Tuesday, March 22, 2005

We Tried: Part Four

For the next 5 hours, everyone tried to sleep as best as they could in the cramped mini-van while I worked to put some serious distance between The Wilders and our 30 foot home-away-from-home. My eyes were burned out due to exhaustion and the intermittent rain but I focused them on a truck just ahead of us, allowing the driver to lead my way into the New Mexico morning. With the dawn approaching, I stopped for gas near the Arizona border and handed the keys to Nate. I don't remember much from that point on, but I soon awoke to see the brown landscape of Tucson out the window.

We arrived at the Voyager RV Resort at around 10:30am, met by Tucson angel, Don Meyer (see "Desert Angels II, Tucson, AZ"-June 13, 2004 in our blog archives for our first meeting with this fine gentleman) Don took our weary crew out to breakfast and then we returned to his RV to get organized for our flight and take some much needed showers. Don and his wife, Kay, had offered to take us to the Tucson airport and we gladly accepted their generosity, frankly glad to be rid of the responsibility of driving or repairing vehicles for the next few days. They dropped us at the Alaska Air terminal and we headed toward the airport security checkpoint. As a precautionary measure, we had planned to carry our instruments all the way to the gate so that they could be loaded on to the plane last on top of the rest of the baggage. We took off our shoes and piled our carry on luggage on the conveyer belt and as we sent our cases through the X-ray, I heard one officer shout, "They've got tools!". Also, the new pair of Levis that I wore through the metal detecter set off an alarm and I was taken aside, wanded and patted down while I watched one of the officers leaving with my banjo case. After a pair of my wire cutters, a small banjo wrench and Ike's multi-tool were confiscated, we were allowed to continue on into the boarding area. The exhaustion and stress were evident on everyone's faces but soon we were sitting, like lumps of drying clay, in the boarding area waiting for our plane.

We Tried: Part Three

It was about 5:30pm when the boys ran off to fetch an electric fuel pump and some additional parts while April took me to the nearby town of Los Lunos, NM to pick up a mini-van. Although I held on to the hope that the boys would still be able to fix the venerable Chieftain, Betse and I agreed that it would be wise to rent the van as an precautionary measure against the worst case scenario. You see, we HAD to be in Tucson, Arizona (about an 8 hour drive) by noon the next day in order to catch our flights to Tacoma, Washington to debut at the Tacoma "Wintergrass" Festival. Not only was this a fantastic opportunity to introduce ourselves to the Northwest bluegrass audience, it was also our first decent pay of the tour AND an opportunity to sell a lot of c.d.'s. Since we had already spent a great deal on the Chief just getting it ready for the road, it was crucial that we make this gig- no matter what...

By the time I got back to the restaurant parking lot, the remaining light of the day had disappeared over the western mountains replaced by a menacing black cloud filled with freezing rain and just starting to soak the asphalt. I parked, and as I stepped out of the van, I saw a white sedan parked nose-to-nose with the Chief with the stereo blaring from it's open doors. I immediately recognized the tune, "Run to the Hills", by Iron Maiden. I heard a muffled yell from underneath, "Nate. Start it up!" . This was followed quickly by, "Turn it off, Turn it OFF!" Apparently, Nappy had been holding the fuel pump wires and since he was now lying in icy water, he had been shocked badly. Within a few minutes, a small, but powerfully framed man with closely cropped hair crawled out from under the RV. Nappy was all business but said a quick hello to me before stepping back inside the Chief. I followed him inside and watched Nate pump the gas a few more times before retrying the key. The engine complained and sputtered at first but finally started up to sound of many Wilder cheers. Elated, we let the engine idle and started putting away the tools that littered the parking lot.

Ike gave Nappy a dry Green Bay Packers T-shirt to wear, and we offered him some cash and our deepest gratitude for his effort. He jumped back into his sedan and roared off into the New Mexico night with Iron Maiden blaring as we all breathed a sigh of relief. It was now about 8pm and I jumped behind the wheel of the Chief, hastily fleeing the parking lot while Betse followed in the rental van. Our plan now was to drive back to Los Lunos to drop off the mini-van. As I pulled back onto the highway, I noticed that the Chief was running well but did not have a great deal of power. We made the 15 minute drive without incident but as soon as I pulled off the highway at the Los Lunos exit, the engine died. We were on a downhill slope and I let it coast into a wide gravel pullout at the bottom of the hill. Ike and Nate pulled off the engine shroud, suspicious that the wire connections to the new fuel pump must have somehow shaken loose. Ike crawled back under The Chief to inspect the wiring while I jumped out to inform Betse of our latest disaster. Ike found some questionable wire connections and called Nappy to ask if there might be anything else that could have caused the RV to stall. A few more adjustments were performed under Nappy's cellular tutelage and, within an hour, The Chief fired back up. Ike and Nate both felt that it would be prudent to test drive the RV a bit more before embarking on an 8 hour drive in the middle of the night. So, with Betse following in the rental van, we drove back towards Albuquerque with the plan that if The Chief performed without incident for at least an hour, it would be safe to return the rental van and get back on the road to Tucson.

