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Archive for May, 2006

Preventative maintenance

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I was a bit worried these past couple of days. On our way into Las Vegas on Monday, I noticed the transmission acting strangely. What had been a silky-smooth tranny was now occasionally slipping and shuddering in first gear. Did we toast the transmission from too much towing?

I didn’t want to say anything about it on the blog until I knew what was happening. This morning I took it in to the local Nissan dealer here in Las Vegas. United Nissan provided me with superb customer service and I felt the truck was in good hands, but I was pretty spooked by the possibility of major transmission repair.

Fortunately, it was not a serious problem. United Nissan called back today to say the problem was merely a leaking line to the transmission cooler. Apparently the fluid level got low enough to cause the symptoms. The Armada does not have a dipstick on the transmission that is user-accessible. Like some other manufacturers, they are moving toward a sealed transmission that is never opened until the recommended service interval. So I haven’t been checking the fluid level regularly, nor does the Owner’s Manual advise us to do so.

United Nissan believes that the problem was caught in time and no transmission damage occurred. The replacement line was in stock and now we’re back in business. I’ll pick the truck up Friday after my meetings.

This episode reminded me of how dearly we rely on our truck. Naturally, we’re a one-car family, and if our truck is not 100% reliable we could be stranded with a big trailer somewhere that we’d rather not be. So if you’ve noticed that we seem to stop in for service a lot, you’re right. Preventative maintenance and dealing with issues before they become problems are very important. Plus, since 90% of our miles are towing, we maintain to the “severe service” intervals, which means more frequent service than normal. It’s worth the small extra cost to be sure we keep cruising the roads trouble-free.

Next major maintenance item will be probably tires. I think we’ll be buying a new set around 30-35k miles, based on the current rate of wear. Our tires are loaded to near the Armada’s maximum axle weight ratings most of the time, and that means they wear more quickly. At our current rate, we’ll need them this fall.

Working on The Strip

Eleanor and Emma flew back to Vermont today, for a round of routine doctor and dentist appointments. Eleanor is going to have some allergy testing done to see if she is a candidate for desensitizing injections, or other treatments. Emma is going to go get spoiled by her grandparents, and get her teeth checked.

Note to prospective full-timers. Always remember to remove the bikes from the roof before you go to the airport! Otherwise, you have to park in the “Economy” lot far far away …

I am staying back in Las Vegas to do some work. This week I’ve got meetings at Caesar’s Palace. Brett has flown in to help out, and he’s crashing in the trailer with me tonight, then we are moving to Caesar’s for the next two nights. Since we won’t need the truck, I’m taking the opportunity to drop off the Armada at the Nissan dealer to have the transmission fluid changed tomorrow morning.

So it will not be a wild week of fun, but it’s all part of the adventure in a way. The working life is part of the traveling life, for us.

Las Vegas, NV

Sadly we have left Zion National Park, but not before one more long play session between Emma and Hope (Doug & Trish’s daughter), and a big gabfest for me as well. Here’s a photo from last night, when Emma and Hope were playing on Emma’s bed and the bunk above it.

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Our trailer boasts a small souvenir of our Zion visit. This pretty much sums up our philosophy these past few days…

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Now we are in Las Vegas, 150 miles away from Zion. It’s not particularly glamorous here in this asphalt parking lot of a campground, but it is convenient for the business I need to do this week. And it’s cheap to camp in Las Vegas. Full hookups here, with the Good Sam discount, are about $22, and there are even cheaper places to be had.

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Eleanor and Emma are flying home tomorrow. I’ll be busy with work for a few days, and then this weekend there will be time to play. I’ll tell you about that later. For now, here’s a quick Sign of The Week, as seen along the road from Zion somewhere in Utah. I don’t know what it’s referring to … and I don’t think I want to know!

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Emerald Pools at Zion

It is decided: Zion is a favorite spot of ours. We’ll be back. Terrific desert weather, greenery, wildlife, beautiful scenery, peace and quiet thanks to the shuttle bus system, and thanks to good cell phone coverage, I can work from here too!

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Today we decided to hike the Emerald Pool trails: Lower, Upper, and Middle, in that order. The total hiking distance was about 4 miles, which is average for us and well below Emma’s tolerance level of about six miles. Fabulous hikes! Scenery that you just can’t believe. The photos don’t do justice to the beauty of this place.

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The Upper Emerald pool is not emerald-colored at all, but it is a tranquil and lovely spot at the end of a hot hike. Technically, no swimming is allowed, but the sign didn’t say “no wading,” so we did and cooled off nicely.

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The Middle Emerald trail offers fantastic views and crosses over the top of the Lower Emerald Trail. Water from the sandstone drips down constantly to make small waterfalls.

