12: Retooling Our Lifestyle (fall 2011)


Twists & Turns While Retooling Our Lifestyle


    Scheduling an appointment to fetch the truck we ordered in June when we returned from Europe in mid-September became one of those nightmare experiences one wants to permanently bury in the deepest recesses of one’s mind. Our phone call simply to arrange to take delivery suddenly put us in the midst of manipulative sales behavior months after we thought the deal had closed. Stunned by the totally unexpected shenanigans, I wondered how far up the scales used to measure sociopaths or emotional abusers the salesman had traveled with his antics.  When it was all over a week later, we estimated that we’d spent an 40 additional hours to get the keys in our hands.

    We refused to proceed with our coyly bullying salesman upon learning that he had changed the model year of our special-order truck from 2012 to 2011 and had changed the truck color after we left the country. Amazingly, he made those changes without an explanation or a willingness to drop the price. But the hours we spent researching options, strategizing about negotiating tactics, jousting, and meticulously choosing words and judging timing paid-off: we didn’t get the truck we ordered but we got a satisfactory substitute for effectively $5,000 less a week later.

    In addition to the set-back with the truck, our chosen model of campers was unexpectedly back-ordered when we returned, further blurring our time line for getting on the road. But given that our bargaining position for the truck had been strengthened by being willing to forfeit the miss-ordered truck and either fly to Arizona to pick-up one up from a bigger market place or re-order from another dealer, the delay with the camper hardly mattered.  The haze of jet lag had us putting everything but our next meal on hold until the truck crisis was resolved. Luckily for us, the camper sales staff was straightforward to deal with--we only needed to be patient.


An uneasy homecoming for our highly disputed truck.

Sadly, all of the expected excitement of driving the first vehicle we’d bought in 20 years and owned in over ten years was blunted by the piles of detachment required to armor our negotiating position. When we finally sat in the truck that was almost the one we ordered, the usual delightful anticipation of a new vehicle was displaced by relief that an extremely confrontative, stressful week in our lives was finally behind us.  We hoped that the ugliness surrounding the truck’s entrance into our world wouldn’t taint our experience of it forever.

    The next day of new vehicle ownership was not much more celebratory: we drove our hard-won truck to a rental car location, parked it, and rented a car that my frail 95 year old mother could be hoisted into because our truck was impossibly high for her. It wasn’t until the day following her outing that we could begin to savor the purchase as symbolic of a new beginning when we drove it off into the rain clouds to go hiking in the Columbia Gorge.  That was what it was purchased to do--to take us on outdoor adventures--and we began the process of shedding the absurd amount of stress its delivery had entailed by spending the day outdoors.

One of many waterfalls in the Gorge.

Getting to Know Each Other

    The overriding early experiences with driving our new truck were of how monstrously big it was. It was no surprise--I knew when we ordered it that I couldn’t see over the top of the tailgate--and yet we still had to come to terms with being short stature people who had adopted a giant. We parked it in the vacant corners of generous suburban parking lots and walked around it, noting exactly how much it bulged beyond the painted lines and where. We stopped on narrow bridges on back roads and opened both doors to estimate the few inches of clearance.  (Bill grimaced and folded in the side view mirror when I drove on those bridges.) And we cruised under overhanging pine boughs to begin judging the required overhead clearance, and that was before the camper was piled on.  It was high, it was wide, and it was long.  It was kind of like living with a teenager that was constantly outgrowing his clothes and classroom chairs.

   But we were pleasantly surprised by how easy this overhanging-everything truck was to drive, just like we were surprised that the 25’ RV we rented in the spring was effortless to steer.  Its ease of handling underscored one of the things that has markedly changed since we were last car owners, which is that almost all cars feel the same these days. For us, that has been a relief: when we’ve rented a car or an RV or a moving truck over the last 10 years of overseas cyclotouring, they’ve all handled the same. The seamlessness of shifting from driving one kind of vehicle to the next has been very reassuring because we drive so little. But when I was behind the wheel of this very standardized feeling behemoth, I found myself being nostalgic about the good old days when every car I drove was distinctive.

