This is the first post of a pretty long trip report. If you don't care to read the whole saga, there's a brief recap of the entire trip at the bottom of this post. Pictures from the trip are in my 2010RT photo folder.
2010 – Great Lakes
Planning for this year’s trip was a bit more stressful than usual. With the economy issues “forcing” the State of CA (my employer) to keep taking chunks out of my paychecks for the previous year, I wasn’t sure if I was going to able to afford a “real” trip this year. It was all going to hinge on how the income tax return game played out. I had also planned to do a long weekend Spring Training trip with some friends in March which would eat up a good chunk of my available funds. For most of the fall of 2009 and winter my trip plans conversations always included a big fat “IF
I can go this year…”
The tax return was good and my Spring Training trip fell apart (not really sure what happened) and I decided to make my plans and go for it. The target this year was the Great Lakes area.
Every year I think I have things all dialed in gear-wise, but every year I find more stuff to tinker with. I had three primary goals this year regarding stuff to modify. First, was my solar panel setup, the second was to add a cargo hatch between the inside of the tent and the trailer belly and the other was to add a complete door to my tent. Some of these things are likely hard to visualize. There are pictures of all these modifications here: http://www.ridingacrossusa.com/album/thumbnails.php?album=25
The solar panel setup needed two adjustments; the mounting setup itself and the battery unit. Last year, I spent a great deal of time concocting a mounting setup that had the panel attached to a folding arm. The arm was laid down over the trailer while on the road and then would swing up to raise the panel up over the top of the trailer while in camp. When I left for my trip, I felt that the setup would be functional even if it was just a little bit cumbersome to operate. Well it did function, but the mounting system degraded every time I set it up and eventually became a burden rather than a help.
As much as I didn’t like scrapping many days of work, I just decided to simplify the process and start over. Instead of a swing-arm mount that was mounted to the trailer, I just picked up a heavy duty tripod (built for a P.A. speaker) and created a mount for the panel. This change forces me to lift the panel off the trailer and set it on the tripod when I setup the trailer rather than just (well it supposed to be “just”) swing the arm up.
This change also required me to come up with a way to open the trailer (to get to cargo) without having to remove the panel. I solved this issue by a adding a couple of eye bolts mounted to “L” brackets to the edge of the trailer where it opens so that I could tie off the panel to the lid, rather than the trailer body. While it took me a while to get there, the solution was quite simple once I came up with it. I also had to add some short legs to the bottom of the panel so that it would lay level on top of the trailer with the panel’s mount arm in place. Again, the solution for this was very simple once I figured it out – PVC parts worked out quite nice to make four little stubby legs.
I was also having issues with the 600 watt power pack that I’d been using for portable power for my previous trips. It just wasn’t holding a charge like it had been. I decided to just go with a regular deep cycle battery. I had a very hard time calculating my “needs”, but eventually opted on a 35AH battery. I also opted to run all of my devices directly off of DC rather then to convert it to 120 AC and then back to the DC current that they operated on. I firmly believe that removing the AC conversion out of the loop will be more efficient. I can also run off the battery while I’m charging which I could not with the power pack. I did pick up a 400 watt inverter in case I need to run something on 120v off of my trailer. I built a new rack to hold the battery and charge controller that mounts into the receiver hitch on the back of my trailer. I probably took about 20 pounds of mounting gear off the trailer with this new setup.
The second project was to build a cargo hatch between the tent area and the trailer belly. Most newer tent trailers have this option built in, but mine is old enough to not have that feature. I was leery of cutting a hole under by mattress, but my weariness of lugging my gear around the outside of the tent to get it inside got me brave enough to go for it. After a careful layout process, I fired up the jigsaw and cut a 2’ x 2’ (approx.) square hole in a corner of the trailer lid. The project got a bit more expensive when I saw how the lid was constructed. It is basically an inch of foam sandwiched between two sheets of paneling. At certain intervals, there was some 1 inch square aluminum tubing to add some strength. After seeing this, I got some aluminum tubing and reinforced the edges where the hardware would be mounted. After the hole was cut, I added a 2” strip of aluminum on the bottom to act as a stop and piano hinge. I took care to place the hatch off to one side so that I could position my body to as to put as little weight as possible on it while I slept. After I was done, I found I was able to lay over the hatch any way I wanted without worries of the floor giving way.
