Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Driving a Whale

Monday was moving day. We’re taking The Bus from Mahomet to Sycamore, IL., where we’ve rented space at an RV park. It’s a little less than 200 miles the way we came. There also a detour due to construction on the two-lane state highway we’d normally take north, so I planned to take I-57 about 40 miles until I could cut over to our normal route.
The wind was gusting that day, my friends. And while driving The Bus isn’t hard, it did take all of my attention to learn how it responds while nature was trying to blow it off the road. One feature of The Bus is it’s great width — 9 feet wide measured from one rear-view mirror to the other. Interstate highway lanes are usually 12 feet — so there’s a foot and a half on each side to spare. Some state and county roads are less than 12 feet. This could get interesting.
I’m not sure if this is the right way to describe it, but I drive by instinct. In other words, normally, when driving a car, I don’t think a lot about the basic mechanics of what I’m doing. To stay centered in my lane, I’ve learned where my eyes should be relative to the lane itself — slightly left of the greasy streak running down the center of the lane. My mind has this information imprinted on it, programmed in, and my mind works together with the muscles of my arms to automatically keep the car centered in the lane. I could be thinking about work, our kids, my misfortune in being a Cubs fan, or anything else, and the car stays in the center of the lane. Works great when driving a car… doesn’t work as well with The Bus. No, it took a while to re-program my mind so that it knows my eyes should now be a couple feet closer to the center-line. Aha! And, a couple feet closer to the rear-view mirror of the semi-trailer truck that’s barreling toward me at a closing speed of 130 mph! After an hour or so without “smacking” even one rear-view mirror, the terror subsided, and I started to settle into a groove.
Another great feature of The Bus, is it’s length. The car that I normally drive has a wheelbase, the distance between the front and rear wheels, of 100 inches. The Bus, on the other hand, has a wheelbase of 258 inches, and it’s almost 40 feet long overall. When a gust of wind hits from the right side it starts to blow The Bus off the left side of the road. Aah, but I’m an intelligent person and, not wanting to die by hitting a bridge abutment, I gently apply corrective steering toward the right to counter the wind and in order to stay in my lane. At the same time, the wind decides to stop blowing for a few seconds and my intelligent, gentle corrective steering input to the right is now taking me rapidly off the right side of the road! Jeesh! Where’s the wind when I need it? The right thing to do now is to apply quick opposite correction, to the left — just as another gust of wind hits, from the right, multiplying my quick opposite correction to the left. About now, the front of The Bus is pointed at the International House of Pancakes restaurant on the west side of the road and the back of The Bus is pointed at the Flying J truckstop on the east side, and the guy driving the UPS truck behind me wonders why there’s a motorhome sideways in the road ahead. The only thing that can prevent disaster at this point is a frantic correction the right and a quick prayer that the wind keeps blowing long enough to get this thing under control. I can only report what it was like from the inside of The Bus — others will have to say what it looked like from outside. My guess is that it looked a lot like a whale moving its tail from side to side while swimming up an interstate highway.
After the first few miles things smoothed out. It got easier to keep The Bus going in a straight line. I learned not to over-correct; learned that smaller steering inputs were all that were necessary; learned to relax. By the time we made it to Sycamore, driving The Bus seemed much more natural. And Dar’s color and breathing are pretty much back to normal.

