Category Archives: North America

Layed Up In Lynnwood

Because our license plate and taillights were blocked by our new bike cover, we decided it wasn’t safe to proceed.  Before we had even made it to Seattle, we were at a standstill.

Rear of motorhome with covered bikes, and not taile lights or license plate visible
Not a light in sight

I spent the morning developing a solution to add some additional rear tail and signal lights and to move the license plate (and its light).  Unfortunately, regulations vary across the United States about the minimum and maximum heights of both brake lights and license plates and also the colour of signal lights (red or orange?)  After some online research and trips to Walmart and O’Reilley’s auto parts, I came up with a design that should work, without requiring any permanent alternations to the motorhome and using only the tools that I had on hand.

By the end of the day, I had acquired all the necessary parts and roughed up a wiring diagram. Still in the Walmart parking lot where we’d slept the previous night, I laboured into the very cold evening until I had a working prototype.

Patrick working on project at rear of motorhome in Walmart parking lot

It’s still winter in Lynnwood!

Patrick standing in front of bikes on rear of motorhome

At least it wasn’t raining!

When it got too cold, we walked back to the same pub where we’d eaten the night before, this time enjoying an inexpensive prime rib and helping a team of young guys win the trivia competition (“We’ll take the Food Network for 400 Alex”).

I spent most of the next day completing the build and installing everything.  It was cold but sunny, and not the ‘liquid sunshine’ that the Pacific Northwest normally receives at this time of year.

Patrick kneeling at rear of motorhome working on lights and wiring

Still at it the next day

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, as prior to this, my collective experience as an electrician included:

  • the science kit that my parents gave me in Grade 4, which I tried to wire into a household electrical socket and almost killed myself
  • changing light bulbs when Diane couldn’t reach them

The rear of motorhome with 2 new tail lights, the license plate and its light relocated to the ladder

The completed project -2 new tailights, license plate and its light relocated to ladder

The parts included a 7 pin to 4 pin trailer wiring adapter, 2 LED rear lights, a license plate holder, automotive wire, a variety of connectors, wiring shrink wrap, kitchen drawer liner, some non-skid carpet tape, a lot of zap straps (known as ‘wire ties’ in the U.S.), and of course, duct tape.  Canadians can’t build anything without duct tape.  Total Cost $160.

Close up of new tail light on rear bubmper on right rear corner of motorhome

Look close to see the white drawer liner covering the wires

And so, almost 3 days into our trip, we set off again, passing through Seattle just in time to enjoy the evening rush hour.  At least we were moving again!

Preparation and Liftoff

We spent the first 2 weeks of January getting ready to depart.  Actually, we scrambled to complete what we needed to while making time to spend with family and friends.  Why is it that regardless of the amount of time we have to prepare for a journey, the last few weeks are always crazy?  Why do we always leave exhausted?

We outfitted our motorhome with the essentials, working off an inventory of the S&M Motel that we compiled before leaving Europe.  Diane bought those items that she could from charity stores (pots, utensils, cups, etc.)  We retrieved what we could from our storage locker, but were restricted to items in the first 10 feet due an impenetrable maze of interlocking furniture and persistent wet weather.  We frequented dollar stores to find storage containers, wine glasses, and other odds and ends.  We bought one set of sheets and a comforter from our niece Dara’s shop.

We loaded our motorhome in the driveway of Diane’s brother Wayne’s house, where we had stayed during our intermission back in Canada (in the house, not in the driveway).

RV that appears to be deep in the snow

Snowed in!

White RV in a driveway with snow on the ground

It’s not as deep as it looks!

Basically, we tried to get the essentials before leaving home, but left the non-critical and more expensive items to acquire in the United States along the way, hopefully at a lower cost.

We had planned to leave on January 14th, but stayed an extra day to support a friend.  We had our last early morning coffee with our sister-in-law Tania, and began our final packing and preparations.  We wanted to get on the road as early as possible, but as usual, things were taking longer than planned.  We switched from careful packing to a stuff-and-go strategy.  I really didn’t want to still be there when Tania got home from work!  We finally got going around 2:30 PM and went first to our storage locker to drop some things off, then to our house to pick up some mail, and finally to a bike store in Langley to buy a cover for the bikes on our rear bike rack.  It turned out that in order to install the cover we had to remove both the bikes and the rack.  And so it was that I found myself kneeling in a parking lot at 5 PM in the dark under a light drizzle, wondering if we’d ever get on the road.

With the dark gray bike cover on, we found that our license plate and tail lights were completely hidden.  We couldn’t do anything about this safety hazard (and guaranteed ticket generator) at the time, but apparently we thought that yelling at each other in the parking lot might help.  We did drive to The Unique World of Princess Auto to buy a reflective safety triangle, similar to what was on the back of the S&M Motel, then I went back in to the store to buy some duct tape to attach it.  I mistakenly bought camouflage duct tape, and the irony of attaching a high-visibility reflector with camouflage tape was not lost on me.

