10 May 2013

Upgrading from the Dodge Van to a 5th Wheeler

Flexibility is the key, being able to go with the flow, change your plans to suit new ideas and not go completely out of control while you are doing it!

The plan this year was to travel in the Dodge van we bought last year and see Canada and Alaska. We had booked a trip to Lake Clark in mid August to see the Grizzly bears hopefully catching salmon in the streams. When I started working out distances to include the Eastern part of Canada, I became a bit overwhelmed. So when Lindsay complained that I really really needed to start paint stripping our windows (something I had been putting off) I agreed. The was a reason why I didn’t book hotel accommodation in New York – because it turns out we won’t be going there this year after all.

Last year we enjoyed touring around the States so much that we decided we would pack our house up, rent it out and come over for a number of years. I checked with Google and the ATO as to how long you can rent your house out and not incur capital gains when you sell – it’s six years. If you want to extend that, you need to move back in, connect all your services, mail, join the electoral roll etc “for a reasonable period of time”. There was only one problem. Our house was in no condition to rent out. We knew the outside needed repainting for a number of years but had left it in the too hard basket. When Lindsay started looking at it more closely, we realized that all the old paint had to come off. Nearly every room had cracks in the walls, so they needed fixing and repainting. Before we knew it we were into stage three of the renovation we started a number of years ago.

The plan next year (2014) was to buy a truck and fifth wheeler (for those who don’t know that translates into a very very big ute and caravan that hooks into the back of the ute, not onto the tow bar).

We had left our Dodge van with some friends in Yucca Valley; which is about 4 hours east of Los Angeles. While there, Lindsay and Dale went shopping – it would be cheaper if they were into fashion! Dale wanted to check out the new Fords even though he said he really didn’t like them. They both decided the new F250 was amazing but Dale decided not to upgrade, which of course left it free for Lindsay to buy and with a $12k discount it was selling cheaper than the second hand models. It was last year’s model, but we didn’t care. It’s a silver Ford F-250, 4WD, 4-door, 4-wheel steering, diesel. The top of the bonnet is nearly at my shoulder, so no chance of washing the roof without a ladder. It’s big. We going to feel very cramped in our Disco when we get home.

our new truck
Before we could actually buy the truck we needed to set up our residency so that we could register it. Unlike Australia, the sales tax in each state is different. The States are not very united, they are more like The Independent States. We had done some homework last year and decided that South Dakota was probably the easiest place to set this up. The sales tax on vehicle purchases is 3% as opposed to California’s 8.75%. Insurance is much cheaper too. We had to set up a “residence” with a mail forwarding company and Lindsay had to get a South Dakota driver’s licence.

After paying a deposit, the plan was to go to South Dakota via Yellowstone. We thought we might look at 5th Wheeler’s on the way through Utah as we knew there was a Camping World there that had the model that we liked and had seen last year. We had a truck, but nothing to tow it right? I don’t like to decide on purchases like this straight away and our salesman was really good, not pushy at all. We contacted another dealer we had dropped into on our way from the airport to see what sort of price he would give us. He didn’t take us seriously at all, thinking that we were wasting his time. Big mistake.

We didn’t make it to Yellowstone. I had asked Lindsay to check when the campground we wanted to go to was to open and he just assumed that it would be the same as last year and told me the dates were the same, but they weren't; they had pushed it back a week due to unseasonal rains. We spent three days in the Grand Tetons in the rain and with the forecast for another week of rain before we could even head to Yellowstone, I suggested we go to South Dakota sooner than later. Being in our little van when it’s raining is not fun and we can’t cook, which means you have to go into town for every meal.
moose in Grand Teton
After another two full days driving we reached the mail forwarding office late in the afternoon. They liaise with a camping ground that will make up an invoice with your new “address” on which is one of the pieces of paperwork you need for the driver’s licence. You need a physical address, which is the mail forwarding office, with a mail box number, international driver’s licence and agreement with the mail forwarding people.

Lindsay was very stressed about having to do a paper and practical driving test 40 years after doing his first one. He had been reading up on the South Dakota road rules and had done some practice tests online, getting better each time. But some of the questions were a little ambiguous or just plain foreign to our way of thinking. He did a couple of tests at breakfast and had failed, but of course he didn’t tell me this. The waiting time to do the practical test in Sioux Falls was a couple of weeks, so we were advised to go to Brookings, some 100km away. Armed with all our paperwork we headed up there and Lindsay flied through the test, although he didn’t know how he was going because he didn’t notice until half way through that the screen told him at the top, whether or not he had answered correctly. The next hurdle was that they would only issue a licence in line with our i94 Visa. We have a five year visa, but each time we enter the US we have to fill in a form called the i94 which allows us to only stay for six months at a time. We then have to physically leave and they take out this form that is stapled in our passports, and I assume send it off to immigration so they can take us off their most wanted lists. So now we were being told that not only did we have to leave the country every six months, but we had to drive or fly to South Dakota to renew Lindsay’s licence in person. Not going to happen; way too hard. Seeing as we probably will be flying in and out of LAX, this would be a five day drive, one way. We got the licence anyway as this would allow us to register and insure our vehicles, then use an international licence. This has to be renewed yearly, but luckily the RACV had advised us before we went that if we left photographs and copies of our Australian driver’s licence with a friend, our friend could renew our international licence on our behalf and send it to us. So, so far so good.

