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Category: Travel (Page 1 of 5)


Six Months in Montana

An exercise in how things don’t go as planned.

Some of my friends have asked what I was up to in Montana from June to December of 2018. This is an accounting of the highlights. The backstory to this is that my daughter, Alexis, and I are planning to take our artwork “on the road”. My daughter makes fiber art and I do metal art and fabrication, mainly out of welded steel. We both lean towards steampunk and retro-industrial styles, but we can do most anything. The plan is to live full-time in the RV and to tow a trailer containing a workshop and space for a small car.

At Outback RV Park, Bigfork, MT

In June, we headed to Montana from West Virginia with a 4,000 pound trailer full of all our stuff. Upon arriving in Bigfork, Montana, I immediately got to work on the RV. The RV needed work because it had gone through the harsh Montana winter of 2017-2018 without any preparation or winterization. That means pretty much all the plumbing was busted, water heater tank burst, water pump housing cracked, fittings popped off, etc. Fortunately, the holding tanks are heavy fiberglass and had enough flex that they were not damaged, nor was the 100 gallon fresh water tank, which is made out of heavy gauge polyethylene.

This was a big project because RVs are not designed for easy servicing. Replacement of infrastructure like plumbing is a challenge. RVs are not built like boats or yachts, which have removable access panels everywhere giving access to everything. This is because boats must be fully inspectable. When you buy or insure a yacht or sailboat, you or the insurance company hires a licensed surveyor who must inspect pretty much every square inch of the boat and every fitting, including the inside surface of the hull, and write a report. RVs, even the best quality ones, are simply built from the chassis up, plumbing and wiring installed, floor installed, walls, on up to the roof. Everything is just glued and stapled shut, never to be seen again, with no consideration given to access.

Replacing plumbing requires planning and forethought in order to minimize damage. You must find clever ways to remove the old plumbing, and to insert or fish in new plumbing, through blind passages, cutting access points in strategic places as necessary. In some places, like below the kitchen sink, I decided to simply rip out the old panels and fabricate new ones that were stronger, better-looking, and removable. If somebody has to do this again, it will be easier. After all, things happen and I might have to get in there again. What’s more, this was not the first time this coach suffered freeze damage. If you play with Montana winter, these things happen.

Being an electronics engineer, I also considered the electrical systems. The RV was wired for a 120 volt/30 amp hookup and had a small five circuit breaker panel. That’s only 3,600 watts of power, maximum. The coach has two air-conditioners, but you can only run one at a time. One air-conditioner plus the microwave oven pretty much maxes out the power capacity. Since our plan is to work on the road, I will be welding and running machine tools in the trailer. That means we’ll strive to stay in RV spots with 240 volt/50 amp service. It seemed obvious to me that the coach ought to benefit from this too. Since I was going to re-plumb the coach, I might as well rewire it for 240 volts at the same time, install a new load center, provide more circuits for modern electric water heat, additional power in the galley, additional circuits for electric heating, provide for both air-conditioners to run at the same time, and so forth. After careful design, I settled on 11 circuits, which balances nicely in a 12 circuit load center, leaving one spare circuit. By the way, most everything used for this project was purchased on Amazon. The remainder was purchased at Sliters Hardware in Bigfork, Montana, which I highly recommend, and at Home Depot in Kalispell, Montana.

I began with a test. I connected a water supply to the coach’s water inlet and was greeted by water gushing out of the water heater compartment. So it began. It would be three weeks of work before any part of the water system would hold pressure.

Cracked water heater tank

After the water heater was removed and the line capped, the work became a process of tracking every water line and inspecting it. I discovered that the coach was plumbed with a combination of white PEX tubing and CPVC pipe. I thought it was odd to find a mixture of both. I found that most of the existing PEX tubing had survived and nearly all of the CPVC pipe was shattered to pieces. I decided that all the CPVC had to go in the trash, cracked or not.

Cracked CPVC pipe

Since I had 100 foot rolls of new red and blue color-coded PEX tubing, I decided to replace most of the old PEX tubing as well. The reason for this was that I was using crimp fittings to assemble the new PEX and the old PEX had been assembled using inexpensive plastic push-on fittings. I discovered that several of those plastic fittings were either loose or jammed. Since I was up to my neck in this already, I might as well get rid of any and all questionable parts and replace them with new PEX and new fittings. Push-on fittings contain springs and rubber gaskets that can age and fail. Crimp fittings don’t age and fail. Plus, the color-coded PEX looks nicer.

Cracked and split CPVC pipe

I later learned that the coach had originally been plumbed with CPVC which got damaged in a freeze and was partially replaced with white PEX. That’s why there was a mixture of the two kinds of pipe.

The bottom line here is that CPVC pipe is brittle and doesn’t handle freezing. I don’t recommend it.

There were so many leaks and broken pipes that it didn’t really matter where I started. Nearly everything under the bathroom vanity was shattered, including the water line feeding the toilet. This seemed like a good place to begin. The plumbing here is central. Hot and cold water to and from the mains connection, bathroom, toilet, and on to the pump compartment and gas water heater passes under the vanity. Until this was fixed, nothing was going to work.

Pump compartment in its original state

Above is what the pump compartment originally looked like. This compartment contains the 12 volt water pressure pump, strainer, water heater plumbing and bypass valve, and 100 gallon fresh water tank. The compartment is situated behind and partially over the rear axle of the coach. It’s about 3 feet wide, 12 inches high, and runs the full 8 foot width of the coach. There is no access to this vitally important compartment except through a small hole for your right arm to fit through. Because of the location of the hole, you can’t use your left arm.

I found this nearly inaccessible compartment so unbelievable that I checked and rechecked. No, there were no cutouts, no hatches or removable floor panels. I checked above, raised the bed located above the compartment and checked there. I examined the floor. Nothing. One hole for your right arm. How does a three foot human arm access an 8 foot compartment and work on plumbing and electrical fittings? As time went on I thought of various clever ways to get things done in there. By the time I finished the whole project and had spent lots of time working in there, it was hardly an issue anymore. I was used to it. There was nothing I couldn’t do with the makeshift tools I invented for the work. At the beginning, it was difficult and frustrating. Making it worse was that I had recently torn my right shoulder, so I had to be extra careful.

I disconnected and removed the ShurFlo water pump so I could test it. Yes, it leaked, and the housing was cracked. I priced various options and found that I could get a brand new FloJet pump, with higher efficiency, pressure, and capacity for less money than a rebuild kit for the ShurFlo. The only downside being that the FloJet is noisier. I went for the FloJet.

As I went along, I replaced all CPVC plumbing with PEX. Some of the existing PEX seemed in good shape, so I kept it in place. One labor saving trick was to cut out whole assemblies of plumbing, which gave me templates for making new assemblies out of PEX.

New DC and AC load centers.

I like working on more than one part of a project at once. If I hit an impasse or need to think, I can work on a different sub-project and not get stalled. So, I also began work on the electrical improvements.

Black, white and red power wire can only mean one thing — 240 volts

Above is the new wire to run from the shore power cord box to the new load center. All three colors, black, white, and red, tells you we’re working with a 240 volt service.