    I remembered the sense of pride and competency from learning how to finesse the acceleration and shifting on  inclined curves when behind the wheel of each of my stick-shift cars. There were many ways to bond with each new machine: there was learning about the nuances of each clutch; refining my understanding of when my vehicle would lack sufficient power to pass; and knowing how to play the brakes. Those were the days of having a sense of mastery and a real feeling of car ownership.

    I’m no car junky, but I could quickly see when driving our truck that I was missing that relationship-building phase of car ownership that has been displaced by the manufacturers finally making them all work the way they should. I missed the distinctiveness of the driving experience in our thoroughly modern truck but the ‘vanilla’ experience sure made it easier when my attention needed to be focused on what my rear wheel might take-out on a tight turn or assessing if I was about to hit that next overhanging object.

   The incredibly long wheel base on our extended cab, long bed truck did however create the opportunity for mastery in a neglected area of my driving skills, which was backing. Decades of driving small, nimble cars and mini-pick-ups had kept my lack of skill out of public view but in this huge truck my shortcomings were fully exposed.

    We took time on our first real driving day to practice maneuvering the truck in a parking lot, especially backing into parking places. I didn’t hit anything, but I often ended up in a parking spot 1 or 2 spaces away from the slot I had targeted to back into. It was clearly going to take some work. This early experience had me proposing a new rule when backing up: Always unroll the windows on each side of the cab when backing so as to closely listen for shrieks, crunches, or clanks.

    Bill’s fascination as a child with the physics of backing paid-off and he quickly got the hang of backing our big truck into parking spaces. I had missed out on those quiet hours he accumulated with toy trucks in which he studied what all 4 wheels were doing as he rolled them back and forth. I was probably out climbing a tree when he was filling his data banks with this precious understanding.  The consequence of our very different experiences was that he was left with the unenviable job of teaching me what he now understood on an intuitive level.

    The good news for both of us was at the other end of the truck: despite the fact that the dashboard and hood seemed like they were as long as some cars, our big-boy truck had a nimble front end. I slowly came to trust that I could think of it like my treasured Subaru with its delightfully tight turning radius. “Blue” as our truck was known (maybe it should be Yao Ming), could turn around in tighter spots than some cars. Having a somewhat sporty-handling front-end was a welcome counterpoint to the lumbering rear end and a capability we frequently exercised.

Angst & Envy

    Back-in parking is the high-angst time of truck ownership for us, especially with the camper in the bed. When we can, we walk farther in favor of drive-through parking spaces in the empty part of a spacious lot. But at places like our apartment building where there are only a couple of spaces large enough for our behemoth, we must steel our nerves and wiggle our way backwards into the available too-small spots.


Our truck spilled beyond the ends of the longest parking space at our apt’s lot.

Parking however is the time that truck envy is most evident. No fewer than three 30-something men froze at the sight of me parking our truck at our residence. And darn it anyway, they weren’t looking at me. Like early Homo sapiens spotting big game on the horizon, the eyes of these men became fixed and their bodies motionless as they watched the changing angles of the truck as I slowly settled it into a resting place. Without shifting his gaze from the prey, one man was able to slowly move closer, offering to help us park by standing at the back of the parking spot.

    “Helping spot” seemed to be code for “I want to stare at your truck” and it was only a few days later that another mid-30’s male emerged from nowhere to stare then spot my parking effort. Once the parking maneuver was completed he chatted for a couple minutes, then slowly backed away without breaking his line of sight with the truck, bending and twisting in odd directions to check it out from unusual vantage points.

    And when I parked near another dealership on a different day, 3 salesmen half a block away stopped their chatting to stare at our truck--amazing. I’ve never been in the fixed line of sight of so many men even though none of them were actually looking at me.  To me, our new monster truck was the regrettable but right tool for the job; for many younger men it was clearly an object of serious desire. 

