Auto-Biography: Glacier And Bust – Zen And The Art Of Roadside RV Repairs

(As a follow-up to our recent van trip to Arizona, here’s one from 2011 when we took our Dodge Chinook on its last long trip)

My family will confirm that I am susceptible to mood swings. In my sunny moments (usually when the sun is actually out), I think nothing of throwing some clothes and food into a thirty-five year old camper sitting forlorn all winter out back, and heading off on a 2200 mile trip to remote mountains. But the clouds of doubt, doom and lack of preparation threaten perpetually in the background, waiting for the wrong moment to darken the sky and wag their fingers “I told you so”. It took a while, but they finally had their say in the depths of the Lost River Range in Idaho, about as far away from civilization as possible on the whole trip.

The Dodge 360 V8 was happily bellowing up a steep pass at full throttle, doing about fifty-five or so, on Highway 93 somewhere between the almost non-existent hamlets of Ellis and Challis. Suddenly, a violent jerking set in, as if someone was turning the ignition on and off repeatedly every second or so. Our speed quickly dropped. We were on the way home from a two-week vacation in our 1977 Dodge Chinook to Glacier National Park. I already had to fix two smaller issues, neither of which threatened our forward progress. But here it was, the moment my doubts had predicted: the Chinook was finally going to crap out on us, truly in the middle of nowhere. My pessimistic side had mentally prepared myself to abandon ship on this trip, but if it had to be, at least it was going to be on the way home.

But the sun was actually shining that day.

Before I recap our adventures (and breakdowns) of this 2200 mile trip, a little bit of background on our CC Camper is called for. I picked it up from a guy down the street for $1200 nine years ago, when the bug to hit the road suddenly hit (again). It had a tree branch sticking out of its fiberglass roof like a solitary antler, the result of a winter storm. That led to a crash course on fiberglass repair, which led to a crash course on RV interior renovation, as much of the original lime-green shag carpeting lining the forward upper nook and the floor were rotten, as well as way too much for the eyes.

But the very seventies’ paisley curtains have been lovingly repaired by Stephanie; can’t toss that little bit of vintage interior decor history out. Actually, she hates them, but it was easier than making new ones.

Anyway, by the time I got all that interior work done back in 2003, it was time for a winter escape trip to Baja, without ever really checking out its mechanicals. We just fixed them as they presented themselves on that shake-down trip, including a bad fan that damaged the water pump, and front wheel bearings rolling in a powder of brown rust instead of grease. That kind of set a pattern: have toolbox, will travel. And travel we did, those first few years, racking up some 25k miles in several trips to Baja, as well as throughout the South West and West Coast.

But I’m getting older, as is the Chinook, and the last few years we’ve stayed pretty close to home with it, which is hardly a problem in Oregon, as there’s so much to see here. But Glacier was always on our bucket list, so we hopped in the old bucket and off we went, with just a quick check of the fluids and tire pressure. And a few minor tools in a little plastic tackle box. Not really the kind of preparation you might expect or hope for, but then how can you cover all the contingencies on a thirty-five year old vehicle? That’s me rationalizing; I just haven’t had or made the time.

One of the reasons we haven’t made long trips recently is because the thing is so damn noisy at speed. The rubber seals in the doors and on the engine dog-house are all near-shot, and there just is next to nothing in terms of sound insulation. That goes for heat too, from the motor and exhaust pipes under foot, literally. And BTW, the A/C was non-functional since we got it (frozen compressor), so that whole affair was tossed overboard long ago (along with other non-essentials like the hot water heater and furnace) in my effort to rid potential complications and save weight. The propane stove and refrigerator are the two main amenities, as well as the bathroom. And comfy beds, of course.

I know some will argue that it’s ultimately cheaper to stay in hotels and such, but either you’re a camper, or you’re not. And knowing that the pillow and blankets are predictably yours as you lay down with the sound ofย  a stream babbling or the winds in the pines beats any hotel, for us anyway. I sleep like a baby in the Chinook, better than at home or the finest hotel.

Our trips are always in the fall and winter, but it can still get toasty in September. Oh well. Anyway, the solution to the noise was a set of Bose noise-canceling earphones. Amazing: you put them on, hit the switch, and suddenly it’s heavenly quiet, in there. And if one does listen to music, every instrument can be heard clear as a bell, at low volume too. My ears are pretty shot (tinnitus), and this was a lot quicker solution then soundproofing it. Yes; I know there are undoubtedly legalities involved, and I do take them off going through towns.

