The Longleaf Trace

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We have had three totally gorgeous days here riding The Longleaf Trace, a Rail-to-Trail Hall of Fame trail. It certainly lives up to that designation. It runs 44 miles between Hattiesburg and Prentiss, Mississippi and per our usual Modus Operandi, Jim found a totally deserted campground almost in the center of the trail right outside Bassfield, comfortably ensconced at Davis RV Park and Campground. We proceeded to spend three days riding and exploring the area. This time of year is beautiful here, blue skies with wispy clouds, no humidity and temperatures in the seventies. Perfect bike riding weather.

Our spot
Our spot in the campground. We are the only ones here, 50 AMP, full hookup. Pasture and cows and large trees were part of the deal. And four nights for $42.00 total. Right next to the trail.

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In Bassfield, the driver asked me if I wanted him to move it for a better picture. People here are so nice.

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This part of Mississippi is beautiful with big rolling pastures punctuated with more very large trees, including the Longleaf Pine, for which the area is named. Like on the Tanglefoot Trail, the quiet is hypnotic. We rode along on its smooth asphalt surface for a total of about 100 miles. Most of the way there is an accompanying equestrian path and on the last day I actually saw some folks riding. On other trails we have ridden, they allow horseback riding on the bike path for short distances, but since this one was separate there were fewer obstacles on the trail. If you know what I mean.

The first day we rode to Sumrall, y’all. Sorry I couldn’t resist. We passed what must have been a small exotic animal farm, set in a beautiful meadow with large trees and a lake. The mules were friendly and so was the ostrich. The llamas kept their distance.

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In Sumrall.

Sumrall didn’t have quite as many boarded up storefronts as Prentiss, on the other end, which is the County Seat! I didn’t know there was a Mexican restaurant in Sumrall or I wouldn’t have packed our lunch. We got some tea, ate our sandwiches and rode a little further before turning around and heading back. We had smelled and scoped out Big Boy’s BBQ in Bassfield and spent our lunch perusing the menu since we decided to get carryout for dinner. It did not disappoint.  Big Boy’s also had a side we had never encountered before, loaded potatoes. When we asked what was in it, he said, bacon, cheese, onion… He gave us a taste and it was heavenly. Of course I ordered those, along with half a chicken and beans. Jim got brisket. We ate that for two nights.

When I went back the second day to tell him just how good it all tasted, they were closed with a black bow on the door. Oh no! Probably somebody ate too many of those potatoes… It’s good they were closed or I would have ordered more.

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Do you remember the Mississippi state flag?And we were parked (and riding) in Jefferson Davis County. The Confederacy still wields a heavy hand 150 years later. When I saw the flag, I seriously couldn’t believe it. What a Yankee I am.

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The branch that fell off this huge tree was about the size of an average large tree. It obstructed the equestrian trail but caused no harm on the bike trail.

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And this cow by Death Valley Blvd. How ironic.

Back in Bassfield.

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The next day’s ride was to Prentiss and back, about 30 miles. Prentiss is the County Seat with an imposing courthouse but a sadly emptied-out downtown. It is not hard to imagine the shops all full and bustling, supporting families. Before Walmart…

Now there is the grocery store, a Pizza Hut and a Subway along with a few local businesses. Very few. And one of the biggest trees we’ve seen yet.

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We took a short side trip to Jeff Davis Lake which was fun because it had some swooping curves and hills with 12-15% grades. Good momentum. The ice company went out of business when ice was 50 cents a bag. Like all the towns around here, they experienced a heady heyday when the virgin timber was ripe for the picking. Bassfield had five sawmills at one point and the railroad was booming. After they had cut all the timber, they were fortunate enough to take advantage of the rich soil to grow cotton. The towns were all named when the Post Office set up shop, Sumrall after a Union Army Officer who opened a cotton gin, Prentiss for a sawmill operator and Bassfield because when they delivered the mail, they dumped it in a field near a store owned by the Bass family.

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People in Mississippi are very friendly and nice. I just hope they don’t think we are rude; there were many times we had to ask them to repeat what they said. It wasn’t that we couldn’t hear them; we just couldn’t understand what they were saying! They understand us better but they always ask where we are from. Bag of ice? Bgic… The BBQ guy had to ask me three times if Jim wanted a bun or white bread. Huh?

We bought some fresh eggs in Carson on the way back from Prentiss and it took us a few tries to understand that he was asking us to bring the egg carton back if we could. First he said he would have to put them in a bag since he had no cartons, um, bikes. But he found one and asked us to return it if we had the chance. We finally got the point. The accent is alive and well.

And the price of a dozen fresh eggs? $1.50. I gave him $2.00 and refused change. Rode back with the egg carton the next day; it was the least I could do. Plus they were delicious with bacon and toast for breakfast, a bike riding treat for sure.

Also in Carson.
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From here we are heading toward the Tammany Trail in Louisiana, right outside New Orleans. Timing will be interesting since, of course, we must watch Kansas City win the World Series. We don’t have our onboard TV setup yet, so we rely on antenna or parks that have a plug-inski cable outlet. We will see if the reception is good over the air at Fontainebleau State Park and continue on if we need to. I am hoping to ride the nine mile bridge over Lake Pontchatrain. And back.

We love the great state of Mississippi.

More photos here.