    Even the young man at the car dealership that wrapped up the paperwork on purchase day got dreamy-eyed thinking about our truck. He used to own a Silverado himself and clearly hadn’t recovered from the loss. He also commented that he thought the new highly-electronic quality of the vehicles “had taken something away from men” because men could no longer work on them. 

      For the guys who didn’t actually see our truck but were prompted to ask about it, I developed my own mini-rap: “It’s a Chevy 3500 Heavy Duty, extended-cab, long-bed Silverado LT with 4 wheel drive, 18” tires, an off-road package and a skid plate--no diesel, no duallies.” If that didn’t completely satisfy their need for fantasizing, I left it to Bill to less-lyrically discuss the engine size, ratio’s and other truck-tech nuances.

Endlessly Online

    Life seems to revolve around the web these days and our truck and camper purchases were no exception.  The hours and hours of staring at the small screens of course began many months ago with researching and price shopping for various combinations of trucks and campers, with some side excursions to review trailers and RV’s just to make sure we’d made the right initial cut. Diesel vs gas; single vs dual rear wheels; payload on Chevy’s vs Ford’s; rear axle gearing ratios; maximum vehicle lengths allowed in specific national park campgrounds; various camper floor plans; satellite dishes; and reliability issues with slide-outs on campers were some of the topics searched. When the local truck purchase was falling through because of salesman rip-offs, we checked the inventory of available trucks in the western US as best we could. And more research was done to establish an appropriate price reduction for accepting a year-older model than we had contracted for.

   The final selection of the camper included searching for complaints about our selected Arctic Fox brand and the nearest competitor in its class, the Lance.  The campground lore when we were in the southwest last spring was that nobody knew an unhappy Fox owner and the lack of online critics told the same reassuring story--the same story as the lack of used Fox campers on the market (apparently friends line-up to buy a used Fox before it goes on the open market). More searching was done in hopes that the Fox manufacturers had eliminated all formaldehyde in its construction but an email reply from them confirmed the search results: “not quite yet.”

    After buying the truck and before receiving the camper there was another bout of searching. “How do you sanitize the fresh water tank?”, “How can you adjust the truck mirrors to minimize the blind spot?”, and “Is there a better extended warranty out there?” were all burning questions. Not being able to legally park our camper in our apartment lot had us looking to see if the local Walmart stores allowed overnight parking, but they did not. That lead to more searching to learn the local street parking laws and for other free, temporary parking options nearby.

    Actually being on the road with both the camper and the truck triggered more online research.  The issue of chains came up, which lead to ‘minimal clearance’ issues and alternative traction devices. Then it was “Cable chains on the front wheels, the rear wheels, or all 4?” for our 4 wheel drive rig. Putting them on all 4 wheels could cause transmission fluid overheating issues, but our truck manual didn’t address a safe, high limit. More online research and email exchanges with my brother helped us to digest yet another range of opinions and to draw our own conclusions about a problem we hoped to never have.

Whipsaw Frenzy

Best Laid Plans...

    Despite the extremely stressful ‘closing the deal’ process for the truck, 3 weeks after returning from 3 months in Europe we were poised to hurriedly load our camper by parking illegally in our apartment lot and then spend the next several nights in a nearby campground getting organized--but then it was all put on hold for 3, 4 or 5 days. “Scramble, scramble, slam! Hurry up and wait.”  That had been our tempo for the last 3 weeks and it was continuing to happen even after we had the truck in our possession.

    We had ordered the truck before we left for Europe in June and put a downpayment on the camper the day after we returned. The truck salesman had messed with our order, presumably to clean-up on some end of model year  sales incentive, so instead of driving it off the lot when we returned, we thought we’d be placing a new order with another dealer, which would be a 2 month set-back.

