Thursday, May 15, 2014

It’s been a hell of a day

It’s been a hell of day. Right off the bat, I sacrificed one of the mornings I usually get to sleep in while Ann gets up with the toddler, instead shuttling arm-fulls of last minute items out to the Airstream for the weekend we had planned with friends up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. After breakfast, potty checks and a half-hearted attempt to tame the persistent wispy bed head, Ann had Wynne out the door to her school, and I got to work installing the last drawer and two missing drawer fronts on the trailer kitchen I’d been refinishing over the course of the last 4 months.

In a flash, two hours had passed, and I was rushing out the door to pick Wynne up so we could get on the road. Ann had taken our smaller car to the grocery store and left me the truck, a 2006 F250 we’d bought about 6 months earlier after much deliberation to pull the new trailer, although I couldn’t hitch everything up until after the school pickup. I drove there in a daze, wondering if I could steal a couple seconds in the parking lot to post a pic of the almost finished kitchen to Instagram.

On the way home, I quizzed Wynne about her day, who she played with and what they’d had for snack. At a stop light on 6th St, she complained that she’d dropped the granola bar I’d given her to tide her over until lunch. I slipped the gear shift into park and reached behind me into the cavernous backseat of the F250 to grab the bar from the footwell and hand it to her. When I put it back into D, the truck sputtered. I gave it some gas and could hear the big diesel motor clanging and searching for a rhythm as the truck only crawled forward. I yelled something very loudly that I later had to convince my two year daughter had merely been daddy saying the word “TRUCK!”

I had actually seen this behavior only a few days before and, at that time, thought I had a perfect explanation; Soon after buying the truck, I started running biodiesel fuel supplied by a local company and made from locally sourced used vegetable oil from fryers. It was the perfect guilt-alleviation for having purchased such a big truck and had been a large part of our decision to go with this particular somewhat trouble-prone engine, the Powerstroke 6.0. The engine was said to run well on biodiesel, in fact so well that I could expect the more viscous biodiesel to actually clean out almost 10 years of deposits left by the petro-diesel. As such, I was told I would need to change my fuel filters after a few tanks or a couple months to remove some of the gunk.

The last time the truck had sputtered on me, I limped it back home and pulled the replacement filters and special socket I had ordered online from where they’d been rattling around in the bed for a few months. With my phone beside me playing a How-To video on changing the fuel filters, I slid on my back under the driver’s side, marveling at how convenient the ground clearance made it to work. I quickly found the first fuel filter and started to loosen it, attempting to catch as much leaking fuel as possible in the basin I’d dragged under with me, but happy that at least it was biodiesel dripping down my hands and arms. I pulled an almost black filter out and replaced it with the new white one, lubed the new o-ring and screwed everything back into place. I repeated the same process with the secondary fuel filter under the hood which was equally dirty. After priming the system with a few partial turns of the key to let the fuel pump fill the filters, the big diesel had fired up immediately and ran as quietly and smoothly as I’d ever experienced.

So that brings us back the side of the road on 6th St. where I’d been hoping to get Wynne home, fed lunch and in the truck with the trailer hitched in time for 3 blissful hours of quiet driving towards the foothills. As I managed to get the truck to lurch forward and start to limp towards home, I felt that plan slipping away.

Through our travels in the Airstream with a young child, our 10,000 mile drive from San Francisco to Panama before she was born and a brand new BMW adventure bike that had left me stranded at the end of a three week trip, we’ve learned the necessity of staying positive and flexible when facing challenges on the road. The one thing Ann and I completely agreed on was that after packing late into the night before and moving all of our daily essentials out into the trailer that morning, one way or another, we were sleeping in the Airstream tonight, even if it had to be in our driveway. A quick call to my brother and the promise of a favor to be named later, and I’d arranged use of his 2004 GMC Yukon XL for the weekend.

I hopped back in the F250 which was running, but only reluctantly, and tried to coast as much of the way as I could the 5 miles to the Ford dealership. The techs rolled their eyes a bit at the mention of biodiesel but were optimistic when I mentioned that I could still hear the turbo spinning up and the check engine light had never come on. Outside while waiting for the courtesy shuttle, and older gentleman struck up a conversation.

“Looks a lot like my truck. What year?”

“’06,” I replied.