By the time we got to Albuquerque it was after 10pm and everyone was famished. We pulled into a McDonalds parking lot and went in to get some horrible road food and discuss the situation. Surrounding me at the table were three seriously tired and depressed faces. We choked down our burgers, and each of us weighed in on the pros and cons of taking The Chief any farther. Although we had "insurance" in the form of a mini-van, all of us really preferred to go to Tucson in our RV and agreed that if the Winnebago made it back to Los Lunos without failure, we would drop off the mini-van and get back on our way. Ike took the wheel and we rolled the 45 minutes back to Los Lunos with absolutely no problem whatsoever. As he took the Los Lunos exit, Ike punched the gas to the floor a couple of times daring The Chief to quit on us again. He made the turn east and started to roll back down the hill into town. Then, without warning, the engine stalled again and as Ike cranked the wheel into a gas station parking lot, I looked at him and said, "that's it, The Chief's done." It was now after midnight.

Exhausted and dejected, everybody jumped into the RV and began packing their gear for the trip to Tucson. By the time Nate and I got the mini-van loaded, there was barely enough room for four people to squeeze into their seats. Ike was able to fire back up The Chief and we decided the best option was to drive the RV back to Belen, NM, park it at the restaurant parking lot, and to call Nappy the next morning to beg him to work on it while we were gone. Ike drove The Chief with extreme caution the 15 minutes back to Belen. As he pulled back into the Jake and Andre's Restaurant lot, the RV died again. Ike tried in vain to start it back up but The Chief was going to roll no further. We hid a key for Nappy and then crammed ourselves into the minivan. I sat down behind the wheel and mentally prepared for an 8-hour drive starting at 2:30am. With everyone on board, I pulled back onto I-25 south and tried to quell my dread as icy drops of rain began to splatter on the windshield.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I'm so distracted

Hi folks,

I just can't seem to write an entry right now. I want to and I know that y'all want to know how we are and should hear from us more often. At least broPhil has kept you in the loop more than me. I have various reasons why I have been less forthcoming... but they may come out sounding like excuses and I don't want to do that. My biggest reason is distraction. Lots of thoughts in my head and can't settle in on any one thing long enough to write about it.

But I can do this.... I will make a few summarizing statements for my own self:

Things picked up a LOT once we hooked up w/ the Crooked Jades. Especially post-L.A. We all love them and miss them already. But we also love Foghorn and had a great time at the sold-out show last night. Will be with them in a couple hours for another night of fun.

It's really really hard to tour without the Chief. I can get out the computer and write an entry on the Chief. I can move around. I can knit or sew repairs on the seats. I can _do_ stuff. I can sleep in my own bunk. I can keep all my hanging clothes hanging. I can read before bed with my little lamp.

I can't do any of that too well in the van. Especially move around! I didn't even bring my knitting due to the shortness of space... and bedside lamp? Please! But a couple of times, I have thought that if we'd been in the Chief we'd have had a hard time. San Francisco. Even Portland to a degree. And on highway 299 in northern California.... steep, windy (as in crooked, not the atmospheric kind)... it would have been an even longer, slower drive in Chief.

I think maybe we are going to need to consider a van in addition to the Chief, for different kinds of tours? Geez. How much more debt can we get into? Don't answer that, I think I know this one.

Thanks everyone for being there... we miss you all and I'll really try to be better. I know, I've said that before. And I'll probably say it again.

Take care and be well....

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

We Tried: Part Two

The morning after the blow out, we were able to get two new tires installed at a local Ponca City tire dealer. After paying for the tires, Ike and I went across the street to an O'Reilly Auto Parts store and purchased our own 12-ton bottle jack. By noon, we were back on the road, tired, but grateful for the experience. Now we had the knowledge and the means to change a flat once and for all. We kept our stops to a minimum and made it to an Albuquerque, New Mexico RV park by 10pm. Our friend, April, who was visiting friends in Albuquerque, met us the next morning for a New Mexico breakfast of huevos rancheros and then we were back on the road toward Tucson, Arizona. I took the first shift, and feeling a little more rested, settled into Albuquerque traffic. About 30 minutes into the trip, I noticed that The Chief's power seemed to be cutting out. I would push on the accelerator and feel a hesitation in the gas flow. It didn't seem like an emergency, but we decided to pull off at the next exit in Belen, New Mexico to inspect the engine. As I pulled off the highway, the engine stalled and I had to crank the wheel violently to maneuver the RV into a rolling stop outside a restaurant. The boys pulled off the engine shroud and started looking things over while I went inside to let the restaurant owners know why we had blocked about 7 of their parking spaces. Nate guessed that the fuel pump might be the culprit and a plan was hatched to try to get the engine started again to get to an auto parts store for a new pump. Unfortunately, The Chief would not start and, luckily, we were able to reach April again-begging her to come rescue us. She arrived in about half an hour and the boys took off to get the parts.