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There’s a lot to do in Zion besides hiking. For example, you can rent horses for trail rides, which seems like a fine idea. I think they organize these from the Zion Inn, which is midway up the canyon. The Inn looks like a fine place to spend a few days if you don’t have an Airstream. ;-)

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Bicycling is possible on the riverside Pah’rus Trail for a few miles, and there’s a museum right up from the campground too. In the town of Springdale, just outside the park gates, there is a giant screen movie theater and the usual artsy shopping, restaurants, and outfitters to browse too.

We got back around 3:30 and took the shuttle into Springdale to try the local pizza joint. We’ve been guzzling huge amounts of fluids due to the dry air and high temperatures (well into the 90s again today), so it was nice that the pizza place has a free refill policy. After some browsing in town and at the Visitor Center, we headed back home to the Airstream to shower and settle in …. and then a knock came on the door from surprise visitors Trish and Doug!

Turns out Doug has been following our blog for months, and since they live in nearby Kanab, they decided to look us up while camping in Zion for a couple of nights. They have a Casita 17-footer, which is very similar to the Airstream Caravel we started with two years ago, and they have a lovely 7-year-old daughter named Hope. Emma and Hope took off on their bicycles, and played checkers, and the adults spent the evening talking about everything, until 10:30. What a nice bonus!

Meeting people like Trish and Doug is a big part of the reason we travel like this. They’re wonderful people, full of ideas and enthusiasm, and we’re glad to know them. They’re not the only people we’ve met this weekend, either. Yesterday we met a couple from Essex NY (near our home town) who winter in Tucson AZ, and we plan to look them up later this summer when we are back east. You meet the most interesting people in National Parks. This has been the most enjoyable weekend we’ve had in a while.

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Hiking Zion, slowly

Zion is one of those rare places that is magnificent in many ways, everywhere you turn. This morning we walked from our campsite along the paved bike/hike Pa’rus trail and within a hundred feet spotted some of the wild turkeys that have been reintroduced to the park. Towering red cliffs of red Navajo sandstone surrounded us as we walked through a beautiful field to catch the shuttle bus.

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Last night in the ranger talk we learned about how the many arches here (and in Arches National Park, where we were last October), are formed. The red sandstone is porous, and absorbs billions of gallons of rainwater and snowmelt. The water percolates down through the sandstone very slowly, taking centuries to reach a layer of impermeable shale or a fault. There, it emerges from the sandstone, and at that point freeze-thaw cycles cause the sandstone to collapse, leaving arch formations.

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The photo above is an embyronic arch being formed along the Riverside Walk trail. Note the water forming a pool at the bottom. If this cliff were thinner, we might have a walk-through arch in a few thousand years, but this is the base of a mountain of sandstone.

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Despite pleas from the rangers, warning signs, and the threat of $100 fines, people still feed the animals and the result is that the squirrels will come right up to you and beg for food. This happens with mule deer too, and eventually they bite people and have to be shot. Even our six-year-old knows better than to feed the “cute animals”. I wish more people would pay attention.

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The vertical relief in the canyon is just mind-boggling. Like the California redwoods, this is a challenging place to photograph. Above you can see some climbers working their way up a fissure. They were about 500-600 feet up when I took this photo, and only halfway to their goal!

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“Weeping rock” is another example of water being squeezed out of the sandstone by an impermeable rock layer. People come up here to stand under a natural alcove where it drips water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Spots like this were cool oases in the park as we hiked. The outside temperature was in the 90s, but dipped into the 70s in the shady and damp spots.

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Wildlife is everywhere if you look. We noticed most people never slow down long enough to see. We spotted the wild turkeys, lizards, a Western Red Start (a red-bellied bird, I might have the name wrong), a hummingbird (tried to get nectar from one of the graphics on our trailer!), butterflies, canyon wrens, caterpillars, and of course begging squirrels. They have mountain lions here, in theory, but of course we didn’t see any.

The plan was to resume hiking after lunch but nobody seemed to have the energy. We got back at 2:30 and wilted in the heat. The Virgin River, which flows through this canyon, is running about 52 degrees and too fast for swimming. I fell asleep on the bed after lunch, reading an escapist novel by Tom Clancy and when I awoke at 4:30 nobody seemed to want to go anywhere.

It’s been a nice easy day. We’ve been playing checkers and now Emma is helping Eleanor cook dinner. I’ve promised to make popcorn for the movie later tonight. We’re going to skip the ranger talk because the topic looks a bit dull.

Solar report: we were down 44 amps when we woke up this morning, but generated 30 amps by 2:30, and eventually got back all but 10 amps. Not bad, especially considering we also recharged both laptops and camera batteries. If we didn’t have solar, we’d be killing our batteries by tomorrow night. As is, we can stay indefinitely. I like the fact that now everything electrical that we use (cameras, laptops, lights, pumps, Internet box, cell phones, etc) is powered by the sun.