At 7 PM we crossed the border into the United States.  I thought there was a good chance we’d be stopped there because our license plate and tail lights weren’t visible.  Fortunately the cameras at the border that read license plates are at the front.  We crossed successfully, and drove south on I-5 for a couple of hours, stopping at the Walmart in Lynnwood where I’d stayed a couple of weeks earlier.  It was late, and our RV was still winterized, so we went out for dinner to the 13th Avenue Pub & Eatery for our first greasy, delicious American meal (Philly cheese steaks and beer!)

America

I’m really looking forward to seeing the United States from something other than an airport, a hotel room, a convention center, a casino, a marathon route, or a cliff — the vistas from which I’ve previously enjoyed the U.S. of A.

I have a romantic notion of America and its Dream. A shining land of democracy, rampant capitalism, and the best medical care in the world if you can afford it.  The home of Hollywood, Broadway, and Mardi Gras.  A country with cities so famous that initials and nicknames suffice (NYC, DC, The Windy City, The Big Apple, The Big Easy, Motor City).

America is a vast land of diverse beauty and natural wonders like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Everglades. It’s the birthplace of rock-and-roll, country and western, jazz, and hip hop.  The homeland of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Martin Luther King Jr.  A nation obsessed with pop culture, reality TV, elective surgery, and sex scandals, where Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian lead the news.

It’s a place where the automobile is a birthright, synonymous with freedom.  Where war has become a habit, and holidays are celebrated with televised sports.  A country that put men on the moon and Star Wars on the big screen.  Where baseball, apple pie, and school shootings have become institutions.

The United States was the source of most of the memorable television of my youth including Saturday morning cartoons, Jacques Cousteau, Star Trek, and Saturday Night Live.  It’s also the home of Walt’s Wonderful World, which graced our television on Sunday evenings, and sometimes meant that I got to stay up past bedtime.

America is a litigious country with a polarized and deadlocked political system, a huge national debt, and a gaping divide between rich and poor.  A place where for many science is a religious discipline.

For me, the United States is a captivating mix of contradictions.  A nation that is dependent on illegal immigrants but doesn’t want to acknowledge them.  The land of fast food and barbecue that coined the term ‘couch potato’, yet also invented health food, the 24-hour gym, and day spas.  The only remaining super power, and therefore the country that disenfranchised nations love to hate, while their peoples continue to seek the embrace of the Statue of Liberty.  One of the more religious nations on the planet infused with gun culture and pornography.  Where marijuana is legal in some states and illegal everywhere in the country.  A place where a man who would have been a slave not that long ago can become president.

The United States remains one of the most influential and fascinating countries on the planet. The sound bites of its 24-hour news cycle permeate the globe. Yet despite growing up next to this benevolent giant, I don’t feel that I really know it.  I plan to change that over the next 6 months, and I hope that you’ll join me.

What captivates you about America?

There and back again — Retrieving our motorhome

picked up our motorhome from the dealer in Des Moines, Iowa on December 28th.  I drove out into the night and a snow storm.

The roads were slick with uneven layers of ice still clinging to them from an earlier blizzard.  I sat idling in the parking lot while I figured out the controls, including the in-dash GPS.  I eased on to the freeway and headed west towards Omaha, Nebraska.  The steering was pulling to the left and I thought I might have a problem, but I kept going because the dealer was closed anyhow, and I later learned that it was just the wind steadily pushing on the broad side of the motorhome.  I stopped for fast food, then drove for a few hours before pulling in to a Walmart just off the freeway after 10 PM.

I headed in to the store to buy some road trip essentials – some jugs of drinking water, a tea kettle, a dozen diet coke, a variety pack of potato chips, chili chocolate, some $10 vinyl floor mats, and a plastic bin to hold my snowy boots.  It was cold out, 10 or 20 degrees below freezing, but I stayed warm in the arctic sleeping bag that I’d borrowed from my friend Lee.

A warm thick red sleeping bag on our RV bed

A sleeping bag for a North American winter

RV in a frosty parking lot with Walmart behind

My first night’s accomodation

The next morning I woke up early and the sun was shining.  I purchased fuel, mistakenly buying more expensive biodiesel which should be OK for our new engine (I hope?).  Although it was cold, the weather and the roads were clear, so I prepared to ‘make time while the sun shines’.  I drove 15 hours the first day, stopping only for fast food, fuel, and toilet breaks.

RV Front at sunrise in frosty, icy parking lot

I drove west through America’s heartland on Interstate 90 through Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  I passed a lot of famous attractions – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Sturgis (home of the massive annual Harley Davidson gathering), The National Museum of Wood Carving, The South Dakota Hall of Fame (OK, perhaps some of them aren’t so famous).  I went right by The Bridges of Madison County (made famous by the Clint Eastwood film of the same name), The ‘World’s Only’ Corn Palace (do we really need more than one?), 1880 Town, Wall Drug, and the Ranch Store (‘where you can feed the prairie dogs for free!’).  I also skipped the Car Museum (which has one of probably many General Lee’s from the Dukes of Hazard), Wonderful Cave (‘the largest in the mid-west’), and The Prairie Homestead (that can’t be very exciting, can it?)  I also missed the Badlands, Devil’s Tower (from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind), Grand Teton, Yellowstone National Park, and the Rocky Mountains.  I’ll have to slow down next time.