Back side of original small load centers shown after clean up but before any new circuits. (The system grew from five to eleven circuits.)

Above shows the compartment opened, the back side of the original AC and DC load centers, and the generator changeover relay.

Original wiring behind load center panel

The above photo shows after the old AC and DC panels were disconnected and removed. All the wires are hanging loose. All lacing and bundling was undone and wires stretched out so I could leave service loops behind the panel. Before I began this step, everything was prepared in advance so the old panels could be removed, the new ones installed, and the DC panel at least partially wired, all in one continuous session. An RV can’t function without DC power. Lighting and pumps run on DC. One can easily do without AC power for several days, but without DC power, nothing works.

New load centers mounted in their panel

Above is the compartment cover with the larger new load centers mounted.

New DC panel


Old and new plumbing assemblies for the outlet of the fresh water tank

Above is a plumbing assembly for the outlet of the fresh water tank. The valve is for draining the tank and the other fitting feeds the pressure pump. Work proceeded day and night if possible. As mentioned above, I cut out the old plumbing as assemblies. With those as a template I fabricated new assemblies, which can be made in comfort, sitting on the couch, then installed in whatever awkward location is required.

With PEX, I highly recommend making assemblies in advance rather than fabricating piece by piece in place. The tool for crimping PEX fittings is large and heavy, resembling a large bolt cutter. It won’t fit in tight spaces. Plus, you have to get both hands on it and apply a good 50 to 70 pounds of pressure to operate the mechanism. Doing all that in tight quarters is often impossible. If you plan and prepare assemblies you can usually make it work.

These are ready to install under the kitchen sink and ready for pressure and temperature gauges to be installed when they arrive.

Even so, there were a couple of spots where it simply couldn’t be done with crimp connectors alone and I had to use a push-on fitting to make the awkward final connection. But, I used genuine SharkBite fittings, made of brass, not plastic.

Work continued on wiring the AC load center. Pulling the wire for the new circuits and running the heavy wires for primary power turned out to be much harder than expected.

A lot of wires, both AC and DC, run from behind the load centers to the floor level of the coach, then on to their destination. The coach manufacturer used a 2×6 inch space between two wall studs as a raceway, but it was packed completely full. I couldn’t get even one more wire through. So I had to run conduit from the compartment, through the wall, into one of the bathroom cabinets, then down through the bathroom vanity, and down to where it needed to go. It’s a little unsightly but with some paint, most people won’t notice.

Conduit with power drop wires pulled.

Once down in the floor level raceway, I could run wiring to the rear of the coach.

New dedicated heater circuit and switch to control basement heaters.

Dedicated electric heating circuits now run to the front and rear of the coach, as well as power for basement heating. (I’ll explain that below).

Above is a new dedicated 20 amp circuit to the galley so it’s possible to run an electric griddle or toaster, microwave, coffee pot, etc. all at once. Installing this outlet was challenging. The only place to put it was in an outside wall, next to an existing outlet. The outer walls of the coach consist of 3/8″ plywood and 2 inches of hard styrofoam insulation, cast or glued in place after the wiring was done. Running a new cable meant carefully excavating a passage through the styrofoam, behind the wall, without removing any more foam than necessary. This is harder than it sounds.

New bathroom vanity floor panel, waterproof, and removable for access.

Once the wiring was run and the plumbing replaced, the bathroom vanity could be closed up. I used a new cover panel that can be removed without cutting the plumbing pipes. Can you imagine? The old panel could not be removed without sawing it up or cutting the glued pipes. Who thought this was a good idea?

New water pressure pump

With the plumbing far enough along that some sections could take pressure, and the fresh water tank plumbing replaced, it was time to install the new water pump. As described above, the only access to this compartment, that stretches the full eight foot width of the coach, is through a hole on the left side of the coach, just large enough for my right arm. I tested the pump outside the coach. It worked fine and held pressure. I installed an Anderson Power Pole for easy connection of power, and a new fuse holder. All connections were soldered. The pump itself has quick disconnects on the water lines. Connections were made using stainless steel flex hose, instead of unyielding glued pipe. With the new arrangement, I can open the compartment and have the pump disconnected and outside in my hand in under two minutes. This will be handy if something breaks in the future or the pump fails.

Once the pump was in, it was time for the big test, and it almost passed. The pump built up to 45 pounds of pressure then silence. With an RV type pump, you know immediately if there is even a slight leak. If no leaks, the pump will remain silent indefinitely. Even a tiny leak will cause the system to lose pressure and the pump will cycle from time to time. The pump was cycling about twice a minute. There was a small leak somewhere. I tracked it down to a hose fitting on the toilet that I hadn’t tightened down enough. One more twist and the system held pressure. Now, I could proceed with more plumbing and test it incrementally.

RV water systems are equipped with drains. Winterizing an RV that will be unoccupied means draining all the water lines and either blowing them out with compressed air or filling the system with antifreeze.
I had removed the old complicated drain setup and installed a new pair of valves at the lowest point in the system. The old arrangement used lots of failure-prone plastic push-on connectors. However, removing the old drain setup meant disconnecting the water lines feeding the galley. The next step was getting those reconnected. Here was another place where I had to use SharkBite push-ons. It was impossible to crimp in that awkward spot. Once connected, I found another leak. Something underneath the floorboards under kitchen sink was leaking.

It turned out to be a plastic push-on connector. I thought about this and decided to take a gamble. The kitchen water lines ran through a small tunnel from the left side of the coach in the holding tank compartment to the right side of the coach. Could I thread in new lines? I took everything apart that was possible to take apart including access panels in the compartments underneath the galley. One of the panels, just large enough to get three fingers in, should make it possible to pull new lines through the tunnel. So I did that and ended up installing all new lines in red and blue PEX. I wasn’t expecting to have to do that, but it’s done, and it won’t leak.

I already had plans for completely re-doing the visible plumbing under that kitchen sink, installing an auxiliary electric water heater, valving, pressure gauge, and thermometers, but I didn’t have all that ready yet. I was planning to run with the existing sink plumbing until I was ready. But since I had to replace it all, I temporarily plugged the new plumbing so I could test it, but I still didn’t have a working kitchen sink.

To make life easier on the water pump and because the auxiliary water heater needs an expansion tank, I installed the small Seaflo unit shown above. I think it’s 23 ounces. It helps the pump considerably, but the coach needs a  larger one because of the auxiliary water heater.

From the photo above, the reader may surmise that something bad happened. It did. Really bad.

At this time of year in Western Montana, the peak of the short summer, end of July, first of August, temperatures rise to the upper 90s. It’s the hottest time of the year with no rain. One striking thing about Montana is the intensity of the sun. I’ve lived in various places in and outside of the USA, including the desert Southwest, high desert, Las Vegas, Florida, Central America, and nowhere have I experienced sun as intense as in Montana. I don’t have an explanation for it. Even in winter, with the sun low in the sky, it’s still intense. We were under a red flag fire alert. It was hot, dry, and forest fires were popping off all over the region.

