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