2 Days in Mahomet

R&S Sales in Mahomet, IL., our dealer, had an open house/customer appreciation day on Saturday, and, with impeccable timing, we arrived just as lunch was being served. Before firing up The Bus and heading over to our site at TinCup RV Park, Dar wanted to walk through some of the RVs they had on display. People are people, and just like owners of traditional houses, some RV owners are always looking for some new decorating idea or new feature they’ll want on their “next one”. I just know that somewhere, deep inside, she’s got a wish-list that I’ll have to contend with someday.
Arriving at TinCup mid-afternoon, set-up was easy and it went a lot faster than the first time. Basic set-up is just getting properly positioned on the site, leveling the unit, hooking up electric power, fresh water, and sewer, and then opening the slide-outs. We have a livable unit in only 15 minutes or so. As we travel around the country we’ll also be doing a lot of what they call “boondocking” (living in the “boondocks”, I suppose) which means living totally self-contained and not hooked up to anything. Our fresh water tank holds 105 gallons and with judicious use of all resources we could live for at least a week, maybe two, totally self-contained. That capability really expands the range of places we can go and stay. I’ll write more about boondocking as time goes along.
Since we only had one day with The Bus before this, our main objective is to learn and use every system and appliance. Just as anyone has to go through a learning-curve on a new appliance, we have about 50 things and systems to become familiar with. There’s no point in getting more detailed here, but everything we tried did work.
Sunday afternoon a break was in order, so we explored Lake-of-the-Woods park. This large park, located within walking distance of our campsite, is owned and managed by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. It runs along both banks of the Sangamon River, and offers hiking, golfing, fishing, picnicking, a covered bridge, a botanical garden, and the Early American Museum — more than enough to explore in a few hours. It’s been my contention that many people, maybe most, have been convinced to seek recreation mostly at big events, big cities, big concerts, places like Las Vegas, Disneyland, a Cubs game… while smaller things like this park are largely unknown and really under appreciated, especially beyond the local area that tends them. This park, which we didn’t know existed before arriving in Mahomet, in some ways represents what our Sabbatical is all about — experiencing and living in rural America, learning its history, and enjoying those smaller, low-key, simpler recreational opportunities. There’s a few pictures of this park in an album titled “Lake of the Woods Park” in our photo albums — please check it out.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Weekend with the Bus

We’ll be camping this weekend. Since the garage sale has been pushed back a few weeks, we’re taking advantage of the time to get a little more experience with The Bus, work with its systems, and start to “settle in” to the place that’ll be home for the next few years. It looks like the weather’s going to be good too. This time, we’re taking a coffee pot! On Monday, we’re moving it to an RV park closer to home. Check back for updates.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The First Time

I don’t know when we made the final decision to pursue this lifestyle, but as I’ve written here before, it was sparked by a realization more than three years ago that this was something that somehow appealed to us, and that might be possible to do from a financial standpoint. The probability that this was going to happen gradually increased in the ensuing months and years. But during that time there was always an “out” — we still had income, we still had a house, we still hadn’t made any irreversible moves. We could still give up the idea and carry on with our lives as before. There was a certain amount of comfort in that “out”, because the idea of this lifestyle, really, is crazy. It’s not what most “normal” people aspire to do. But what’s “normal” anyway… and the idea continued to incubate; the probability continued to grow. It slowly, steadily, grew until we just assumed, at some point, that it was going to happen.
For three years, we surveyed the field of motorhomes out there. We attended RV shows, participated in two Life on Wheels multi-day conferences, talked with motorhome owners and motorhome manufacturers, visited motorhome plants, read the blogs and websites of fulltimers, checked RV Consumer Group ratings, and talked and dreamed and talked some more.
Besides the motorhome itself, there were lifestyle issues we needed to be comfortable with. How will we handle a self-imposed downsizing from almost 2500 square feet to just a bit over 300 square feet? How can we really handle this financially since there’ll be no regular income from jobs? There’ll have to be a ton of compromises and dramatically different ways of doing simple daily tasks. While we both have some tent camping experience and have stayed with family and friends in their travel trailers, neither of us had any experience with a motorhome. It was easy to come up with reasons why we shouldn’t do this. But we talked and dreamed, sipped some wine, and talked some more.
And that brings us to February of this year, 2007. Our house was on the market and close to being sold. We made our second trip to Newmar, the manufacturer of the motorhomes we felt were best suited for our needs. Within a week, we had a firm order on the books and the motorhome was scheduled for production. Now an irreversible move had been made. We were committed. Probability had become certainty. In a few more weeks, the motorhome was manufactured and shipped to the delivering dealer.
This past Friday, April 27th, we drove down to R&S Sales, the Newmar dealer in Mahomet, IL and met our new home for the first time. The people from R&S, including General Manager Jeff Robinson, greeted us warmly and made us feel comfortable. The motorhome had been checked over and washed, and was ready for inspection. The culmination of three years of effort was right there before us… it had come to life! As we stood and took in that first sight, looking it over carefully, it was almost as if it was checking us out too.