Cooling Unit Redux

I have known for quite some time now that our refrigerator was marginal. So it was a frequent topic of conversation between Wendy and I re: what to do about it – if anything? The freezer compartment was keeping things frozen and the bottom side was keeping things cool, but not as cold as it should be. Besides, it was just not getting the beer cold enough!

If you know me, you know I had already done the research online and knew there was a good possibility that the ‘new’ cooling unit that was installed just a couple of years ago was not ‘quite up to snuff’. I also found out that the factory built cooling units that you can buy from Norcold or Dometic were also questionable due to the fact that they had all been recalled at some point in the past. It seems that they can overheat and accidentally release hydrogen gas! Since RV refrigerators are absorption-type they require a high heat source to remove heat and thus cool the unit. How’s that for counter-intuitive? We all know that hydrogen and a high heat source like a propane flame are not good things to bring together… Rather than actually fix the problem, Norcold recalled their products and had RV service centers install a small circuit box that simply shuts the whole thing off if it gets too hot! In the software business, we called that a kludge, not a solution.

A couple of years back, I discovered that our Norcold refrigerator was subject to this recall and even though it was several years old, it had never been ‘fixed’. So I set up an appointment at Olathe Ford RV over in Gardner, KS as they were the local designated Norcold service center. Our reefer was old enough that the recall involved an entire new cooling unit and their kludge. To say the least, we were not impressed with Olathe Ford RV Service. Nevertheless, as far as I know, they did replace the cooling unit. The refrigerator never worked too well afterwards, but at least it won’t catch on fire.

Which brings us right back to the here and now (more or less) with a refrigerator that works, marginally, but not as well we’d like it to. The problem is it was still working, so there was no definitive problem – just a subjective notion that it should be better.

Now I’ve had to pull this monster out of its cabinet several times over the years in order to work on various projects and it is a bear of a job. I knew there were two electric muffin fans on the back of the cooling unit. The first thing to check according to the experts was to be sure those fans were running – no  fans, no cooling. However, you can’t see or touch those fans when the fridge is in position and I could not hear or feel any fans running. Since we were now living on the road, I was very reluctant to pull that refrigerator out in a WalMart parking lot or RV park just to see if the fans were running! Besides, what can I do about it anyway.

During my online research I found the RV Cooling Unit Warehouse web site also provided technical support as well as selling – you guessed it – new cooling units! I discovered that the Amish make replacement cooling units for most RV refrigerators! How the Amish got into that business is a mystery to me, but apparently their units are well designed and don’t catch fire and thus don’t require the kludge and they are much better performing units. They aren’t cheap, but then neither are the factory units that catch fire and still need the kludge. So I decided if we needed a new unit, I’d buy one of these Amish ones.

It just happens that Memphis, TN is the only place you can both buy these units and have them installed besides the factory in Shipshewana, IN. Other places can install them, but the units have to be shipped. As you can imagine shipping and receiving is a problem for us. So when we finished up on the Tanglefoot Trail, it only made sense to do the 80 miles or so to Memphis.

David Force is the expert at the RV Cooling Unit warehouse and according to the tech, David has been working on these RV refrigerators since the 60’s. He knows his stuff. David referred me to Ron at R&C Mobile RV Repair and before we headed north to Memphis I called Ron to see if he would take a look at our Norcold. So we pulled into Southaven RV Park just across the line from Memphis and set up camp.

Ron took a few temp readings in the freezer and refrigerator compartment and confirmed the high readings I was getting: 15 – 20 F in the freezer and mid-50’s F below. The freezer should be closer to 0 F and the bottom end more like 38 F. We weren’t close to that. It seemed to work better on AC than propane, but neither was optimal. The first thing Ron checked was the fans and he determined that they were not running – thus explaining in part the high temps.

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Ron checks the wiring.

The question was why weren’t the fans running? After checking several items he determined that the fan switch was defective so he bypassed the switch and the fans still wouldn’t run. That’s when he noticed the wiring problem. Now this one is not on me. I have never touched the wiring on that refrigerator. However, Ron found the fans had been wired backwards and consequently could never have worked! The only time that wiring had been touched was when Olathe Ford RV replaced the cooling unit. The only thing to do was hard-wire the fans and AC heating elements to run full-time and see if the cooling unit recovered. If the temps don’t go back down where they should be in a couple of days, then the cooling unit was most likely damaged from high heat resulting from the miswired fans. So we sat at the RV park for two days hoping for the best.

Two days later, the temps had come down some, but were still marginal especially considering the mild temperatures we were experiencing weather-wise. So, we decided to bite the bullet and replace the cooling unit. While we were at that, we’d also replace the fans and fan switch and AC heating elements.

It’s now late morning Monday and the KC Royals are scheduled to play Game 3 of the 2014 ALCS. We wanted this job wrapped before game time! Besides that we were under a tornado watch and severe thunderstorm warning for 3 pm. Ron assured us it could be done in time so he took off in his truck to get his helper, Jessiah, and a new Amish-built cooling unit from David Force. Wendy and I emptied the fridge and prepared the bus.

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Floor and cabinets protected as best we can.