On this day, I was staying at the Outback RV Park. I headed into the town of Bigfork to get some parts at the hardware store and to get groceries, then back to the coach. I parked behind the coach, grabbed my stuff, and dashed inside to escape the heat of the sun. I sat down on the couch and tore into the sub sandwich I’d brought home. After a bite or two, I noticed a strange crackling sound. I got up, looked out the door, and saw smoke streaming along, hugging the ground. I dashed out, to the front of the coach, and saw that the burn pile had caught fire, directly in front of the coach, just five feet away. I quickly called the front office of the park and informed them of the fire, then got busy. I grabbed a fire extinguisher, but, as I expected, it had little effect. I also noticed that the fire was growing explosively. Already, I could barely withstand the heat. I had to move the coach.

If I had it to do over again, I’d do some things differently. I had the generator chained to the coach, so I unlocked it and unplugged the cable. The awning was deployed and I had to stow that, otherwise it would have gotten damaged against the neighboring trailer. Then, I ran to the other side of the coach and quickly stowed the power cable so I wouldn’t run over it and wreck it. Finally, I jumped inside to start the engine, back up, and put some distance between me and the fire. When I climbed into the coach, it was chaos. The heat was already causing the windshield safety glass to shatter and explode outward. The inner plastic layer was bubbling. I jumped into the drivers seat and turned the key. Click — nothing. The chassis battery was dead. (I discovered later that the coach’s charging system only charges the main house battery bank, not the chassis battery.) Smoke was streaming up from the front of the coach as the paint charred and blistered. If I can’t get this thing started fast, I’ll lose the whole coach.

Fortunately, I’m one of those people who reads the manual. Early on, I had read all the literature and manuals for the coach and all of its systems. I remembered that there was an emergency start feature. I scanned the console. Aha! Aux Start must be it. It was a momentary rocker switch on the right side of the console. I pressed it, and nothing. I instantly realized it must be just a relay that shorts all the battery systems together. I reached across with my left hand to press the switch, and then turned the key with my right. Bingo! It started right up. Into reverse and back up. The coach moved about four feet, then stopped. I realized that my car was parked directly behind the coach and I had bumped into it.

So, I ran back outside, got in the car, started it, backed up a good ways, ran back to the coach, and backed up some more. That got the coach out of immediate danger.

In the meantime, Dale, the owner of the park had arrived and was trying to put out this massive blaze with a small garden hose. By now, the huge burn pile was fully involved and the flames were at least 50 feet high. The garden hose wasn’t having any effect. I tried to get him to spray a little water on the front of the coach to cool it off, but he refused. I then got busy moving anything that might be a hazard or be damaged away from the fire. My dog’s favorite blanket had been airing out, hanging on one of the side mirrors. It was smoking, so I threw it. My generator and gas can were too close to the fire, so I moved those to safety. The gas can was bulging and distorted from the heat radiation. All the while I was keeping a close eye on the smoking front of the coach to see if it was getting better or worse. I still had two more fully charged fire extinguishers I could use if necessary.

Finally, several units of the fire department arrived. The first was a scout truck with a 300 gallon tank, that immediately went into action. The RV park is equipped with fire hydrants so a big pumper hooked up to a hydrant on a hill above the fire. Once he got going, the fight was on in earnest. By now, the flames were forming a spinning fire tornado that must have been 75 feet high. Dale went and got the Bobcat loader and used it to turn the pile, little by little, and expose it to the water from the fire fighters. It took the fire department three hours to knock this fire down, and it was still smoking.
An ambulance came to treat any injured. I was the only injury. I had picked up some burns on my arm. I’m not sure how. My guess is I bumped the front of the coach with my arm at some point. The paramedic also noticed my forehead was burned from the heat. Adrenaline makes such things unnoticeable, but they were sure noticeable when things calmed down. There was nothing the paramedic could do. There’s no quick fix for a burn. Once they ascertained that I knew how to deal with burns, they let me go.

Firefighters can be seen vaguely through the damaged windshields

One of several burns I sustained during the fire.

The fire was so large and intense because the burn pile hadn’t been burned in a long time and there was a large amount of dry fuel ready to burn. It’s easy to ignore burn piles and just let them get bigger and bigger. Burn piles have to be burned from time to time. Another problem is that after enough time passes, the material at the bottom begins to compost, which generates heat that can lead to fire. That’s what we believe started this fire. There was no known cause. As far as we know, I was the only person in the vicinity. It’s still a mystery.

The fire stink continued for a couple of weeks. Fire department personnel came out a couple of times each day to check on it. I went out about three times a day and scanned the whole area with my IR thermometer gun, looking for any hot spots. I never saw anything over 120 degrees F.

So, that was the fire episode. Unfortunately, the fire severely impacted my project and costs. It also disabled the coach from being driven on public roads until the windshields are replaced. That was not in the budget. All the lighting was melted, so the coach was not legal on the road until that’s fixed. And the body work to restore the coach to normal is significant.

The above photo shows radiant heat damage to an adjacent trailer. Damage was all superficial. In the photo it looks like warpage occurred on the rear of the trailer, but it didn’t. It’s perfectly flat. Nevertheless, Geico totalled it, claiming $18,000 to repair.

Heat caused plastic to soften and sag.

The headlights didn’t like the heat.

Lessons learned: 1) never block the coach’s escape route unless there’s no choice. 2) If I had this to do over again, the first thing I’d do is back the coach up. To hell with being a good citizen and reporting the fire first, which was ingrained in me from childhood. To hell with anything that might get damaged while I save my own stuff.

I immediately began research into the realities of fixing the bodywork. Much of the lighting is standard. The headlights are from a 1991 Ford F-150 pickup. I removed much of the grilles and hardware to provide better access and tried to determine the type of plastic used for the roto-molded bumpers and end caps. The original maker, Fleetwood, had gone out of business and was bought by another company. All older records were lost so they had no idea what kind of plastic it was. After various tests, I decided it was basically ABS. Buying replacements was not in the budget. They wanted $3,000 just for the center section of the bumper. So, no. A heatgun can be used to reshape the plastic and modern body fillers should do a fine job if my artistic skill is adequate. (That remains to be seen.) The end result won’t look exactly like the original, but nobody will notice when it’s done.

In the first photo, which was taken while the fire was still burning and right after the front of the coach stopped smoking, one can see the peeled “paint”. That’s actually gel coat and paint. Fixing all that is straightforward but takes lot of work. Gel coat is very tough and has to be ground off down to bare fiberglass before repair can be done. Fortunately, none of the underlying fiberglass was harmed by the heat.

While doing this research and gearing up for the many hours of grinding required, I continued on the plumbing and electrical projects already underway.

New dedicated heater circuit and switch to control basement heaters.

The above photo shows the new load center, all wired up. An experienced eye may notice a couple of odd things. The light blue wire is to power the aft water heater. It’s capped off because the heater doesn’t exist yet. And, what are those inline fuse holders doing in there? Hmm.

Above is another view of both AC and DC load centers. I wanted to have my own power monitoring panel for AC and DC. I moved the charge controller indoors, where it’s easily seen and accessible. Seeing the house battery charge mode and battery voltage tells me everything I need to know about the DC system. I also wanted my own AC power monitor and metering so I can see what’s going on and have a cross-check of the electric meter in an RV park. The AC monitors are connected to the raw AC feed, ahead of any breakers, and are wired with 20 gauge wire. So, there are two 1/2 amp fuses for that. The current sensing transformers not visible. They’re on the main power wires behind the box. Some RV parks have wiring problems, bad ground, loose neutral, broken receptacle, etc., so my monitor panel is designed to let me plug in and observe before turning on any breakers and exposing the coach to bad power.