Betse and I remained behind and distracted ourselves from the situation by watching two young New Mexican boys skateboarding the parking lot. We could tell that they were curious about us, but they kept their distance at first. After awhile, the older of the boys asked Betse what we were doing. She explained that we had broken down and were trying to get the RV fixed. With their questions answered satisfactorily, Betse slipped inside The Chief and grabbed her video camera to tape the boys as they carved up and down the parking lot. We found out that the boys were the restaurant owner's kids, and the namesakes of the restaurant we had rolled into- Jake and Andre's. With the ice broken, I gathered up some courage and ask Andre if I could have a turn on his skateboard while we waited for Ike and Nate to return.

Within an hour, April's Subaru came back into view and Nate put on his coveralls and broke out the tools. He didn't think it was going to be a particularly difficult fix and Betse and I relaxed as he climbed under The Chief and set about pulling off the old fuel pump. The afternoon was slipping past and, although I had confidence in our two mechanics, I began to formulate alternative travel plans in case the fuel pump switch failed to get our RV back on the road. With the old pump removed, Ike and Nate carefully went to work installing it's replacement. It turned out to be slightly more difficult than they had anticipated, but soon the pump was on and Nate sent Ike up top to turn the engine over. The engine cranked and cranked but it still wouldn't start. Score: Chief two, Wilders zero.

While we stood in the parking lot, Ike and Nate both grabbed their cell phones and began furiously making calls for advice while pacing incessantly around the RV. Betse and decided to start working on the alternative plan to get the band to Tucson and walked to a nearby hotel to borrow a yellow pages to investigate our van rental options. It was now 5pm and with our remaining light vanishing, I was able to reserve a mini van in the nearby town of Los Lunos about 15 minutes away. Before we could get out of the hotel lobby, Ike called me on my cell phone and told me someone had stopped to help and that there might still be hope. He told me that while they were in the parking lot on their phones, a man pulled up to the restaurant to drop off his daughter for work. He asked them what the problem was and when they explained the situation, he jumped out and picked up the old fuel pump that was lying on the ground. He pumped the arm that attaches to a cam inside the engine and pushed it a couple of times until gas sprayed out the other end. "This pumps still good," he said. Our newest angel, Napoleon "Nappie" Munoz, was now on the scene.

Monday, March 07, 2005

We Tried: Part One

It was Thursday afternoon, March 3rd, and we were all very, very tired. " Hey dude," Ike said as came out from under The Chief with something shiny in his hand, "check this out." I walked over and looked at a tiny flat metal object held between his grease stained fingers. He said, "I found this under there." The metal plate looked like it had come off an old trophy, the kind that kids get when they don't win, or for that matter, place in the competition. Inscribed on the plate were two simple, but prophetic words: "We Tried".

It's now Sunday, March 6th and I'm typing this in the back seat of a rented 15 passenger van. Our western tour continues. But as we make our way from Parker, Arizona to Los Angeles, California, we are suffering from the loss of one of our crucial members...The Chief.

The tour started out well enough. Our first date, playing at Bob Wills home base, Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, gave us a shaky but successful start. Our performance legs were rusty from lack of use and we all had to work at it to get our groove back. The next day we were up and quickly down the road to the Kansas Bluegrass Association's Winterfest, in Wichita, Kansas. We made our first show in the nick of time (which isn't that unusual). With two shows now under out belt, we pulled out our best for our evening headline set. Betse played like a demon throughout the show and we ended by featuring four brand new tunes, each written by one member of the band. Thankfully, the crowd went wild.

The next morning, The Chief was running like crap but we were able to get him up the road to Andover, Kansas for a day of much needed maintenance. Our friends Connie and Conan, had dedicated their entire Sunday to helping us get our rig ready for the road. They found us a great deal on a new air conditioner and asked their RV guru, Larry for a few hours of his time to install it and give the ol' Chieftain a good looking over. Larry brought his 17-year-old son, Seth, who proved to be not only a mechanical genius, but a circus-caliber contortionist as well. Nate and Seth set about replacing all the spark plugs and wires while Ike and Larry put in the new AC unit. Seth practically bent in half behind the front wheels to get to the plugs which, one by one, he tossed out on the ground for us to see. Each plug was burned and shriveled like overcooked link sausages. Then he went to work on the plug wires which had a similar carbonized patina. One wire was completely melted on one end and I overheard him say to no one in particular, "Man, I don't know how this thing even started up." When the day was done, our beloved Winnebago had working air conditioning, a tune up and a completely (or so we thought) waterproof roof. We even learned how to use the propane tank to run the refrigerator- a problem that had plagued us in the west the previous year. We all went to bed feeling really good about ourselves and really good about The Chief. This was going to be a heck of a tour. The next day we slept late and then set about cleaning up the mess we made the day before. With all the cd's packed away, everybody's personal gear stowed in it's place and a new and improved Chief ready to roll, we broke free of Connie and Conan's driveway around 5:30pm in hopes of making it at least halfway to Tucson, Arizona before bed.