The first task is to pull the doors, disconnect the wires and propane and get the beast out of the cabinet and out onto the floor of the bus. It weighs better than 200 lbs, so you need a good plan and a strong back. Ron has this great rolling furniture cart with a built-in jack that is perfect for this job – too bad we couldn’t use it! Our fridge is too close to the floor. Fortunately, I’d done this job alone several times and knew how to do it with 2×4’s, a blanket and a goodly supply of foul language! The trick is to keep it balanced upright and don’t let it drop all the way to the floor – you’ll never lift it back up. Having three of us didn’t hurt and we had it out in short order. To get the cooling unit out, you have to lay it on the floor backside up. It’s a messy job so we had the floor and cabinets well protected. We had to move  everything out of the salon to make room on the floor.

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Slowly sliding it out onto a couple of 2×4’s. The towel allows the whole assembly slide on the floor.

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Its out and we slide it across the floor.

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Ron and Jessiah lower it face down.

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The old new cooling unit exposed and ready to remove.

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and out

We discovered the old (new) cooling unit had been shoddily installed with the wrong type of sealant that allowed hot air to leak into the insulated compartments. Right about now, the rain starts in earnest and continues the rest of the afternoon. Fortunately, most of the outside work is done.

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All that old sealant had to be removed and the area cleaned and prepared for the new cooling unit.

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This is the back side of those fins you see on the inside of your RV refrigerator.

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Ron preps the area with thermal mastic and spray foam just prior to installing the new cooling unit.

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The new cooling unit.

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The new cooling unit just prior to installation. Note the foam and thermal mastic in the recessed area of the refrigerator back.

A refrigerator is just a heat transfer device. In the picture above, those thin tubes on the cooling unit have to contact the  metal plates on the back of freezer and refrigerator compartment in order for that heat transfer to take place. The thermal mastic ensures good contact and the foam seals the area from other heat sources.

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Ready for installation.

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The new unit is in place.

Nothing left but to attach the new fans, install the propane burner, rewire and put it all back in place. Getting that beast back in the cabinet was much harder than taking it out as it is a very tight fit. If I ever have to do this again I’ll take a saw to the cabinet so this part of the job is easier. We had it all done just about the time it quit raining. We think the full rainbow was a good omen.

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The Tanglefoot Trail, Y’all…

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After we left Howard and Ellen’s, we headed west toward Cullman, Alabama. We rode out a storm and hail in a well-positioned primo Walmart parking spot and settled in to be happy we had half inch hail instead of the golf ball size and lightening that disabled areas right near us. Plus I made a delicious rotisserie chicken/avocado salad. Yum! Thank you, Internets, for the recipe. We will be making that again.

Our next few days were planned for Pontotoc, Mississippi, riding the Tanglefoot Trail. No wonder they call it that, the kudzu is unbelievable in places. I have seen lots of kudzu along the bike trails in Missouri and Virginia, but in Mississippi and Alabama, it is epic. Like if you stand on the  trail for too long, it might ensnare you.

Jim didn’t have any luck finding a spot mid distance to park, but we found a Walmart that was perfectly positioned on the trail. We tucked ourselves into the back corner of the parking lot and managed to stay there three nights, hidden by trucks most of the time. The Walmart parking lots are always entertaining with police action, people meeting up and folks coming and going. There was another RV that was there most of the time too. He sort of came and went and we figured he might work there. Of course we bought some stuff too.

The first day, we rode to New Albany, the end of the trail and back, 40 miles. This part of Mississippi has landscape similar to western Georgia, with open meadows and very large trees and sprawling bean fields just beginning to turn colorful for fall. And kudzu, of course. Everything was so quiet. That is one of the nicest things about the trails; when you are  away from the towns and the roads, the silence resonates. It’s nice. Some of the trees were monsters!

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We ate our sandwiches and some iced tea in New Albany before heading back. Rain was predicted for later in the afternoon and we rode through a brief and refreshing shower but didn’t get dumped on. There was a very nice grocery store in Ecru, McCoys,The Real Meat Market. They took our picture for their Facebook.

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When we did get back to the bus, it was super hot and muggy, but the forecasted rain blew in some cool air and came at just the right time.

The next day we headed in the other direction where we were amazed to see even more kudzu coverage. I read up on it a bit and of course it is an introduced plant. The government actually paid farmers to plant it because it was supposed to hold the topsoil down. Now it is holding all the trees down too. It is also edible and good for livestock which probably explains these goats we encountered.

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Pontotoc itself is yet another small southern town with a square, a statue and many boarded up storefronts. It is sad to see this all across America.
Some sights along the trail.

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Algoma, MS. The little building is the Police Department.

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Looks like this RV has seen better days. I always wonder what the inside looks like when I see one like this.

After a solid 70 miles on the Tanglefoot, we are moving on to Memphis where we need to get our refrigerator looked at. It just isn’t keeping the beer cold enough!

More photos on Flickr.

Bus Maintenance and Best Friends

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Georgia cotton everywhere!

After leaving Asheville we headed southwest for Georgia. Wendy wrote up our adventures on the Silver Comet Trail in the previous post. From Rockmart, GA we had a short (20 mile) drive to visit our good friends Howard and Ellen Best.

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Max, Ellen and Howard.

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Max is very cute, as you can see. He’s friendly, loves pets, climbs ladders and catches squirrels, rabbits and leaves.

