Last Wednesday, we woke early. We’d stayed up late (for us) laughing with Kim’s high school friends, and now faced a long day of travel. We said our good-byes, then left northwest Nebraska for the three hour drive back to Buffalo Gap National Grassland, where we’d left the RV parked alone on the edge of a cliff for 24 hours. We reached the RV by noon, and were on the road within half an hour.

Parked on the edge of the badlands!
Our camping spot outside Badlands National Park.

“We’re making good time,” I said as I pulled onto I-90. “We should reach DeSmet by six o’clock.” We were eager to visit the real-life home of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little town on the prairie”. Kim went into the back of the motorhome to sleep while I settled into the long, monotonous cruise over the never-ending grassland.

Typically, I try not to drive faster than sixty miles per hour when our motorhome is towing the Mini Cooper. Part of this caution is due to generalized safety concerns, but another part is a desire to reduce stress on the RV’s drivetrain. I figure fifty-five or sixty is fast enough and gives me margin for error.

On I-90, however, I decided to take a risk. Traffic was light and the road unchallenging, so I bumped my speed to nearly seventy. Everything seemed fine. I drove this way for an hour. Then two. As I drove, I listened to one of my favorite audiobooks (True Grit, read by Donna Tartt, who loves the book as much as I do).

The Unwelcome Sounds

Two hours into the drive, I began to hear a strange beeping on my audiobook. Only the sound was not from my audiobook. The beeping accompanied a warning light on the dashboard: Check Gauges. I checked the gauges, but they all seemed normal. What could be the matter? Just as I approached the Kennebec exit, the problem became apparent: the oil-pressure gauge dropped from normal to nothing. Yikes! I pulled off the freeway and parked in an empty lot.

I’d last changed the oil myself in Palm Springs, California at the end of April. After four thousand miles, it was nearly time to change the oil again. I had planned to do so at the end of the week while we were camped on a lake in Minnesota. Maybe I had waited too long?

I crawled under the chassis to check for a leak. There wasn’t any. I popped the hood. The engine was warmer than I had expected, but I chalked that up to the heat and humidity of South Dakota. I pulled the dipstick. The oil level seemed a little low, but not bad. I added a quart just in case.

“Did that do the trick?” Kim asked as I started the engine.

“Sure looks like it,” I said. “Oil pressure is back to normal.” We returned to the freeway. Because nothing seemed out of the ordinary, I resumed my daring speed of seventy.

We left the freeway at exit 310 and turned north for the final leg to DeSmet. As the RV began to pick up speed, however, the warning lights (and beeps) returned. Worse, now there was a new noise — and not a good one. A sort of banging or clanking made our hair stand on end. “That does not sound good,” Kim said. I immediately pulled the motorhome to the side of the highway.

As eighteen-wheelers and pickup trucks whizzed by at high speed, Kim and I crawled around under the chassis and rooted under the hood. “That engine is hot,” Kim said. “Is it always this hot?”

“Nope,” I said. Sure, the engine is warm after a day of driving, but I never feel like I’m going to burn myself when I open the hood.

“What should we do?” Kim asked.

“I’m afraid to drive it farther,” I said, “but I think we should pull off the highway. Traffic here is too heavy and moving too fast.” Fortunately, we were next to one of South Dakota’s many dirt roads. (There seems to be a grid of these roads spaced every mile running both east to west and north to south. I’d be willing to wager there’s an organized network of these across the entire state.) I turned on the engine long enough to back the motorhome off the highway and onto the untraveled side road.

We jumped in the Mini and drove five miles to the town of Plankinton (population 707). “Man, I sure hope we can find a garage that’s open,” Kim said. “This is a small town and it’s almost five o’clock.” We were lucky. We found Overweg Auto, which was just about to close. Keith — who looked like he’d had as long a day as we had — offered to follow us back to the motorhome.

Once we reached the side road (250th street), Keith spent a few minutes diagnosing the problem. He started the engine and waited for the oil pressure to fall. It fell. The clanking noise returned. He got out and looked under the chassis. He poked around under the hood.