Above is the monitor panel. Because of our steampunk orientation and because of their electrically robust nature, I used analog volt meters for the unswitched power monitor.

Above is the internal wiring of the monitor panel.

Above is the load center all buttoned up and labeled.

New plumbing, new water heater, new dedicated AC circuit.

Above is a view under the kitchen sink with new plumbing and a Bosch electric water heater. The Bosch is adequate if I’m careful about water use. When fully heated, it is sufficient for a “navy style” shower and laundry. Oh, I forgot to mention that I added a washing machine to the coach. Driving to the laundromat is a tremendous waste of time and money. It’s much more efficient to do laundry in the coach.

The plumbing under the sink includes a pressure gauge, which is very informative, and fittings for cold and hot water temperature gauges, which are not yet installed. As you can see, valves are provided in every location where they might be useful. The Bosch water heater, which becomes an auxiliary heater when the aft heater is installed, can be isolated by simply turning the valves.

The front of the coach is fiberglass, strong and robust. This is coated with gel coat, a tough, hard, shiny material. During manufacturing, gel coat is applied to the inside of the mold before the fiberglass is applied. Heat from the fire caused much of the gel coat to crack and partially delaminate. Before repairs can be made, the damaged gel coat must be stripped off to expose the underlying fiberglass. Because its so tough, this requires many hours of abrasive grinding by hand with angle grinders. This procedure is common in boatyards and there are special machines for stripping gel coat. A typical machine of this kind is a beast that costs $5,000 and up and strips one square foot per minute. That gives an idea of how tough gel coat is.

The above photo shows the result after sufficient grinding to begin repairs. More of the textured paint on the bumpers and end caps has to be removed, but that’s easy.

The problem bearing down on me now was the approaching Montana winter. Winter can strike as early as October so the focus had to change to preparing for it. The original plan was to be out of Montana and be parked in Spokane, Washington by this time, where winter is much milder. That wasn’t going to happen. What’s more, body work on plastics shouldn’t be attempted at temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t have an enclosed heated garage large enough for the RV, so body work had to stop.

Insulation work begins

The extreme temperatures that can occur in Montana demand the best insulation one can come up with, and work began on this. Weatherstripping and other air leaks had to be sealed up. Since the propane system had a mystery leak that was not fixed, and for higher efficiency, I opted not to use the two built-in 18,000 BTU furnaces, but to use indoor rated propane heating on an a dedicated propane line running outdoors to the large tanks.

All windows were covered with Reflectix insulation. Every spot where aluminum metal reached from outdoors to indoors, like window frames and door frame had to be insulated. If you don’t, ice will build up there inside the coach. I insulated the entire door and made an air cover for the stairwell. The walls are rated R-8 so I insulated a significant amount of wall area to improve that. Even though the ceiling is R-23, the area near the heater that would see the warmest air received thick air-gapped insulation modules that raised the R-rating to around 40.

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A shock was how much heat loss there was through the huge windshield. This had to be fixed, but how? At first glance, it appeared to be all complex curves — difficult shapes to match with insulation panels. But, careful examination of the dash revealed slots that must have been designed precisely for insulation panels. After measuring, I found that four rectangular panels of the right size would fit exactly, to within one or two millimeters. I used Masonite for the panels and installed insulation on both sides. I devised a means whereby the panels can be easily slid into place and plugged together with an airtight seal. It worked. Heat loss though the windshield dropped to zero. Since I didn’t want slight air leaks to result in ice forming on the windshield, I bought two large NASA blankets to cover the whole front of the coach. I installed grommets to hang them and snaps to snap them together, marine style.

Above photos show one of the electric heaters and the windshield with insulating panels installed. The panels can be removed or replaced in less than a minute.

On cold nights, I’d hunt for air leaks by using a burning stick of incense and a flashlight, and watching the airflow. My IR thermometer gun was extremely useful. My goal was to reach a level of efficiency that I didn’t think I could actually achieve, of 1 degree F per 100 BTU/h. But I did reach it and slightly exceeded it. So heat input of 100 BTU per hour will keep the coach 1 degree Fahrenheit above the outside temperature. My indoor heater’s lowest setting is 4,000 BTU/h, which keeps the coach 40 degrees above outside temp. A 30 pound propane tank will run at this level for over 160 hours. Outside I had three tanks, 20, 30, and 100 pounds. The high setting on the heater delivers 9,000 BTU/h or 90 degrees above ambient. One electric heater on low produces 2,600 BTU/h (26 degrees) and on high 5,200 BTU/h (52 degrees). I have two such heaters. Obviously, this combination can easily deal with even record low temperatures like 40 below zero and through power failures as long as I don’t run out of propane.

Earlier, I mentioned the “basement”. If you look at the first photo at the beginning of the article, you’ll see that all around the coach at the bottom are hatches. These are large storage compartments about 16 inches tall and very deep. Some are the full 8-foot width of the coach. The floor of the living space is above those compartments. To enter the coach from ground level, it’s five steps up to the living space floor. RVs and travel trailers with such a design are called “basement models”.

In addition to storage, the basement also contains the fresh water tank, holding tanks, water, power, and sewer hookups, generator, propane tank, and spare tire. The coach is designed to divert some heat from the two 18,000 BTU furnaces down to the basement to prevent freezing. But this assumes that you run the furnaces 24/7 in winter. I was not going to use those furnaces at all so I had to provide other means to prevent the plumbing from freezing.

I ran a dedicated switched circuit with outlets to the basement to power heat tape and small heaters. I used 200 watt personal heaters in the water tank / pump compartment and in the holding tank compartment, controlled by farm-style thermostats that turn on at 35F and off at 45F. These appeared to do a fine job. The fresh water tank held steady at 42 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature.

Another necessity in this climate is skirting to prevent icy winds from blowing under the coach and to trap warmer air under the coach. For this, I installed 46 clips around the base of the coach that allow easy installation and removal of Reflectix insulation. I installed a remote thermometer to monitor the air temperature under the coach. The only downside to skirting is local animals think that under the coach is a fine place to make a den.

Skirting, heat tape, insulation.

The above photo shows winterized hookups. I cut a custom length of fresh water hose, which is fitted with heat tape and insulated with Reflectix. The heat tape continues down the frost-free hydrant to the ground. The valve lever and spigot are covered with a bonnet also fashioned from Reflectix. This worked great. The temperature of the hydrant was 50 degrees at all times. The bonnet just slides on so it can be instantly removed to access the valve lever and then slid back on. Performance of the system is easy to measure by running water at the kitchen faucet for a minute and watching the various temperatures of the water that comes out. As the temperature goes up and down, it’s easy to see water from the pipes inside the coach, then the heated hose, then groundwater.