Howard has been my bus guru since we met in 2009 and what a wealth of knowledge and wisdom he has to share! He loves to share his knowledge of the RV lifestyle and he knows buses as well.  When I have a particularly vexing problem, I call Howard. He’s always got a suggestion and he’s always right! Well, I had a short list of ‘issues’ that needed attention on the bus and since we were in the vicinity, we arranged a visit.

Howard and Ellen live in their bus 24/7 year round. When they aren’t on the road, they park at their new bus barn in Georgia near their children and grand-children. Howard is always juggling several project besides helping his son in his trucking business, but I knew he’d put that aside to give me a hand. He’s a gem.

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Our parking spot at Howards place.

I’d noticed that whenever I try to plug the bus into a GFI outlet for a little power, the GFI would trip. Now that alone is not a major problem, but presents a nuisance if we’re parked at a friends house or in a park protected by GFI outlets. Up to this point, I’d worked around the issue by wiring in a standard receptacle or finding an unprotected outlet or just doing without. I knew, however, that sooner or later I’d regret not correcting the problem and most RV park owners would not appreciate me taking their electrical pedestal apart. Besides the future embarrassment and/or  inconvenience, tripping GFI outlets also pointed to potentially more dangerous problems with the bus wiring. So I resolved to find it and fix it. I just didn’t know how to chase it down, so when I described the problem to Howard, of course, he knew exactly what we needed to do.

It only took us two and a half days to find the problem!

Without getting too deep into the gnarly details of RV wiring, I suspected from postings I’d made on the bus forums that I had either a neutral-ground bonding problem or a ground fault or both inside the bus wiring. RV’s AC wiring code handles the neutral and grounds a little differently than your standard brick and mortar home. It’s important that it be done correctly so you don’t accidentally electrocute yourself or someone else by inadvertently making the chassis and shell of the bus ‘hot’!

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Howard and I run down those pesky grounds and neutrals.

The first thing to do was to check the incoming shore power wiring to be sure the neutral and ground were properly installed – and it appeared that they were. The next step was to test the neutral and ground on each electrical circuit in the bus. Through a tedious process of elimination, we finally found one circuit that seemed to be the culprit! I had a small Makita air compressor in the engine compartment that I use to air up the bus. It was plugged into a GFI outlet. So, we unplugged the air compressor and voila! the GFI did not trip!  Hurray we fixed it! Sorry, not so fast.

I had the inverter turned off, but as soon as I tried to turn it on, the GFI tripped. So we turned our attention to the inverter – assuming that the ground problem must be there. In the process of examining the wiring into and out of the inverter, Howard discovered a bad connection in my transfer switch and purposely yanked the offending wire out. He said ‘you have to fix it now’!

That required a trip to the hardware store and pushed the project into the third day. We got that corrected, but it seemed that the inverter was still causing the GFI to trip. We could find no obvious wiring problem, so Howard told me to call Tech Support for the inverter. After explaining the problem, the tech suggested that we simply try a different GFI outlet! If it still tripped, then the inverter was defective and would need to be serviced. I really didn’t want to go there, but we didn’t think there was anything wrong with the GFI – it was brand new and never used! Well, we gave it a try anyway and IT HELD!

Conclusion: There was noting wrong with my bus wiring. Yea! Somewhere in the air compressor wiring, the ground and neutral must be connected. Simply unplugging it removed that ground fault from the system. The new, never used GFI outlet was defective. So simple, but so much time to find!

Next up was the Aqua Hot. This problem turned out to be a self-inflicted wound – or so I must assume. The AH burns diesel fuel to heat water. It’s a great addition to an RV as you have an endless supply of hot water, you can heat the bus in cold weather and it will also warm the engine coolant on those early mornings when you need that cold, two-stroke diesel to fire up. It works best on diesel fuel, but it will also work on electric.

Now, I’m always making ‘improvements’ to stuff in the bus. So back in the spring I decided I needed an hour meter on the AH so I could keep track of how much diesel it uses. So I did my research and went to work. I just needed to add a couple of small wires to the existing AH wiring harness, run them up to the kitchen and connect up my new hour meter. Simple. NOT! After I got through with that little project the AH didn’t work anymore. Somehow I broke it! Darn, I hate it when that happens. Assuming it must have something to do with the new wires, I took the new wires out and the AH started working again. I decided to postpone that little project for a future date.

Flash forward to a rather cool night in the Virginia hills. We were boondocked and needed some heat. I fired up the trusty AH and went to bed. In the morning I discovered the AH had shut itself down?! So I just flipped it back on and – nada. No AH, no heat, no hot water, no flame, no nothing. So I told Wendy the AH was down and added that to my growing list of chores.

A few days go by and I’ve got time to take a look at the AH. I’ve got my troubleshooting flowchart on the ipad. So I start pulling it apart and testing circuits. According to the flowchart, if it fails a certain circuit test, the control module has failed. Great! Somehow I’ve blown the control box (relays, circuit board, etc.). New ones are $800 #%@*&^#! I find a reman online for half that and place my order. When the box arrives, I pull the AH apart, plug in the new control box and … nothing! It doesn’t work either!

Now, we are moving every few days, so shipping and receiving is complicated to say the least. Nevertheless, I persevere and decide to  return the reman to Nebraska and my old control box to another AH expert in San Diego for testing. Imagine my surprise when I receive emails from both: there’s nothing wrong with either control box – they work just fine for us!

