What a crazy few months – from having fun last fall to dealing with cancer this year

Usually I don’t have to spend much time figuring out a title for this blog but I have had a range of emotions from one end of the scale to the other from last fall to today.

Rock crawling in St George, Utah

Rock crawling in St George, Utah










We were doing our usual rock-crawling thing last October and November in St. George, Utah and then Elephant Butte, New Mexico with the FMCA 4-Wheelers. Then in early January my life dramatically changed when diagnosed with prostate cancer, more about this later.

So we left off last time with the passing of our sweet Sassy the Corgi – we still often think of her and dearly miss her.  She was a very special pet and can never be replaced but after only three days, I couldn’t stand it any longer and we called the breeder in hopes of getting another Corgi as soon as possible.  Jamie was very understanding and we made the 120 mile trip to the Austin, TX area and looked at two possible doggie candidates to add to our family.  Jamie had Sarah, nine years old that she was willing to part with and then Luna, a three or four year-old female that Jamie was going to breed.

Sarah and Trekkie

Sarah and Trekkie

They were both sweet dogs, Sarah and I hit it off right away and Luna took to Jane.  We would have picked Luna since she was much younger than Sarah but she wasn’t going to be available for several months while she had and raised a litter so we left with Sarah as our newest family member to attempt to fill the void that Sassy left. Like people or even identical human twins, dogs have a distinctive personality and we quickly realized that Sassy and Sarah while Corgis on the outside were completely different on the inside.

Sassy loved to play fetch, Sarah not at all.  Sassy was always plastered right next to Jane while on a couch but Sarah is happy just being nearby.  Sassy was good off-leash and we could walk her off-leash on the ranch but unless Sarah is on a leash, she will immediately head for the nearest pile of poop for a quick snack. Differences aside, we love Sarah and have no regrets about bringing her home.  Oh, one thing Sarah likes to do that Sassy didn’t is riding in the Jeep.  Sarah is perfectly content to be with us while banging and crashing in the Jeep – Sassy hated that!  Jane and I have been toying with the idea of perhaps adding Luna to the family as well so Sarah can have a doggie buddy.

After a very fun fall we headed home for the winter but unfortunately winter beat us home and we had an extreme cold snap with several days of lows 20-25F mid-November.  This was hard on the antelope and we lost three or four babies and at least one adult, very sad to see an animal die especially a baby.

Atlas PV-10P lift

Atlas PV-10P lift

On a lighter note I made a major addition to the shop – a vehicle lift like you would see at a garage.  I enjoy doing all of the maintenance and upgrades on the Jeep and since it has a hard life (and I need to trust its performance) all of the fluids get changed every winter.  It’s not a simple engine oil change – I also change the differential and transfer case fluids and this year the transmission fluid.  While I enjoy the work, my body doesn’t and I couldn’t take lying under the Jeep and attempting to work on it any longer so I looked into buying a two post vehicle lift – drive the Jeep between the posts, position the lifting arms under the frame and push a button to lift the Jeep.

After quite a bit of research I decided to purchase and install an Atlas PV-10P 10,000 pound lift from Greg Smith Equipment in Austin, Texas.  Jane and I drove there, picked out a lift and accessories, had it loaded on my big trailer and off it went to its new home.  Installed it in about a week and immediately started using it- wow and wow.  It’s wonderful to stand under the Jeep and work on it now, so much easier and it is a bunch more fun.

Then the hammer fell.

I had a scheduled annual physical with my primary care provider at the VA and he noticed my PSA had risen from the high 3s to a low 4.  A PSA of 4.0 is generally considered a trigger point for further investigation, the Doc did a digital exam and said the prostate felt hard on one side and a urologist confirmed that.  Soon after I had a prostate biopsy and not so good news – cancer.  Mostly a low grade (Gleason 3+3) cancer but there was a lot of it on the left side.  Talk about a life-changing event – this was it for me.  Never in my life have I been confronted with such a serious health issue and even though I’m a Christian who believes in the gift of eternal life, I was worried and scared.

Fast-forward past research, investigation, wondering and worrying we were given a name of a prominent Urologist at the world famous MD Anderson Cancer center in Houston to consult with. After discussing the various options with John W Davis, M.D., we decided on a robotic assisted radial prostatectomy.  This consisted of Dr. Davis sitting at a console and remotely manipulating the tools at the end of the robot arms of the da Vinci machine for 2.5 hours.  Most prostates are small, about the size of a walnut and excising the gland is very difficult since it has critical nerve bundles on both sides and the urethra runs right through it.  (I’ve learned more about the prostate this year than I ever cared to know.)

