another week. Finally we thought this was silly so we asked for an additional month ($550/mo + elec. at the time vs. $840/mo + free elec.).

The downside of Clewiston (motto: "Sweetest Little Town in America"; essentially a company town which exists because of US Sugar) is that the park is in the middle of the cane fields.US Sugar has a new process which eliminates burning the fields to harvest, but the independents still do it the old way: burn the fields (takes about 30 minutes, then let it cool) then cut the cane. This photo shows what it looks like right after they light the cane. Looks bad but the truth is I never did see soot on the rig.

It isn't that the KOA in Clewiston is a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind park- it's actually pretty old with very little updating that I could see. Rather it's the people that stay here that make it special. We had a great time and look forward to coming back.

Glen, Dale and Doug with the flag
And the Canadians were wonderful. Especially after they won Olympics gold in ice hockey against the USA. They wanted to make sure everyone knew how the match ended, so a few got into the back of a restored 1957 Chevy pickup and drove around the park waving the maple leaf and yelling the news. Such thoughtful people. (&^%#@%!)

Back-row, but facing open pasture (to the right of the road)
Right after we moved to the rear of the park into the long-term area we had the awning fall off. That's when I realized it had happened before and one base was re-attached to and area of very thin sheet metal with no support. It was a miracle it hadn't fallen off earlier. I spotted a pair of holes in the coach sidewall that had been filled which looked to be the place it had originally been installed so that's where I re-re-located the awning base.

The awning was the last straw. We'd been repairing the Montana all the way across country and there seemed to be no end in sight. Especially since I'd seen that the water heater had developed a slow leak and the electric heating element stopped working. It was likely the next to go.

Since we had been enjoying traveling with the dogs so much, we decided to spend a couple weeks looking at new fifth wheels to replace our Montana which had the front lounge (model 3655FL). Turned out Montana had a new (2010) version of the FL which we looked at. In our view, they had screwed up the design plus it was another 2' longer than ours. So we passed on that. We looked at several brands but kept coming back to the Montana. Eventually we decided on the 3400RL (RL = rear lounge) with the Moving-to-Montana and Hickory Edition options packages and started looking for a unit on a dealer's lot.

New (right) beside old ready to move our stuff
We located what we wanted East of Tampa. Lazy Days in Seffner, FL- supposedly the largest RV dealer in the US. They had a 2010 Montana 3400RL equipped with the options we wanted except slide toppers and 5.5 kW generator. Next thing we knew we'd bought a new Montana and Lazy Days would install the generator. The toppers would have to come later. [ Note: We've since learned slide toppers can be a hazard as they can't be rolled up in a heavy wind without retracting the slide they're attached to. If they had a way to retract separate from the slide, we'd still be interested in adding them. ]

The guy running the tug was amazing as he snaked the new rig past the open slide of the old one!
We towed our 2003 Montana to Seffner and expected to leave the next day with the new rig. One nite stretched into 2 then 3 and pretty soon it had been a week of living in a delivery area that had a layer of dirt/dust that would destroy any carpet. Plus it was a dry-camping area (no water, no sewer) only intended for a 1 or 2 nite stay. Apparently not much happens at Lazy Days (and you ask "Didn't you pay attention to the name?!") till you get pissed because, after a week of waiting-waiting-waiting, we were out of there 2 days after I vented. Our rush about leaving was because it was getting to be time to file taxes and we needed to be in Santa Fe for that since we didn't bring everything with us. We won't let that happen again!

We eventually got the rig back to Clewiston, spent a week of getting settled in, then we were off to Santa Fe after a great St. Patrick's Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.