The T2

I take delivery of a newer, smaller truck camper.

Regular readers might remember that I spent this past winter in Arizona and California, doing my best to avoid the dark and dreary winters of north central Washington state where I normally live. I had sold my big fifth wheel camper, the Mobile Mansion late in the summer of 2016 after purchasing my first truck camper, the Turtleback. I took the Turtleback south just before Thanksgiving and spent the winter living in a friend’s guest house, camping on mostly BLM land with friends, and traveling around Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and California.

The Turtleback was pretty deluxe. It had basically every single feature you can cram into a truck camper, including a slide to give me lots of space. It was huge for what it was and although it was comfortable, it was also heavy. I decided, on my trip south, that I’d keep an eye out for a replacement and, if I found one, I’d trade it in. I wanted something slightly smaller — certainly without the slide, which I didn’t need — and perhaps a little newer. (The Turtleback, although in near new condition, was a 2005 model.)

Finding a Replacement for the Turtleback

Floorplan
The standard 2007 Lance 950 floorpan.

I found the Turtleback’s replacement on the last day of my trip. I stopped by the Lance dealer in Yakima to see what they had among the used truck campers. They only had one — and it was one of the ones I’d seen there on my way south.

Camper Kitchen
The kitchen is compact but the sink is bigger and the propane stove includes an oven so I can bake without running a generator.

Food prep area
The “food prep” area is beside the 6 cubic foot refrigerator with separate freezer.

It was the same physical size as the Turtleback, but 400 pounds lighter, mostly because it didn’t have a slide. It had an oven and a microwave — the Turtleback had a convection microwave so I needed power to bake — and a lot more interior storage space, including cabinets over the dining area and a much larger pantry. And although the kitchen area was just as tiny as the Turtleback’s it did have a “food prep” area beside the refrigerator.

It had two 5-gallon propane tanks instead of two 7-gallon ones; that was actually good for me because the 7-gallon tanks are wicked heavy when full and tough for me to lift into place. It even had the sunroof over the sleeping area, which I’d grown to love.

T2 Overview
The view from the dining area.

The only weird thing: it had two narrow twin beds instead of a standard queen bed. The mattresses could be zipped together to make a queen bed if I wanted one. But the setup actually added more functionality — I could travel with someone I didn’t want to sleep with without turning the dining area into a bed.

Beds
It has two twin beds with a moveable night table between them. The mattresses zip together to make a queen bed if I find the perfect travel companion. Until then, I’ll likely leave them like this.

Dining AreaBecause the dining area isn’t on a slide, there’s storage overhead. That cabinet actually folds down to be used as a bunk for kids or a huge storage shelf. (And yes, I already hung my solar Chinese lanterns.)

It didn’t have a generator or solar panel, but I have a 2KW Honda generator I bought years ago and the portable solar panel I’d bought in Quartzsite in January. And instead of a satellite dish, which was useless to me because I don’t subscribe to satellite or cable TV, it had a regular RV TV antenna.

The bathroom was about the same microscopic size. Maybe an inch bigger.

And although it was a 2007 model, it was in very good condition.

In all, it was pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Smaller, lighter, and better designed.

For some reason — probably the beds — it wasn’t selling. Since their lot was crammed with new units, they were eager to get rid of it. They offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse. The only drawback was that the trade-in deal they offered absolutely sucked. I knew I could get a lot more for the Turtleback if I sold it on my own. They kindly offered to hold it for two months with a $500 deposit. I gave them a check and went home.

Selling the Turtleback

It took a week or two to clean out the Turtleback and get it ready for sale. Since my garage was still full of boats, I parked it near my shed. I put an ad on Craig’s List. The calls started coming almost immediately. The only problem was, folks were calling from Montana, Idaho, and the Olympic Peninsula — 5 or more hours away. I honestly don’t know why they bothered if they didn’t intend to come take a look. I certainly wasn’t about to deliver.

One guy told me he’d take it sight unseen. He’d come on Monday. By Sunday, however, he’d changed his mind. His wife had talked him into looking for a pull trailer.

A few days went by I still had more than a month to sell it, but when the calls suddenly stopped coming, I started getting worried. But then another call came. I answered questions. He was definitely interested but would be coming from the west side near Seattle. A few more phone calls and he and his wife arrived.

