Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Pilgrimage to Pilot Mountain: A New Roof for My Tiny Trailer, Part 1

Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, home of Rustic Trail Teardrop Campers

A trip to Canada's Maritime Islands, a tour of the Pacific Northwest, the national park crown jewels of natural beauty--these are subjects worthy of writing travelogues about. But what about a four-day journey on interstate highways, stopping at roadside campgrounds, the music of the highway a constant background song? That's a road trip, and that's my reality: the frenetic freeway, road construction, and hours of quick, peripheral glances at the occasional scenic vista sliding by--if not obscured by a semi-tractor and trailer.

However, I'm a man with a plan--to remedy the tree-bashing my camper received during a rainstorm, to have the builder of my trailer, Rustic Trail Teardrop Campers, replace the holed fiberglass roof on my RTTC Polar Bear with an aluminum roof. Southeast Iowa to Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, around 850 miles. Originally I had planned on scheduling three days for the trip out, but my wife wisely counseled me that four would be more enjoyable--and, of course, she was right, 200-230 miles a day is enough, although I could do more.

Tincup RV Park, Mahomet, Illinois

Day One was a trip of 232 miles from my home to Tincup RV Park in Mahomet, Illinois. The drive was pretty uneventful, which was a good break-in day for me, getting used to more freeway time and road construction, delays, and such. I've also found that a 4-5 hour drive necessitates a bathroom break halfway through, and I also fill up the gas tank and prepare a snack for lunch, which so far has been carrots, cheese, saltine crackers, water, and an apple.

One of the things I'm discovering is that overnighters don't provide a lot of time for me to really familiarize myself with a campground. Tincup has a lot of permanent rigs that people park and then come and stay at on weekends. Other permanent or long-term campers are workers; for instance, I saw one pickup truck with a pipeline logo on the door. Tincup is a nice, privately-owned campground in a meadow with a few trees, and showers and toilets. My stay there was pleasant, and it was here that I began my minimal-setup routine, such as not unhooking the camper, using my front storage box as my cooking station, and eating a cold breakfast with paper bowls. Since check-in times are noon, I've been leaving around eight o'clock in the morning.

Day One music: Gordon Lightfoot's Complete Greatest Hits and the Beatles' Abbey Road.

Grandpa Bear
Day Two began easily enough, but then it began raining, harder and harder until the fastest wiper speed was just barely sufficient even at reduced speeds. Indianapolis, Indiana, is the city I had to negotiate, and I thought passing through on Sunday morning would make the experience easier. I suppose that is true, but the freeways in Indianapolis are under major construction, so the trip through town included city traffic, construction, and extremely heavy rain--all at once.

I was doing OK, though, going with the flow, until construction intervened with a detour through town and then my freeway on-ramp being closed. I followed the traffic past the freeway entrance, in severe rain as the wipers valiantly almost kept even with the flood. The Pathfinder's navigation program recalculated and started looping me back around to the freeway. For a moment I was really nervous, thinking the program was going to bring me back to the same closed entrance, engaging me in an endless loop of being denied access to the freeway, in heavy traffic due to the construction detour, while it was pounding rain. That was a pretty discouraging moment for me, but I remembered to breathe--in and out, in and out--and reminded myself that I had enough gas for 250 miles.

Luckily, the entrance the navigator took me to was not the closed one, and I was able to get out of town, slowly on a liquid river of highway. The road trip gods were not done with me, though, because later the construction section of highway funneled three lanes of freeway traffic into one construction lane. This process actually went smoothly but took a while. I was able to practice (as in "do or die") changing lanes in bumper-to-bumper traffic; almost everyone was polite, though, and although the "funneling" took a while, I never felt like the process was chaotic.

Grandpa's Farm Campground RV Park

Arriving in the early afternoon at Grandpa's Farm Campground RV Park, I used my one day of road savvy and was quickly settled in: food, shower, and evening routine much the same, although I did have time for an evening walk. Grandpa's Campground has a pool (which was closed and covered), a shower house, and has quite a few rigs that are set up more permanently, sort of like cabins for the owners to use on weekends. There were more trees at Grandpa's, "freeway rustic," and I was excited to see the trees beginning to turn.

Day Two music: James Galway's A Song of Home, an American Musical Journey and The Ultimate Dinah Washington.

Day Three was an easy day of driving, except for Dayton, Ohio (more on that later). The first two thirds of the trip was mostly flat farmland. The road was pleasant, smooth and not heavily trafficked. There were some construction sections, but the traffic flowed well and safely. The last third of the trip was through what I suppose was sections of the Appalachians, so more deciduous forest and higher climbs and descents.

This was my first time in the mountains with my Nissan Pathfinder, even though the mountains were pretty tame. I had researched the Pathfinder's "continuous variable transmission," wondering how it would work when decompressing down inclines. Would I have to use the brakes a lot? There is no capability to shift down, although there is a switch to turn off the overdrive gearing. There is a low gear, but it is really low, not a highway speed gearing. I had asked the service manager at the car dealership how it worked, towing a trailer and descending mountains. He just said, "Try it and find out." Hmmm.

Anyway, once in the hills, I dialed in "Auto" instead of 2WD for the powertrain, and activated the "Tow" function. What I was pleased to discover was that even with the cruise control on, the Pathfinder automatically downshifted, which was hardly noticeable, yet I almost never had to use the brakes. The whole unified system just kept the vehicle at the speed selected for the cruise control. Even with the cruise function off, I found the gearing handling almost all of the descents. I was impressed and am sure I'll have at least a couple more days to experience the Pathfinder's CVT.