We were about an hour outside of Wichita when a we heard a loud bang under our feet. Luckily, there was a rest area just ahead and we pulled off to inspect the source of the noise. We had blown out the outside right back tire. Nate pulled out the tire iron and I started removing the spare from the back while Ike tried to figure out how the old scissors jack might be operated. In vain, we all tried to get the jack to work, but it seemed impossibly rusted and also much too small to ever lift the behemoth is was under. Luckily, within minutes, the handle broke off and we saved ourselves the embarrassment of any further effort. We still had one aired up tire on that side and, with the help of a map and a cell phone, made a plan to limp the RV about 30 miles to Ponca City, Oklahoma to a 24 hour Wal Mart to buy a proper jack. We drove very slowly with our hazards on, but let me tell you, it was 30 seriously nerve racking miles. If the remaining tire blew out from the extra weight, we would be dead in the water. But by 10:30pm, we made it to the store, parked in an out-of-the-way location and headed in. We agreed on a 3-ton shop jack (the biggest one they had) that looked like it had plenty of power to get us safely off the ground. We paid for it and went back outside and started pumping. Although the chassis moved up several inches, we still could not get enough clearance to get the blown tire off, much less the full-of-air spare tire back on. We checked the operator's manual on the jack and it seemed like it was in perfect working order. Score: Chief one, Wilders zero.

With no other option, we called AAA RV and within an hour, a kid who seemed barely old enough to drive, showed up in a tow truck. With the poisonous diesel fumes still idling from his exhaust, the kid pulled out another 3-ton shop jack and started pumping. Not surprisingly, his 3-ton jack moved the chassis just about as far as our had. We all sort of scratched our heads as we realized that you can't use a 3-ton jack to lift a 30 foot Winnebago. Then a light bulb suddenly lit up over my head. We still had a perfectly good, albeit bald, full-of-air-tire on the inside of the blow out. Couldn't we just drive the inside tire up on a couple of boards? Wouldn't that make it easy and safe to remove the outside tire with no jack even necessary? Now, I make no claims to have any mechanical aptitude whatsoever and usually try to help out Ike and Nate in these situations by fetching tools or holding the flashlight where needed. So, not surprisingly, everybody agreed that this was a genius level moment for me. We fetched two of the boards we use to level the RV and within seconds the tire was raised and ready to be switched. I went to get the spare and Ike started removing the lug nuts. Strangely though, no matter how much he loosened them, the bolts still seemed tight. We thought maybe the lugs were just rusty and we each took turns forcing them and forcing them until finally we got all of them off. Nate grabbed the blown out tire and it still seemed to be stuck on the lugs. He gave it a kick and the bad tire finally fell off. That's when we realized that there was only one set of lugs for BOTH WHEELS. Now, because the inside wheel still had the full weight of the RV on it, we realized that our remaining wheel was now ready to fall off too. Nate inspected the wheel and saw that it had shifted slightly out toward the top. There was still plenty of lug showing but we realized that this was an extremely dangerous situation. SO MUCH FOR MY GENIUS MOMENT. We considered our plight and there was brief talk about trying to put the lug nuts back on for safety but none of us would volunteer for this hazardous duty. Stupidly, we had dismissed the AAA kid and now realized that we were going to have to call him back and request a much stronger jack than you can buy at Wal Mart. Ike called AAA RV again and within an hour, the kid rolled back up. He reached behind the truck seat and pulled out a much smaller bottle shaped jack. "This one's a 12-tonner," he said above the noise of the idling diesel, "I think this one will get her up." He quickly set about placing the tiny jack under the chassis and with about 25 short pumps, The Chief was listing like the Titanic. With the weight off the precarious wheel, the AAA kid started working to get it back into place. The downward force had made the wheel tilt out slightly and now it was seriously jammed. The kid started shoving the wheel from outside the fender but it still would not budge. Ike and I then watched in horror as he sat down under the jacked up wheel and started kicking it repeatedly until it finally dislodged and he was able to shove it back into it's original position. Then, without batting an eye, he grabbed the spare tire, shoved it into place, and spun the lug nuts back on. It was now about 3:00am. We followed the AAA kid back to his shop to check the air pressure in the spare and then headed back into town to reluctantly grab two motel rooms for the first sleep deprived night of the tour. It wouldn't be the last...