We took the direct (800 mile) route to Glacier, via I84, I82, 395 and I90. Cruise control (which usually works in the summer and fall, and often not in winter/spring) set at 65. That’s about as fast as I want to roll at, given the 4.10 rear axle calculates to just over 3000 rpm at that speed. The one time I let myself get rushed and tried to keep up with California traffic (75-80 mph), I cracked an exhaust manifold.

There was one memorable reason to pull over from our driving and stop: the America’s Miracle Museum in Polson, MT. It’s a home-spun museum with a decidedly political twist, but an amazing collection for what it is. These Big Boy Tonka Toys out front made sure we stopped. That T-Speedster is way too nice to be sitting out there in the open. And I haven’t seen a White 3000 in ages…but then that gives you an idea how this place is run. Awesome collection of historical motorcycles…another post to write up.

One of the main reasons for rushing off so hurriedly was to drive over the legendary Going To The Sun Road that bisects Glacier, and is of course famous for its fleet of red 1937 White coaches. These have always had a powerful pull on me, as they so remind me of the old yellow Post buses that used to ply the Alpine roads of my childhood, with their tops rolled back just like Glacier’s fleet. A separate CC on them is in the works too.

That famously narrow and twisty feat of mountain road engineering closes on or about the 15th of September each year. It’s also very restrictive as to size limitations of the vehicles that are allowed, with a maximum length of 21 feet, height of ten feet, and outside-mirror to mirror width of eight feet. I knew the Chinook would just make that, and it turned out to be the only “camper” of any sort we saw. And an encounter with one of the old/new buses (now riding on new Ford E-450 chassis and drive train) on the narrowest section was a tight squeeze. The very top two pictures are from the the way up to Logan Pass.

At Logan pass, we had our first encounter with the red “Jammers” (for the sound of gears being jammed on the down grades, before they got automatics and disc brakes) as well as the actual mountain goats that have long been the icons of the park and fleet.

We came to Glacier to hike, and the park is a hiker’s paradise, especially the east side. Yes, I’m in my true element in places like this. We spent the first five days at Many Glacier, which is one of a several campgrounds situated near the old grand lodges that the Great Northern Railroad built in the nineteen-teens. The railroad crosses the Rockies at Glacier, and there are still stations and Lodges at both East and West Glacier for those who want to arrive via Amtrak today.

Glacier is more about what the glaciers carved into spectacular valleys and cliffs that the actual glaciers themselves, which are of course quickly disappearing. And there is a superb network of hiking trails emanating from the campgrounds into the numerous valleys, and up to high glacier lakes or even higher yet, to the passes that separate them. These are mostly longish hikes, typically ten miles or more.

Grinnell Glacier is a popular hiking destination, being one of the more accessible of the remaining glaciers. Much of it is now a lake, in the summers anyway. But the chilly fall night had left a thin layer of ice on this day.

We saw plenty of wildlife, from this bunch of bachelor big horn sheep, to moose, and of course, bears. Well, the bears (grizzlies) we actually saw were off on the hillside with binoculars. But we just missed an encounter with a bear that was described to us by hikers shortly behind us. According to this backpacker, a grizzly charged him on the trail, and it took a warning shot from the revolver he was carrying to get the bear to change directions. Guns were made legal in National Parks a couple of years ago, but discharging them creates complications, and lots of reports. Let’s just say that the rangers would rather you’d not take that approach. And we were more than a bit anxious hiking back that stretch of the trail. The berries were very ripe just there.

Our longest hike was up to Lookout Mountain, which sits prominently in the middle of the Park, and has a sublime 360 degree view. The howling wind on top was a challenge, almost as much as the sixteen mile round-trip hike and 3600 feet elevation gain. After that, even twelve-milers seemed like just a long stroll. All of our urban hiking was paying off.

The weather was unsettled those first few days, and it culminated in a big storm, which brought the first snow fall to the higher elevations. We decided to get out of the wind, rain and snow and head east, into the Blackfoot Reservation, and the town of Browning to catch the Plains Indian Museum there.

Stephanie always razzes me about why I don’t run the old Dodge’s wipers continuously, but only a single swipe once every so often when absolutely necessary. She forgot that the linkage fell apart once on a trip to the Wallowa Mountains some years back, and the fix then was a bit sketchy. I knew it was just a matter of time…bang, bang, bang: her wiper stopped working, and a nasty clanging emitted every sweep of mine.

The screwdriver was used to remove the sheet metal piece above the hood that covers the linkage, and sure enough one of the original plastic thingamajigs that holds the linkage to the arms had crumbled away. That’s the problem with old vehicles: it’s not usually so much an engine blowing up as it is critical little pieces of plastic deteriorating, everywhere.