I also found that the Pathfinder's 6-cylinder engine has power and more with the Polar Bear. Go, Pathfinder, and Go, Green Goddess! Entering the freeway, say from a rest area, I was able to gun the engine and accelerate quickly to freeway speed. I felt no sluggishness or lack of power, even with the trailer. Now that I've traveled about 450 miles, my mpg has dropped from 18.3 to 18.1 miles per gallon. So far, anyway. We'll see what happens with another day of mountain driving, but the 18.1 number has been steady.

Milton, West Virginia, Fox Fire KOA
Now, about traveling through Dayton. I think Dayton's population is around 100,000, as compared to the 800,000 of Indianapolis. I was traveling through Dayton between eight and nine in the morning--not the best time--and traffic was heavy, slowing to a stop a one point because of some construction. I had to change freeways about four times to get through and around town, and I found it required intense focus but was not the outlandish saga of traversing Indianapolis the day before. I negotiated traffic, changed lanes, followed the navigator without any drastic lane changes. In short, I am learning and gaining more confidence from my road trip experience. Two facts helped a great deal: 1) the weather was good, and 2) I knew the city time would be no more than 20-30 minutes.

In fact, the road experience for Day Three was pretty easy. My main reflection is that driving by myself can get tedious. I listened to an NPR radio program, and the music of the day was The Best of Taj Mahal and Carlos Santana's  Greatest Hits.

My campground arrival was my first KOA stop--Huntington/Fox Fire KOA in Milton, West Virginia. It is pretty heavily populated with both short- and long-term campers. The facilities are clean and the folks running the place are pleasant and helpful, as all the hosts have been. The number of large RVs was somewhat underwhelming, and the faint aroma of sewage that scented the air wasn't all that great. I imagine the folks inside their RVs never noticed a thing. I was happy for a safe, clean spot to stay.

Today the high was 94 degrees, so I was glad for the oak tree situated directly to my south. The shade helped.  Dinner tonight was more than the last two nights; I used both the toaster oven for baked potatoes along with the induction burner for steamed veggies. It was hot enough that I knew I'd be going to bed later this evening when it cooled. I took the time from late afternoon to sunset to write up my experiences so far.

Day Four marked my arrival at Pilot Mountain, Jomeokee Campground. The driving day was varied: city rush hour through Charleston, West Virginia, the state's capital; a bit of freeway driving and then a couple of hours on rural roads, 25-40 mph; and then freeway driving to my destination.

The urban freeway driving was similar to Dayton, Ohio, an intense 20-30 minute route through the city, on and off about four different freeways. This time, though, there was only one brief stop for minor construction. All the rest was just paying attention to lane shifts to be in the right spot to enter, merge, and exit. I have found that I'm becoming more familiar with the Pathfinder's navigation system, noticing that when it tells me "keep left" that the image will display one arrow or two, indicating whether the road split will be one or two lanes, little features like that. I'm also more used now to checking the mirror and gauging how much distance I have to the car behind. For some reason, my right mirror is a convex one that distorts the distance perspective. ("The vehicles behind are closer than they appear.") The left mirror doesn't distort the perspective. Perhaps that's because so many merges are from the right and a wider perspective is needed for the oncoming vehicles.

Kanawha River, (with dams and locks), West Virginia

My rural toodle through the valleys and over the Appalachian Mountains was wonderful. The irony was that I was all set to take the toll freeway, which was Google Map's route, but the Nissan navigator took me on the scenic route, along the Kanawha River. If I had been pulling a 40-foot fifth-wheeler, I would have been unhappy with the navvie's choice, but with my tiny trailer, the hairpin and dogleg turns and the narrow road lanes were no problem. I eased along, soaking up the new geography. The way the hamlets skirted the road at the bottom of the valleys, and the presence of prominent, well-maintained churches in each community was a noticeable feature.

United Methodist Church

The freeway driving--with some five percent, long downhill runs--provided another chance to experience the Pathfinder's CVT in action. It continued to be a real pleasure; I rarely had to engage in repeated braking, the transmission maintaining a reasonable speed, the cruise control on and everyone happy. A few times on the steepest pitches, I switched off the overdrive. The rpms immediately rose from 1,500 to around 3,000 as the engine compression worked with the lower gear to keep down the speed. I mostly just allowed the "smart transmission" to do its thing. The freeway CD music of the day was The Ultimate Lester Young.

Jomeokee Campground, Pinnacle, North Carolina

Arriving at Jomeokee Campground, no one was around except for some guy loading one bin of apples and another of pumpkins onto a flat trailer, using a tracked skid loader. I said I'd just wait for the owner. "Oh, they're pretty easy-goin' around here." I decided the park--rustic but pleasant--being almost empty and the campsites having no numbers, wouldn't mind my just setting up, which I did.

I really enjoyed a quiet night without the big RVs' air conditioners roaring away. It cooled off in early evening, and I spent a pleasant night among the quiet of the trees. The next morning, I delivered the trailer to Rustic Trails, and now I'm sitting in the lobby, writing and relaxing. About the trailer? That will be another blog post!

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  1. Good Morning Tom,
    I enjoyed this blog today. I could imagine the highway driving as that is what I've done mostly in Florida. I am guessing your camper doesn't have A/C? I am spoiled with A/C in first my T@G and now in my Born Free. I can't really imagine travelling without it. Looking forward to the Roof Repair Part 2.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary. Actually, there is a little unit mounted in the trailer, essential now that these October days in North Carolina are reaching temperatures 95 and above. The trailer will be finished this afternoon. I'll stay here for three days, then head south for two days about 150 miles to a KOA for two days, and then on the the RTTC get-together at Huntington Beach State Park. I'll be there five days then head home. I think that with my three days here at Pilot Mountain, I'll visit the Andy Griffith Museum in Mt. Airy. On a hot day, why not an air conditioned museum?