Layed Up In Lynnwood

February 25, 2013

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

February 15, 2013

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

February 12, 2013

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

February 12, 2013

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

February 6, 2013

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…