Flash forward again to Howards garage in GA. I decide to tackle the AH once again. I have the reman control box back in my hands so I pull the AH apart, plug in the reman controller and start at the beginning of the flowchart. Still nothing.

Now I do what I should have done a long time back. What did I mess with when I was installing the hour meter. Well I knew I had to have popped a few wire terminals out of their plastic plug connector to install those new wires. Maybe one of those is loose? Sure enough, not only is one loose, I’ve replaced one wire in the wrong position in the plastic plug! So, I fix that loose connection, move the terminal to the correct location the AH starts working. STUPID!

Now I’m thinking – hey, I bet I could get that hour meter working now…

Next project: Howard tells me I need to make some changes to our patio awning so it is more robust in the wind and rain. I’m sold on that idea since we lost an awning to rain back in June (see Storms). We’re headed for south Texas and Howard tells me the wind never stops down there.

Howard has done this a dozen times and he knows exactly what we need to do. One of the critical weak points in an RV awning are the friction clamps on the upper arms that hold the awning roller tube out away from the RV. As the wind blows and the awning rocks up and down, these clamps slip. That allows slack to develop in the awning fabric and eventually it starts behaving like a big horizontal sail. The more slack, the more it billows and pulls and slips. Another weak point are the bottom braces. These braces are adjustable and held in place by a small metal pin that protrudes into a series of holes in the bracket. The problem here is that with enough slack in the fabric the arms start shaking and the pin can work loose. The arm can suddenly collapse and allow even more slack in the fabric! Enough slack and that horizontal sail will just fold the whole assembly up onto the top of the bus. That’s not good as it usually breaks things.

The solution is to pin those upper arms and lower brackets so they can’t move. The upper arms are fairly simple as they are usually deployed to the same length. We simply determined how much extra material we had in the telescoping portion of the arm, made some measurements and drilled a 1/4″ hole through the arm above the friction clamp. A 2″ steel safety pin inserted through the hole ensures that arm will never slip.

The lower arms are a little more complicated because their length needs to be adjustable according to the angle or height desired for the awning. The other critically important aspect is to be sure that one end of the awning is always lower than the other. Keeping the awning slanted sufficiently from one end to the other will ensure that rain will run off the lower end rather than accumulating in the center of the awning – like a big bath tub! That was the mistake we made and I hate making the same mistake twice. After all, there are so many other mistakes to make, why repeat yourself? Life is an adventure.

The idea is to drill just a few holes through the lower brackets to allow a 1/4″ safety pin to be inserted. You don’t want to drill too many holes since you will usually keep the awning at a certain pitch. You just need enough holes to allow you to raise or lower the awning and slant it to one side or the other depending on the layout of your campsite. We decided to go with four holes on each brace: A high setting and a low setting with slant options. Once the holes are drilled, we pitched the awning and set the slant. I couldn’t find 1/4″ x 4″ steel pins at Lowes or HD, so I plan to do some research online.

Well, there you have it! Three little projects completed. One self-inflicted wound healed, the bus is even better prepared for boondocking and we have an awning that should stand up to that southern Texas wind.

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Howard directs us out of the compound.

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I’m just really glad to know you!

The Silver Comet Trail

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After we left Asheville, it was time for more bike riding. We found the Silver Comet Trail, a gem of a superhighway of trails in northeastern Georgia that goes from Smyrna to the Alabama state line, 61 miles.  It is about 30 miles from our next stop, Howard and Ellen Best‘s, in Kingston. Howard is Jim’s bus guru, since the beginning, literally. Jim has a few things on his mental list that he wants to run by Howard and Howard loves sharing his knowledge of RVing. He and Ellen have been living in their bus and traveling for like 25 years! Yikes. Anyway, we’re headed there next.

But now we are in Rockmart, Georgia in a practically deserted, widely spaced campground that is like a minute from the trail. We planned to ride in both directions on the 61 mile Silver Comet Trail.

This trail is our eighth in our recent tour and it was like a dream come true. The entire surface was paved concrete with divider lines. You can roll along at 14-15 miles per hour. Like a superhighway. The first day we rode from Rockmart to Dallas. This portion of the trail is beautiful, well maintained and well-patrolled. In 2002, a girl was raped and murdered on this section of the trail and in July of this year another girl was brutally beaten close by. Her attacker has not been apprehended. It is sad because it is such a beautiful spot; to be violated there seems like extra punishment. We normally don’t necessarily ride together all the time but on this section, we decided to. There were plenty of other riders, but not a lot for a weekend, and a cute little Sheriff Smart Car patrolling. Everything was all OK.

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This section was a pleasant 30 mile ride. The next day’s ride to Cedartown was to prove more challenging.

I had seen the maps warning of “steep hills” and figured they would be more challenging than even the Virginia Creeper Trail. That was a correct assumption. About five miles out of Cedartown, about 20 miles from the bus, the hills got interesting. We were used to cruising along at 14 MPH.  Ha!

It is a really good thing we got new bikes. Neither of my old bikes (with me on it anyway) would have made these steep climbs. The climb was rewarded with a swift and effortless downhill segment, but lots of zigs and zags and road crossings to slow the fun. To me, it seemed like the section toward Cedartown was the worst, the steepest. On the way back it seemed like the path let you pick up enough momentum to just fly downhill. That part was fun. We ended up with a 40 mile day.

