Archive for March, 2015

BigBlue’s Rebirth…

So there I was having coasted into the Diamond Desert Casino vast parking lot at about 8pm. It was too late to call AAA, so I just did my nightly routine and crawled into bed knowing that I’d give them a call in the morning and had all the time in the world to wait for their arrival.

BigBlue at Chiricahua National Monument

BigBlue at Chiricahua National Monument sign in the southwest corner of Arizona. Her last off-road adventure before her transmission broke.

Right at 8:00 am sharp the next morning I gave my AAA Premium Plus Membership number a call and within an hour a flat-bed tow truck was pulling up beside me asking where I would like the van towed within a 200-mile radius for free. That worked out perfectly, because my brother Kenny lives 140 miles away up in Phoenix!

red do nothing button

A button that was seen at Chiricahua Visitor Center underneath the informational video about Cochise County. Cracked me up! But thankfully, calling AAA’s Premium Plus membership for service was nothing like this button…they had a tow truck at BigBlue’s side within the hour…for free!

Jim from Bronco towing was my driver and I learned a lot from him about truck driving and Arizona living and how much it normally costs to get a tow (let’s just say there is no way I’d have been towing it to Phoenix at $3/mile!).

BigBlue on tow truck

Looking like the end of the road for Bigblue…Jim getting her up on the trailer to haul her 140 miles to my brother Kenny’s house.

Jim dumped me off in my brother’s driveway on Ash Wednesday. The next day my brother towed me to the mechanic he uses and the following day I received the bad news of BigBlue’s health…needs a new transmission which would cost $2800. It would be her 4th one. (2001 wasn’t Chyrsler/Dodge’s best transmission year!).

harris hawk

A Harris Hawk…James Audubon named it after one of his contributor’s and friends. Seen in New Mexico.

She’s got 205k on her and a few other idiosyncrasies (no a/c, tailgate hydraulics don’t work, front driver door handle doesn’t work from the inside, the van doesn’t fully lock, headliner is held up by 100 thumb tacks, exterior is peeling, front interior lights don’t work, headlights are incredibly dim, washer wiper fluid doesn’t squirt, the multifunction switch doesn’t work [ie, no intermittent wipers nor auto stopping in the end of the loop cycle by the wipers], etc) but I sure have bonded with her, imperfections and all! But dumping nearly $3,000 into her…doesn’t seem like it would be the wisest thing to do.

BigBlue at Sunset

Perhaps it is the end of the day for BigBlue with her quoted $2800 (plus an additional $800 for engine mounts) restoration costs. It was looking like BigBlue and I were going to have to suffer a heart-breaking severance 😦

So we all started shopping online used car lots while my brother Kenny drove us up to Flagstaff for my nephew’s First Year Student Awards ceremony for the weekend (which my parents were joining us as well on their way back to St. Louis from Los Angeles)!

Austin's awards at NAU

Proud of my nephew Austin making a 3.5 or higher during his first year at NAU in Flagstaff. Here he is with his family and my mom and pop (I’m the photographer!)

Dining at the 1899 Bar and Grill

We had a lovely dinner at the swank 1899 restaurant in our own private room to celebrate Austin’s award. Starting in the lower left: Austin, Ken, Julianne, me, Karolena, Pop, Mom, Hank, Colton

After a weekend of good times up at Ft Tuthill Recreation Center, and driving through gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon with my folks, I posted to my extended family and facebook friends to see if anyone knew of a good-running-camping-clunker. There were several affordable (ie, 1,500-3,000) vehicles out there which my brother, sister-in-law, mom and dad all weeded through.

Mom and I at Oak creek Canyon

It looks like I’m pontificating about something (or karaoking!) while my mom and I stand in front of some of the beautiful landscapes at Oak Creek Canyon on our way to Phoenix from Flagstaff!

Then my oldest brother (ie, not Clay who I left in Houston, nor Kenny who was housing me in Phoenix, but Danny who lives in St. Louis!) texted me and said he’d loan me his “Blue” for the remainder of the trip and I could just give it back to him when I was done! Now “Blue” has her own idiosyncrasies! She is a manual GMC 1996 Sierra pick up with a small camper shell on the back (but has cruise control!) that gets 14mpg on the highway. She has 320k on her! She is not totally waterproof (but close)!

Dan's big blue

My brother Danny offered his “Blue” to help me finish the rest of the trip. It really would have made a good storyline if nothing else! She has 320k on her and apparently she loves to camp and get further into the wild terrain (4wd!). What a sweet brother I have!