Looking out the RV window onto a flat, snowy road

The view from my window

What I found interesting was that many of these attractions are advertised on billboards for 100 or more miles in advance.  I couldn’t believe that I was still seeing more signs for something hours after they began.  By the time I got there, I’m thinking, ‘maybe I should check this out? I can’t believe that someone went to so much effort.  Perhaps it’s good?’  But I suppose that’s the intention.

Motorhome beside road with flat, snowy prairie int he background

Miles of flat snowy prairie

The engine light came on at sunset of the first full day of driving, which had me worried.  It turns out that the engine light comes on when the fuel level drops to the point that one begins using the reserve tank.  Soon afterwards, the fuel warning light comes on.  Why wouldn’t it be the other way around?

I passed many helpful signs like, “Help manage our wildlife, wear fur”.  Also, ‘God Loves You’, followed soon afterwards by, ‘The Wages of Sin is Death’.  I guess that’s the carrot and stick approach.   I saw one that said, ‘Jesus is Lord in this Valley’, and I thought, ‘why limit yourself geographically?’  Did the probably well-intentioned author mean to limit God’s jurisdiction?

I drove another 15 hours the second day and came over Snowqualmie Pass late in the evening to arrive at Seattle.  I drove a little farther to get to the north of the city which would allow me to avoid most of the morning traffic.  I spent my 3rd night on the road in a Walmart parking lot in Lynnwood.  The weather was finally warming up, but still just above freezing.

A thick red sleepng bag laying on our RV bed

Another night at Walmart

Motorhome front under the street lights in a Walmart parking lot

On the morning of Day 3, I discovered that the kettle I had purchased at Walmart and had been using for the last 2 days still had what appeared to be the instructions inside, but it was hard to know for sure because it was just a soupy mess.  Surprisingly, it didn’t affect the taste of my tea.  I drove north to the Pacific Highway Truck Crossing at the Canadian border between Blaine, WA and Surrey, BC where the US Customs and Border Protection Office that handles vehicle exports is located.  I had submitted the required export paperwork to US Customs more than the 3 business days in advance that they require.  I waited while dogs searched the lobby and me until the agent returned to confirm that my motorhome hadn’t been stolen, stamped my paperwork, and sent me on my way.

One hundred meters later at the Canadian border crossing, I was instructed to park and take my paperwork inside.  They calculate and collect the Goods and Services Tax (5%), but they also wanted to charge me 6.1% duty, which came as a surprise.  I was under the impression that the Mercedes=Benz Sprinter chassis was manufactured in Germany but assembled in Charleston, South Carolina making it duty-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  However, the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on our chassis starts with the letters ‘WD’ which means that it was made outside of North America (the ‘W’) in Germany (‘D’ is for Deutschland), and that is all the Canadian Customs and Border Protection agents consider.  I spent 3 hours at the border researching and calling people to try and prove otherwise, but I was mistaken.  It turns out that Sprinter cargo and passenger vans are assembled in the U.S., but Sprinter cab chassis, upon which our and all other Sprinter-based motorhomes are built, are shipped fully assembled from Germany.  So I paid the additional duty, watching some of my anticipated savings from buying in the U.S. disappear.  On the positive side, I did make it home in time to enjoy New Year’s Eve with Diane.

The other challenge with buying a motorhome based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis in the U.S. is the warranty.  Although a motorhome built on a Sprinter cab chassis has a full warranty if purchased and registered in the U.S., this warranty becomes invalid when the vehicle is exported and registered in Canada.  On most Mercedes vehicles Mercedes-Benz Canada would then honour the remainder of the warranty, but only after charging thousands of dollars to convert the vehicle to their, not Transport Canada’s, standards.  This surtax allows them to maintain a significant price differential, charging thousands of dollars more for the same new vehicles in Canada.  Unfortunately, Mercedes-Benz Canada will not honour the warranty for the Sprinter cab chassis, supposedly due to the modifications made to convert it to a motorhome.  However, Mercedes-Benz U.S. does provide a warranty for the same converted vehicles, so this seems to be a convenient excuse to discourage Canadians from buying in the U.S.

Back in Canada, I took our Solera for the required federal inspection at a Canadian Tire store, and then got it registered and insured at an Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) agent.  Upon registering it in Canada, my Mercedes-Benz warranty disappeared.  Do I sound bitter about this?  I shouldn’t, because I knew about it in advance and chose to import a Sprinter-based motorhome anyhow, but apparently I still have some energy about it. If we had purchased a Ford, the other manufacturer of motorhome chassis in North America, I would still have a warranty and I would not have paid duty.  But I would also own a Ford.