    But that possible 2 month delay was negotiated back to causing a single week delay.  We drove the truck off the lot knowing that the camper was backordered for an ambiguous amount of time. The irritating and hugely time-consuming hassles with the truck dealer completely disrupted our momentum and we hardly knew where to pick-up the pieces once we were behind the wheel.

    The camper folks were much easier to work with, but the time pressures and glitches carried over into their arena as well. First the camper was backordered, then it was suddenly in and they were impatient for us to pick it up. Delayed delivery of the truck meant we were on a compressed time schedule for accumulating the recommended 1,000 miles before subjecting it to the weight and stresses of the camper. We were always either ahead or behind, never in sync with our dealers.

    In dribbles and drabs we negotiated with the camper salesmen for what became 2 weeks to accumulate the needed miles before accepting the rig. Hours were sucked from our days as we created arbitrary destinations that would give a mix of speeds and power challenges for our new truck. Putting 1,000 miles on at freeway speeds was one thing, but that wasn’t a suitable strategy for break-in. And most of the miles required both of us being present while we learned about the blind spots--including those created by the giant side view mirrors--in the press of rush hour traffic. There was little time for preparing to leave town in our camper and all of our former bicycling time was devoted first to re-negotiating for the truck and then to breaking it in.  Our beloved daily routine of “exercise-eat, exercise-eat” became “exercise-eat, drive-eat.”   

    The scheduled 4 hours at the shop to install airbags on the truck bed to cushion the camper dragged on to 7 hours, so that day was entirely shot while we tried to entertain ourselves as wheel-less captives at a suburban mall. But the new air bag system leaked, triggering the compressor to annoyingly run every 10 minutes. Another hour round trip drive 2 days later was required to have it fixed. We were making progress but it always felt like “2 steps forward, 1 back.”

“Ready, Set, Go?”

    Hardly organized to leave town, we arrived at the camper dealership with checkbook in hand and 990 miles on the truck odometer to get the walk-through and then drive-off with the camper, not quite sure how the day would come together after that. The parking lot at our apartment could barely accommodate our long bed truck and we’d be lucky to even drive through the lot with the camper on it. A nearby street allowed parallel parking but we learned that it was illegal to park a camper on the street anywhere in the city without a special permit. Surely a law that wasn’t strictly enforced, but it certainly put us on notice.

    The plan was to drive the camper to the apartment, use our folding hand cart to bring loads of supplies to the camper parked illegally on the street, and take-off for an out of town campground as quickly as possible. We’d then spend a day or 2 fitting everything into the scant storage and drive back to the apartment to pick-up missed items and drop-off unnecessary supplies. If no defects were detected in the camper, we’d then hurriedly head south for the winter before the snows hit in the most notorious of the mountain passes.

    But like at the auto shop where the 4 hour air bag installation time stretched to 7 hours, the 2 hours at the camper dealer on delivery day became 4. Our vision of loading the camper and camping before dark began fading as unexpected chores like stopping for propane and sanitizing the water tank added to the delays. After paying for $700 more in unexpected ‘essential’ accessories and being told we’d have to come back the middle of the following week for installation of one item, we negotiated for more time before we took delivery of the camper.

    The camper dealer was short on lot space and was eager to move our rig off his lot but once he had our money, he agreed to keep the camper through the weekend and until the work was completed mid-week. That bought us 3-5 more days to get organized and it took the time pressure off of their full work schedule. Suddenly all of the urgency for getting miles on the truck was for naught: we’d be over 1,200 miles by the time we drove off with the camper almost a week later.

Trial By Fire

    The bumpy road we traveled with the timing of the truck and camper delivery and the aggravations associated with salespeople were the backdrop of our daily lives for 3, going on 4, weeks. Our performance anxiety shot up when we actually had to drive the truck in fast traffic and down streets that required pulling the mirrors in to clear. But the peak stress of the whole experience was endured by Bill alone when the camper technician giving us the walk through said to Bill: “OK, now it’s time for you to load the camper onto the truck bed.”