The terrain was different too. Instead of being arched in with pine trees and sycamore boughs which was a treat in itself, the pastures opened up and we saw some magnificent old trees in the fields. The weather was perfect.

In Rockmart.
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This was right before the steep section to Cedartown.

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Scenic Bog Overlook

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In Cedartown. There is a nice restored depot there. Many empty storefronts, like almost every small town…
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And on the way back:
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This section of the trail meets up with the Chief Ladiga Trail at the Alabama state line. We may pick up there after our Howard and Ellen visit.
Stay tuned.

 

Kindred Spirits & Asheville Wrap-Up

We ended up spending a week in Asheville. The first few days we did some housekeeping around the bus. I ended up washing all the windows, inside and out. They really needed it plus the screens were really dirty. When Jim got the ladder out for me, unfortunately he wrenched his back pretty badly. Ouch! So we ended up renting a car for our adventures to the Biltmore Estate instead of riding our bikes as planned. That turned out to be a good move, with the ailing back and all. Plus it was a Dodge Challenger; handled a lot differently than the bus!

We also found out that riding 40 miles a day on the bikes does not translate well or prepare you for all the walking and stair climbing involved in our two days at the estate. After doing the house tour, the architectural tour and the Butler’s tour, plus all the walking around the extensive gardens, our legs and feet were talkin’ to us. So we took a couple extra days to recover and I needed to get some work done too.

While we were at the Bear Creek Campground, we met up with Nerds on the Road, who are friends of our friends, the Technomads, Cherie and Chris.  They said hello and it was fun to find their pics of our bus on Facebook. We were also parked right across from this very cool green mid-70s GMC Palm Beach model.
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It wasn’t until the morning we pulled out that we had a chance to chat with these folks, but John and Annie turned out to be kindred spirits, fellow crazy people who sold everything and hit the road. In their case, they sold their 95 acre farm in West Virginia when they became surrounded by the natural gas companies. John said he felt like his land was being poisoned by all the fracking and they decided to bail.

They did things a little lot quicker than we did. They bought their RV in July and hit the road in August after 30 frantic days getting out of their house. Props to them! It took us a couple of years to divest and get everything ready to go. I wish we had had more time to talk because Annie and I immediately bonded over scenarios like waking up in the middle of the night thinking about stuff at “home,” missing our gardens and general new RVer angst. Everything is working out well for all of us, it was just really nice to meet up with someone who “gets it.” A lot of the people we talk with, even old friends, kind of gloss over the details of the actual divestment part of the deal. I think that may be because it is really too much to wrap your head around; we know; we did it! We gave them a card and hope they keep in touch (Hey guys, email us!) and we hope to meet up down the road somewhere.

Safe and happy travels, Annie and John! Keep in touch!

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Vanderbilt Biltmore. Yes, He Did.

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George Vanderbilt was an amazing guy who lived in an incredibly unique time. The Gilded Age. He had vision, aesthetics in mind, loved beauty, art and sport and apparently was a very good shopper. He fell in love with the western North Carolina landscape and, except for 60 or so trans-Atlantic trips,   many of which were to choose plans and accessories for Biltmore, he made his home in the mountains of North Carolina. And the main thing? He had LOTS of money. Too bad he died at age 51 from complications of appendicitis. He certainly made the most of his short life.

When he began building his family home, Biltmore,  in 1889 the surrounding landscape, of which he eventually bought 125,000 acres including whole towns, was barren and eroding due to extensive logging of the old growth forest. The railroad was a key component in the denuding of the landscape; once it was in place, the trees and wildlife were gone. Ironic, since George’s father, Cornelius, turned $100 into $100,000,000 in a short time building the railroad.

George could have, and did have, the best of everything. The vision it took to plan and imagine this eventual 8000 acre estate is phenomenal. The house is designed by the premier architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt and the gardens by Frederick Law Olmstead,  the father of American landscape architecture. If you have ever been to Central Park in New York, you have a taste of Olmstead’s  work. Or Boston Commons. Many other distinguished venues. Olmstead considered the gardens he designed at the Biltmore his crowning glory and indeed, he died soon after their completion. He was designing them for us, 100 years later and the vista was breathtaking in all directions.

Father of the managed forest system and basically the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, his estate sold over 100,000 acres to the National Forestry Service. He used to have a 5000 sq. ft. hunting lodge, Buckspring, on top of Mt. Pisgah, with a private road leading to it.

Vanderbilt’s  philanthropy seems extensive. And it is. Until you see the lengths he went to in designing and decorating his own house. And glorifying himself… I think when the whole self-glorification thing hit me the hardest was when I went on the Architectural Tour and they took us out onto the roof where copper plates lined the various parapets and gargoyled roof intersections. Each tile was stamped GV, for George Vanderbilt of course, and the guide pointed out the last vestiges of the 22 Karat  gold that coated the corner embellishments of acorns. Really? On the roof? 22 Karat gold? You can see the last vestiges on the lower left of this copper plated tile.

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I had already been on the house tour where you walked you through his bedroom, the walls of which were covered with 22 K gilded cloth. Who does this? The more I learned, the more I appreciated the energy and art appreciation he exhibited. Treasured artworks from the National Gallery in Washingon DC were hidden in the house during World War II. He  had several Albrecht Dürer prints, along with Renoirs bought before the artist was famous. He had 15th century Flemish tapestries in several rooms. Ming Dynasty bowls for indoor koi gardens. A 23,000 volume library. Custom made everything. Many John Singer Sargent paintings, some of which the artist traveled to Biltmore to paint. The Gilded Age is a good description.