It took me longer to drive home than the estimates provided by our GPS and Google Maps because the speed limit most of the way was 75 miles per hour (121 kph).  In the motorhome I drove 65 mph (105 kph) on the highway during daylight hours and 60 mph (96 kph) in the dark.  I averaged 12.8 miles per gallon (18.4 Litres per 100 km), but this will improve as the diesel engine breaks in and I slow down a bit.  Diesel fuel averaged $3.70 US per gallon, and an almost-empty tank cost about $75 to fill.  When I picked up our motorhome it already had 800 kilometers (500 miles) on it.  My trip was 3220 kilometers (2000 miles), bringing our total mileage to about 4000 kilometers (2500 miles).

In hindsight, I still think that we made the right decision to purchase our motorhome in the U.S. and import it ourselves.  Even with the unexpected costs, we still saved significantly.  However, we are now relying on the famous German engineering and quality, as these savings could disappear if we have any major problems with our Mercedes chassis.  We are placing our bet on the Germans,  Would you?

There and back again — Picking up our Motorhome

We purchased our Solera from RV Direct’s dealership in Des Moines, Iowa.  Why so far away?  There are no Forest River dealers in British Columbia that sell this model.  In fact, there is only dealer in Canada (in Laval, Quebec) that sells them, and they buy them at RV Direct, import them just as we did, and mark up the price for re-sale.

After viewing their inventory, including pictures and the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price sheet online, I received a quote for our Solera from RV Direct in under an hour.  The price was 30% less than the MSRP.  Unlike cars, RVs have high markups and can be purchased at significant discounts, typically 20% and as much as 40% off for clearance models.

I spent a couple of days finding all the dealers on the west coast of the U.S. with Soleras in inventory to try and get a price close to what I’d been offered by RV Direct.  There were 11 Soleras available in Washington, Oregon, and California, and all were priced considerably higher.  As I expected, part of the difference was the cost of delivery to the west coast.  New American motorhomes aren’t shipped from the mid-west (typically Indiana) where they are manufactured, but driven, typically adding about 2200 miles and $3500 (roughly $1.75 per mile) to their cost.  I was prepared to pay this, but not the thousands of additional dollars that these dealers wanted in profit for the same product. Driving an RV across the prairies in the middle of winter can be risky (weather delay, rock and salt damage, accident) and since the mileage for the warranty begins when you leave the dealership, it also meant that we’d be putting 2000 miles against our 1 year, 12,000 mile limited warranty before we even got the vehicle home.  But the savings by buying in the mid-west were so significant, that I just couldn’t justify doing otherwise.

And so it was that early on the morning of December 27th, Diane and my friend Lee drove me to to Vancouver International Airport.  I flew first to Minneapolis/St. Paul where my connecting flight was delayed by a few hours.  I had just missed a blizzard that had hammered the mid-west just after Christmas and had shut-down the airports.  When I finally boarded the flight to Des Moines, most of the people on my plane had been waiting in the airport or nearby hotels for 2 days!  I caught the shuttle to a cheap hotel nearby and, since it was late, ordered some pasta to be delivered from a nearby restaurant.

The next day I caught a taxi to the dealer’s service area, a difficult-to-find garage behind a warehouse north of town in an industrial area.  Our Solera was indoors in a building which had a faint sewer odour (literally ‘eau de toilette’).  The dealer had prepped the motorhome by de-winterizing it, filling it with fuel, water, and propane, and testing all the essential functions.

The pre-delivery inspection is critical when buying a new or used RV.  The technician should walk you through all the features and functions of the RV to demonstrate that they’re working and to orient and educate.  Because this would be my only chance to identify any issues before driving the vehicle very far away, probably never to return to this dealer, I was prepared.  I had my own 295 item checklist ready, which I had compiled from similar lists I had found on the Internet (prepared by other detail-oriented buyers).

The technician was good.  He ran through the key things with me and then left me to do my thing.  My appointment began at 1 PM and around 4 PM he needed to start re-winterizing the coach, which he allowed me to watch and explained while I took notes.  Hopefully I’ll be able to do it myself next time.  The service department closed at 5 PM and, even though I hadn’t finished all my checks, at around 5:30 I signed the Forest River warranty document that says that I accept the motorhome.  This document also says that after this point Forest River and the dealer are no longer responsible for any damage.  So it is very important to identify any scratches, dents, or other damage on the initial inspection and have them noted on the warranty form, perhaps even more so than manufacturing flaws or mechanical issues which can be identified and addressed under warranty later.

I drove out into the darkness in the middle of a snow storm…

Introducing our new motorhome

We purchased a new 2013 Forest River Solera 24S. You can read about our search here The Search for our RV (Part 1) and The Search for our RV (Part 2).  We purchased the Special Edition model which supposedly has a number of upgrades, but I believe that every Solera available is an SE, making it more of a mandatory or ‘feel good’ upgrade package than a true option.

Passenger side of white motorhome on flast desert ground taken from low angle

Our Solera is 7.5 meters (24.5 feet) long, but almost a meter longer (i.e. 27 feet) with the rear bike rack we added (more about that to come).  It is 2.3 meters (7 feet 7 inches) wide and 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 inches) high, which Martin will be pleased to hear allows an interior height of 2.13 meters (7 feet).