I did have one freeze up that took me a couple of hours to track down. I assumed that the freeze was located at the water inlet fitting on the coach. It seemed the most likely spot. But, this was wrong. I tried warming everything to no avail. Finally, I used my IR thermometer to measure every part of the system and found that the bottom inch of pipe at the base of the hydrant was at 18 degrees F. The heat tape didn’t reach down quite far enough. I figured that the steel would conduct enough heat, but no. So, I excavated the soil at the base of the hydrant and re-routed the heat tape all the way down below ground level, and filled it back in with soil. Then, I fabricated two sheets of Reflectix to cover the ground at the base of the hydrant and hold in warmth. I added a couple layers of plastic and rocks to hold it all down. It never froze up again.

So, that’s what I was up to for six months in Montana. By now, it was mid-December. None of our plans for generating money had born fruit yet and I was looking at several months of bitter cold, deep snow, and staring at the inside of the RV. Sitting around doing nothing doesn’t appeal to me so I returned to West Virginia to regroup and have another go at it later on. We’ve only had an inch or two of snow here in WV but last night the temperature was 2 degrees F. I haven’t escaped winter entirely. The irony is Montana is having an unseasonably warm winter.

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A Road Trip

Back in June of 2018, my daughter and I drove from West Virginia to Montana, towing a 4,000 pound trailer full of our stuff. A few weeks ago, it became clear that I needed to return to West Virginia. Plans were made and departure set for Sunday December 16, 2018.

Bigfork, MT to Polson, MT

The departure date was moved up a day. On Saturday, the 15th, a friend helped me put the 34 foot motorhome into an enclosed 14 by 41 foot storage unit. I had already filled up with gas the day before and I hit the road at 1:30 PM, MST. Given that I wanted to continue building things in my spare time, my little Toyota Corolla was loaded to the ceiling with tools and other heavy gear like a drill press and welding machine. The rear end of the car was squatting way down from the weight so I’d have to drive carefully.

I’m always concerned about breakdowns on long trips like this where I’m far away from help or anyone I know. During the first 30 miles south along the shore of Flathead Lake, I was listening carefully for any odd noises. My imagination obliged by conjuring up tire noises, bearing noises, and gear noises. Road conditions were good with a few small patches of ice.

Polson to Missoula, MT

At Polson, I turned south on Highway 93. This is a scenic stretch with snow covered mountains just east of the highway that resemble the Swiss Alps. The highway was straight and good quality to St. Ignatius, MT.

Mountains south of Polson, Montana

After St. Ignatius, the highway crosses mountains and changes from narrow, straight, and flat to a wide high speed superhighway with big sweeping turns and gentle ups and downs. The climate here is also more wintry. Although I had mostly sunshine, the road was still covered with snow, ice, and water. Trucks were going fast and throwing big sprays of slush on my windshield. With the late sun in my eyes, glaring off the wet highway, and the slush and dirt on the windshield, it was challenging to see. It was not a fun stretch to drive and seemed quite dangerous.

Eventually, the section of diving, sweeping turns settled down to relatively flat superhighway but still with plenty of ice patches. It was clear that winter is more severe along this stretch from St. Ignatius to Missoula than farther north where I was in the Flathead Valley. I stopped at a rest area for a few minutes. Walking was challenging because of the thick ice everywhere and it was cold and windy. I was impressed by the construction of the restroom building. It had double doors and powerful electric heaters to heat the entry space between the sets of doors. I got the distinct impression that winters in this area are harsher than anything I’ve ever seen.

Highway 93 Approaching Missoula, Montana

The sun went down and it became fully dark just as I reached Missoula. I had no reason to stop and transitioned directly onto I-90 East.

Missoula to Butte, MT

This segment of I-90 from Missoula to Butte was interesting to me and very challenging for truckers. I was lucky that the weather was decent. East of Missoula, the Interstate commences a steep climb into rugged terrain. I passed a chain-up area for trucks and my ears popped from the elevation change. The temperature plunged into the low 20s. I saw no elevation signs and didn’t think to used the barometric altimeter in my phone, so I don’t know how high the summit was. Past the summit was an area for trucks to remove chains and a steep descent, like a 6 percent grade for two miles. That seemed pretty intense for an Interstate but, apparently unavoidable.

A few miles along commenced another steep climb and the same sequence — plunging temperature, ears popped, chain-up area, summit, followed by a steep descent. This was a series of steep climbs and descents. I didn’t count them. The final summit was marked Continental Divide and the descent took me into Butte, Montana. I thought to myself, if I drove an 18-wheeler, I’d simply refuse to drive this route. This is crazy.

Butte, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings

After Butte, the terrain flattens out considerably to the east. This was fine with me since flat is more fuel efficient than ups and downs. But flat also meant that the gusty winds I had felt since before Missoula were no longer obstructed by rough terrain, and could build up speed. The wind was impressive at times, blowing everyone around on the road. To my surprise, because my car is tiny, aerodynamic, and overloaded with heavy equipment stowed low to keep the center of gravity low, I was blown around less than everyone else. This was fine with me.

Livingston was the only town I passed that I had been to before. All of this was new to me. I was starting to feel tired as I approached Billings, but it wasn’t that late, maybe 11 PM or midnight. I wanted to see northern Wyoming in daylight but I also wanted to press on and not fool around. I considered getting a motel here in Billings. It was cold. I figured the farther south I went, the warmer it would get. Finally, I just refueled and headed south into Wyoming.

Billings to Casper

I saw the moonrise when I turned south at Polson and now the moon was setting. It was pitch dark on this drive, but the stars were spectacular. On the drive out in June, my daughter said I’d love the stars in Montana. I was looking forward to taking some good photos of the Milky Way. But, it was not to be. Astronomical “seeing” conditions around Bigfork, Montana were only marginally better than in West Virginia — pretty poor. The conditions around Billings and now into Wyoming were spectacular. Why? The answer is pine trees. On many mornings in Bigfork, you can see the pine “smoke” laying dense over the cuts and valleys, almost like a fog. Pine trees outgas a kind of smog. It’s what makes the Smoky Mountains smoky, and it greatly restricted “seeing”. Here in Wyoming, no pines, just scrub brush, and crystal clear skies. But, I had no time to stop and enjoy it.

Once into Northern Wyoming, the terrain changed in a familiar way, even though I had never been in this part of Wyoming before. The road was continuously changing elevation over rounded hills and across rounded valleys. There was no flat ground anywhere, no straight climbs or descents. It was just like the terrain of West Virginia. This made me wonder. The coal country of West Virginia is like this, and I was in the coal country of Wyoming. Is there a connection between coal deposits and this kind of terrain? I’m not a geologist, I don’t know.

There was very little traffic here in Wyoming and the two sides of the Interstate were so far apart one could leave high-beams on continuously without bothering oncoming traffic. This is a lonely stretch of highway and it was boring at night. But I pressed on hard.

Back in 1979, I had a job offer from one of the coal mines in the Sheridan, Buffalo, Gillette area of Wyoming. I didn’t take it and always wondered what might have happened, had I taken it and remained in Wyoming. So I looked forward to seeing a glimpse of Sheridan and Buffalo. I mainly wanted to see Gillette, since that’s where I would have had to move, but it was off my path.

