As promised earlier, here is the saga of our 2011/12 Snowbird endurance run, from Beautiful Downtown Kingston WA to Key West FL and return, and the myriad disasters which it entailed. It’s adapted mostly intact from an article I wrote for the WA State BMW Riders Monthly, “The Shaft”, where yours truly serves as Editor-in-Chief. Hope you like the story!
Regular readers will know that yours truly and his faithful Co-Pilot Susan have realized that our 14-day moto-touring endurance limit doesn’t suit the exploration of this great country of ours. (Much of which we have yet to see – because the US Navy and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization kept us overseas for most of the last 40 years). Our new K1600GTL, the SuperSonic Helga III, is well suited to long-distance sightseeing adventures. But she won’t carry enough baggage to keep either of us comfortable for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch. And no – we do NOT camp, at least not in a tent, since a weekend deluge decades ago which is burned in our psyches still.
So in 2010 we acquired “The Hutch” (photo right). She’s what’s commonly called a Toy-Hauler; a 5th wheel trailer with a garage and a loading ramp. She lets us tour at leisure and in comfort, with the SS Helga on board and ready to roll. What a deal! Or so we once believed. In 2011 we did a “proof of concept” cross-country tour with the beast, which confirmed those optimistic ideas. From Seattle to California, to Charlotte NC, South to Key West and back home again, we escaped the worst of the NW winter, visited friends and family in lots of cool places, and generally had a ball. But we only managed a few days in Key West – which called out to us “Come back – there’s loads more to see and do here – and it’s 80 degrees every day…”! The masochists among you can read about that trip in the earlier post below.
Having once heard the Siren sing, we again pointed Bertha (the F250 Diesel) and The Hutch South on New Year’s Eve 2011, rolling toward the sun for a second-annual escape from NW Winter. What a feeling! What glorious optimism! How wrong could we be?!? A quick stop in Chico CA got a 50 gal aux tank grafted into Bertha’s bed – giving us a new 600 mile range between fuel stops. Heaven! And on we went, bound for the Mojave Desert and High Adventure. Yeee haaaaa…
Until we opened the cargo ramp to off-load Helga in 29 Palms CA. As I unstrapped the bike, I heard Susan say “Hey! – the Cargo door is breaking!” “No way…”, thinks I. Until I cast an eye at the non-skid covering the door, and see it tearing apart at the hinges, exposing splintering plywood core below (photo left). Uh oh! This is NOT a good sign! The break was just starting, the door was still plenty sturdy, so we rolled Helga out and had a fabulous day exploring Joshua Tree National Park. Got her successfully stowed away and door sealed up next day, and decided that Helga’s outings on this trip would be minimized, ‘til we somehow got the door situation sorted. And off went disgruntled e-mail to the manufacturers of the trailer and the door. I knew that RV makers are quick to foist warranty claims off on their component suppliers. No way they would touch this, I figured. And rightly so; they fired back that I should “contact the door manufacturer”. Uh huh. I know. Thank you so very much. I already did…
The door manufacturer was just as quick to point out that a three year old door was waaaayyyy out of its 1-year warranty, so they were sorry but couldn’t help me. You can imagine I wasted no time replying, pointing out that structural failure in normal use is NOT a warranty issue, but evidence of faulty design, and a major safety hazard, etc, etc. Use of the term “safety hazard” always gets the attention of the legal department, and sure enough, a week later came the offer to provide a new door “as a gesture of goodwill”, if I would pay shipping and installation costs. I agreed, rather than spend half a lifetime arguing the subject, and advised them to stand-by till we got home where my local shop could do the install. So off we went to Key West.
The Keys are a little bit of the Caribbean that you happen to be able to drive to. Once ensconced in the Naval Station Key West RV Park, down came the faulty door (VERY gently), and out came Helga. She would stay outside through our 5+ week stay in the Keys. While the weather is great for riding, the roads and scenery leave a LOT to be desired. Picture a place with ONE road, 100 miles long and straight as a die, with a 35 mph speed limit and loads of traffic. Helga was worked out very rarely on this leg of the trip. But she did a fair amount of low-speed, boring beach exploration and cruising between islands. Not too bad for North-Westerners biking in January and February!
Came time to leave, down came the door again (the cracks alarmingly larger than before), and a thorough inspection concluded that Helga could go back into the garage. But it seemed clear that the number of opening/closing cycles available to this door was going to be VERY limited. Ouch! We were 4200 miles from home, and had planned several Moto excursions on-route. Hmmmmm…. Time to modify the plan!
The next Port of Call for the good ship The Hutch was the metropolis of Lumberton, Mississippi – a tiny burg in the piney woods, a very long way from anywhere. But also the location of a week-long Medieval Recreationist fair (photo) at which our Daughter was going to renew her marriage vows on the 10th anniversary of her wedding. In other words: a mandatory stop-over. Helga’s garage had to morph into a sewing room to make costumes for the big event, so there was no choice but one more sortie into the open air. The plan was just one-time in-and-out, then we’d button her up for the duration of the trip home. Helga came out, with some trepidation but little complaint. We passed a very pleasant and exciting week in the 15th Century with our Daughter, her husband and 4000 of their close friends, then it came time to hit the road for home.
