A Nomad’s Work is Never Done

My list of completed projects is long. I’ve installed a new towing kit, replaced leveling jacks (to avoid being stranded in a wildlife refuge, an effort I often wonder why I pursued), changed out the house batteries after a near fire (maybe or maybe not self-inflicted), performed maintenance on the generator, engine, and much, much more.

A steady need for “bush fixes” and maintenance can take a considerable amount of time. RVs are complex, highly specialized bundles of plumbing (water and propane), electric (auto and household voltages) all crammed atop a diesel chassis. Stuff will go wrong. You need to be ready to fix anything miles and miles from nowhere.

Why? Shops specializing in RVs often require scheduling weeks in advance, no good if your RV is your home. Mechanical issues in remote places mean costly house calls. Not being handy will easily price you out of the nomad life in either time or money. You’ve got to surrender to the Nomad credo of self sufficiency and DIY.

Like recently. When I had to shovel the roof.

A freak October snowstorm chased us 1300 miles south from Montana, catching up right outside Santa Fe. The front retained enough Arctic chill to coat the desert with several inches of autumn snow. Cold temperatures the following week meant a slow, muddy melt. But the snow on the roof of our motor home’s slideout refused to budge. The powder would melt slightly during brisk daytime temperatures and refreeze at night creating an insulated, icy pond.

With our departure only days away, I couldn’t bring in the slide. So there I was, on my hands and knees with a camp shovel, breaking through layers of ice and snow and wrestling them off the roof.

This wasn’t our first brush with bad weather. Avoiding seasonal extremes is another part of the nomad life, but sometimes you get caught off guard. Just last year, while camping in the Ozarks, we’d been forced to confront a sudden dip into single digit temperatures.

Fun fact: around nine degrees Fahrenheit, a typical RV water pump stops functioning.

Our campsite had a water connection. This usually means the water flow from the spigot provides the pressure for your plumbing. No need to use the onboard water pump. But as the temperatures plummeted, we unhooked the water hose and chose to rely only on our storage tank. 90 gallons of freshwater, but no working pump meant no way to access it.

I’d intended to spend the day exploring the nearby Mark Twain National Forest. Seven hundred and fifty miles of trails, named for an American literary icon, how could a wandering author resist?

Showers, though, are important in a small, enclosed space.

The following morning I made an hour-long drive to the nearest town and bought a roll of insulation along with two work lights. I lined the water compartments, pointed the lights at the plumbing and pump, and placed a temperature gauge inside to monitor the situation.

Freeze-proofing the water bay.

The fix kept us above freezing and became part of our severe weather standard operating procedure.

No hiking accomplished, of course. (And yes, I’d hike in freezing temperatures.) So score another one for the toil of the nomad’s life. Sometimes, though, sometimes, you want it be easy. Take a break for once. Let somebody else worry about your problems.

When our Jeep needed an oil change, I decided to do just that. Credo be damned, I’d let someone else get their hands dirty.

With an auto parts store across the street and a private spot at the campground, I could’ve done the job myself. But coming off the lengthy, involved, three day project (see the photo below), I was looking for an easy way out. That’s how a national quick-lube chain got my business.

The tow package install mid-project. Should’ve changed the oil while I was at it…

I smelled burning oil for weeks afterward.

We towed our Jeep through two states before stopping long enough to notice the odor. Under the hood I found a slick worthy of Exxon Valdez. The mechanics managed to dump who knows how many quarts inside the engine compartment. The slick dribbled down to the transmission and on to the exhaust, the source of the burning smell.

Living at a fixed address provides one thing most Americans have gladly sold their souls for: convenience. In our old neighborhood, I always went to my favorite mechanic. If they made a mess, I’d just drive a few blocks and they’d clean it up, same day. A few hours lost at most.

Our first stop in Colorado offered no chance to deal with the sludge. Camping in a national forest, I wasn’t about to rinse off the engine there. And since we were dry camping (no utilities, just our onboard water, propane, and portable solar panel), water for cleaning was scarce. The local car wash shut down due to freezing overnight temperatures. We made it all the way to New Mexico before I had a chance to deal with the sludge.

A careful rinse at a car wash forty-five minutes from our remote campsite didn’t solve the problem. When I got back to the campground, oil still dripped from the undercarriage. A leak? I couldn’t tell. The oil level looked good on the dipstick. I needed a jack or a lift to get a better look. I was running out of options.

I’d broken the Nomad credo of self-sufficiency. The price would be paid.

I found a mechanic in the nearest one-street town twenty miles away. Vehicles overflowed the gravel lot. Would he even have time? Locals probably got preferential treatment. I’d likely get charged an outrageous fee for what amounted to an engine shampoo. Who was I to argue given the situation? I dropped the keys off and he said he’d take a look.

While waiting, I wandered the quiet streets of the former (and possibly still) frontier town. I went to the ATM and got out a wad of cash, anticipating a hefty bill. I stumbled across the library on the way. A table of free books out front begged for a home. Minimalist promises? Might as well ignore those too while I was on a roll. I took one.

I found a local diner and sat down for a cup of coffee and a meal. Post-pandemic, I’d forgotten how much I missed that simple pleasure. Greasy food and a bottomless jolt of caffeine stirred the muses. I forgot about the inconvenience and the looming service bill. I wrote an article, let my pandemic guard down, the only customer in the place.

The mechanic finished a couple of hours later. Nomad gods smiling down, none of the worst-case scenarios came true. He charged a more than fair price for his time, suctioning out oil from places I couldn’t have easily reached. No real repairs, he verified there hadn’t been a leak, just a sloppy job done two states away. His wife laughed at my engine shampoo joke.

I drove home under a spectacular sunset framed by distant peaks. Smiling, I picked one to conquer in the coming days – but only after I’d fixed the pantry and installed some LED lights so we could see stuff in the waaay back.

I hadn’t broken the credo at all. Far from an inconvenient mess, the ordeals and the lengthy toiling simply become part of the adventure. New experiences, new places, new faces, a few risks taken along the way – that’s the life I’ve chosen, the nomad life.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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