So with that bit of information, I was going to ride home to St. Louis with my folks and pick her up and drive her back out here to outfit her with the setup from the van. That was the plan. But the next morning my pop woke up and said, “I think we should call around and see if we can find a cheaper transmission.” So we placed a few calls and found one for $1300. And so we towed her to A to Z Transmission shop. That was the course of action we took and my pop fronted the money.

Dad and I at Oak Creek of the few times we could get him to pull over and take in the sites!

Dad and I in front of the bluffs at Oak Creek Canyon. We had wanted to get on hwy 17, but with mom and I navigating, we found ourselves on the slower, more beautiful and scenic 89A through Oak Creek Canyon!

Meanwhile, back in Houston, the IRS came a knocking. My brother Clay helped me with the run-around of that situation. My brother Danny was giving up his long loved pickup truck with guaranteed tech support whenever (and where ever) I needed it. And my brother Kenny was towing me hither thither and yon and housing me (not to mention creating a whole new bed liner for me in my van!). And my mom and dad fronted the transmission. I know that once I get to Pennsylvania, my sister will be doing up something just as sweet. I sure have a great family!

succulent star

Succulent Star (until I get a pic of the new wood interior liner my brother Kenny and niece Karolena designed and built for me!)

So BigBlue and I will be hitting the road starting Monday the 16th. Arizona is going to take a long while. I will be heading back down to Saguaro National Park in Tucson, and then hitting all the other many national park areas in Arizona before heading to California and get to hook up with some more great family members!

Lein Family 1980

Lein Family probably somewhere around 1980. Back: Lori, Clay, Ken, Dan. Front: Mom, Dad and me

I am feeling very, very blessed!

Vonnegut quote on Chiricahua mountains

At the top of Chircicahua Mountains National Monument…with a rather interesting quote from Vonnegut added. This has been an interesting and bizarre several weeks of “travel” plans!





New Mexico to Old Transmission…

Well, hopefully this post will take us through New Mexico and into Arizona before the subplot, to the main plot, overshadows the picture!

road runner picture

Road Runners are prevalent in west Texas and New Mexico…and they are usually running on the road, or across it! They can get up to 20 mph even while running. Beep! Beep!

As I mentioned in the last blog, on my way to Guadalupe Mountains National Park (which contains the highest peak in the confederate south) my check engine light went on with codes for battery and transmission. I purchased a new battery, but pressed on regarding the transmission!

bigblue and el capitan

BigBlue approaching Guadalupe Mountains National Park on hwy 54. The face of El Capitan in seen in the center.

I only spent a day at Guadalupe Mountains/Coral Reefs (though I hope to come back one week and hike all 85 miles of hiking trails available).

Walnut Canyon Road

The winding Walnut Canyon road that leads up to the entrances of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. There are 120 caves with the largest section called “the Big Room” which can hold over six football fields and contain the Gateway Arch!

And then proceeded up to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, that has 120 known caves, crossing the Texas/New Mexico border. There is lots of free places to camp for free in this vast dry land.


New Mexico merits another visit, as there is so much to see in this state. I settled for a few sites, the first being the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. But the drive through it was ruggedly…enchanting!

After getting BigBlue outfitted with a new battery I headed up through the Lincoln National Forest (gorgeous scenery and with snow atop of the summits) towards White Sands National Monument.

Lincoln Ntl Forest

View from the heights of Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. This is the birthplace of Smokey the Bear!

The White Sands National Monument are exceptional wind-designed sand dunes of fine gypsum crystals. It is the largest gypsum field in the world (truth be told, it is the only gypsum field I have ever heard of!)

BigBlue at White Sands

BigBlue at White Sands National Monument at sunset looking towards the San Andres Mountains…the roads have to be plowed daily! Try googling an image of this monument from space…it is really amazing!

Pure as snow and just as fun to sled on! The basin is surrounded by various mountain ranges (San Andres, Sacramento, Organ, Guadalupe) making for a very beautiful panoramic view!

Deb at White Sands

Here I am at White Sands National Monument. The sand dunes have an incredible wave-like design to them…almost hate to walk on it and ruin the pattern. The dunes can move up to 30 feet per year!

Continuing westward, I crossed bythe newly established National Monument by Obama last May. Organ Mountains—Desert Peaks national Monument. A lot of Air Force and lunar testing occurred here as well as Billy the Kid and Gerinomo each having at one time or another calling it home.

White New Mexico snake

Zoom lens is responsible for the snapshot of this critter. Though I appreciate snakes I try to avoid cuddly situations! I don’t know what kind this is.

I was actually trying to find Prehistoric Trackways National Monument which is where several fossils have been discovered. But it is not an established area and so lots of four-wheeling is required. No problem, I have four wheels on this old minivan!