   On information overload from the endless string of cautions about things like how to avoid blowing up the camper with the propane tanks or shooting shit out of the top of the camper from miss-performing a ‘sani-flush’; chilled from standing around for 3 hours on an overcast 50 degree day; and having missed lunch; Bill was to hop in the truck and back under the camper with a  little more than an inch to spare on each side.

    Unlike the other challenges we’d faced together through this whole trial, Bill was on his own with this task and there was little I could do to help as he was correctly tagged as the most competent driver for the task. The technician coached him “now left, now right” and my input was limited to noticing the camper was initially positioned too low to load. But Bill is skilled at backing and maneuvering vehicles in tight spaces and he snuggled the truck under the camper without even a scratch to our still immaculate bed. I offered to drive the truck off the lot when we were finally done so he could collect himself after the trial by fire. Unfortunately I wasn’t given any instruction as to how to assist Bill in all the future loading operations--something we’d have to figure out on our own. (Amazingly, none of the YouTube videos we found were of any help to us.)

Getting Close

    Preparing to leave on our SW hiking trip would have been so much more fun and so much more efficient if we could have done what most people surely do, which is fit things in a few items at a time over the span of a week. Instead we were left to guess if all of the dishes would fit in the cabinet, if the bottles of liquids were too tall for the readily available space, and how best to organize the storage of our clothes in 2 deep bins. But we knew 6 months earlier that parking the camper at the apartment was iffy at best and were determined not to let a parking problem derail a lifestyle choice--we’d work out the details on the fly.

    The final delays in picking up the camper gave us the time needed to get better organized and to slip in a visit with an out of town relative passing through, but it also added to our chaos. We were endlessly unpacking essentials that were lined up in our small living room that were poised for leaping into the Fox. Tooth brushes and paste, underwear, and food items were a few of the many little items that had us rummaging through our stuff because of our delayed departure.

    No phase of the ‘taking ownership’ process unfolded without aggravations. Even our new insurance policy had us bristling. Our agent told us to ignore the statement “You did not receive the lowest available rating [price]because of your relatively short credit history [35 years]....and frequently opening new accounts [not us].” Those were fighting words and I filed a protest anyway. More bristling occurred when we were to ignore inaccurate information about us on the policy; that our rig was listed as a trailer instead of a camper; and that the reason for applying for the policy was moving to a new state. It wasn’t our first unsettling experience with insurance vendors in which we are supposed to be very forthcoming with detailed information and then sign-off on the stories the agent records about us on the documents.

Finally Under Way

    A month after returning from Europe we arrived at our apartment parking lot with our oversized truck hauling our oversized camper in its bed. Our sympathetic apartment manager allowed us to park it overnight on the lot and the next day we threw our gear into it and rolled out about noon. We parked in a Columbia Gorge campground, with most of our time there being spent putting things away that we had literally heaped in, rather than enjoying the outdoor ambiance. Then it was another night back at our apartment lot while we swapped out some gear before heading south for the winter. 

   The few errands we needed to run before leaving town became their own mini-dramas and consumed the entire afternoon. Miles short of our destination, we arrived at the Oxbow State Park on the edge of the greater Portland metropolitan area 10 minutes after their unadvertised dusk closure at 6:30pm.  Too traumatized by the day to go on, we noticed a few parking places outside the gate where parking was prohibited during the summer months. We deduced that parking and overnight parking in the off-season would be legal so our first real night on the road in the camper was “boon-docking” or “dry camping” for free on the roadside--an inauspicious but amusing beginning to our new traveling lifestyle with Blue and the Fox. We were finally snow birds but one’s awkwardly roosting with a lot of ruffled feathers.

Literally and figuratively, the clouds were parting for us while we perched in our new camper for lunch above the Columbia River Gorge on our first outing with our new rigs.