We took two full days to tour the grounds, the entire first day touring the house. You only go to so many houses that have 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, indoor gardens, onsite conservatory, winter garden, salons and throne rooms galore.

Anyway, if you are interested, and I was, you can read plenty online although I am seeing a dearth of ebooks so far.

Some pics from our tour. Oh yeah, no photography allowed… Except outside.

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More photos on Flickr. Some inside, Yeah, I cheated.

 

The Virginia Creeper Trail

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From Washington DC we headed south and west to Damascis, Virginia and The Virginia Creeper Trail. Always in search of good trails to ride, Jim found this one in the very far southwest corner of Virginia. It is called The Virginia Creeper because of the increase in elevation from Damascus to Whitetop Station, a steady increase of about 1700 feet over 18 miles. When we were investigating the town, we found that most people get a shuttle with rented bikes to the top, then coast the 17 miles back down. We planned to ride the whole way, of course.

When serious logging began with the coming of the railroad, the trains creeped up the mountain carrying the logs from the forest, thus the name Virginia Creeper.  By 1930, the forests were completely clear-cut and the railroad began to fail. Almost all the native wildlife species, alongside the trees, had been wiped out, deer, elk, bear, beaver, otter. The beaver was believed extinct in 1911 in Virginia. We Americans are really good at decimating our environment. The forest is grown back now and the meadows have recovered but in the early 1900s, the settlers described trees with 12 foot diameters. Unfortunately, those are gone forever. In an ironic aside, they did leave a few old growth trees which still remain, due to low branches or twisting trunks that wouldn’t make good lumber. One such white oak in Abingdon has a 19 foot diameter.

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We found a practically deserted campground in Damascus with the bus backed up to the creek and just behind the trail where we set up shop for riding the entire trail from Abingdon to Whitetop Station, a total of about 70 miles. Damascus was a great jumping off point, the town has several bike shops, places to eat and interesting architecture. Plus they have alleys, so fun to ride.

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Since we were in the middle, we basically rode the whole distance twice. The first day after getting our brakes adjusted on the bikes, we took off for Abingdon, about 17 miles. It was a fairly level ride but increased some in elevation as we neared Abingdon, a good preamble to the other section where the elevation was much steeper. There were lots of high trestles, over 100 on the entire trail. The meadows were loaded with flowers and we rode along for miles with the river on one side and the bluffs on the other.

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On the Damascus to Abingdon leg, the trail narrowed to a very small track in some places and we encountered some wildlife.

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We made it to Abingdon just fine but as soon as we got there it started raining! Not again! Fortunately we rode out of it fairly quickly and the rest of the way back was fairly dry.  We took a day off before heading on to the other steeper section of the trail and explored Damascus. DSC_0261 IMG_6718  DSC_0248

The Old Mill House was a good restaurant and we ate there after our successful ride to Whitetop Station. They had ducks too!

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After a day of rest, we headed for Whitetop Station. We knew the elevation increase would be interesting but it was very doable and pleasant. We met some of the folks coasting back down and it looked like some of them hadn’t been on a bicycle in ages; they looked terrified. The meadows rolled alongside and we passed fields loaded with pumpkins. It’s getting to be that time of year.

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Another monster tree at Green Cove Station; getting close to the top.

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The miles went by more slowly now and we took about two and a half hours to reach the top. But we made it!

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Coming back down was a breeze; the miles flew by in contrast to the climb to the top. It was fun to coast back down after having ridden up, very rewarding. It didn’t take long at all to get back. We celebrated with dinner at the Old Mill House restaurant where they served up a good sized piece of local brook trout. Delicious!

Next stop: Asheville, North Carolina to see the Biltmore Estate.

More photos on Flickr.

 

 

DC Redo #2: Jim and Annie

When we moved to Maryland in 1991, we knew nobody there. Not a soul.  Jim was into motorcycling then (see how our vehicles have increased in size?) One fall day we went up to Jessup, Maryland to Bob’s BMW for a chili cookout. It seemed logical that we might meet some like-minded souls there. And so we did.

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Jim Ford was not working there selling motorcycles yet, but he was a serious iron-butt kinda guy who loved to ride. He and Wilkerson hit it off and became riding buddies almost immediately. One day we ended up on a couples ride and had a lovely warm lunch at the Olney Ale House with Jim and Annie. Our friendship just grew from there. About four years in, we hated to break the news to them that we were moving out of state; they had become such good friends. It is always good to catch up with them and we have visited back and forth several times since our move to (and from) Kansas.

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Annie is a long-time court reporter on Capitol Hill so she is a very busy girl. She used to work Congress and all the hearings there but now she works exclusively for the World Bank. Jim is the force behind the successful Riders Workshop, a mountain riding course designed to improve your motorcycling skills in the mountains. He knows all the “invisible roads” in the Virginia/West Virginia/Pennsylvania and North Carolina area and he has built a following of clients throughout the country. I am pleased to say that when he was developing The Rider’s Workshop I worked with him on his promotional material and website. See his site here.