Zion National Park, Springdale UT

This morning Emma was pleased to find that her homeschool project of growing some herbs has yielded seedlings, and she insisted I take a picture of them. The desert sun and some nice soil donated by friends in Texas has caused her cilantro and chive to pop up.

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The drive from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to Zion National Park is all scenic. Along the way, we got glimpses of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Vermillion Cliffs, and passed through the little town of Kanab. The scenery ranges from dunes to “painted desert” to scrubby evergreen forests and finally to red sandstone.

We had heard from friends over the years that Zion was marvelous, but nothing prepared us for how incredible it is. We came in the east entrance, which brings you along an incredible and impossibly winding road and through two tunnels blasted out of the sandstone.

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The second tunnel is narrow and for the past decade the park service has required “large vehicles” including all RVs to pay a fee of $15 to go through it. They have rangers stationed at either end who stop traffic so that RVs can go right down the middle. Basically, for the $15 you get to rent the entire tunnel for your private use for a few minutes. We made the most of it, cruising the long (nearly a mile!) and dark tunnel (no lighting at all) at a leisurely 20 MPH.

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Once arrived in Zion Canyon, you can’t help but be absolutely amazed. Every direction is an incredible scenic view of towering sandstone walls, over 1000 feet high. Even though there is only one road leading north-south through the canyon, there is very little traffic because the Park Service instituted a shuttle system back in 2000. It works great. Just hop on the shuttle that runs every 7-10 minutes and you’ve got a free guided tour of the canyon with stops just about everywhere.

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The weather is superb. It was well into the 90s today but only 36% humidity and it felt much cooler than it was. Our campsite is partially shaded but I expect we will have enough sun to recharge our batteries again. Amazingly, there is cell phone service here, and so we can keep the blog updated every night. So we’ve got everything we need plus some … and three nights to enjoy this great park.

Tonight it has dropped into the low 70s, so we can sleep with the windows open, and tomorrow the forecast is for 99 degrees. We plan to spend most of the day hiking some of the park’s signature trails in the shady parts of the canyon, near waterfalls and pools.

Sedona to Glen Canyon

Our campground last night, Rancho Sedona, distinguished itself in two ways today. First, it became only the second campground advertising wireless Internet which had a signal strong enough to penetrate our Airstream’s aluminum skin. Second, the sewer drain didn’t. So when I pulled that black handle “¦ well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Turns out they have what they euphemistically refer to as “a delicate septic system.” Apparently when somebody downstream flushes the wrong thing, everybody upstream has a bad day. The service guy came over and did what you do at home: he plunged their drain line. He told me that the last time he was called out, it was a screwdriver in the line. People flush weird things.

We took the southern route out of Sedona to see more of the great scenery and to visit Montezuma’s Castle National Monument as well. The monument is small, basically consisting of ancient Native American cliff dwellings, and a good Visitor’s Center. The temperatures were flirting with 100 while we were there. I leaned against a brown metal railing and burned my elbow.

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Just outside the Monument is one of the ubiquitous Native American casinos that dot the western landscape, and an open parking lot where we found a family selling frycakes and handmade jewelry. We’ve been seeing these frycake stands often since we entered New Mexico and Arizona, and since it was lunchtime I proposed we stop and try a few.

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They’re a little like the fried dough you get at county fairs, but lighter, crispier, and not nearly as nauseating afterward. I buried mine in honey, Emma chose cinnamon sugar, and Eleanor mixed powdered sugar and salt for a kettle-corn sort of flavor. They were all great.

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Then it was northward. I-17 rises as it approached Flagstaff, which is nothing like what I expected. Being up around 6000 and 7000 feet, the area is green with pine trees. The centerpiece is a peak 12,000 ft tall with snow at the top. Then Route 89 floats gently down to 5000 feet as it goes through National Forests and tribal reservations, including the large Navajo Nation.

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The route to Page, AZ is beautifully scenic and often rather lonely. The Echo Cliffs parallel the road on the eastern side, and little villages populated by Native Americans are the only breaks in over 100 miles. Coming into Page, a town founded as recently as 1957, you are rewarded with stunning views of red rock formations and eventually Lake Powell.

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Lake Powell was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, which you can walk across for a dizzying but gorgeous view of the canyon and lake below. There’s a Visitor Center but we arrived after it was closed.

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Just a mile down the road, we turned off for the Wahweap Marina area, which is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Our National Parks pass with Eagle hologram got us in for free, saving $15. (That paid for the Eagle hologram right there.) Down the road are wonderful views of Lake Powell, the marina filled with houseboats, and Navajo Mountain.

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I was hoping for a free campsite somewhere, but even boondocking in this campground costs $19. For what, I’m not sure. Oh well, it’s lovely and quiet. Since this is a warm night, still 84 degrees at 11 pm, and we’ll have to sleep with the windows open, it should beat the noisy Wal-Mart Supercenter up the road, where we saw at least six $100k+ Class A motorhomes parked for free.

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