Dr. Davis has performed over 2,000 of these procedures in the ten years or so the machine has been approved so thanks to his skill and experience he was able to spare some of those critical nerves.  Now begins another waiting game.

If subsequent PSA tests show a zero PSA, then the cancer is gone, if not I have some residual cancer cells left and I would most likely need a series of radiation treatments.  So we aren’t necessarily finished with the cancer beast, I pray so but time will tell.

For those who have prayed for me during this most difficult time, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I know for a fact prayers work and they did in this case.  Please continue to pray for me that I will have a zero PSA in the future and Dr. Davis excised all of the cancer.

Demolotion of the old carpet and tile

Demolition of the old carpet and tile











If all of this wasn’t enough to deal with, we made an appointment many months ago with Ernie Eckberg Remodeling and Repair in Weatherford, Texas to get all new flooring installed in the coach for the last two weeks of February.  Ernie is booked a year in advance so I wasn’t about to give up my appointment slot with Ernie even considering my prostate surgery – we would somehow make this work.  So we took the coach to Ernie and I stayed there for a week helping Ernie pull up the old carpet and chip up the old tile and then had to leave to make pre-surgery appointments at MD Anderson.  Since travel is still somewhat difficult for me, Jane and a girlfriend drove up to Weatherford yesterday and Jane will drive the coach home today – can’t wait to see it in person.

New flooring - driver's area

New flooring – driver’s area

All finished!  Beautiful!

All finished! Beautiful!

Spring and First Summer Update of 2014

After no appreciable rainfall since early October 2013, beginning this May the rains started in earnest and to date we have been blessed with almost 11 inches of rain (year total.)  Before the rain, the grass on the ranch was completely brown and we were afraid that more drought stress on the trees would push more of them into dying.  Just when we thought it was going to be another horrible year with no grass for the animals, God opened up the heavens and sent us what we almost constantly pray for – rain, glorious rain.  The pastures are green and the animals are looking very healthy and fat.

So that’s the big news of the month for us, there’s actually lots that have been going on with us and the critters, so let’s dig in…

We went to a nearby RV get-together with our San Antonio-based Winnebago club on a

3-23-2014 - baby Sunny is born!

3-23-2014 – baby Sunny is born!

mid-March weekend and returned home on a Sunday.  We were putting things away from the trip, looked out to the front pasture and there’s a BABY DONKEY.  WHAT?  We were wondering if the jenny was pregnant or just way over weight and thank goodness she wasn’t way overweight.  That’s the good news.  The not so good news is the baby is a boy and we will have to get it gelded later this year, oh well, we had a 50-50 chance of it being a jenny and not a jack.  But oh my gosh he’s cute and soft and literally growing like a weed.

Today we had our veterinarian make a ranch call to give the adult donkeys their booster vaccines, immunize the baby (“Sunny”)  for the first time and to worm all three.  Even though the donkeys were in a small pen, the Doc and I had our hands full trying to get a noose around the adults and then to grab and hang on to baby Sunny (the ‘baby’ is probably the size of a Great Dane dog but stockier).

Sunny is three months old here

Sunny is about two months old here

While we were trying to catch Moonpie (the yearling), I was standing with my arms outstretched trying to cut off his avenue of escape and he ran over me and knocked me to the ground, I got up and then the jenny ran me over about five seconds later and knocked me back down to the ground.  Good grief donkeys, calm down.  Doc, the donkeys and I were thrilled when the event was over and I could release the donkeys from jail, this was worse than trying to herd cats.  (They were penned up for a little over two days and the three of them ate an entire bale of hay, holy cow guys!)

So then in late April we point the coach/Jeep/us to the west and head for Moab, Utah again for an FMCA 4-Wheelers rally.  We’ve gotten to know lots of the people and really enjoy the

John on an overlook in Moab - it snowed on us (this is early May!)

John on an overlook in Moab – it snowed on us (this is early May!)

camaraderie and how well everything is organized and managed.  I’m now the club’s webmaster so I appreciate the confidence they have in me.  The club is growing at an exponential rate, we seem to add 20-50 new members every few months and the total membership now

Two desert flowers, Jane and the other kind!

Two desert flowers, Jane and the other kind!

measures about 400.