We proceeded to do the “walk-around” initial inspection with Service Manager Tom Szymanski. This initial inspection lasted a little over 2 hours, and because there’s so much information, so many tips and “how-to’s”, Tom made an audio recording of the entire session in order to give us a copy on CD we could always refer to later. We started with the interior first, going over every switch, faucet, system, appliance, and furnishing. Then on to the exterior, all the storage and system bays, engine and chassis, and roof. We had the intention of making our own notes as we went along, but, in retrospect, I think we were too overwhelmed to think, much less write. I went into “absorb” mode, just letting everything flow over me and hoping some of it would stick.
From our research, we knew Newmar was one of the higher quality manufacturers in our price range. But we also knew that “RV”, in reference to quality, can often stand for “Really Variable”. However, our initial inspection turned up just three or four minor items that needed to be addressed, and we felt an overall sense of good quality in the unit.
I was anxious to take it for a spin around the block at that point, so Tom arranged for a gentleman by the name off Gary Flanigan, a Sales Consultant at R&S, to go along in case we need help or get into trouble. It’s been a few years since my truck driving days back when I was in college, but it didn’t take too long to get used to how it handled, the feel of the throttle and air brakes. We went up the Interstate a few miles and brought a two-lane road back. My approach was to take no risks, go slow and easy, scan the mirrors often, and take turns a little (maybe, a lot) wider than I do in my Blazer. At 8-1/2 feet wide, 12-1/2 feet high, and almost 40 feet long, its a lot like a bus — and that may be what we call it… “The Bus”.
R&S has an RV Park/Campground nearby, and we arranged to stay there that Friday night. So after we got back from the test drive, and did a little paperwork, Dar and I were off to our first night in The Bus. Steve Robinson, the RV Park host, was just the best, and hung around while we got situated on our site. Gary Flanigan from R&S also came over to make sure we were doing ok, and brought along a case of “adult beverage” so we could unwind at the end of a truly amazing day. Everyone was helpful and it just added to our sense that maybe, just maybe, we’re making the right decision. Even the weather cooperated by being sunny and relatively warm for April. It was already feeling like home.



After running into Champaign for dinner, we went “home” and continued with our personal inspection, going over things in a more detailed way, with a more critical eye. Staying overnight provides the opportunity to use the water heater, the shower and other bathroom facilities, and they all performed similarly to what we were used to at our “old” home. Sleeping was a little more challenging, since we ordered The Bus without a mattress intending to use one we’re used to… so it was the sofa and recliner for the night.
In the morning we went through every cabinet, drawer, and storage space taking interior dimensions and logging them for later use as we’re doing our storage plan. Remember, we’re going to be living in this thing and space is very limited. Our initial impression is that bedroom storage is less than we may need, and kitchen/living storage will be adequate. There are large spaces in the “basement”, those bins under the floor that are accessible through doors on either side, so most of the overflow will end up in plastic storage bins down there. Of course, those “large spaces” will surely shrink quickly. It’s going to work — we’ll make it work. Besides, how much room do I need for a few T-shirts and some shorts?
About noon we broke camp, and headed back to R&S, where we’ve arranged to keep The Bus for a few more weeks. I assumed there’d be a few items they’d have to work on, so leaving it there will be convenient for them (they can work on it as they have time) and for us (we don’t have a place to park it near home yet).
So that’s our story of the first day with The Bus. Overall impressions: 1) build quality of the motorhome exceeded our expectations, 2) Dar’s happy with the colors and materials we selected (I have no ability in this area), 3) everyone we ran into was friendly and helpful — reinforcing our impressions from the Life On Wheels conferences that there are a lot of cool people out there fulltiming, 4) we’re now confident that both the lifestyle and The Bus are right for us for the next few years, and 5) this is going to be a real hoot!
Let’s get this house deal closed and get going