It sits on a Mercedes Benz Sprinter 3500 chassis made in Germany.  It has a Mercedes Benz V6 3.0 Litre BlueTec Turbo diesel engine capable of 188 horsepower and a 5-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and tip-shift (which allows optional manual shifting).  The rear axle has 4 wheels for a total of 6.

It has a 26.4 gallon (100 Litre) fuel tank and should get 12-17 miles per gallon (15.6 L/100km), for an estimated range of 400 miles (630 kilometers).

Motorhome taken from front at 3/4 angle in a parking lot at night

Solera Exterior at night

Our Solera has the standard exterior (white gel-coat fiberglass with stickers) which was cheaper than the full-body paint and should be cooler in the summer.  It has a fiberglass roof (more durable and easier to maintain) and a 1-piece fiberglass nose cap (fewer leaks).

It has 1.9 cubic meters (67 cubic feet) of external storage across 5 compartments including a large ‘garage’ at the rear.  It also has a 4.6 meter (15 feet) long electric awning that extends and retracts at the touch of a button.

The cab from the rear with 2 seats, dash, steering wheel, and multi-media system

The Cab

The cab has an open feel and plenty of leg room because it doesn’t have a large center console (unlike the Ford chassis), but there is still plenty of storage in the dash, doors, and above the visors.

The cab multi-media system is feature rich (7” touchscreen with AM/FM, CD, DVD, USB, Aux, weather band, Bluetooth, an iPod dock, and GPS) but it’s quality-challenged.  There is also a back up camera where the rear view mirror would normally be.

Kitchen on the left, bed and bathroom in the rear, storage and dinette on the right

The interior looking back from the cab

The interior has a kitchen, bed, bathroom, vanity, dinette, and storage plus an additional bed (or more storage) over the cab.  The woodwork is cherry and the fabrics are what Forest River calls ‘fieldstone’.

Our Solera has a 2.75 meter (9 foot) long slide on the driver’s side that can extend the dinette, closet, and drawers outward to create more living space.  Everything in the RV is operational and there is sufficient room for 2 people to function when the slide is in, but having it extended makes a big difference.  Diane has said several times how happy she is that we got a motorhome with a slide.

The kitchen with cupboards, cook top, oven, microwave, and fridge.

The Kitchen

The kitchen has a single sink, a 3 burner gas cooktop, a gas oven, a range hood with an exhaust fan and a dim light, a microwave, and a refrigerator with separate freezer.  The fridge will run on propane or 110 V electricity.

The bed with a comforter with windows on 2 sides

The Bed

We have a rear corner bed which at 50 x 75 inches (1.25 x 1.9 meters) is 10” narrower and 5” shorter than a standard queen-sized bed.  Yes Martin, there is room to sleep diagonally or dangle one’s feet off the end of the bed.  Because the bed is in a corner, it’s a bit awkward to make and to get out of at night, but it’s very comfortable after we added a memory foam mattress topper.  Diane is very happy in the bed department.

Bathroom with open door showing shower and toilet.  Vanity outside.

The bathroom and Vanity

The bathroom has a shower with a glass sliding door and a skylight above.  There is a porcelain commode that flushes with a foot pedal, but very little leg room when one is sitting on it.  We haven’t figured out where to attach the toilet paper holder yet!  There is also a vanity with a small sink, medicine cabinet, and mirror just outside the bathroom.

Closet, panty, and drawers in cheery wood besider a 4 person dinette

Storage and Dinette

Beside the closet, pull out panty, and storage drawers is the dinette which seats 4 people.  There are seatbelts in the dinette for 2 people (not for eating and drinking but for driving!).  From the dinette we can also watch the flat screen, 12 Volt TV that swings out from over the cab.  We can plug in to cable TV when available, receive ‘over the air’ high-definition television broadcasts with the adjustable roof antenna, watch video from our laptop, or play DVDs from the cab multi-media system.

We’re very happy with the layout and features of our new motorhome.  As we expected in a new RV, we’re finding a few glitches, but we hope to have them worked out soon.  Perhaps all that research was worth it!

The Search for our RV (Part 2)

After several weeks of researching motorhomes and narrowing down my list (see The Search for our RV (Part 1)), there were still 10 different models we were considering, with nothing significant to separate them.  With a bout of analysis paralysis coming on, we applied a bit of intuition and started to focus on the ones that we simply liked the best.  Feeling the need to step back a bit, Diane suggested that we go down to Seattle for a night to inspect and drive a couple of our preferred units.  Sometimes a change of perspective is all one needs.  Besides, what problem can’t be solved by a night away in nice hotel, a seafood dinner overlooking the water, and plenty of wine?

We inspected 5 Class C motorhomes (those built on a van or truck cab and chassis) in detail:

Winnebago View showing front and right side.

Winnebago View 24J

The View has good aerodynamics and the best fuel economy.  The driver seats rotate and it has the highest quality interior of these motorhomes.  Unfortunately, it only has a 2=burner stove and no oven, so these would need to be changed.  It is also the most expensive.