While I was playing with the hatch concept, I decided to figure out a way to get the stuff that lives inside the tent and on my mattress at night (CPAP, phone/alarm, water etc) off the top of my mattress. Again, this took quite a bit of planning before finally landing on a concept that I liked. I built a hanging “night stand” (night hang?) that not only holds my CPAP and other stuff at night, but also closes up and acts as a storage unit for some of that stuff. It would be very hard to describe but basically, the bottom of the “stand” slides up inside the top of the device when I want to store it. This saves me the effort of setting this stuff up every night and makes for a nice compact situation. It’s kind of funky, but I impressed myself a little with the overall design!
The third major project was to add a complete door to the base tent. When I bought the tent, it didn’t come with the bottom half of the door on the main tent body. I didn’t notice it when I was picking it up and once I did, I just never got around to contacting the previous owner to see if he had it. The trailer came with an “add a room” section that the previous owner said was a PITA to set up, but once I got the stuff home and played with things a little, I figured out a way to reduce the PITA of the setup and put it back into play. With this section on the tent, the half-door wasn’t an issue.
While I did lessen the PITA factor of the add-on, it still more than doubled my setup time and I did miss the very simple flip open setup of the base tent. I decided to take this year’s trip with out the add-on room, but would need a complete door. So I set out to make a new door.
The way the other door was set up was kind of odd and I didn’t like it too much so I decided to make a complete new door. Mind you, I’ve never been much for sewing (been getting better over the last couple years) so this was a very difficult task for me. I had been able to lean on my Mom for sewing machine needs, but had been slowly figuring out some basic hand stitching skills. I came up with a plan for the door and met my Mom at a fabric store to get my supplies. She said (half-way joking) that I needed to learn how to use a machine at the rate I was going with all of my projects. My initial reaction was, “Yeah, right.”, but a week later as I kept stumbling across more sewing projects, I did in fact buy a machine and figured out how to use it. It was actually much simpler than I thought it would be to operate. Don’t get me wrong – I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon and my work isn’t all that “pretty”, but it gets the job done.
The biggest issue for me on the new door was getting the zippers situated. I wasn’t brave enough to take the tent off the trailer body so my work was done with the tent opened up. It was difficult to get an accurate opening size since every time I would touch the opening it would push in. I drug the stuff over to my Mom’s and she helped me get things lined up with me on the inside of the tent and her on the outside. We got it all lined up and I took everything home and wrapped it up. Even if the fabric was the same color (it’s not since they seem to have stopped a making the color that my tent is made up) the door is obviously home made. The windows are a little cock-eyed and the stitching is obviously not the same as the rest of the tent, but all in all, it came out good. Nice and sturdy and I now have a fully enclosed sleeping area.
Along the way with my other projects, other things came up that I wanted to do. The one thing that I was concerned about regarding not bringing the add-on room, was that I’d have very little “dry” space if I ended up camping in the rain. It hasn’t been an issue so far, but the add-on room does offer a little space that one could hang out in if needed. I’ve set up full blown tarps in the past that required poles and ropes and stakes and just didn’t want to have to deal with all that. I wanted to add something to give me a little rain cover (or shade) that would be easy to setup and not too heavy or cumbersome. I decided to make an awning, in place of the add-on room.
Utilizing the sipper that the add-on room used at the apex of the tent, I got some heavy-duty rip-stop material and sewed on a zipper to mate with the one on the tent. I repurposed the fiberglass tent poles from an old dome tent that hasn’t been used in 20 years and started playing. The shock cord was broken or worn out and I quickly found myself with a whole bunch of two foot sections. I had originally planned to do one big sweeping pole for the front, but decided to go with a “square” design instead.
