Winter 2013-14 Launch

16 January 2013

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The temperature is 46F and falling. The wind roars and howls outside, ample evidence of why the local wind-generators were spinning like tops on our way across SR58 in southern California. The sound and fury makes us smile as we luxuriate in our supreme comfort. We sit in our gently rocking Howie, inexpensively parked ($16) in Tehachapi at the Mt. Valley Airport RV Park.

Ralph is silently and obediently tucked in behind, his dark black bulk blending into the night, and still hooked up with the Howie/Ralph partnership’s elaborate towing interconnections. All four of us are having a blissful first night with no real mishaps for the day.

This is our first trip with Ralph (Ranger Ralph, my 1996 Ford 4×4 pickup), towed behind Howie (House On Wheels In Excess), our 10-year-old Winnebago RV. With the poor comfort and endurance of the motorcycle (not to mention a sprained ankle), the towing configuration for travel changed from “someday” to “will do”. When I initially began thinking about towing, I envisioned a somewhat simpler scenario than actually unfolded. There is a tremendous amount of detail preparation to do in order to make sure that the towing vehicle and the towed vehicle (everybody calls them “toads”) are appropriately set up and prepared for safe operations. The short list is deceptively brief:

  • Tow bar
  • Tow bar brackets
  • Safety chains
  • Electrical connections
  • Supplemental braking system

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clip_image006There are dozens of sub-tasks behind each of these, not to mention the need to first replace Ralph’s stock bumper and winch setup. Ralph also required transfer-case shifting modifications to prevent damage to the transmission during towing. Suffice it to say, more than a calendar month was absorbed in “getting things right”. I’m happy to report that the effort was nicely rewarded. Everything worked, and worked well, and our first 300 miles have passed without incident.

Towing “four down” is our chosen mode – – Ralph rolls along on his own tires. This means that if we get into a tight spot, we can unhook Ralph and maneuver independently, unlike a trailer situation, where you just have to pull or back the thing out of trouble. But four-down is VERY different from towing a trailer, or even a fifth-wheel trailer. Most of the oddness arises from the fact that the front wheels of any vehicle are castered, causing them to swivel toward the rear – – a natural centering effect for directional stability. This same feature works backwards in reverse; unless the steering wheel is firmly held, front wheels will quickly cock sideways when backing up.What this means is that you simply can NEVER back up, not even a few feet. Any toad will almost instantly reverse-caster its front wheels, causing huge forces on steering and suspension components, not to mention that the toad simply goes in the wrong direction, quickly. So Forward Only is the guiding rule.

Karin and I knew all about this in advance, of course, and were on the alert all day long to be sure we did not trap ourselves in any situation that required backing up. Well, all day long that is, until we mis-navigated across Tehachapi and ended up on a narrow dead-end street with no room to do the necessary (Forward Only) wide U-turn. Just as we were grudgingly about to get out and un-hook, we spotted a skinny little back alley in between two rows of houses. It was lined with trash cans and low-hanging branches, but we had just enough clearance to use it to escape back to the main drag. Cheap lesson.

17 January 2013

Freedom

Our trip this time is “only” a few weeks. When we say this, we get a mixed response – – and we’re reminded of the times when even a few days off was a blessing. But we’re getting (increasingly) spoiled, and now 2-3 weeks feels like a mini-vacation.

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Our “plans”, such as they are, are only to visit Quartzite, AZ for the annual RV show and huge gathering of RV folk, desert rats, snowbirds, and other varieties of visitors. That’s a couple of days from now, so we have time to relax, get used to traveling and living in Howie again, and see some sights that we ordinarily whiz by on our way to or from somewhere.

Jawbone

Jawbone Canyon is a favorite OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) playground of Angelinos. Just 100 miles away or so, 16 million people are ready to take a weekend break, and many of them wander up here to ride 4×4’s, motorcycles, and quads across the desert. Today, Thursday, we share the place only with workmen from the Parks service and LA Dept of Water and Power.

Jawbone is only 20 miles north of SR58, but we have never taken the side-road before. Now, we un-hook Ralph and go exploring. The most obvious feature of this area is the preponderance of water supply lines to LA. These massive pipes, 8 feet in diameter, 2” thick walls, traverse the desert for hundreds of miles to deliver water to the LA area. Sadly, LA’s thirst has long depleted the flow and reserves of places like Owen’s Lake, a once-rich desert oasis that has been reduced to little more than a giant alkaline pond. Later on, aggressive environmentalists narrowly saved Mono Lake (farther north) from a similar fate.

Long, long ago, when I lived in southern California, the LA population was more like 1 million. The desert was still relatively pristine, and my buddies and I rode dirt bikes and shot off our various rifles and shotguns and made hardly a dent in the landscape. Back then, Jawbone was just a place to go see, ride through, and move on.

Today, after the onslaught of multiple millions, the depredations huge desert events like the now-extinct Barstow-to-Vegas race, and untold hundreds of thousands of OHV users, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has cordoned off the desert into various parcels. Jawbone is one of the few remaining areas where users are allowed to ride/roam as they please. But it’s just not the same as yester-year. When everybody is cramped into a tiny space, the trails and tracks are everywhere, the essence of the desert subdued; Jawbone is more of an OHV Disneyland than a sample of the desert to experience.