I showed them everything. They asked lots of questions. They tried everything — including the air conditioner, which wasn’t easy to get going when the outside temperatures were around 50°F. They talked it over in private. They offered $2K less than I was asking. I told them I really needed more and countered for $1K higher. They handed me a stack of $100 bills that had already been counted. I recounted them and it was right.

A while later, they drove away with the Turtleback on the back of their pickup. They’d gotten a good deal. I’d gotten $1,000 more for the Turtleback than I needed for its replacement — and $5,000 more than the trade-in offer had been for.

Picking Up Turtleback 2

Although I still had a whole month to get the new camper, I was eager to take possession. Cherry season would start soon and I was hoping to take it on a shakedown trip before I was stuck here. (I can’t travel during cherry season because I’m on standby for work.)

I scheduled a date to pick it up and drove down to Yakima to get it. I wound up spending about three hours, mostly chatting with the two brothers that own the place while their guys put the camper on my truck, inflated the air bags on my truck’s back end to level it, and strapped it down. Then I got the unit tour, which included an overview of everything on the camper. When I voiced disappointment that the TV/DVD player was AC rather than DC, the younger brother, Mike, gave me a 375 watt inverter. (Since the TV only draws 38 watts, I’ve since replaced it with a fanless 100 watt inverter.) So yes, I can still watch movies when I’m off-the-grid.

It felt the same as the Turtleback on the way home, although the brochure says the center of gravity is three inches higher.

Of course, I needed a name for it. Since it was my second Turtleback camper, I called it Turtleback 2 or just T2.

Plans for T2

It was parked in my driveway for about a week. Some overnight guests camped out in there. It was nice to have a place to put them.

I finally put it away in the garage yesterday. I’d planned on going on a trip down to Palouse Falls, but other things popped up on my calendar and it made sense to put it away rather than leave it out in the sun.

I’ll be using it in about 10 days on a Puget Sound Mycological Society weekend-long field trip to Silver Falls. Then maybe again on Memorial Day weekend. And likely the first weekend in June for another mushroom hunting field trip before cherry season starts.

Last summer, the Turtleback was a home for three different pilots who worked for me in Quincy. Although I don’t think I’ll need it for that duty this summer, it will be available.

And there’s a slight chance I’ll get a contract job in the Yakima area in September; if I do, I’ll stay down there in the T2.

Of course, I’ll be taking it south with me again next winter. And this time, I’ll bring along my boat.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: A Crazy Day

This one is actually worthy of a full blog post, but I’m too lazy to go out in the rain to fetch my laptop right now, so I’ll use the WordPress app on my iPad and let the photos do some of the talking.

Camped out at the Anzio-Borrego Desert State Park’s Palm Mountain Spring primitive Campground last night. Great, quiet site among cholla cacti and ocotillo. Expecting rain that never came.

After a beautiful sunrise


I made a plan to visit a scenic overlook farther down the road and then head back to Borrego Springs with a few hikes along the way.

I had breakfast, packed up, put on my new hiking pants and hiking shoes, and put Penny, my camera bag, and my rain jacket into the truck. Put the key in the ignition, waited for the seat to move and the chimes to stop, turned the key to get the glow plug thingie working, and then turned the key to start the engine.

Click.

No hearty vroom of a starting Diesel engine.

I did some troubleshooting for a while. No success. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the batteries, both of which are less than a year old.

I had no Internet connection. This was actually my first campsite all month that had absolutely no Internet.

Barely a cell signal at all. 

I texted my friend Jim and asked him to look up the phone number for the Ford dealer in El Centro, CA, which was the closest big city to where I was. I was actually able to talk to him by placing my phone in a specific spot on my windowsill and not touching it. I had to use the speaker. He sent the phone number and I called. I chatted with a service guy. He confirmed what I suspected: it sounded like an electrical issue. He told me to have it towed in.

I managed to call AAA. I also managed to describe my exact location for a tow truck to come get me. I explained that I had a camper on the back and if the tow truck was a flatbed, the rig would likely be too tall to fit under overpasses and traffic lights. I knew that in a pinch, I could take the camper off the truck and leave it behind.

And then I waited.