By now, I was getting pretty tired, so I refueled in Buffalo and hoped I could make it to the Kaycee Rest Area without falling asleep. I did. It was a nice rest area but it was too cold. This was also my first attempt at sleeping in the car and I didn’t have a blanket or anything ready to hand. The next time I tried this I was more prepared and had unstowed a blanket and pillow. It was 21F outside and the car rapidly became too cold. I woke up after 90 minutes of sleep and felt pretty good, except for the cold in my bones.

I sat in the car and sipped a Coke for a little while, until I saw the first faint pink glow on the horizon. Then I headed south for Casper. The increasing light of dawn revealed a land of endless winter desolation of snow and snow fences. This much hadn’t changed since I lived in Wyoming 40 years ago. Wyoming snow is dry powder and the wind blows it endlessly back and forth across the land, creating ground blizzards, even though it may be sunny and blue sky above. The snow fences help make the snow drift up and stop moving. The landscape was occasionally punctuated by a microwave tower, but that’s about it.

Mile after mile of flat land and occasional gentle rises. On and on, until I finally reached Casper. The terrain around Casper, with the steep bluff south of town, I instantly recognized from afar. The rest, not so much. I slowed and managed to recognize a couple of things. I exited I-25 at the center of town and drove a few blocks through what used to be the entire town. Back in 1979, there were just two ramps for I-25, one at the east and one at the west end of town. Now, there are many more. But, I did locate the east ramp that I always used and which figures in another story I tell in my biography. I located the McDonalds I used to frequent. It had been rebuilt long ago and needed rebuilding again. I left Casper by way of the same east ramp I had always used and headed on my way.

Casper to Cheyenne

Leaving Casper, I was astounded by all the new construction and industry. I passed through Douglas and pulled off for a moment there. Douglas used to be just a couple of blocks in size. All of that was gone and replaced with a modern city.

On the trip from WV to MT in June, my daughter and I saw numerous large wind farms. Now I would see many more, starting here in Wyoming. Some of these wind farms are tremendous and go on for miles along the Interstate and miles to either side. I didn’t stop, but there was a good photo opportunity east of Casper where I could have captured oil wells, a gigantic coal power plant, and wind turbines in one frame.

At night, the wind farms are easily recognized because of the synchronized red clearance lights. Each wind turbine has a red aircraft clearance light. I suppose that hundreds of these blinking randomly is hard to interpret from an aircraft, so all the lights are synchronized — square miles of red lights turning on and off together.

I hadn’t had enough rest, and it was only mid-morning. I’m a night-person and even though I usually get up around 9 AM, I don’t come fully awake until 2 PM. I was fighting sleepiness and had to stop and walk around every 60 minutes or so. The dog didn’t mind the extra walks, but it was cold and windy.

As I drove along I-25, which I used to know like the palm of my hand, it was familiar but something was wrong. It didn’t look right. Eventually, I realized, it had been resurfaced. When I drove from Casper to Cheyenne, I-25 was new, all smooth and white concrete. It had been resurfaced with black and brown asphalt, so it looked wrong. There was also more hill climbing than I remembered.

I stopped for gas and a break at Wheatland. I laughed at Lusk, WY as I passed it, just as I always used to do. It was the only place that hadn’t changed. It was a local joke then and is still today — a couple of old buildings and a couple of mobile homes alongside a railroad track. I still don’t know why the town exists.

Some things looked vaguely familiar as I approached Cheyenne, but it had changed completely and grown tremendously. I almost didn’t stop, but I did and looked it over for a few minutes from a high point near the intersection of I-25 and I-80. The Interstate took me right past the entrance to Warren AFB and Missile Drive, and that looked the same. If I had had more time, I would have explored downtown to find familiar landmarks, the house we lived in, and the railroad yard. But, there was no time for that and I didn’t want to drive the car any more than absolutely necessary. This trip would have been a bad time for a breakdown.

Cheyenne to Denver

As I mentioned, I’m a night person and a very slow starter in the morning. I had been driving for six hours but it was only noon and I was still sleepy. I don’t usually reach full mental speed until about two or three in the afternoon. I was dragging and not at all sure what to do. It was bright, sunny, cold, and not a place I wanted to stop and rest, so I decided to press on. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to avoid Denver traffic. It’s always terrible and a Sunday afternoon seemed like a good time to tackle it.

Not far south on I-25 from Cheyenne, one crosses into Colorado. As I expected, the quality of the road got much worse and the quality of the drivers as well. I’m sorry if this offends Coloradans, but in my experience, Coloradans are the worst drivers in the country. I’ve observed this since the 1960s in California, and nothing had changed. I’d see a crazy driver on a California freeway and, sure enough, Colorado plates. So, here I was on terrible, poorly maintained road with crazy drivers all around.

Soon, while still 80 miles north of Denver, I saw the plume of Denver smog stretching along the Rocky Mountains west of me. I hadn’t seen bad photochemical smog in many years, but there it was. Soon, I could smell it. Wow. And to think I grew up in Los Angeles, in this same stink, before Southern California cleaned up its air. Why can’t Denver clean their air? I don’t know. I stopped at a rest area for a few minutes to walk the dog. It was very stark and poorly maintained. I resolved to get through Denver and out of Colorado as fast as possible.

Traffic quickly became very dense and intense, but never dropped to stop-and-go, thank goodness. The only way to deal with crazy Colorado drivers is to drive just as crazy as they, so I bombed along and headed for the airport because I knew this would place me on I-70 heading east out of Denver. As I passed the airport and Denver was receding in my rearview mirror, my fatigue finally faded away and I came fully awake. I was past Denver. Hurray! I knew that ahead of me stretched about 800 miles of nothing until I reached Kansas City.

Denver to Kansas City

After leaving Denver, the road quality improved on I-70. Southeast of Denver, Colorado is a great open space of nothing. At least I had finally left the snow behind me. Upon crossing into Kansas, the road quality improved even more, to near perfect — quiet, flat, like riding on rails.

My 90 minute sleep at the rest stop in Kaycee, WY taught me that trying to sleep in a car when it’s 21 degrees F outside is problematic. In about an hour, the icy cold seeps into the car, and I have a hard time sleeping when my feet are freezing. All day, I had been keeping my eye on the temperatures around me and the forecasts showed lows of around 40 degrees along I-70 in Kansas. I wanted to reach that area before stopping to rest. There was a mass of cold air moving down from the north but it was expected to stop short of I-70. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The cold air continued south until it just engulfed I-70 and then stopped advancing — just far enough to mess up my plans. Yet, I had to stop and rest.

Kansas has plentiful rest stops along I-70, nicely laid out, clean, well-maintained. I chose one near Quinter, KS and settled in for a rest. By now I had worked out an arrangement of a blanket and pillow. After walking the dog, I settled in and managed to fall asleep. Ideally, I’d like to drive in and make use of my fatigue to immediately fall asleep in the warm car. But, having to walk the dog first breaks the spell. I have to go outside and walk around in the cold air, which wakes me up again. But, I did get to sleep, waking up 90 minutes later, cold. It was 29 degrees outside — better than 21 but not 40.