This is what a totaled custom Jeep looks like after a big oopsie

This is what a totaled custom Jeep looks like after a big oopsie

There was quite a bit of drama this year at Moab with three rollovers on the trails, well, actually one of them was a pitchpole backwards.  John Cox was climbing a very steep grade on the hardest trail in Moab and was backing up to reposition for another try and he went backwards down the grade, hit the bottom and flipped backwards (check out this video, he’s near the end.)  I know John and he’s an excellent driver, had an extremely well built and capable trail rig but things happen.  John only had a bump on the head and he’s okay but his completely custom built $100k 4 door Jeep is not okay.  The flip actually broke the Jeep’s frame and I just heard the insurance company totaled the Jeep, so John is having another Jeep built – I hope to see it this October when we return to St. George, Utah for more wheeling.

Me going down Wipe Out Hill

Me going down Wipe Out Hill

Then another guy (I know him fairly well) made a mistake on a hard trail (before the rally officially started) and wound up on on his roof.  Yikes.  He has no roll bar (bad mistake)

Pier rolls over but he's fine

Pier rolls over but he’s fine

– you can’t see from this picture, but the passenger side of the windshield is almost completely flattened.  Fortunately his wife was not with him or this situation could have resulted some serious injuries for the passenger.  The other rollover resulted in some relatively minor damage, I just talked to the Jeep’s owner and he expects to get it back from repairs very soon.

Here’s one video of me doing a couple of difficult obstacles:

On a less exciting note, I’ve been getting into some arts and crafts projects with the new

My copy of a cat made from sheet steel with a plasma torch

My copy of a cat made from sheet steel with a plasma torch

plasma torch (a Hypertherm Powermax45) and some other new tools (a midi lathe and scroll saw – a man can’t have too many tools.)  I’ve made some metal art from sheet steel and I’m having fun making whirligigs from some plans I purchased.  This fall and winter I’ll be crankin’ up the tools and will be making many more of each.

One of the whirligigs I made

One of the whirligigs I made

We head out early next week for the summer, first stop is Amarillo to have a fun July 4th with some dear friends, then we point the bus north to Forest City, Iowa for the Winnebago Grand National Rally, then we are going back to Montrose, Colorado for about five weeks to run around the San Juan mountains with our Jeep club there.

God Bless, do good work, and be kind to everybody (oh, and pray for our country – it needs it desperately!)

Wow, what a crazy fall…

We left off talking about our upcoming fall wheeling trip to Clayton, Oklahoma with some of the Rubicon Owner’s Forum guys and then we were headed west to St George, Utah for, you guessed it, more rock-crawling with the Family Motor Coach Association 4-Wheelers.

We only managed to run the trails in Clayton for half of one day (three days were planned)

I broke the front left axle u-joint at Clayton, OK

I broke the front left axle u-joint at Clayton, OK Here’s the work party.

– while making a small turn around a boulder the left front tire got a little bound up and for the first time ever on our Jeep, I heard the unmistakeable BANG that I’ve heard so many times in the past on other vehicles.  That particular BANG noise is almost always an axle and sure enough, it was our front left axle, in particular the u-joint which exploded.  Thank goodness the axle shaft itself didn’t snap as it can be very difficult to extricate the inner part out of the axle tube.  Spencer and Phillip were great and jumped immediately in to help (actually all I got to do was to drag out my tools) to pull the broken axle from the tube and insert the replacement.  Yes, we had a replacement available!  So after only 30-45 minutes, the Jeep was back on the trail but by then it was lunch time so we made the short drive back to the coach.

At that point I decided it was not a good idea to continue running our Jeep since the

Spencer's running the trail behind me.  Nicely set up Jeep on 42" tires.

Spencer’s running the trail behind me that first morning. Nicely set up Jeep on 42″ tires.

replacement axle was only original equipment and not high-strength so I was a passenger for the next 2.5 days.  That was an interesting experience and I can now appreciate what Jane has to endure being in the right seat most of the time; my neck was so sore after we were done here it took me several days to recover.  As the driver, I get to hold onto the steering wheel and our driver’s seat has a high backrest with a neck pillow for good support – wow did I miss my seat.  In the meantime Jane was quite content to stay on the coach and do whatever that she wanted to do without me in her hair.

And for another first, I experienced my first flop (rolling over on your side) – since I was a passenger I was a spectator for this interesting event.  Chris, the driver, started to climb this obstacle that required careful tire placement but he got a little off-line and we started to lean a little to the left, then a little more, and then a little more.  Now I’ve done this many, many times (get off-camber) and have a seat-of-the-pants feel for about how much to push the center of gravity envelope and there was that moment when I told myself “here’s where gravity takes control” and sure enough we flopped almost completely horizontal on the left side.