I headed over to Lowes to see if I could find some hardware that I could make work. I found some 3/8” plastic ell fittings that worked well for the corners. I also got a 3/8” galvanized nipple that I chopped up into small pieces to act as the pole anchors. The process of getting the plan finalized in the reality of 3D (rather than on paper) proved to be problematic and I imagine that if someone were to watch, it would have been quite amusing. I did manage to finally figure out how to fashion the support brackets I needed and the length of the poles I needed. My bracket design proved to be compact and quite effective. I also had to sew some temporary loop-straps on the tarp so that I could rig up the awning without having the zipper in place yet. I was a bit amused when I realized that I had used a welder and a sewing machine within about a 2 hour period. How many people do you know who can say that? With all the poles cut to size, I added some new shock cord so that the poles would stay together.
The final design ended up having one set of poles that creates some space right over the tent door and another set of poles that hangs out in front and supports the awning fabric. When not in use, the fabric is stored right on top of the tent. To set it up, I just unfold the fabric, set up the poles (slipping the front pole through the slot in the front of the fabric) and voila, a quick awning. Granted, the setup of the awning is not all that much different than the add-on room in terms of effort. The big difference is that the awning is optional I can set up the base tent without the awning which I did most of the time. The add-on room pretty much needed to be setup with the tent if I was traveling with it. I also left about 15 lbs of weight in the garage.
Planning the Trip
My plans this year were influenced by a local friend who grew up in Wisconsin. He had indicated that he usually goes home every year around the Fourth of July and I kind of invited myself to hook up with him when he’s back there. I started putting a loose trip plan together and noticed that my SF Giants would be in Milwaukee July 4th-8th. How cool would it be to see my Giants in another ballpark? So, I started setting that up as part of my plans
It turns out that my Wisconsin buddy changed his plans to be able to attend a wedding a few weeks later in the month, so that connection needed to be adjusted. Luckily this is plenty far enough ahead that it was just a matter or adjusting my plans – no reservations or anything to worry about. I still wanted to go to a Giants/Brewer’s game and it took a little doing, but I came up with an overall plan: Leave Sacramento on July 2nd, take a fast, northerly route (Idaho, Montana, N. Dakota, Minnesota) to target Milwaukee for the 6th. My Wisconsin buddy hooked me up with a friend to get me to the game on the 6th. Then, I would “kill” a couple weeks touring the Great Lakes area ending up in New York for Niagra Falls and Cooperstown (MLB Hall of Fame) before turning back west. I’d also catch a game at Wrigley Field before meeting up with my friend in southern Wisconsin for a few days. Then pretty much jam back home through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada with a half day stop at the Grand Tetons on the way home.
My plan this year was to do most of my meals in camp this year rather then relying so much on eating out. This is pretty much the one cost that I can control and my plan is to keep costs down as much as possible. Seems contradictive to extravagances of taking in a couple baseball games, but I justify those expenses by cutting my food costs way down.
Dotting the “I”s
Done with all my primary projects in plenty of time, I began to get the pre-trip details handled. I did my standard pre-trip bike prep: oil change, fluid checks (flushed the hydraulic fluids) brake checks etc. I did my standard trailer prep: inspect and grease the bearings, inspect the trailer brakes, check my load balance etc. With a whole month ahead of my departure I had a little too much time and managed to adjust my routing and overnight stay plans about every other day as I looked in more detail at some of the areas that I’d have time to explore. I made contact with all the good people in Wisconsin who were making arrangements for me.
I got a burning hair to mess with my windshield. I’m not entirely sure where this concept arose from, but I had begun to obsess with the shape and size of my windshield. I thought about just cutting it down, a few inches, but if I didn’t like it, I would have been in a bind. I shopped around a little and opted to drop the coin for a Clearview windshield with the vent in it. I ordered online, but once I got the receipt I noticed a 3 week production time. That wasn’t going to work as I was leaving in 2 weeks, so I tried to make contact to cancel the order. Their communication routine isn’t the best, but a couple days later I managed to get confirmation of the cancellation. The next day I received a call from a guy at Clearview who had seen what I did and happened to have a slightly blemished version of what I ordered. He said he couldn’t find the blemishes without extreme effort and offered a 20% discount, full warranty all the same conditions as a new windshield AND he could get it to me in 3 days. I told him to book it, and it showed up when he said it would and in the condition he described. (They must have some very high production standards because I see no sign of any blemishes!) I mounted it up took it for a short ride to see how I liked it and it was fine.