“Yep, same as mine. Spent about as much time here in the shop as it has out on the road.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Head gaskets, EGR cooler, fuel pumps, injectors, you name it. Lucky most of it happened while it was under warranty.”

“Thanks for the pep talk,” was all I could think to say as I got into the shuttle.

Almost home after a two hour round trip south to my brother’s house, I heard back from the dealer. The fuel pump would need to be replaced. When I asked if this was common, he laughed and said that in the couple months he’d been at the dealership, he’d seen more than 10. $1500 installed. Awesome.

Back home, I lowered the trailer hitch onto the ball of the Yukon and watched as the rear end sank. Of course, I was going to have to completely re-setup the Equalizer weight distribution hitch for the new vehicle. In the full afternoon sun, I removed the large bolts holding the head of the hitch to the shank and moved it to the highest position. I raised the brackets on the A-frame of the trailer a couple holes as well, and with the bars in place, had remedied a good bit of the dip by the end of a half an hour of work and about a gallon of sweat. 

It was now 5:30. When we’re on the road, we’ve usually already been in camp for an hour, starting Wynne’s dinner and setting the trailer up for her 7:00 bed time. I looked at Ann, feeling defeated after a long day of obstacles and waiting for her to point out the obvious; We weren’t going anywhere this late. Instead, she said she was still game, and when I suggested a short drive just 35 minutes out to the coast, she strapped Wynne in, and we were pulling out the driveway minutes later.

At the top of a hill leading down to the Doran Beach Campground, part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, we were welcomed by a large CAMPGROUND FULL sign. Of course, we’d seen a very similar sign at Wright’s Beach a few weeks before when we ultimately scored a prized beachfront site after an early morning cancellation, so we just ignored it. In fact, we’ve pretty much always had luck with this approach, even at Joshua Tree on the way south to the Mexican border. At the kiosk, the ranger reported that despite the sign, several first-come first-served were available and, in fact, many reservable sites were also open as long as we only needed one night. So, maybe time to put out the CAMPGROUND (not at all) FULL sign?

As soon as I’d backed into our site, a guy walked up and introduced himself, adding that he had the 23’ Airstream Safari parked at the other end of the campground and had seen us drive in. A nice welcome and a beautiful spot. It was feeling like we’d made the right choice. Seeing the sand all around the site, Wynne agreed and insisted I dig her wagon filled with sand toys out of the back of the hastily-packed Yukon immediately.





With homemade lasagna being thawed on the stovetop since I’ve still not been able to successfully light the stove in the new trailer, we dropped Wynne into the 6 inches of water in the bottom of the shower that we call “a bath.” With some sunset pictures, a nice dinner and an exhausted toddler willingly sinking into her porta-crib placed behind the divider curtain on our bed, we watched one of the last suspenseful episodes of season 3 of Homeland and then turned in ourselves.



The screaming started at 3:00 am. Not common for Wynne to wake up in the middle of the night, but not completely unheard of either. I sleepily stumbled out into the kitchen area to find her standing in the porta-crib we’d moved while she was sleeping onto the converted dinette. At that hour, I couldn’t find the words or will to effectively deny her emphatic request to “sleep in mama dada bed.” I scooped her up with her pillow, blanket and a selection of stuffed animals and dropped her into my spot in bed beside Ann. I grabbed my pillow and one of the sleeping bags we use to stuff a zippered throw pillow and spread everything out on the lounge.

In about 6 weeks, we’re expecting our second child. And about 6 weeks after that, assuming everyone’s healthy and happy, we’re talking about hitting the road for another extended trip in the trailer. We know there are going to be sleepless nights like these, especially with a newborn. We know there are going to be hell days like this one’s been. And we know it won’t always (ever?) be easy. But lying in the darkness in my sleeping bag on the lounge listening to Wynne and Ann talking only 10 feet away on the other side of a thick velvet curtain with the electronic foghorn on the point of Bodega Head alternating in the background –

“Winnie’s camping?”

“Yes, Winnie’s camping.”

“Winnie’s in my taila?”

“Yes, Winnie’s in her trailer.” 

“Winnie’s sleeping in my big taila?”

“Yes, Winnie’s sleeping in her big trailer.”

- all I could think about was how happy I was to be out in the world, seeing somewhere beautiful even if it did happen to only be several miles from home, and spending this close time with my family. The challenges of the day were nothing compared to the reward. With a smile on my face, I dozed off to sleep thinking, this has been a hell of a day.