Winnebago Access showing front and right side.

Winnebago Access 26Q

The Access is the largest of these motorhomes.  It has a queen-sized, walk-around bed in the rear.  It also has good Winnebago quality.  It has the most counter, closet, and storage space, and the largest water and propane tanks.  It is also 8.5 meters (28 feet) long and has the worst fuel economy of the bunch.

Forest River Sunseeker showing front and right side with slide extended.

Forest River Sunseeker 2450s

The Sunseeker has a full Queen=sized bed with Serta mattress, and heated enclosed tanks and dump valves. It is one of the most popular Class C motorhomes in North America, offering good value with a lot of features for the money.

Forest River Solera showing front and left side with slide extended.

Forest River Solera 24s

The Solera has a long electric awning and a large slide.  It is similar to the Winnebago View but of lesser quality and has a lower price.

Jayco Redhawk showing front and left side

Jayco Redhawk 26XS

The Redhawk was just introduced this year.  It has a 32 inch flat screen TV and some other flashy features but cannot be ordered with any options. It is the cheapest of the RVs we considered, abd appeared to be of very low quality.

I compiled a list of 411 desirable features that Class C motorhomes might have.  We then completed this checklist (a spreadsheet actually) by reviewing the manufacturer’s specifications for each motorhome in detail.  Based on the knowledge I gained from How to Select, Inspect, and Buy an RV, also from RV Consumer’s Group, we physically inspected  each of the units.  Four were in BC – 2 in Kelowna, 1 in Abbotsford, and 1 in Langley, and 1 was in Mt. Vernon, WA (north of Seattle).  An inspection takes about 1 to 1.5 hours, and involves getting underneath and into every nook and cranny of the motorhome. Note that doing this can be hazardous to your health, as I learned during an inspection in Kelowna when I stood up into the corner of an extended slide from a neighbouring RV.

Closeup of Patrick's head with bandage pulled back to revearl a large wound on right temple

RV shopping is dangerous business!

The RVs we were considering are based on 2 different chassis.  Two are based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 chassis which is shorter, narrower, lighter, has a 6-cylinder Turbo diesel engine, and is much easier to drive.  Three are based on the Ford E450 chassis which is 12 inches longer, supports motorhomes that are 10 to 12 inches wider, has a 12-cyclinder gasoline engine, and drives like a tank.  Sprinter-based motorhomes get 12-17 miles per gallon (mpg) using more expensive diesel fuel and the Ford only gets 8-11 mpg.  Sprinters also cost about $10,000 more, a difference in price that cannot be made up in fuel savings over the life of the RV.  On our upcoming North American trip, I estimated that a Sprinter would save us about $2,300 on fuel versus the Ford.

The biggest single influence on our decision was the test drive.  I drove one motorhome on each of the two chassis.  The Sprinter was much easier to drive and park, though it sways noticeably when driving over bumps, when walking around inside, and in high winds.  This is something that can be improved with after-market products like sway bars, enhanced shocks, air cushions, and stabilizer jacks, which could add as much as $6,000 to the cost of the motorhome.  The Ford felt rock-solid, but it was heavy, and I could hear the huge engine draining my wallet when we drove up hill.  Because it is wider it was harder to make turns while staying completely in my lane, and although we could barely fit its width in a parking space, we wouldn’t be able to open the doors if there were vehicles in the adjacent spaces.  Since Diane plans to drive the RV this trip, she wanted a Sprinter, but was concerned by the swaying.

In the end, we decided to buy a new RV in the United States. The cost of a new RV was significantly lower than an equivalent unit in Canada.  Even with the extra expenses associated with getting it back to and into the country, it cost the same as a used RV in Canada.

Which motorhome would you have selected?  In my next post I’ll reveal which one we chose!

The Search for our RV (Part 1)

Buying an RV is an analyzer’s worst nightmare.  There are thousands of new and used RV models to choose from in North America.  Only a few of these are great.  Some are downright dangerous.  Some key decisions that need to be made are:

Type – Should we get a motorized RV (a motorhome), a towable RV (e.g. travel trailer or 5th wheel), or a truck camper?

A generic white motorhome

One of many styles of motorhomes

A generic white travel trailer

An example of a travel trailer

A gerneric white camper on a white truck

An example of a truck with camper

Each type has pros and cons.  We decided that a motorhome would be best for our intended style of travel.  They work well for both wilderness and urban camping, whether staying in a campground or free camping.  The S&M Motel that we used in Europe as part of the ‘Great Trans-Atlantic Camper Van Swap is a motorhome.

Picture of the S&M Motel (the RV we're traveling in)

The S&M Motel

Intended Use  —  Very few RVs are suitable for heavy usage.  Most are designed for vacationers who use them less than 4 weeks a year.  These aren’t built to last or to stand up to daily use by full-timers or snow-birds.  The few that are are usually very expensive.

