Lessons learned on a long trip

By Allen Penticoff

My wife and I took a two-week vacation at the end of May and headed west. Target was Durango, Colorado, for their Taste of Durango on May 15. We made it, barely. For our plans on how to get there kept changing. Repairs to our 1987 VW camper were incomplete due to a wrong part arriving at the repair shop – so plan B was to take our 2002 Suburban – but it needed some minor brake repair and new tires before a trip into the Rocky Mountains. We were towing a small trailer full of camping gear. The Suburban was quite loaded with stuff too. A big tent, a small quick set up tent, awning tent and screen tent. We used all but the screen tent and stayed in motels as well. So a day late, at night, we departed New Milford in stormy weather – to find the cruise control had abandoned us.

Driving all night long we arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska in the wee morning hours where we slept a bit, had breakfast and went across the road to the Chevrolet dealer. There, a very knowledgeable parts manager knew what our problem was. I bought a new brake switch and installed it in their parking lot. Ah – cruise control. Sweet. I called him and told him it was cured – Thanks! Lincoln has been a place to have problems cured. Chalk up another one. There will be yet another on the way home.

Not favoring overcrowded interstates to travel, we left that world behind and headed south from Brush, Colorado on Highway 71. This is a good two-lane highway through rolling deserted rangeland. Cows and wind turbines (by the thousands) are about the only thing you’ll see until you get to Rocky Ford, Colorado (we delighted in the similarity of the name to home) where you pick up the even more deserted Highway 10 to Walsenburg. You know you are out West when there are billboards announcing, “McDonald’s One Hour Ahead.” There we finally stopped at a delightful bed and breakfast hotel to be fresh for the morning drive over the mountains on beautiful US 160. We arrived in Durango mid-way through the three-hour festival, to on and off rain. Residents hid under awnings while we had umbrellas and raincoats. The food and beer were quite good and a fun event – when the rain stopped the residents filled the street once again.

We had cold rain for three days, which forced us out of our tent into a motel. But the payoff was the whole southwest was drenched – and that brought the wildflowers out in the desert – the reason we were on the trip. I’ll spare all the details; but after a big loop through the mountains from Durango to Silverton (not on the train), Ouray, Telluride, Delores and back we took in the Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the Navajo and Hopi nations, as well as the Ute reservation, Monument Valley, Four Corners Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Spanish Peaks area near Walsenberg, then headed home across the Great Plains through the vast beautiful landscape of Comanche National Grasslands. The trip through the grasslands came about because of a need to skirt some seriously bad weather on the Front Range and other weather to the east wreaking havoc.

During our time in the high elevations, I had trouble with blurry vision, but returning to lower altitude seemed to improve it. So instead of a dash to an emergency room in the middle of nowhere Kansas where there wasn’t so much as a McDonald’s as my doctor recommended, I held out for Lincoln, Nebraska. After a night in a motel there with a good rest at 1,200 feet elevation, despite tornado warnings, proved to be the cure for the vision issue. Another problem fixed in Lincoln. However, the trip was about to have a bad turn.

Back on very overcrowded Interstate 80 on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, half-way across Iowa, we had an electrical fire behind the dashboard. Pulling off on the shoulder while tractor-trailers whizzed by at 70 mph was unnerving – but we had no choice. In hindsight, the first thing to have done was to disconnect the battery cable. But the fire put itself out when it ran out of wire to burn. I couldn’t find the fuse panel, as like all used vehicles, I never got an owner’s manual. Fortunately, I had a small toolbox with me and cut the offending wires. This ended the fire. I could not see the wires, barely could touch them. While the air conditioner worked, using it caused a burnt wire smell – no more A/C for the remainder of the interstate trip home. We paused a bit for ice cream while waiting for some storms to cross our path. I highly recommend the “My Radar” app for monitoring storms and avoiding them. Home safe at last.

Out west, few people drive with their headlights on during the day – even on the two-lane highways with 65 mph speed limits. I thought most cars and trucks had automatic daytime headlights now. Not so much. More motorcycles seemed to have proper mufflers, particularly in Arizona. Better enforcement perhaps. Many of the highways, including the two-lane, had rumble strips on the centerline and much closer to the right edge than we do here in Illinois – creating a narrow lane to stay within without being alerted. The strips were nothing more than small frequent depressions in the asphalt. You could almost drive with your eyes closed (please don’t try).

In the mountains our Suburban had to be driven in third gear most of the time, often second and occasionally even down to first. The lack of oxygen and the steep grades caused our vehicle to lose much of its power. I thought an electric car like a Tesla, Bolt or even our Volt would be great to have in the mountains. Up there an electric drive couldn’t care less about the thin air – in fact, an electric car would be more efficient as aerodynamic drag would be reduced by the thin atmosphere. We did encounter a charging place at a Hopi run resort hotel in Tuba City, Arizona that accommodated Tesla fast-charge and 220 volt charging for everyone else. Unfortunately, we were driving a Suburban and consumed almost 300 gallons in the course of this 4,400-mile journey. That’s about 10 years worth of gas in our Volt.

At the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site near Ganado, Arizona, we encountered a couple from Rockford as well. They came west via a flight from Rockford to Mesa, Arizona on a cheap Allegiant flight, rented a car and traveled from motel to motel between the sights to see. Their vacation probably cost less than our long drive and gave them more time to see the sights. But Ruth and I saw plenty that a flight/rental would not see and we do like a road trip. I observed that many folks camping in a tent were driving small cars, a lot of them Toyota Prii. The campgrounds were otherwise full of senior folk who had driven or towed a large portable house. Fuel economy is not a consideration for these folk, and there were plenty of them. So Ruth and I were somewhere in between. Not the frugal minimalist campers, but considerably better than the 10 mpg portable houses (although we may one day be living like those vagabonds too). Nonetheless, we owe the planet a few new trees to make up for our carbon spewing entertainment – time to break out the shovel.

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