Fortunately, it was the arm of the linkage going back to the passenger side that came off and was banging freely in there, so a piece of wire to snug it up against the other arm kept it from flaying around, even if Stephanie was going to have to live with no wiper instead of just an occasional one. Never needed it again after the storm passed anyway.

The next little problem was a plumbing one. One of the joys of an RV is having a plumbing system, especially a non-leaking one. When we first got the Chinook, that could not be said of the toilet holding tank. It took us getting to Baja to figure out what the problem was. “Stinky” needed a new tank, and a shorter outlet valve, to keep it from hitting curbs, which is what caused the problem. Anyway, this time it was the water system, which I had just mostly replaced last summer after the old one burst during a cold spell the previous winter when I had forgotten to drain it.

This past winter I did drain it, so what was squirting out all under the sink cabinet? Since we don’t have a hot water heater (we just heat up a pot on the stove for tea or a sponge bath), I had just capped the hot water inlet to the Moen faucet. But…there obviously was water trapped in that copper inlet pipe from the faucet, and must have created a crack. Oddly, it was in the middle of our trip before it suddenly gave loose. Solution: keep “rolling up” the copper pipe until it only emitted the occasional drop; into the recycling bucket directly below it. Two problems down, one to go.

After that brief storm, the weather turned warm and crystal clear; record setting warmth, even. So I e-mailed Jim Cavanaugh, and told him that I was going to be a few days late. We just had to go down to the Two Medicine Valley, and hike there. When I first got to know Stephanie, she was afraid of heights and exposures like this. Now I can’t hardly keep up with her. I know if I use the word “mountain goat” it would just be another case of me putting my foot in my mouth. Mountain Deer? Naw, she hates them with a passion. Cougar? No, that doesn’t quite apply either. I am almost two years older. How about just Mountain Girl?

Reluctantly, we extricated ourselves from the Park, having had almost no contact with the outside world for most of that time. Yes! Just like the old days! No cell phones or internet. How did we get along without them? All too well. Vacations were really vacations; I remember the days when I’d tell my Secretary: “see you in two (or three) weeks”. And the world didn’t stop spinning. And CC is still here too! I couldn’t have imagined that some months back; now I see (again) how important it is to really let go every so often. Very rejuvenating.

So after a last, fast hike up to Scenic Viewpoint on Saturday, overlooking the southern part of the Park and probably 100 miles eastwards into the plains, it was time to go. But the return trip would be all two-lane highways, with maximum scenic value. We circled the southern edge of the park via Hwy 2, headed down splendoriffic Hwy 83, and pulled off by a remote creek-side camping spot on National Forest land. The only downside to National Parks is having to camp in their campgrounds, but in mid-late September, the other folks that are there are very quiet at least. And the $10 off-season primitive-status fee per night is reasonable. But it was nice to be all alone again.

Sunday morning we continued down to Missoula, where we filled up the gas tank before the drive town Hwy 93 to Stanley, Idaho, for a planned overnight at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains on Stanley Lake. About three-quarters of the way there is where it happened, the engine violently bucking on and off.

I knew it couldn’t be the ignition; with an old points system like my Ford, burnt points can cause a miss. But this was different, like someone was turning the gasoline on and off, to be more precise. Sure enough, as soon as I backed off the throttle, it ran fine. There was a critical point where it was being starved of fuel. A fuel pump going bad? As we made it over the pass at a lower speed, that’s what came to mind. But I’ve never had one go on me, on the go. I assumed it was more an all-or-nothing thing (this is the old-style mechanical pump that runs off the engine).

After the next pass was taken at an even slower speed, I thought about it some more: clearly not enough gas getting to the engine, but maybe it wasn’t the pump, but a plugged fuel filter not letting enough gas through for full-throttle operation. Hmm…never looked at it or considered changing it…now I wish I had.

A bit slowly, we made it to the one-horse town of Challis, which actually had a gas station with genuine service bays, just like in the old days. Only one problem: it was closed on Sundays, of course.

I knew dealing with the fuel pump was a lost cause, so I slid under and located the fuel filter. Potential problem: if I removed it, how would I bridge the gap. I wasn’t exactly carrying any spare fuel line. Aha! the evaporative fuel canister assembly was down there too, just a little ways ahead, with two sizes of fuel lines connected to it. So just like when I watched my vasectomy being performed, I started snipping away at little hoses. The first size didn’t fit, but the second one was a go. The other end of it was obviously a vacuum line to the intake, so I plugged that using one of the spare hose clamps, since now I needed only two, not all four, and used my small removable screwdriver bit for the plug, not finding any thing better without an extensive search.