It was a bit strange being held firmly by the seat belt and shoulder belt while at about an 80° angle but I quickly adjusted to the new sensation.  Then the event moved on to the

I'm a passenger when the driver flopped on the left side.  Great fun!

I’m a passenger when the driver flopped on the left side. Great fun!

recovery phase which required Chris’s winch and that’s when Chris discovered his usually handy winch controller was behind his seat and that he couldn’t reach it, nobody from the outside could reach in since there was a mass of rock blocking that door and initially I couldn’t reach it.  There was no way I was going to try to unbuckle my seat belt since I would have fallen on Chris so I made a few more attempts to stretch out and finally I managed to get a finger and then another finger on the controller line and pull it out from its cave.  After that, recovery went quickly with an experienced crew on the outside setting up the winch line to an appropriate anchor point and Chris quickly pulled us upright with the winch (he can operate the winch from the driver’s position with the winch controller) and he drove out.  That was a way fun experience.

The weather forecast for the day we left Clayton for St George, Utah was rain which usually isn’t a big deal but a complicating factor was that we were set up on grass at the off-road park and were in a low area so we made plans to get out of that place as soon as possible in the morning.  We got up early and had the coach ready to move to a paved area in the nearby town at 7am where we parked and had a quick breakfast.  It rained almost all of that day which made for more careful than usual driving (which gets very tiring.)

After a two day detour at Williams, Arizona to rest up and eat a meal out we continued on to the SW corner of Utah where we arrived at Temple View RV Resort in St George.  For orientation, St George is about 110 miles north of Las Vegas.  We quickly discovered that St George was a very neat, clean and very tidy town probably due in no small part to the overwhelming Mormon presence there – they seem to have a very strong work ethic and hold many of the same values as we do.

We had an interesting time running the trails in the St George area – for the first time we

Little Sahara aka Sand Mountain OHV area

Little Sahara aka Sand Mountain OHV area – these dunes are very large!

had to drive on very large sand dunes (Sand Mountain Off Highway Vehicle area) and there was for sure a learning curve.  Some of the dunes were very steep with sharp break-overs which required a lot of speed to climb but if you go too fast, you could launch yourself right over the dune top and go flying for 20 feet or more.  Think of a large ocean wave – sort of like a “comma” turned on end with a shallow angle on the approach side of the “wave” and a steep drop-off on the backside of the wave.  If you don’t go fast enough, you don’t make it to the top of the dune, if you go too fast, things get way too exciting on the other side.

I volunteered to lead a hard trail and then like an idiot volunteered to lead one more hard trail, it didn’t take long to realize the folly of this.  After going on one pre-run (we run trails the week before the event starts) on a hard trail I realized these trail are really difficult and that first trail was obstacle after obstacle with no let-up.  It was intense wheeling and made more so because almost nobody had any experience with the trails in the area since this

Not a good position - Mike is on a bad line!

Not a good position to be in – Mike is on a bad line!

was the very first FMCA 4-Wheeler event here.  After we returned to camp I dis-volunteered (un-volunteered?) to lead that second trail. The next day we ran an easier trail which took the stress level down a few notches and then the following day we did a pre-run of the trail we were going to lead the following week.  That trail was on the list to be run on two different days so the trail leader for the second running was with us for the pre-run.

Even though we had a GPS track of the trail, it wasn’t precise enough to exactly figure out where the trail went in several areas so the girls walked ahead of us guys to scout out the

I'm trail leader on this trail later in the week and had to make this climb!

I’m trail leader on this trail later in the week and had to make this climb!

trail.  This trail (called Plan B for some reason – maybe Plan A didn’t work out) was difficult in places and very technical (requiring an outside spotter and exact tire placement.)  When we led the trail with the group (I limited the trail to 10 vehicles) it was overall a good day, nobody got into trouble but there was one mandatory hard obstacle where most of the group had to be winched over.  As trail leader, I go first and fortunately I got up and over without too much trouble.

Here’s another picture of us doing an optional obstacle on a trail called Milt’s Mile Extended (it was too short for an all-day trail) – this trail was a bunch of fun and we’ll look forward to running it again if we manage to get back to St George.