A volunteer ranger came by and I flagged him down to tell him that I might need to leave the camper overnight. He had a beard like Santa Claus. He asked me if I knew what Ford  stood for. We said in unison “found on road dead.”

I saw the tow truck pass by on the paved road. I figured he’d realize he gone too far and would turn around so I decided to walk down to the road with Penny. We were about halfway there when he saw me waving and pulled in.

Fortunately, he didn’t come with a flatbed. He hooked up my truck, lifted it, and then disconnected the driveshaft — it’s a four-wheel-drive and apparently that’s necessary. He moved it far enough forward for me to retrieve the plastic Lego like blocks that I used to level it overnight. Then we both took pictures, 


climbed aboard, and headed out.

Along the way, we discussed how fortunate it was that I’d backed into the spot.

He took us to the Ford dealer, which was about 50 miles away. I was prepared for this tow — I had AAA membership that entitled me to up to 100 miles of towing per incident for free. And because I also paid for the RV coverage, I wouldn’t have to pay anything extra for having the camper on board. The driver told me that the tow would probably have cost around $900 – $1,000. So once again, my AAA membership has paid for itself. All it cost me today was the $20 tip I gave the tow truck driver.

The service center was short handed, but they promised to look at it today. They made me sign off on a $120 diagnostic fee. I signed. Did I have a choice?

Meanwhile, I knew I had the extended warranty I’d bought with the truck. I didn’t have the information about it that I needed, however. So I looked up the phone number for the dealer in Oregon where I bought the truck, called them, and left a message for the finance guy. He called back a little while later with the information. I passed it on to the service guy who was helping me. By that time, they had the verdict: I needed a new starter. It would cost $770.

The service guy called the warranty people. The starter was covered. They could pay the same day. The part was in stock. The service guy told me they’d be done by 4:30.

I waited with Penny.


They were done before 3 PM. I signed some papers. The total cost was $750.18 but I didn’t have to pay any of it. 

So yes, today I got a brand-new starter for my Ford pickup truck for a total out-of-pocket cost of $20.

Of course, I had lost most of the day. My plans were pretty much shot to hell and I had to come up with a new plan. I decided to spend the night at a primitive campsite on the east shore of the Salton Sea, a large inland body of salt water that’s about 275 feet below sea level. (I can’t make this stuff up.) I programmed the location into Google maps and headed north.

When I reach the campground an hour later, it was raining and the campground was closed.

Undaunted and knowing that there were more campgrounds farther up the shore, I kept going. I found one less than 5 miles away that was open. By this time, it was raining pretty hard. I backed into a spot along the shore so that I could see the lake through my back and dining area windows and parked.

The sun, which was now quite low in the western sky, poked through the clouds. A magnificent double rainbow appeared to the east. I took a picture, of course. It was so big that I had to use the panorama feature on my iPhone.


Outside my back door, the wooden picnic table gleamed in the sun. Waves were breaking on the shore of the lake as seagulls flew by. I took a picture, of course.


And that’s with Penny and I are right now. I had dinner, the sun has set, and now I’ve managed to write a very lengthy blog post about my very unusual day. Rain is pattering on the roof of the Turtleback but Penny and I are warm inside. 

Let’s just hope tomorrow’s adventure is a little more predictable.

Snowbirding 2017: About the Campsites

And how I find them.

Adventure Truck
Adventure Truck and the Turtleback off road near Cibola Lake on the Colorado River.

I’ve been on the road since the day before Thanksgiving — an early start to my annual snowbird migration to points south. Other than a little over a month spent at a friend’s guest house in Wickenburg, AZ and three days spent in another friend’s guest house in Phoenix, I’m been camping out in my truck camper, the Turtleback. It’s a fully-contained RV with a queen size bed, refrigerator, stove, convection microwave, sink, and bathroom. It can carry 14 gallons of propane, 40 gallons of fresh water, and a total of 60 gallons of wastewater (in two tanks, black and gray). There’s a propane furnace for cold nights and an AC air conditioner for hot days. The two batteries have plenty of juice for overnight stays, are charged by a solar panel during the day, and can be supplemented by an onboard propane generator with the flick of a switch. With its dinette and refrigerator on a slide out, it has plenty of room for one (or two who like each other a whole lot). Best of all, it can go just about anywhere my truck can go and since my truck is a 1-ton 4WD diesel with high clearance, it can go pretty much anywhere it wants to go.