Prepping to tow an injured RV back to town…

“I can’t be sure,” he said, “but it seems like you’ve spun a bearing. Let me tow you back to town. You can spend the night in the RV park there. We can decide what to do in the morning.” He connected the motorhome to his pickup and towed it to Hill’s RV Park.

The Bad News

In the morning, I walked two blocks to Keith’s garage. He looked even more tired than he had the evening before. “I got an emergency call around midnight,” he said, “and then another guy had trouble early this morning. I haven’t had much sleep.” The poor guy looked ragged.

“On the plus side, that gave me time to think about your rig. I did some research on it. I’m positive it’s a spun bearing, but there’s no way to know for sure without pulling everything out and taking it apart. If it’s a spun bearing, your engine is probably toast.”

“What are our options?” I asked.

“None of them are good,” he said. “Best case, we pull it out and there’s minimal damage to the engine. If that’s true, then it’ll cost you about $4000 in labor and $1000 in parts. Realistically, though, the engine will be damaged. You’re probably looking at several thousand in parts. I saw one guy online who paid nearly $12,000 to get his engine rebuilt after this happened to him.”

“Yikes,” I said.

“Another option is to just replace the engine. There’s an engine in Denver and I can have it here early next week. That’d only be about $2000 in labor, but the engine would be $5500. That’s a lot of money, maybe more than you’d pay if we just repaired it. But the plus side is that you’d get a new engine with a three-year unlimited-mile warranty. That might be good for the trip you guys are doing.”

“Are there other options?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “We can replace the engine with a used one or a remanufactured one. Labor would be about $2000 for those jobs too, and the engine would cost less. If you don’t mind not having the warranty, that’s probably your best bet.”

Kim and I had talked over the possibilities after doing a bit of internet research. In general, I’m not a fan of warranties. But in this case, the idea of having a new engine with a warranty appealed to me. “Would the warranty be transferable if we were to sell the motorhome?” I asked Keith. “We intend to sell the RV when we get back to Portland next year.”

“Yes,” he said, and that was the magic answer. $7500 is a lot of money to spend on a vehicle repair, but with a transferable warranty, we feel like we can recoup some of that cost when we sell. Plus, it’ll give us peace of mind during the rest of the trip. We know that even if something does go wrong again, we won’t have any out-of-pocket expenses.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “Order the new engine. We’ll stay at the RV park until it comes in, then move the motorhome over here so you can work on it. I think the RV park has some cabins we can use while you guys get the work done.”

Keith and I shook on the deal, and I went back to camp.

The Long Wait

Kim and I have been camped in Plankinton for a week now. If the RV had to break down, this was probably the best place it could have done so. For one, it’s inexpensive to stay here. Small-town South Dakota is cheaper than just about anywhere in the U.S. For another, there’s no stress. If the engine had died in L.A. traffic or in the middle of Chicago, I would have been very very tense. Instead, I’m relaxed. We haven’t been concerned that anyone is trying to rip us off or that we’ll be overwhelmed by a mass of people.

In fact, it’s been rather pleasant to pass the week walking into town for lunch or for groceries. We took the opportunity to clean the RV, which meant scrubbing baked-on bug guts on a 100-degree day.

Cleaning the RV
The break gave us a chance to scrub baked-on bug guts off of the RV.

Because we were stuck in place, I got to see my friend (and colleague) Miranda, who was making her own cross-country drive from Philadelphia to Idaho Falls. She paused during her trip to have lunch with us at our favorite place in Plankinton:

Lunch with Miranda
Who would have thought I’d cross paths with a a friend in rural South Dakota?

We’ve also met some of the locals, and they now wave to us as we walk around town. In the evenings, we sit outside with the owners of the RV park and their friends and drink beer and talk about life. Or we sit outside and drink beer with other Trailerites. It’s all very low-key and mellow.

The magnificent Wanderlodge
We drank beer with one guy who had this magnificent 1980 Blue Bird Wanderlodge.

Behind the wheel of the Wanderlodge
The owner (Brett) showed us the inside. Kim liked sitting behind the wheel.

We’ve also made time to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff in DeSmet, and we’ve driven to nearby Mitchell (and its corn palace) a couple of times.

The Ingalls homestead
The real-life Ingalls homestead. Laura first met Almonzo in the slough behind this white building.