The only reason we swung down to DC from Philly was 1) to visit Jim and Annie and Charlie and Diane and  2)  we were nearby. Since we lived there, we had seen all the historic stuff and just wanted to relax, recharge and eat and drink. And, oh yeah, we did. We didn’t even drive by our old house.

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On Wednesday Jim came out to Garden Gate and picked us up for a home-cooked dinner at their house. Whatever it is that Jim is interested in, he does it well and thoroughly and dinner was no exception. We started with chips and guac on the patio of their lovely landscape in Kensington. With cocktails. They have a beautiful back (and front) yard that has matured and grown beautifully since we left in 1995. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pics of the yard due to the aforementioned eating and drinking. And Zen, the Weimaraner was worthy of lots of attention too. He is a lot different from Scout, the Weimaraner they had when we lived there. Zen lives up to his name while Scout was, well, all over the place.

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Jim also showed us his “current” bikes, two BMWs and his newest love, a Ducati.

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Dinner was a treat, eggplant parmigiano that was cooked to perfection with a broccoli and veggie side. So delicious! And for dessert? Homemade peach ice cream! We continue to eat like kings! The evening went by so fast it was dizzying. Jim took us back to the bus afterwards; we were very thankful for the ride.

It was so nice to see Annie and Jim; we have a really special place in our hearts for them. And our stomachs.

Next stop: Damascus, Virginia to ride the entirety of The Virginia Creeper Trail.

DC Redux: Charlie and Diane

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Charlie and Diane Bowers, our good friends and gracious hosts

We had an uneventful drive to Washington DC, except for getting on a couple of toll roads (Rt. 200 in MD) where you had to have EZ Pass, No Cash. We never encountered a toll booth but friends in the DC area said we would be hearing from them, “If they can catch up with you.” We’ll have to see how that plays out.

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We parked in the yard at Garden Gate Landscaping in Silver Spring, a great spot and close to the DC area. I used to work there when we lived in DC and Charlie Bowers, my boss, friend and mentor set us up with a quiet and shady spot for the bus. We laid low the first day we were there and it was nice to have a do nothing day. My cold was in full swing by that time so probably a good idea not to infect the general public. Just our friends! HA!

Since we lived in DC for four years, we didn’t do any of the tourist stuff; we had seen plenty at our leisure while we lived there. We stuck to Silver Spring, Ellicott City and Kensington.

The landscape design around the Garden Gate office and yard is completely different than when I worked there and it was a delight to explore.

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On Tuesday Charlie and Diane picked us up at the bus and we went to lunch at a Cuban restaurant Charlie had scoped out with a purpose in mind. Charlie is an exceptional guy. Not only is he an accomplished landscape designer with many award winning landscapes under his belt, he is an adventurer and photographer extraordinaire. When I worked with him at Garden Gate, I was just getting into computers and imaging and having the exposure and his expertise at hand during that time made a big difference in my development. I did the landscape imaging; taking a picture of a house and adding plantings and hardscapes so that the client could imagine what the finished result would look like. Now they have whole propgrams designed to do this, but back in 1991 we built up a plant library of images and Photoshopped everything. Great experience for me since I was just falling in love with Photoshop.

When Jim got transferred by SAS to Kansas City, it was very difficult to break the news to Charlie; he had invested heavily in my training and I felt bad for leaving; I really loved working there. He hired me to come back a couple of times to produce some portfolio books in “The Cave” at his house where I developed serious and ongoing printer envy.

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I designed this logo after we moved to KC; it was cool to see it on the trucks still.
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After we moved to Kansas City, Charlie came out and drew us up a landscape plan for our pond, patio and garden. The landscape and pond were the very best things about our house and the hardest to leave. We certainly enjoyed ourselves thoroughly while we lived there though. My friend Shirley always said we had the most beautiful back yard. She was right.

Anyway, he has an upcoming show at a gallery in Frederick, Maryland called Faces of Cuba. There are so many remarkable images in the group; it will be a very difficult task to narrow them down to the 20 or so he is going to hang. He had the idea of going around to the local Cuban restaurants and seeing if they would offer a coupon for attendees of the show. We had a delicious lunch at Cuba de Ayer and enjoyed catching up with them. It had been about 15 years since my last week-long trip to DC to produce portfolio books. We fell back into easy conversation, the hallmark of good and lasting friends.

After the lunch, he approached the owner and she told him that she was at that very minute looking online for art to buy for the restaurant! Can you say Good Timing? His show opens October 31 and if you are anywhere near the DC area you should plan to attend. The images are killer. See more of his exceptional art/photography/digital painting here.

Then we headed to his house in Ellicot City to see the revamping of his home landscape. It too was completely different than when I saw it last. Plus they have three beautiful Maine Coon kitties. Every landscape is better with a kitty in it. Lots of rock involved too.

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What a great visit with Diane and Charlie. Charlie and I could have talked art for many hours; he is getting into digital painting and all manner of apps and adjustments. And the printers and paper, the whole printmaking process I love. His stuff is really exceptional and he is prolific. The prints come alive on the paper. He has several whole exhibitions in just the finished work we saw. Such  a privilege and a true delight to take in so much good work. A treat for the eyes and the soul! Go see his show.

We are very fortunate and we know it. Our humble thanks to the universe for our blessing of friends.

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More photos on Flickr.