This ain’t no KOA parking lot rig.

Now that I’m back on the road again after my Wickenburg stay, I’ve been sharing photos of my campsites with friends on Twitter and Facebook. The other day one of them asked how I find my campsites. I thought that might make a good blog post.

What I look for

First let me start by explaining what I look for in a campsite.

I want something quiet, private, and safe. I don’t like to listen to generators and I don’t like to close my blinds.

I like a view, but don’t need one. I love camping near moving water or a body of water that’s smooth and reflects the sky.

I must have relatively level ground, although I do have leveling blocks to make minor adjustments if a site has a slope to it. (The camper does not need to be perfectly level.)

I also want something free or cheap or at least worth what I’m paying for it. So far, of the 23 days I’ve spent camping, I’ve only paid for 5 nights. Prices for those campsites — one state park campground, two BLM campgrounds, and two nights at a Las Vegas campground (yes, they have them) — ranged from $5 to $23 per night.

Colorado River
I spent about 10 nights at this free BLM campsite along the Colorado River south of Ehrenberg with some friends. We were on a peninsula and surrounded by water, so I got some fishing and paddling in while I was there.

Because I’m self-contained, I don’t need any hookups or even access to water or a dump station. (This, by the way, is often called “dry camping.”) Picnic tables are nice to have, but I don’t need a fire pit because I don’t usually have a campfire when I’m traveling alone and I have a portable BBQ grill if I want to grill something up. Although these things are nice for long-term stays, they usually come with neighbors so I lose any possibility of quiet or privacy. Those are actually more important to me than the convenience of being hooked up to utilities.

Las Vegas Camping
I spent two nights at a Las Vegas campground so I could take in two shows. At $23/night, it was the most expensive overnight stay, but it had clean, hot, private showers.

I’m not opposed to staying in a regular campground with a full hookup once in a while. It’s a good opportunity to dump my tanks, take a long hot shower, top off the charge on my batteries (if needed), and refill my fresh water tank. But as I recently learned after 10 days of dry camping south of Ehrenberg, my black water tank can hold at least 10 days of waste and I don’t use much fresh water. (It probably would have been a perfect stay if it weren’t for battery issues that were resolved when I left by simply replacing two bad batteries.) But the parking lot atmosphere of most RV parks is a real turn off to me and it irks the hell out of me to pay $30, $40, or even $50 to spend a night there.

Where I look

First, I’ve learned over time where the kind of campsites I want can be found.

When Free isn’t Free
Keep in mind that some areas — including the Icicle Creek area I discuss here — require an access pass for parking. I buy my passes annually and keep them in my truck for hiking and camping, which I do three seasons out of the year. It’s worth it to me and I like supporting the park system.

Public land, including National Forest (NF) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and sometimes even State Forest (SF) land almost always has some free “distributed” camping. Distributed camping is camping allowed off forest or desert roads in established campsites that are not necessarily in campgrounds. For example, a drive up Icicle Creek in the Leavenworth, WA, area will take you into National Forest with several established campgrounds. Those campgrounds have level parking space, picnic tables, fire rings, and access to toilets and sometimes even water and you’ll pay a fee to use them. But off the main road are side roads with campsites scattered here and there. Those campsites are usually free.

Did you know that you can camp in the NF just outside Grand Canyon National Park for free? And if you know where to look, you can even find back roads into the park that can help you avoid entrance lines? It’s like camping near your own private entrance to the park.

Near John Day
My Thanksgiving dinner campsite on a tributary creek to the John Day River in Oregon.

Even the campgrounds in NF, BLM, and SF areas can be quite a bargain. On Thanksgiving night, for example, I had an entire campground on a creek in Oregon to myself. My back door looked out over the creek, it was dead quiet and completely private, and I had a picnic table and fire ring if I wanted to use them. There was even a very clean pit toilet a 250 feet from my site. All for $5. I can’t complain, can I?

State and county park campgrounds can also be nice, although they can be spendy and are usually crowded on weekends. Washington state campgrounds can be outrageously priced so I generally avoid them unless they have features I can’t get elsewhere.