Well, there was little doubt about it being the fuel filter, since when I removed it, tipping it one way brought a steady stream and the other way a dribble. More like an enlarged prostrate surgery than a vasectomy, but who needs a fuel filter anyway? My old lawnmowers with out them…do plug up every so often.

The now well-fed 360 started up with its usual puff of stinky smoke (bad valve seal?), and we roared off wondering just how much risk there was to driving without it. I had good intentions to stop near Boise and pop a new one in at a car parts store. Never acted on it though.

We made it to Stanley Lake just in time to watch the last glow of sunlight on the mountains. This was a nostalgic moment, as our first RV trip (in a rental) ten years ago to Yellowstone and the Tetons started here. It left a lasting impression to be able to pull into a campsite late on a cold night and look across the lake without having to set up a tent, etc…

Monday morning was to be the 535 mile dash home, even if it was planned via the longer scenic route down south to Ontario, and then straight across on spectacular Oregon Hwy 20. That is, if we had no further incidents. Which we damn near did. And it was all my fault too.

The Chinook has never had a working gas gauge, and I’ve had no inclination to fix it. Hey; I’m a minimalist, and was weaned on old VWs that didn’t have a gas gauge until 1961 (or 1962?). I always keep track of my mileage each fill up, and write it down, and the number of gallons, on that deteriorating folded piece of paper on my sun visor. The tank capacity is (supposedly) 36 gallons. The Chinook always gets right around eleven mpg. So I just stop before three hundred miles are up. And that’s never been a problem, before.

Perhaps I was too relaxed or just still high from the mountain air, so I planned my next fuel stop to be in or around Horseshoe Bend, which I (mentally) calculated from the map to be some 280 miles. I obviously dropped a “one” somewhere, and that “one” just happened to be in the hundreds column. As we rolled through Stanley, Stephanie said: “don’t you want to fill up?” Nope; we’ve got plenty…

The drive on Hwy 21 is spectacular; down the Payette River canyon. As we are just about to crest a steep grade, the Dodge suddenly cuts out again, this time a bit differently; a long pause of death, followed by a series of tiny stutters. Damn! The carburetor is plugged up; already! We had just enough momentum to hit the top of the grade, where there was a little pull-off. As I eased her over on now-level ground, it started running right again. It suddenly hit me: it’s been more than 280 miles…and a quick look up at the visor and down at the odometer resulted in the second-grade calculation of: 380 miles! I’m out of gas! The fuel pickup is on the front of the tank, and a steep rise will make it suck air.

As we half-coast over that rise, I can’t believe my eyes: there in the little valley directly below us a clump of green trees and what has to be a town, Horseshoe Bend, no less. We roll down the hill and right into the waiting arms of a Chevron station. $3.77 gas never looked so good. Is this a reality tv show I’m in? I swear I’m not making this up. Stephanie is still a bit steamed for (almost) letting this happen, along with all the other little anxieties: “Paul, you can afford a newer rig, so why…?” Hey, it keeps a vacation from getting too dull.

If you look at my scribbling on the lower left hand corner, it represents the log for this trip, which started at mileage (1)23,982, and ended at 26,150. And at 25,687, you can see 33.0 (gallons) with the notation of “OUT” next to it. You can also see my calculations that show that the average fuel mileage was 11.1 mpg. Actually, that’s pretty decent for a camper, considering the fact that I was pushing it pretty hard much of the time. But it never varies much; I once squeezed 13 mpg out of it by really babying it, or maybe I just didn’t fill it all the way up.

Yes, expensive(r) gas sucks, but the $640 I spent on fuel were by far the biggest expense of the trip, since we brought most of the food along, and camp fees were minimal. Not bad, for a two week vacation in some of the finest scenery in the country. And I certainly didn’t pay for any repairs!

I admit that the moments of anxiety are sometimes less than totally desirable, especially on a vacation like this. This rig is getting old, but in ten years and 30k miles, it’s only let us down once (last summer, less than sixty miles from home).ย  And that was for an $11 ballast resistor. I keep a spare on hand now, but I’m beginning to question whether I’ll ever use it.

The big deliberation this winter will be whether to take the plunge into something newer, or not. That’s going to be a hard one: I’m an incurable romantic who gets attached to old stuff, and thinks he can keep everything going, even if it’s getting to be a bit too much. Like my old houses that need new roofs and a million other things…will it be a sunny or cloudy day when I make that decision? Or just defer it and keep packing the wire and pliers?