New or Used – We intended to purchase a used RV.  New RV’s typically depreciate about 30% in the first 3 years.  Like used gym equipment, it’s possible to find lightly used RVs at a significant discount.  In addition to the new car smell, new RVs typically come with a lot of small issues that need to be addressed.  A properly maintained used RV should have had all the bugs worked out, but careful research and inspection are required to avoid buying someone else’s problems.  Between our intended travels in 2013 and those of our friends Sue and Martin in 2014, we expect to put on between 50,000 and 80,000 kilometers over the next 2 years.  This is much more mileage than most RVs receive (typical usage is 6,000 km per year), so it’s essential that we buy an RV with very low mileage.

Size – We want the shortest RV that would meet our needs.  This makes driving and parking much easier.  Although larger units are impressive and tempting, and sometimes not much more costly, they don’t work very well in the city.

We attended a couple of RV shows and researched the major manufacturers online.  This helped us to develop a feel for what was available and to identify 38 RV models (yes, 38) that might work for us.  We used the reliability, value, and highway control ratings in the RV Ratings Guide from RV Consumer’s Group to narrow down our list a bit, removing those units that were rated as unsafe or of exceedingly poor quality.  We next developed our own key criteria list, 11 must-have and high priority features that our RV needed to have:

  • Full-time bed – that doesn’t need to be made up to  sleep
  • Full-time dinette – so we don’t have to set up a table to eat
  • 3-burner cooktop – the 2-burner ‘camp stoves’ in  some units just won’t do
  • Gas oven – a convection microwave just won’t cut it.  Very few RVs have gas ovens these days, as apparently most people don’t use them and end up storing things inside      them instead.
  • A slide – A wall that lides out to create more room inside when parked
  • Short cab overhang – for better visibility
  • Enclosed shower – so the whole bathroom doesn’t get      wet
  • Generator – more electricity on demand
  • Suitable for cold weather use
  • A model that is still manufactured – increases the      likelihood of getting parts
  • North American service network – dealers across      North America that can provide warranty repairs and service the RV

Applying these criteria only narrowed the list down from 38 to about 20, so we added 8 more criteria:

  • Fiberglass roof – more durable and easier to maintain
  • 1-piece fiberglass nose cap – fewer leaks in the most leak-prone area
  • Awning – manual or electric, the bigger the better
  • Front seats rotate – allowing them to be used in conjunction with the living area.       Very few motorhomes offer this, but some could be upgraded afterwards.
  • 2-way refrigerator – operates on propane and 110 Volt electricy.  Every unit offered this, but almost none had a 3-way fridge that could also run on 12 Volt electricy.
  • Counter space – the more the better
  • Double sink – makes doing the dishes easier
  • 110 Volt Water Heater – works on propane but can  also run on 110 Volt electricity when connected to ‘shore power’ (the RV term for being plugged in to external power)

This brought our list of potential RV models down to a more manageable number of 10, but it was still too many to begin detailed evaluations.  Analysis paralysis began to set in…

Our Next Adventure

Happy New Year!  Another lap around the sun.  An occasion for new beginnings.  The perfect time to begin another adventure.

When we returned from Europe in September, 2012, Diane and I had already agreed how we would spend our 2013, though it was not what we had in our minds when we left for Europe in April.  We had intended to return to Vancouver and settle down for a while.  Then our friends Sue and Martin asked us if they could defer their trip to the colonies by another year, meaning that they wouldn’t be needing the RV, the one we haven’t purchased yet, until 2014.  Since our home is currently occupied by foreigners, this gave us an opening to buy an RV a bit earlier and to use it in 2013.  A great opportunity to do some more traveling, and to make sure that our soon-to-be RV is fully tested and ready for our friends.

And so it was that we decided to pursue another travel adventure in 2013 – a circumnavigation of the United States and Canada!  We plan to leave Vancouver in January 2013 and quickly make our way down the west coast to the warmer weather of Southern California and Arizona.  We’ll cross the southern states during the winter then follow the sun up the eastern seaboard as the weather warms.  We’ll cross back into Canada by mid-summer, careful not to overstay our welcome in the U.S. (Canadians tourists are allowed to stay for a maximum of 6 months).  We’ll explore the Maritimes and Eastern Canada before heading back across the Prairies in the fall, hopefully crossing the Rocky Mountains before the heavy snow flies.

Other than this vague outline, we have no specific plans.  There are a few friends and family that we hope to visit along the way, mostly in the west.  We’ll follow our whims and the weather, travelling on the highways of life and the byways of experience.

I’m excited about what lies ahead and we invite you to participate in our adventure.  We hope that you enjoy the stories of our journey.  Because many of you have traveled in the United States and Canada, we look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions.  As it was when I started this blog, it remains my intention that we will all benefit from the experience.  Thank-you for participating and have a great 2013!

The Decline of the American Empire

Our recent visit to the United States got me thinking about the challenges facing America today.  I think that the road ahead will be very difficult.

What is an empire?

Empires are nations whose power and influence extend beyond their borders.  They tend to enjoy false economies based on cheap labour and the plunder of other nations.  This is typically enabled by large and costly militaries.