Some drivers repeatedly start and run the car to warm it up. Others simply leave the engine running all night to stay warm. I refuse to do either one of these things. So, after 90 minutes of sleep, I hit the road again. Besides, I prefer to drive at night.

This was Sunday night and I knew I had been enjoying reduced weekend traffic, which would soon come to an end in a few hours. It looked to me that if I pushed, I could make it though Kansas City before morning rush hour, and I resolved to attempt it. With this goal in mind, I hit the road with a will at about 1 AM and made use of the 75 and 80 MPH speed limits. Now I was on a mission, which helps maintain focus and alertness.

I flew past Salina and continued on to Topeka. Here, along I-70, was one wind farm after another, for miles and miles. At Topeka, I knew the Interstate became a toll road to Kansas City, but had forgotten this. Suddenly, there was a sign that said “Last Free Exit”. I should have continued straight but I dove across the freeway and took the exit, thinking that I would end up on surface streets and could stop and consider what I was going to do. However, this exit was not “free” it was a trap. The exit placed me at a line of toll booths for a toll road heading to Wichita, with no escape.
I had no choice but to take a ticket and continue, hoping to find an exit. Fortunately, there was an exit four miles down the road, which I took. The next exit was 40 miles farther. This exit dumped me into a deserted industrial sort of area so I fired up Google Maps to navigate me out of the mess. It was now about 3:30 AM. Google did a fine job of leading me to a toll exit, where I had to pay 50 cents, and then led me back to an alternate onramp and toll booths to get back on I-70 East to Kansas City. So, thanks Google. I had no idea where I was. Google made it easy.

Now, back on my way to Kansas City, and having wasted 15 or 20 minutes, I pressed the speed to the limit. Unfortunately, the road quality was terrible — bouncing and bumps all the way. Which brings up a topic that irritated me the whole way to Kansas City. How is it that an Interstate Highway, built and paid for by all taxpayers in the United States, can be commandeered by a state and turned into a toll road? I think I could accept this if the charging of tolls resulted in an excellent quality highway. Or if there were a non-toll alternate route. But this highway is the only way and it was in terrible condition, worse than the rest, and I have to pay extra for it? I don’t get it.

Onward I flew, always watching the clock advancing, and hoping that I’d beat rush hour. I reached the end of the toll section, just short of Kansas City, paid my $3.75, and continued on to the city. As it turned out, I was still plenty early to miss the bad traffic. It was pitch dark, around 5 AM. While there was plenty of traffic, it wasn’t heavy.

I had never been to Kansas City before and was impressed at the appearance of the city center. There were lots of factories around generating plumes of steam and a smelly oil refinery near the civic center that stunk up the city. The whole place emanated a sense of hard-working serious business and industry.
Getting through Kansas City and out the other side was the most convoluted twisted mess I’ve ever driven. I just kept following the signs, but I have never made so many freeway transitions in a short period in my life. I must have made a dozen transitions in as many minutes.

Since it appeared that I had a little time, I stopped and got off the freeway near the civic center and looked for a McDonalds. I found one but it was closed — too early. As I drove on surface streets, it seemed like Kansas City was unusually dark, spooky, foreboding, and then I noticed that all the street lights were out. As far as I could see, the lights were all out. No wonder it was so dark. I immediately returned to the freeway and continued on out of the city. How could a city like Kansas City have all it’s street lights out? I don’t get it.

On Into Missouri

By now, I was tired and hungry, and somewhat annoyed that my stop at the McDonalds was a failure. Signs on the Interstate that show food services don’t necessarily mean that the restaurant is open. I knew there was a rest stop past Kansas City at a place called Concordia, about 30 miles farther along. That was my goal and I counted every mile. Along the way, I found a McDonalds that was open and bought a couple of cheeseburgers. I found the Concordia rest area and hoped it was open because I needed to stop. It was open and seemed pretty nice. I took care of the dog, ate a cheeseburger, and decided to drink a can of beer before attempting to sleep. The temperature was 35 and I parked so the morning sun would shine in and warm me. I was pleased I had made it past Kansas City and fell asleep just as the faint pink of dawn was starting to appear on the horizon.

I awoke three hours later, quite warm from the sun, and feeling pretty good. I took my time getting ready, stretching, walking the dog, brushing my teeth, etc. My friend Todd in Montana texted me and asked how I was doing. I told him where I was and he was impressed at my progress and asked if I expected to arrive in West Virginia that night. Up to that point, I had been just running top speed with my head down, not paying attention to progress. My original arrival time I had in mind was Tuesday night. This was Monday morning around 10 AM. I texted back, no, no, I have a long way to go yet and don’t expect to arrive until Tuesday night. I had more cities to go through — St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, etc.

I got back on the road, heading for St. Louis. I ought to pass through St. Louis around noon, which was great, since I’d again miss rush hour. As I drove, I was thinking about what Todd had said. I hadn’t even considered attempting to reach WV by Monday night. But I realized that I was closer to WV than it seemed. Cities back East are much closer together than out West. St. Louis to Indianapolis is a short hop compared to 800 miles from Denver to Kansas City. I began to look at the rest of my route and realized that maybe I could make it. It seemed like I could make it by just past midnight. If that was the case, I’d have to try, rather than spend yet another sleep period in the car. I don’t like sleeping in the car. At a stop for gas, I texted Todd, thanking him for pointing out my progress to me and making me think it through. I also texted my friend Steve in Clarksburg to let him know I can probably arrive a day sooner than planned and asked whether this would create a problem. He said no, come on ahead. So with that in mind, and about 12 hours of driving ahead of me, I bore down and put the speed up.

This segment of I-70 needs to be widened. There’s way too much traffic here for an old four-lane Interstate.

I had never seen St. Louis before. In fact, this trip knocked two more states off of my very short list of states I’ve never visited: Kansas and Missouri. Knowing the geographic and historical importance of St. Louis, I had done a bit of advance study so I would know where to look as I passed through. Fortunately, my route took me close enough to the spots I wanted to see. The St. Louis Arch was much larger than I had envisioned and visible from far off. I had seen, touched, and sailed on the Mississippi River numerous times. But had never seen the Missouri River. My route crossed over right at the confluence of the two great rivers, and I knew that the Illinois River joined just upstream from where I was. These are the reasons that St. Louis is where it is.

I-70 Crossing the Missouri River. Rocheport Bridge near St. Louis

One thing I noticed about Missouri is the number of cops or troopers on the highways. I was astounded. Up in Montana, you can go for weeks without seeing a single law enforcement officer. But, in Missouri, it was crawling with troopers — every mile, one or two across the median, others hiding behind this or that, pairs of blacked out suburbans here and there. What’s going on here? Is crime that bad in Missouri? I doubt it. What’s more the speed limit was only 70, where elsewhere it was 75 or 80 MPH.

I also noticed here in Missouri that every other billboard is advertising “adult toys”, gentleman’s clubs, and sexy lingerie. I noticed the same thing in June in Wisconsin, I think. It was either Wisconsin or Minnesota. What’s up with that? I’ve never seen that anywhere else.

Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia

After St. Louis it was go, go, go, and not attract attention from State Troopers. For the most part, the roads were pretty good, with a few bad spots here and there, especially in Illinois. Hour after hour, I drove. I already knew Indianapolis and Columbus, OH, so there was no interest in either place. Just fuel and go.