BigBlue with Organ Mountains in background

BigBlue trying to find the Prehistoric Trackway National Monument with the Organ Mountains National Monument in the background! Pictures fail at doing the scenery justice!

But alas, the terrain compelled me to turn back (actually to reverse out at a high speed because the sand was quite deep—too deep to turn around in). There is so much more to see in New Mexico, but I set my sites towards Arizona!

AZ state line

I took Interstate 10 from Las Cruces, NM to AZ state line (I’ve usually try to avoid the interstates). As a result the State sign didn’t have a safe place to pull over and get a pic of BigBlue next to it! So I just took a snap while driving by it!

Talk about a state with lots to see—welcome to Arizona! The weather is great (the rest of the nation seemed to be covered in snow!) and the scenery is vast and beautiful.

BigBlue on lonely AZ road

Here’s a picture of me in BigBlue as we travel the backroads to get to Fort Bowie National Historic Site and Chiricahua National Monument.

My first stop was towards Ft Bowie National historic Site quite a ways off the beaten path near Willcox, AZ. It afforded a great hike and an educational visitor center. But I just don’t know what to make of the Indian vs Military battles. They tried to present the data from both sides, but…

BigBlue at Ft Bowie sign

BigBlue at the Fort Bowie National Historic Site sign. To get to the visitor center is a 1.5 walk which is exactly where the ruins from the old outpost stands.

Established in 1862 in response to John Ward’s ranch being raided by someone… the Apache Pass became the focal point of military operations eventually culminating in the surrender of Geronimo in 1886 and the banishment of the Chiricahuas to Florida and Alabama.

spiraling sectional succulent

This was in someone’s garden. I believe this spiraling sectional succulent is actually from South Africa. I found the geometry and pattern of the whole thing quite mesmerizing! My niece has made me a little more aware of the beauty of these desert plants!

Continuing along the Apache Pass dirt road for about 30 miles is the Chiricahua National Monument full of extensive vertical rock formations in southeast Arizona—very reminiscent of Bryce Canyon with all the hoodoos. Beautiful rocks, mountains, views and streams.

BigBlue at Chiricahua National Monument

BigBlue reflecting some of the vertical mountains (hoodoos) found in Chiricahua National Monument range. This park had 17 miles of beautiful day hikes in the midst of gorgeous weather!!

After finishing up at those mountains I headed westward towards the Tucson Mountains and Saguaro National Park. Because of leaving Chiricahua rather late, I was just going to stay at the Diamond Desert Casino parking lot (they let folks stay there for free…generous, eh!?) which is 5 miles south of the parks western entrance.

succulent center

Another succulent photo (because I neglected to take one of the Desert Diamond Casino near the Tucson airport!)

The sun was setting and I was just a mere 0.5 miles away from my destination on Valencia Road when all of a sudden, the transmission stopped working! The RPMS were increasing, but the van just started coasting as if in neutral. Thankfully, all other power (steering, brakes, etc) continued working. And thanks be to God, I had enough acceleration left to get me all the way to the casino’s parking lot at a prime spot!

shoes in white sands

Me in my shoes at White Sands, but I put the picture here because I’m wondering if I’m going to have to walk the remaining 20,000 miles of my trip with BigBlue out of commission! But thankfully, I have AAA premium membership! I’ll tell more of that story in the next blog, God willing!

I went into the casino to use the restroom and have a look around and thought it wouldn’t be worth my while to break my 48-year-long record of not gambling on an evening when it looked like my “luck” was running low! (Besides, it was Ash Wednesday, seemed like it would turn the observation of Jesus’ fasting on its head if I started then!)

black tailed prairie dog

So like this black tailed prairie dog from New Mexico (whose tail is not really so black), I said my prayers and snuggled down for the night in a very secured and patrolled parking lot at the Diamond Desert Casino!

But in all truthfulness, the Lord was very gracious and had my circumstances so well taken care of. It was late, and I had my home with me. So I just called my brother in Phoenix to see if I could get my car towed to his place. Once he confirmed BigBlue and I could crash at his place, I crawled into my cozy bed, read, wrote, and snuggled down for a very marvelous sleep. What a blessing it was knowing that all I had to do in the morning was call AAA and utilize the great Premium Plus membership purchased back in May (200-miles of free towing!).

bigblue on tow truck

Jim getting BigBlue up on the Bronco tow truck as we travel together from Tucson to Phoenix! Love 200 free miles of towing from AAA Premium Plus!

My next blog entry will, DV, recount the marvelous way that whole situation has been taken care of, so that in about 3 days I will be back on the road again.

red flowers

Two cute little minimalistic red flowers…buddies!