Me climbing an optional obstacle - this one was fun

Me climbing an optional obstacle – this one was fun

Here’s a video of that same obstacle:

Here’s another video of a steep optional climb – this one was fun:

So we had a lot of fun and got to know more of the FMCA 4-Wheelers folks, since this was only our third rally we are still learning faces and names.  Oh, we did have a little Jeep trouble while in St George.  We were lined up to run a trail and I noticed some coolant fluid on the ground under the engine.  After a little more investigation I decided this was a very bad coolant leak and it appeared to be coming from the vicinity of the water pump (which was the only part of the cooling system not replaced), so we pulled out of the line and drove the mile or so the the local 4×4 shop and dropped it off.  Sure enough the problem was the water pump.  Sigh.

After an event like this, it’s always sort of sad to see the party break up – there were probably 80 or 90 RVs at Temple View RV Resort which took up a majority of one section, then there were very few.  We left a couple of days later and headed to Phoenix to have some routine maintenance done on the coach at the Freightliner dealer and there was an oil leak around the coach engine oil pan that I wanted them to look at also.  We just finished breakfast when the service manager called me with some really bad news – the oil leak was caused by blow-by (excessive crankcase pressure) which could be caused by worn cylinder walls, cracked piston ring(s), or something wrong in the head like worn valve guides.  Then more bad news – we had to leave the coach there and repairs were going to take 3-4 weeks and repairs could cost $25,000 if they had to tear the engine completely down.


We were a bit stunned to say the least, the engine (Cummins ISL – 8.9 L) only has 89,000 miles on it and we were expecting 250k miles without any kind of significant engine issue.  After we recovered from that initial shock of the situation our energy was directed towards the logistics of getting us, the dog and cat and some essential stuff home to Texas to wait out the repairs.  Since there was no way we were going to drive our special purpose rock-crawler Jeep a thousand miles each way, we looked into renting a car for a one-way.  After calling a couple of rental outfits the price was a big put-off – they wanted $400-700 for a one way rental and the drop-off city was not going to be convenient.  So, we started thinking about the crazy idea of buying a car to drive home.

Actually we were planning on replacing the Jeep Liberty in the next 12-18 months so the idea wasn’t quite as crazy as you might think.  We already had a target vehicle in mind – a VW Jetta Sportwagen diesel.  Since we do so much driving, the Jetta’s outstanding fuel economy (45+ mpg) was a major attractor.  And wouldn’t you know it, there was a VW dealer about a mile away from the Freightliner dealer so we checked out Jettas and while we were there, drove the larger and somewhat more expensive diesel Passat.  After the test drives and thinking the idea over, we decided to see if we couldn’t make a good deal on a new or low mileage Passat.  The larger size of the Passat was a primary factor in choosing that model.

Always hating dealing with car dealers, this buying experience was no different – these guys are sharks and are always looking at how to shake you down for a few more bucks.  After enduring the ridiculous back and forth among us, the salesman, sales manager, and the general manager, we had a deal or so I thought, they tried to slip a $449 “Document Fee” past us.  “But everybody pays this.” Sorry bub – I’m not everybody, I did manage to cut that back by $200. Then the financial closer guy wanted to sell us an extended warranty.  Nope.  Not a chance – I had to cut him off from his canned speech.  So Jane had a new car and we had our own vehicle to drive home.  Hope I don’t have to go through that crap again for several more years.

Jane's new Passat TDI SEL

Jane’s new Passat TDI SEL(diesel)

We were home maybe two weeks when I called the Freightliner service manager and got a bit of good news, they pulled the head from the engine and the cylinder walls look good (not a broken piston ring) so the problem is in the head somewhere – probably the valve guides are worn (or possibly a bad valve).  They sent the head out for an overhaul and it was supposed to be delivered yesterday.  So hopefully the repairs will be nowhere near the $25k mark.

As a final note, we have had some very cold weather here in the Texas Hill Country – we

Our five seconds of fame - we have a picture on TV of our freezing rain

Our five seconds of fame – we have a picture on TV of our freezing rain.  This is the weather guy using a visual aid

have been below freezing for several days and have had freezing rain, ice pellets and a few snow flurries this morning.  As I type this, the sun has shown itself for the first time in six days.  I took a picture of some frozen rain and emailed it to a local TV station in San Antonio we watch a lot and to our complete surprise, the picture was shown on the five o’clock news three or four days ago.  We’re famous for about five seconds!

To all of our dear readers, have a blessed Thanksgiving!  We all have much to be thankful for and please always think of others:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… Matthew 25:35