My goal was to reach WV by 12:30 AM, but it seemed that, little by little, I was losing ground. A minute here, a minute there. So, I put the speed up some more. I didn’t want Steve to wait up far into the wee hours for me.

Then I realized I would lose an hour by crossing from the Central into the Eastern Time Zone. Damn. My 12:30 AM target was actually 1:30 AM in West Virginia. Ugh! I decided not to mention it and just keep the speed up as high as I dared for safety and the cops.

After Columbus, Ohio, there was still quite a way to go, and I knew I’d switch from an Interstate to Highway 33, which I expected to be slower. But I stayed with the locals, who tended to drive quite fast, even faster than I would have gone by myself, and made good time. Highway 33 wasn’t bad at all. There were spots where things slowed for stop lights or towns, but the highway was good and fast, well maintained and new-looking.

I was looking forward to Parkersburg, WV. Despite my years living in West Virginia, I had never seen Parkersburg. Reaching Parkersburg was, for me, the final milestone of the trip because it placed me on the final stretch, on US Highway 50, to Clarksburg.

Parkersburg did not disappoint. I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen photos and I knew there was a bridge over the river. I half expected a sleepy old town. Instead I saw two gleaming oil refineries and what appeared to be lots of industry. There was plenty going on at midnight. I felt like an ant dodging between all the semi trucks with double hoppers and tankers going very fast, this way and that. I was definitely in their way. Parkersburg was a happening place. So, that was an eye-opener, and very different from sleepy Clarksburg.

Now, thinking in terms of Eastern Time, I reached Parkersburg a little after midnight. I had about 70 miles to go. I was tired, but this was no time to fade out. I had plenty of fuel. Off I went without any delay and into another surprise. Highway 50 near Clarksburg is pretty benign, curving along, mostly level. East of Parkersburg, Highway 50 is like a slalom race. Steep grades, hard turns, and dark. I joined up with a tanker truck, who seemed to be driving above safe speed limits, but he knew this highway, so I stuck with him. He took some descending turns even faster than I would have, but this kept me going. Up, down, turn, up, on and on we went. About 15 miles west of Clarkburg, I finally got a glimpse of the huge natural gas liquids separation plant that had been built near West Union. Even just a glimpse at night was very impressive. That’s a lot of plumbing there.

I texted Steve as I approached. Soon, I slowed for Clarksburg, exited Hwy 50, and rolled up to my destination at 1:35 AM Eastern time. If it hadn’t been for my oversight of the time zone change, I was only five minutes late.

I crossed three time zones, nine states, 2,600 miles, in 58 hours elapsed time, including rest, fuel, and food stops. Not bad for an old guy like me.

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Mayan Calendar Doesn’t End on December 20, 2012

August 11, 3114 BC marks the beginning of the current calendric cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar.  The Mayan calendar is comprised of repeating periods that result from the Mayan base-20 positional number system.

The Mayans were the first humans to invent a positional number system like our decimal system—a system based on powers of a number base plus the idea of a numeral that represents zero.  A positional number system must have some way to represent the value zero.  In contrast to our base-10 system, the Mayans chose base-20.  So instead of decimal places Mayan numbers have vigesimal places.  Instead of the decimal system of nine numerals plus zero, Mayan numbers are composed of 19 numerals, plus zero.  In the decimal system, each digit represents a power of ten.  In the Mayan system, each digit represents a power of 20.  A positional number system is a necessity for doing serious mathematics.  Imagine doing even simple addition with a non-positional system like Roman numerals.

Our Gregorian calendar uses decimal numbers for years and a messy system based on the arbitrary values 7, 28, 29, 30, and 31 for weeks and months.  We call the periods of our calendar days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and millennia.

The Mayan Long Count system is much cleaner.  The periods correspond to vigesimal places of a Long Count date and are named k’in, uinal, tun, k’atun, baktun, piktun, etc., each representing a power of 20 except the the second place, the uinal, which is base-18. (This results in the 20×18 = 360 day count in the lowest two places to represent the 360 day Mayan year.) From the third place on up, the count is purely vigesimal.

Mayan Calendar

Mayan Calendar

The Mayans actually used three calendars side-by-side.  The Tzolkin and the Ha’ab calendars are designed to keep track of holidays and astronomical / planting cycles.  Those calendars restart every 52 years and don’t concern us here.  The third calendar, the Maya Long Count calendar, counts an unlimited number of days from a specified starting point using a modified base-20 system that accommodates the 360 day Mayan year. Because this calendar is unlimited, Long Count dates are inscribed in monuments intended to last for a long time.

Now let’s connect some of the Mayan Long Count periods with real numbers.  The first vigesimal place, the kin, counts 20 day cycles.  The second place, the uinal, counts base-18.  Together, the first and second places roll over every 360 days, which is the length of the Mayan year, and the count carries into the third digit.  The third digit, tun, counts 20 Mayan years.  The fourth digit, k’atun, counts 20 tuns, or 400 Mayan years, which is 394.25 years on our Gregorian calendar.  It is this 394 year cycle that is going to roll over in December 20, 2012, and the next vigesimal place, the baktun, will increase from 12 to 13.  We are now in the 13th baktun since the start of the Long Count calendar (like saying we’re in the 21st century in our calendar).  The next baktun begins on December 21, 2012.

A baktun is a period of 144,000 days or 394.25 Gregorian years. The Classic Period of Mayan history occurred during the 8th and 9th baktuns.  The last day of the 13th baktun occurs on Dec 20, 2012 in the Gregorian calendar, which is on the Mayan Long Count calendar. The 14th baktun begins
on (Long Count) or Dec 21, 2010 (Gregorian).

When 20 baktuns are completed (7,885 years from the starting point in 3114 BCE) a new piktun begins and the baktun starts counting again from zero.  The pictun isn’t normally written on Long Count dates because it’s assumed.  Just like we don’t write leading zeros on Gregorian years.  We don’t write 000002012, just 2012.  When 20 pictuns are completed, or 157,700 years, a new kalabtun begins. In fact there are two more digits defined beyond these in the Mayan Long Count Calendar, the k’inchiltun and the alautun.  The Mayan Long Count calendar has places already define and named that carry it another 1.2 billion years.  In our calendar we’re only named periods out to millennia.  The Mayans had a much longer view of time.  And even after 1.2 billion years have elapsed and the named periods of the Mayan calendar are filled, the calendar still doesn’t end.  You just keep adding more digits to the year, the same as we will do when our year passes 9999.

In light of this, the idea that the Mayan calendar ends is particularly ridiculous.  The Long Count calendar is defined, with named periods, 1.2 billion years out into the future.  It would make more sense to say that our calendar ends in 9999, since we haven’t named any periods beyond the millennium.  But the hoopla about the new baktun (similar to a century on our calendar) makes for lots of book and movie sales.

For a timeline of Guatemalan history, from 15,000 BC to the present, see Guatemala History Timeline. 

The Maya Paradise home page displays today’s date in all three Mayan calendars: Tzolkin, Ha’ab, and Long Count.  Maya Paradise

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