Why do empires decline?

Empires enjoy false economies based on the continued access to cheap resources.  Cultural decay sets in when people become used to living lives subsidized by cheap imports and high levels of personal and government debt.  When empire economies falter, their militaries become an economic drain, but remain essential to try to protect the empire’s position despite its declining influence.  People used to an easier life squabble over how to divide the pie, rather than working together to increase the size of it.

Empires fall because they must eventually begin living within their means.  If they do not do this, they can only hope to delay the decline by borrowing against future generations – e.g. letting infrastructure decay, running a deficit, etc.

The American Empire

I believe that the United States currently enjoys empire status.  Its economic power and military reach allow it to influence world events far more than its size and population would suggest.  Through foreign and economic policy it exerts control over other countries, up to and including cases where some governments survive only because of U.S. support.  Why are the Americans at the table in virtually every peace talk?  What gives the Americans the right to chastise Palestine for recently seeking a recognition of statehood at the UN?

Even when the American economy was in free fall, investors flocked to the U.S. dollar for safety.  Despite serious economic problems and massive debt levels the U.S. enjoys very low interest rates, unlike other countries where interest rates rise as the risk of default increases (e.g. Ireland, Greece).  Through illegal immigration, multinational corporations, and lax environmental standards, the U.S. enjoys access to cheap labour and raw materials and consumes more resources on a per capita basis than most other countries.  And they don’t want to share.

The massive U.S. military allows them to project force anywhere in the world.  According to reports of the US. Department of Defence Department of Defence Base Structure Report and Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and Country the US military has over 540,000 facilities located on nearly 5,000 sites worldwide.  They have facilities in 39 foreign countries, with the majority of these located in Germany (194 sites, 52,000 personnel), Japan (108 sites, 36,000 personnel), and South Korea (82 sites, 29,000 personnel).  When the U.S. wins a war, they never really leave.  Despite their recent withdrawal from Iraq, I doubt that it will turn out to be any different in the long run.  There are over 1,400,000 U.S. Active Duty military personnel.  Of these, almost 300,000 were stationed in 150 other countries (including 126 people in Canada).  This is in addition to 104,000 deployed in Afghanistan (‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, an overly optimistic name) and 85,000 in Iraq (‘Operation New Dawn’, sounds like a B-movie).  The troops in Iraq were recently removed, but most are likely deployed elsewhere.  All together, the U.S. military has 78,000 personnel located in Europe alone.

The massive U.S. military props up the government and allows it to exert power worldwide, but at a very high cost.  In 2010, 20% of the US budget ($689 Billion) went to the Defence Department (Source: Wikipedia), an amount almost equal to that spent on Social Security ($701 Billion) and Medicare & Medicaid ($793 Billion).  The U.S. industrial military complex has a massive economic effect and exerts its own political influence to sustain itself.  Despite the recent US economic problems, spending on the U.S. military continues to rise even after removing the effects of inflation, almost doubling on a constant dollar basis in the last 10 years (Source: Wikipedia).

The American Empire in Decline

All good things come to an end. — Anonymous

I believe that the U.S. is an empire at the peak of its power, peering over the edge at a potentially precipitous drop ahead.  They are beginning to exhibit many of the symptoms of an empire in decline.

The U.S. has severe economic problems.  Some of these challenges may be short-lived, but others appear to be more structural and could have lasting impacts.  Despite repeated economic stimuli (e.g. bank and auto industry bailouts, near zero interest rates, multiple rounds of quantitative easing, tax breaks to home owners), the U.S. economy is limping along.  The U.S. currently has historically high unemployment, partly as a result of the continued trends of offshoring and automation.  The gap between rich and poor continues to widen.  Over 20% of U.S. home owners are ‘under water’ on their mortgage, meaning that they owe more than their homes are worth.  They have high and growing levels of personal debt and almost 1 in 6 Americans rely on government food stamps to ensure they have enough to eat. The U.S. budget has a huge annual deficit which continues to add to its massive national debt.  The government appears paralyzed, bickering over irrelevant matters while the nation suffers.  They’re spending their time rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.

Can the U.S. halt its decline?

The U.S. possesses a lot of assets that may be able to help postpone or slow its decline.  They have the largest economy and most powerful military in the world (many times larger than any other country).  As a result they have tremendous economic and political influence globally.  Through media conglomerates and Hollywood, they also have great cultural influence.  The U.S. dollar is the primary reserve currency for world banks, which affords it benefits it would not otherwise be entitled to, and the U.S. continues to be a world leader in research and in technology.

Most importantly, the U.S. has a record of re-inventing itself, allowing it to overcome virtually all important challenges to-date. Their notion of American Exceptionalism results in a confidence and ‘can do’ attitude that is hard to beat.  Will this be enough to overcome the apparent economic, political, and cultural decay they’re experiencing?  It remains to be seen.  If not, what will happen to Canada in the long term if our primary ally and partner in virtually everything loses it privileged position in the world?