Apart from the written test, Lindsay was also worried about having to parallel park, given that we are driving on a different side of the road that we are used to and for some reason he gets his left and rights mixed up over here. He didn’t want to drive our van so we hired a car for the day, and after the girl went over it with a fine tooth comb before he set off he decided to take out extra insurance which was double the price of actually hiring the car and I think our travel insurance would have covered it anyway. C’est la vie. I decided to stay with our van and catch up on some sleep and let him go by himself. He passed and then they asked for all our paperwork again, which of course was 100km away back with me in the van. So 200kms later we both took it back and they said, “oh, I’ve already copied all of this”. No kidding.

We then had to go 1,800 miles back to Yucca Valley to pick up and pay for our truck and it didn’t stop raining until we crossed into Colorado. On the way back Dee from Campingworld rang and said we could have the onsite model which had more features for the same price as a new one and we wouldn’t have to wait six weeks for it to be built, plus they agreed to most of Lindsay’s add-ons for no extra cost. It was a good deal, even the insurance lady was surprised with what we paid. Our camping was going to go to a whole new level. It’s the smallest Montana that they make so that we can get into the National and State parks and they have been North America's #1 Selling Fifth Wheel for 11 Consecutive Years.

When we got back to Dale and Shelly’s, there was this new silver truck outside their gate, positioned so that we would think it was ours. It wasn’t; while we were away, Dale had decided to buy the gas, non 4x4 version of our car, so now we were twins.

Trying to do an international transfer turned out to be a bit of a nightmare as they were trying to contact me on my Australian mobile which I didn’t know and it was turned off, so they cancelled my transaction. The time difference didn’t help, with the customer service team in the Philippines and the international transfer team in India, who incidentally don’t read their emails and no-one, even in the customer service team, is allowed to ring them. After contacting Australia half way up the line to god, the transfer finally went through.

So now both of us need new hitches put in our trucks and as soon as that is done we will pick up the 5th Wheeler

The next leg of our journey was to pick up our new 5th Wheel in Draper, just south of Salt Lake City in Utah. We planned to stay in a campground just passed Mesquite on the Virgin River. We stayed there a few weeks beforehand, so decided it would be a good spot to stop again. I knew it would be hot and suggested that we left a little later so that we could just eat and go to bed but as Dale and Shelly had air-conditioning in their trailer and a generator to make it work, it didn’t matter how hot it was. The forecast was for 46C (116F). We were the only ones in the campground; that should have been a warning!  We got there mid afternoon and went to put the air con on straight away, but the generator didn’t want to run in the excessive heat and died. Luckily the trailer was parked so that we got shade on one side and we spent the next few hours dousing ourselves with water, literally pouring it over us and the dogs. Shelly poured Gatorade over herself by mistake as it was in the same opaque container as the water! We were lucky if it dropped a few degrees overnight. The restrooms had an evaporative cooler in them, but it’s not exactly a place you want to hang out, and even these turned off at 10pm. We left early as we knew we had to be in Draper by 13:30 to go over the new trailer with the delivery staff and it was a five hour drive away.

now the truck has a trailer to pull
We actually arrived early and they weren’t ready for us, so we went off and got lunch, came back after the appointment time and they still weren’t ready. When we did go through everything, Lindsay noticed that there were only two batteries installed with covers on them hiding their identity. We had ordered 3 new Lifeline 125 amph at great expense so we wanted to make sure they were ours. We asked him to take off the covers and as suspected; these were not our batteries. When we had tried to pay for the batteries our credit card was rejected. It turned out that the computer fraud alert had kicked in when we bought something worth a few dollars in Walmart in South Dakota, and a $1200 battery sale in Utah and they shut our card down. Gotta love technology sometimes. They also hadn’t changed the mattresses over. We had a mattress custom made in California and shipped up the week before. The mattress that comes with the trailer is made out of recycled plastic milk bottles and is too uncomfortable to be sleeping on full time for the next five or so years, especially with Lindsay’s temperamental back. They found the mattress and batteries together in some storeroom. While the service guy installed the new batteries, we emptied all our stuff out of the back of our truck and into the trailer. How could we possibly have fitted all of this into our Dodge Van?!

The next couple of days were sorting out how to use our new home and buying all the extra bits and pieces we would need. Re-calibrating the self-leveling system as the bedroom door didn’t shut on it’s own. 

We were allowed, along with Dale and Shelly to stay in the trailer parking lot for the next two days to sort things out with power and water! When we hooked it up for the first time two days later, we realized that the suspension on our truck wasn’t good enough and had to install air bags to the rear wheels of our truck. Luckily a local tyre place could fit us in that day. 

We now have a freezer, which is pretty exciting when you are used to camping without one, so we stocked up at Costco with frozen chicken and vegies. The star purchase was $22 for a 10lb (about 5kg) pack of chicken fillets which would have cost over $50 at home. It will be interesting to compare the produce at the Costco in Melbourne to here when we get home.