But all of life, it seems, is a double-edged sword. Jawbone (and other OHV places like it) are carved up with off-roaders, and the rest of the desert has again become un-disturbed, isolated, and vast – – as it should be.

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We spend a half-day or so using our oh-so-comfortable steed (Ralph) to explore the trails and 4wd roads in Jawbone. We marvel at the agility and capability of the 4wd setup, and sand-washes and hills that would have daunted Papoose (the motorcycle) are virtual non-events.

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One of the many sights along the trail confounds us: a series of odd concrete ridges running for hundreds of yards alongside one of the trails. Fortunately, there’s a DWP worker up the road, and he informs us it’s the reinforced-concrete roof trusses for the underground aqueduct. We never would have guessed.

We traverse 40+ rough, rugged off-road miles in a few hours, arrive back at Howie, and realize how impossible the same trip would have been on Papoose. Sand, hills, rocks, and fatigue would have shortened the tour and wearied us thoroughly.

It appears that 4 wheels on-the-ground is going to be our mode of choice for some time to come.

18 January 2013

Jawbone to Quartzite

Yesterday, we arrived back in camp pretty early, around 3PM. With sunset at 5+, the day cooled quickly and we made an early dinner inside Howie, listened to some music, and turned in early, like before 9PM.

What had seemed like an empty recreation area during the day proved to be a secret hive of workers; starting at 3PM and continuing past 7PM, a regular stream of white pickups, utility trucks, and ten or fifteen empty gravel trucks, all went by on the way out to SR14 and homeward. Most of them seemed to be DWP-related. Apparently, keeping those 16 million toilets flushing and faucets running is major industry in this part of the world.

This morning, after that early bedtime, my eyelids snapped open like a released window-shade at about 5AM. Wide awake, I lay in bed for a bit while the heater warmed the cab, then got up to await the day. I think the last time this happened was when I was courting Karin, on a trip to Sedona, AZ. I had allowed her to convince me to wake up to watch the sunrise, thinking I might impress her with my flexibility and easy temper. We got married a few years later – – it must have worked, huh? Well, that was around 1999 or 2000, so I’m definitely not making a habit of rising early. Once every decade or two is plenty.

All that said, I got a chance to watch all the folks who left last night come trooping back to work starting well before dawn. It’s pretty peaceful watching other people go to work, and having no pressure to do so ourselves. I highly recommend it.

18-22 January 2013

Quartzite

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The town of Quartzite is a typically non-descript desert town, quiet streets and a few gas stations and truck stops, restaurants and such. Until January. At this time of year, the magnitude of the change is easy to describe but difficult to imagine. The population increases by 50X, from 2,000 to 100,000. The desert surrounding the town fills with RV’s of every shape, size, age, and description. Huge RV dealerships spring to life as if grown from the sand itself. Just one dealer I visited has almost 200 units in inventory, all driven to Quartzite within the last 6 weeks. He’s also sold 32 RV’s since December 2nd. There are probably 10-15 such dealerships in the town.

Out in the desert (where we camp), there are singles, groups, and virtual herds of RV’s. Some folks come to meet others who they see every year here. It’s common for a dozen RV’s to “circle the wagons” and make a micro-town, right in the middle of the desert. Camps range from impromptu flat spots to the enormous LTVA (Long Term Visitor Area) zones sponsored by the BLM.

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It’s difficult to take it all in from any particular vantage point. You kind of have to put yourself in 360-degree Imax mode. East, west, north and south are spattered with the white sides and roofs of countless motorhomes, trailers, truck campers, fifth-wheels, bus conversions – – you name it, they’re here in droves.

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It’s not exactly what we normally come to the desert to experience. But it does have a certain sense of camaraderie, at least for a few days. And of course the trade shows, flea markets, and other attractions are always good for some entertainment.

One thing that quickly becomes clear – – people like their comforts, and they like their toys. Here’s an excellent example: a guy driving a 38 foot motorhome, pulling a 2.5-ton diesel pickup, which is in turn loaded with a 4-seat quad on and two motorcycles in the bed. There’s probably a half-ton of iron he welded up just to support all that stuff. We couldn’t wait for him to unload it, very entertaining.

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We talked to him a little about building it and using it – – there was plenty of time to do so, since it took him around an hour to construct the ramp scaffolding and get it ready to unload.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t seem to get much use out of it, and we saw it all loaded up just a day later.

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Sad Parting

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Unfortunately, my sweet Karin was not able to stay here for this week. A family urgency called her back to San Jose. The night before she returned home, I snapped her fixing dinner for us inside Howie, with the desert sky darkening in the background.

We were lucky enough to score a Southwest flight out of Phoenix, which is about 2 hours east (at the Arizona 75mph limit). Ralph and I dutifully trucked out I-10 and tearfully left Karin at PHX.

I find little solace in the desert right now, but I do have Siegi and Linda for family company. I hope Karin gets to wrap things up in a few days. Wherever I am then, I’ll find an airport and she can fly back to me. But this is a fairly short trip, and if she stays home for too long, it may not make sense for us to join up again before I have to get back home anyway. We shall see.

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