If Kim hadn’t gotten sick yesterday, we’d be out exploring more of the surrounding area. While I was getting my haircut this morning (only $10.60!), my stylist told us we ought to drive west to the Missouri River, where we could have fun by renting a pontoon boat. Maybe tomorrow?

Still, a week is a l-o-n-g time to spend anywhere — especially rural South Dakota. We’re ready to move on.

Fortunately, the new engine arrived this morning and Keith and his crew have already begun putting it in place. There’s a chance we’ll be on the road tomorrow (Thursday), but Friday is probably more realistic. We’re eager to get moving again. It’s been pleasant to park in South Dakota for a week, but we’re ready to see Minnesota and Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio and, and, and…

Our gutless RV
Kind of disconcerting to see your home completely disemboweled…

Our new engine
A shiny new engine, just waiting to be installed…


One Night in Nebraska

by jdroth on 09 July 2015 · 2 comments

One of the best parts of this year-long road trip is reconnecting with friends we haven’t seen for years. Or decades.

Kim, for instance, has been looking forward to reuniting with her friend
Shelley. Shelley and Kim met during junior high. During high school, Shelley and her family were like a second home to Kim. In their late teens and early twenties, they added another friend (Carol) to the mix, as well as Kim’s new husband. The four of them were almost inseparable. When Shelley and Carol decided to move to Minnesota, they asked Kim and Rob to join. Kim and Rob moved first; the other two girls followed a little later.

But, as often occurs, people moved and families happened. Shelley got married and had kids. Kim and Rob got a divorce. Carol moved to Nebraska. Through the twists and turns of fate, Shelley and Kim and Carol hadn’t seen each other in nearly fifteen years. Last winter, when Kim and I started planning the places we wanted to go, one of the first places she marked was Shelley’s home in Minnesota.

In March, Kim emailed Shelley to ask if we could visit. She never heard back, so she tried to reach Shelley by Facebook. No reply. “That’s strange,” Kim said. “I hope I have the right contact info.”

While staying with Kim’s mom in Fort Collins, Colorado, Colorado, she realized that Shelley was no longer in Minnesota. “It looks like she’s just a few hours away, near Alliance, Nebraska,” she told me. “Maybe we can visit her when we leave Fort Collins.” She tried to contact Shelley again. Again, she received no response.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Kim said. “I wonder if I did something to make her mad.” Instead of veering into Nebraska, we headed north into Wyoming, then to Montana and the Dakotas.

When we reached the Black Hills of South Dakota — closer to Alliance, Nebraska even than Fort Collins was! — Kim tried to contact Shelley again. And Shelley tried to contact her. “You’re so close!” Shelley commented on Facebook. “Come visit!” But when Kim tried to reach Shelley, there was no response. We left the Black Hills and moved on to the Badlands.

It was then that everything came together. Carol, who had also been keeping touch on Facebook, contacted Kim. “Shelley and I are sad that we didn’t connect while you were in the Black Hills,” she said. “We’d love to see you.” Apparently Shelley hadn’t received any of Kim’s emails. (This is another example of one of our life rules: “Assume the best, and you’re probably right.”)

“What do you think?” Kim asked. “Can we take time to see them?” We were moving away from Nebraska, not closer. “Carol and Shelley are willing to drive to meet us for lunch in Rapid City. But you know, I’d rather drive down to Nebraska. Shelley’s brother Scott is there now, and so are her parents. I’d love to see the whole gang.”

“Let’s do it,” I said. “It shouldn’t affect our schedule too much.”

I know how important it is to keep connections with old friends. We were planning to meet some friends of mine in Minnesota in just a few days. Plus, I was struggling to reconnect with a friend from college. I’d like to see Dana in Minneapolis, but she hasn’t replied to my messages.

Kim called Carol and Carol called Shelley and Shelley called Kim. Together, the three of them formulated a plan. On Tuesday morning, we left the RV alone on the edge of a cliff overlooking Badlands National Park.

Sitting on the edge of the Badlands
Sitting on the edge of the Badlands…

We hopped in the Mini Cooper and drove the 200+ miles from Wall, South Dakota to Hemingford, Nebraska. We reached Shelley’s house at about one in the afternoon. Kim and Shelley shed tears of joy (for real!) as they hugged each other for the first time in more than a decade.