When the door came down to re-admit Helga to her lair, it all but fell off the hinges! There was NO WAY we were going to get Helga’s 780 lb up that rickety piece of rotting cardboard. We just barely managed to hoist the wreckage into the air and pound the sprung frame into the door jamb far enough to lock it in place for the road. But then what?? Contemplating the options, it seemed the only viable ones were to spend several days (or maybe a LOT more) in the MS woods, trying to get a new door manufactured, delivered and installed; or to leave Helga behind in MS for her Pilot to return later in the Spring to drive her home. Hmmmm… A forced, 3000 mile tour of the Rockies and Cascades on the SuperSonic Helga? What’s to decide? Done! Helga ducked into a friend’s shed alongside his garden equipment, and The Hutch was on the road home without her usual loaded garage.
Most of the return trip was a great pleasure. We turned North in Flagstaff, visited the Grand Canyon, had a fantastic day’s drive North of the Canyon into Utah, and spent a marvelous day in Bryce Canyon NP. Oh, we were wishing we had Helga with us! But oh well… It was a great drive anyway. That is, until we reached Idaho and the Colombia Gorge toward Portland. First – the water pump blew it’s fuse. When I replaced it, it promptly blew another! OK – no potable water pump. Not a problem unless you’re dry-camping, which for the moment we were not. But an item for the annual maintenance list for sure. The next day I noticed the coolant reservoir spitting fluid. I topped it off a couple of times, then headed for the local Ford Truck dealer the next morning. They gave me the bad news that the spitting cap was almost certainly due to a blown head gasket, which would be a major repair job. Much more ugly news!
Figuring the engine wouldn’t fail catastrophically in the next couple hundred miles, we opted to limp home at a reduced cruising speed. The next day, I noticed a misalignment of the rear-most of the three axles. An under-carriage inspection revealed that one of the leaf-spring hanger brackets had self-destructed, and the leaf spring was bearing on the underside of the I-Beam trailer frame. (RV suspension failures are not uncommon, and beefed up aftermarket parts are plentiful). At least the misalignment was slight enough that she rolled fine, so we could still head for home.
Then Susan noticed that one of the trailer tires was pretty low (they carry 80 lb of air). Out came the compressor, and I aired it up. It seemed to be holding for the moment, but when we stopped at Ft. Lewis for our last night on the road, it was almost flat. Pulling it off revealed a split carcass! They call these OEM RV tires “China Bombs” after their country of manufacture and their known propensity for self-destruction. I swapped that one for the spare, but knew full well that where one goes, the rest will follow. At 7 (including the spare) times $300 per tire, the replacement set was going to be a very painful hit. Needless to say: the final leg home was made at the slowest cruise speed of the entire 8500 mile trip!
We made it home safely enough, but the series of repairs has been painful. I won’t go into details of Bertha’s engine overhaul, except to say that she came home just short of a five-figure invoice. Yikes!! I’m happy to warn Ford Truck owners of what to expect from their 6.0 lt Diesels, if they don’t already know…
The door manufacturer was as good as their word, and provided the new ramp/door – which I had significantly reinforced both in and out before we installed it (before & after photos at right). The suspension components and water pump were hardly a blip among all the other items, and there are now 7 shiny-new Michelens in place of the China Bombs. I could hardly believe the difference in weight between the OEMs and the Michelens. The new tires are EACH about 20 lb heavier than the bubble-gum balloons they replaced. I guess I should be happy about that!?
As for my “Dream tour of the Rockies” with Helga – once I figured out the cost of flying back to MS, food and lodging and gas on the way home, and the time needed to do all that, and bounced those things against the calendar and budget availability, it was just WAY cheaper and smarter to have Allied Van Lines bring her home. (Crap)! She was SO embarrassed to arrive here in the back of a moving van! But at least she’s home, and we’re back to riding local loops.
As I write this, The Hutch is having her axles aligned (by laser, no less) and will be back in the storage shed next week. She’ll load up Helga and we’ll give her a post-hospitalization physical therapy session at the Menlo Rally. Then there’ll be an annual Family Weekend outing to the Colombia River in August. But I’m gonna be pretty busy this year with my local Rotary Club, so long trips are not in the cards till at least winter ’13. By that time, I’m hoping we’ll have paid off the bills from this one…
You may know that we don’t have a boat. That’s not because I don’t love them (Oh – I do, I do!). It’s because we’ve learned that a boat is a hole in the water into which you have to pour LOTS of money. After this last trip, I’m afraid that Susan may be right when she describes The Hutch to me. She’s taken to saying: “… but Sweetheart, it really IS a boat!…”