How I find them

This is where experience is a good teacher. The more I look for and find sites, the better I become at doing it. And getting a feel for an area is also extremely helpful.

I use a few online tools to get started. I start with Google Maps to get a general feel for the area I want to spend the night. What’s there? Towns? Parks? Points of interest? NFs appear on Google Maps; when I get the name of a NF, I can Google it and get details, including detailed maps that show parking areas and forest roads.

I can also go to the BLM website and search its maps for nearby BLM land. Then I can get details about possible camping areas or campgrounds.

At Walker Lake
I needed a place to stay near Hawthorne, NV, where I planned to meet up with a friend of a friend. No problem: free camping on the lake on BLM land. Too bad the weather was so stormy!

Once I know for sure that camping is allowed in an area, I can use Google’s satellite view to get a look at potential sites. Keep in mind that map view isn’t always accurate — for example, Google maps shows a through road along the levee where we camped in early January; in reality, there’s an inlet cut through the road that clearly shows in satellite view. Satellite view will also show clearings in forested areas, side roads, and even fire pits that indicate an established campsite.

Map View Satellite View
In map view, it looks like the road crosses right over inlet (left) but satellite view tells the real story (right). We camped in the clearing just to the east of where the north side road ends.

Oregon Camping
I had a streamside campsite in central Oregon. There were about two dozen deer roaming the campground when I arrived late in the afternoon. Only five of the 30 or so sites were occupied.

Another somewhat obvious trick is to simply ask around. For example, when I was near Burns in Oregon looking for a place to stay on my way south, I saw some BLM land that showed a campground. It was pretty remote and it was late in the day; I worried that it might not be suitable for me and then I’d be stuck driving at night, which I hate to do. I Googled BLM and found a BLM field office. (The same one that was in the news a lot last year.) I was close enough to drop by and chat with a ranger. He assured me that the campground was open and would accommodate my rig. I made the hour-long drive south and found what might have been the nicest campground so far. I picked a site along the creek and paid only $8/night.

Cibola
A bonus to this campsite along the Colorado River just outside of the Cibola Wildlife Refuge was the incredibly dark night sky. I got to practice my astrophotography skills not long after sunset.

I also ask friends. The campsites I stayed in last year and this year south of Ehrenberg on the Colorado River were sites my friends knew well, having camped there for many years. My friend Janet showed me other sites. I found still more just wandering around on my own, like a campsite father down the river near a wildlife refuge.

Near the Hot Spring
Greetings from somewhere south of Holtville, CA!

I found the site I was in the last night before my side trip to San Diego (where I am now) by a combination of methods. A friend told me about the hot springs along I-8, although he was pretty sketchy about the name and location. Google maps found the place and directed me to it. A review on Google told me it was BLM with camping available and the reviews were pretty good. The campground host at the long-term (i.e., fee) camping area directed me to free 14-day limit camping about 2 miles south of the hot spring. I drove in, found a level spot, and parked for the night. Only two cars drove past during the 16 or so hours I was there so it was plenty quiet. I got a great night’s sleep — with the bonus of a good hot tub soak in the morning before I hit the road.

I’ll leave San Diego later today and head back east toward Arizona. I’ll spend a night or two in Borrego Springs, following up leads for free campsites with good hiking on BLM and NF land. Then the plan is a side trip to the Salton Sea where I should be able to find a site in the state park there. Then back to Quartzsite for a few days; there’s plenty of free camping out in the desert. After that, who knows? I’m making it up as I go along and only tentatively plan things out a week or so in advance.

I love the flexibility I have on this trip with my smaller rig. I also really love the freedom to make things up as I go along, without having to get approval from (or listen to complaints from) a travel companion. So far, most of my sites have been better than I expected and, as you can imagine, I’m very pleased about that.

I do admit that things can get a bit stressful late in the day when I still don’t know where I’m going to park for the night. But there’s aways plan B: a truck stop or Walmart parking lot. (Fortunately, I haven’t had to resort to either one so far on this trip.) Or a KOA.

Do you have any campsite tips you’d like to share with readers? Please do use the comments link or form to let us know. I’d certainly love to get some new ideas. You can never know too much.