“It’s so good to see you!” Shelley said.

“I know,” Kim said. “I feel the same way.”

Carol arrived soon after, and the three women fell easily into old, familiar patterns.

For the next twelve hours, Kim and Shelley and Carol (and other members of the family, all of whom now live in the area) laughed and joked and reminisced. They recalled old stories and dug out photos from high school and beyond. When Shelley’s parents came over, the girls revealed some of the stuff they used to get away with when they were younger. When Shelley’s husband, Anthony, came home from work, he prepared deep-fried tacos. (Anthony also showed us his life-long collection of arrowheads and other Indian tools.)

Deep-fried tacos!
Deep-fried tacos are surprisingly good!

We stayed up late talking and laughing. I didn’t have much to add to the conversation, but enjoyed watching Kim and her friends behaving so joyfully. Exhausted, we finally crashed in a back bedroom at Carol’s house. Our sleep was fitful from too much adrenaline and alcohol. No matter. Kim was happy. She’d got to see a couple of her oldest friends — and get their correct contact information.

“It’s amazing,” Kim said during the long drive back to Wall the next morning. “I haven’t seen Carol and Shelley in more than ten years, yet we were able to pick up again as if we’d seen each other only yesterday. Those two are true friends.”

Now, if only I could figure out how to reach Dana, I could have a similar reunion of my own in Minneapolis…

Three friends, together again...
Carol, Kim, and Shelley — three friends, together again…


The Black Hills and the Badlands

July 6, 2015

Who knew? South Dakota is filled with things to do. Kim and I have been surprised by how much fun we’ve had in the southwest corner of this state. Everyone knows about Mount Rushmore, of course. And sure, the mountain monument is impressive: Mount Rushmore would have been neater at the start of our trip. […]

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Into the Great Wide Open

June 30, 2015

After a week in Montana’s Flathead Valley, we’ve moved on. For the first three months of this trip, we’ve stuck mainly to places we know: West Coast mountains and forests. We love this region, but now it’s time to explore the unfamiliar. That means crossing the Rocky Mountains and entering the vast Great Plains of […]

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If It’s Summer, This Must Be Montana

June 25, 2015

On Monday, after a week in and round Ketchum, Idaho, Kim and I packed up and headed north. We enjoyed our time in Ketchum (and nearby Sun Valley): Kim relaxed one day at a spa, we sampled local beer at a brewfest, we biked the extensive network of multi-use paths, we visited with Kim’s father […]

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Going to Sun Valley — the LONG Way

June 16, 2015

Most travel days are routine. By now, we know what to expect, and the expected usually happens. Plus, we can cope with minor misadventures. Some days, however – well, some days bring big surprises. After a week soaking in the splendid scenery of northwest Wyoming, we were ready to move on to Idaho. I rose […]

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Moose and Squirrel

June 13, 2015

I was deep asleep last night when Kim jostled me from my dreams. I opened my eyes to find her standing at the foot of the bed, shaking my feet. “J.D.,” she whispered. “Do you hear that?” “Is it a bear?” I asked. I don’t like bears. They scare me. “No,” she said. “Listen. Something […]

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Visiting Yellowstone National Park (in Three Days or Less!)

June 10, 2015

Greetings from Wyoming! After more than a week in Fort Collins, Colorado, Kim and I packed up and moved north into Wyoming. She even got to drive the motorhome for the first time on this trip… Kim’s first day of driving as we cross into Wyoming Initially, our plan was to make the trip to […]

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A Week Off in Fort Collins, Colorado

June 8, 2015

At the start of our year-long road trip, Kim and I saw a lot of family and friends. We visited with people we knew throughout California and Arizona. But for the past few weeks — since leaving Tucson — we’ve been winging it on our own. We love the freedom, no doubt, but it’s also […]

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One Week on the San Juan Skyway

May 29, 2015

After nineteen days in Arizona and five in Utah, Kim and I made the short drive to Cortez, Colorado in the southwest corner of the state. We spent a week in and around the San Juan Skyway. The San Juan Skyway is a roller-coaster ride through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (a part of the larger […]

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