I was hoping to get another trip out of my rear tire. I still had a full third of the tread left on it and it sure seemed like that would get me the 7,000 miles I needed. I figured I could always get another new on while on the road as I did last year if it came to it. If I didn’t have a brand new tire sitting in my garage, I would have gone for it, but that same tire was sitting there last year when I replaced the tire while on the road and didn’t want to risk having it sit for another year. I also think I was a little lucky last year to get the tire I wanted and get it installed with minimal downtime. So, the weekend before the trip, I took the tire in to get it mounted.
I had had charging issues last fall and mounted a meter so that I could monitor things while riding. A week before lift off, I went to go to work and the motor did a little stutter start acting like a battery connection had come loose. A quarter mile from the house I noticed the volt meter was indicating an issue so I headed home to swap the bike for the car. As I was putting the wheel back on, I checked the battery connection and sure enough it was loose. I fixed that issue and it fired right up, problem solved. Or so I thought.
I was breaking in the new tire before hitting the road, running errands and such the week before the trip. I was heading to a family gathering and I noticed that the meter was showing me a problem again. Like an idiot I ignored the meter and went on about my way and 15 miles later I was dead on the side of the road. Three hours later I was towed home.
I put a full charge on the battery and everything seemed fine, but I was obviously very nervous about heading off on a 7500 mile trip with this kind of problem looming. I threw my problem out to the good people at the Venture forum. Lot’s of suggestions, but nothing was really helping. One of the members suggested I get a Battery Bug, which is a special meter that shows specific battery measurements that you can monitor as you are
riding. IT gives you charge level as well as the start capacity level. Sounded exactly like what I was looking for. I got one, and mounted it the day before the trip. I decided to throw my charger in the trailer just in case.
Trip Photos: http://www.ridingacrossusa.com/album/thumbnails.php?album=34&page=1&sort=ta
****Spoiler Alert - Below is a very brief overview of my trip. Stop reading here and go to Part II if you would like to read the detailed account of my trip un spoiled...****
My trip this year had me going from Sacramento, CA to MI, via NV, ID, MT, ND, MN and home via IA, NE, WY, UT and NV.
I had electrical issues starting on day 2 (poor charging) and the problem really never went away despite buying a new battery and regulator. I was never stranded but it was a constant source for my attention the entire trip.
When I hit the Rainiapolis/St. Pour area, I encountered a heavy rain storm that just dumped on me in the middle of very slow moving “returning home from 4th of July” traffic. On top of all that, I was trying to navigate to a specific exit with my GPS, which I couldn’t hear and could barely see. Very miserable experience.
The rest of the trip was dogged by rain. I discovered the hard way that my tent is not really rainproof and wound up setting up tarps over the top of the tent at each of the next several stops. If it wasn’t raining I was drying stuff out from the rain or trying to plan my routes around it. It basically monopolized a good portion of my trip.
I took in a baseball game at Miller Park in Milwaukee (my Giants were in town) which was fun. I saw a good deal of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), but I never made I into the lower part of MI. I was told by locals that there wasn’t much to see south of the UP anyway. The highlight of that area is easily the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline. Do the boat tour and schedule it for the afternoon for best photo opportunities.
I then spent a couple weeks touring around WI. 3 nights in Eagle River, 2 nights in Eden (near Fond du Lac) and 5 nights at a friend’s house in Delavan. I can say that experienced a true Midwest thunderstorm in Eden and I must say it was impressive. From Delevan, I had a disappointing day trip to Wrigley field.
WI is a beautiful State as a rule but few sights really stand out as being amazing. The people are great, the food was great and bountiful (huge portions!).
I ran into more rain on the way home and some very severe wind east of Reno on the way home. Other than the electrical issues, my bike ran like a champ and handled my 700 lb. trailer well, (How on earth did it get THAT heavy?!)
Overall, a very disappointing trip this year. With a couple of exceptions, pretty much a waste of 3 weeks of vacation. I did notch off a few new States and learned to not be afraid of riding in the rain.