7.1 Zen and the Art of Motorhome Maintenance

This is chores week—time to work on the Jolly Swag’s To Do List.

I put off projects that don’t cause immediate discomfort because everything involves something new, an unknown process, and some steps that are guaranteed to be frustrating. 

The anticipation of frustration is the real reason.  Some tiny thing that seems impossible will work its mischief on me:  one screw that is hidden behind wires and pipes, one nut that requires some metric socket I don’t have, or something that can be reached only by crawling under the coach and settling into a place where something sharp will be poking my shoulder blade.

Some jobs require one arm to be four feet long and have three elbow joints, some three-handed jobs are in a space where only one hand will fit, somewhere you can get the wrench on the nut with no space to turn it.  And no one told me I would become expert at holding a flashlight steady with my teeth.

From the beginning I treated this adventure as though I were sailing to the edge of the earth—out into the area on the charts where the cartographers sketched sea monsters and wrote: “here be dragons.”

Habits learned as an offshore sailor imprinted on my DNA lead me to invest in lots of tools, to study the operators’ manuals, and record the phone number of everyone knowledgeable about Safari Treks of my early 90s vintage.  There is no road service at sea.  Whatever breaks, you must fix with the tools and parts you have on board.

I have had masts fall down around my ears, rudders break off, and engines quit on lee shores.  I have sailed into areas that had 10-degree compass anomalies, and powered into six-knot currents with engines capable of six point one knots.  Well I know the poltergeists that accompany the adventure traveler.

I used to believe that nothing could happen on the road to a prudent driver that could be as catastrophic as what could happen at sea.  I still believe that, although not so absolutely.   

What I like about doing my own maintenance is the learning process.  Everything I do teaches me a little more, helps me diagnose future symptoms, permits me to service a piece of equipment that hasn’t had a lick since it left the factory, and replace things that are nearing failure.

I figure that every task earns me $20-40/hour.  Not super big money, but better than anyone else is paying me.  Shop rates were $135/hr in California and over $100 everywhere else.  It may take me five hours to do a chore that a shop does in an hour and change—for which they bill me for two hours.  When finished, I have skinned knuckles, blood somewhere from an unknown cause, and a reduced store of ancient biblical curses.  But I do get that feel-good moment when the workspace is tidy and the tools are returned to their boxes and stowed.  It occurs to me that it is too bad I don’t enjoy alcohol.  I don’t get to have an après job beer or glass of wine.

In the end, my sense of self-sufficiency ratchets up a notch, and that is as satisfying as the smoothest merlot that has ever crossed my lips.

14 Responses to 7.1 Zen and the Art of Motorhome Maintenance

  1. That’s great, AL! Wonderful . . . but it gives me pause before considering following your path onto the wide open road!

    • allevenson says:


      From the outset I wanted to be a minimalist across my whole life. Self-reliance at the industrial strength level, the reduction of possessions and expense, the increase of free time, and time to pursue the right side of my brain were goals.

      I have been more compulsive about this than most would try for.

      At the end of a year on the road, I felt like I’d just lived one of the happiest years in a life loaded with happy years.


  2. Colleen Rae says:

    Al, you sound like a learned mechanic and an experienced traveler both land and sea. I can well imagine your sojourns at sea have qualified you for your adventures in journeying the land. Not too much different, except for the tools and the landscape.
    With the Jolly Swag you COULD walk away if you had to. With a sailboat, swimming away is the best you could do.

    • allevenson says:

      I am not a natural mechanic nor an intuitive fixit man.

      Lots of tools, lots of books, and the phone numbers of a couple of encyclopedic pals, who have saved me thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, have made the difference.


  3. karen wittgraf says:

    Ahh, patience- that’s the ticket. I do not own that when it comes to anything mechanical. I can smile approvingly even when a child is acting out the Devil himself, or pretend to be interested when someone insists to tell me all of their troubles….but, opening a bottle of salad dressing is a defeat before i even begin and pounding a nail into the wall is an infantile attempt.
    This is where you and Jerry are comrades- he “fixes” everything- researches manuals, time is of no essence and cuts and bruises abound. I’ll keep my patience for children.

  4. D and A says:

    Makes me glad my Winnabego View is Deisel and get 16mpg at 65 mph. It is only 24foot but with the cost it should bet 25mpg. I haven’t drove it since last Sept. I plan a big trip this year AL. Oh, is DIRK WALES written up anywhere in your BLOG. You know I am working with him right?

  5. Al,
    Nice to read your prose my friend. Happy New Year we sure hope that it brings joy and happiness to you out there on the road.

    Let me tell you how you become a PHD at equipment maintenance and repair, no it isn’t boats they just sink if you don’t do something right. Own a ranch, now that is a sense of fear and elation when you finish a plumbing job on the artesian well that doesn’t quit running EVER while you are trying to fix a leak. Al it is the most fun I have ever had in my life, and I do have a beer when the job is complete and the tools are put away. Patty and I may sell this ranch some day and when we do I going to include all the tools, the next guy will need them and I don’t want him to have to go out and find them and buy them like I did. Chain Saws (3) wood splitter, air compressor and air tools, two tractors (one is a big 4×4) and a New Holland skid steer with multiple attachments. If we didn’t have these tools we (us old folks) would not be able to keep up with sunpassranch.com but it also helps to have a 43 year old Native American working for us five days a week. He has done so many projects with me and by himself that Patty and I could never have completed that it is just amazing.
    Enjoy my friend come and spend time at our place, see Crater Lake and more. We still have eight horses.

    • allevenson says:

      Your apprenticeship on the Sailmaster 47 gave you a taste of keeping things afloat. Now you have a barnful of equipment.

      I keep my invitation to Sunpass Ranch in a cool, dry place.

      This year through October belongs to the east coast. By then I need to decide where to spend the winter. AZ has a slight edge right now although I have enjoyed Florida. If I winter in AZ, and if I can still afford to start the engine on the Jolly Swag, I will head for Oregon in the spring of ’13. I wont be there in time for your 65th but I will raise a glass on jan 18th.

      Hug to Patty.

      See ya

  6. April Edsberg says:

    Your humor is delightful; I like your attitude.

  7. Dave L says:

    Nice rhythm, good pace, Well said, the envy of poets and no doubt Mr. Pirsig.

  8. D and A says:

    Al, you didn’t mention what these jobs were. Water pumps, Grey and Black water lines? The drawers, taps, and fridge falling down, that is possibly it. At least you don’t sink from leaks now. Watch out for front end alignment problems because they will wear out those front tires fast. Tread wear patterns are important. I let the radiator run dry too many times and that led to 54 days in Mohave Desert completely rebuilding the engine. All the tools were there to use plus a talented helper but that was a scary time. We had no money and nowhere else to live. You get motivated when it is your only home. We now have lived in this RV for all but one year of our married life. Since 1999. Now though it has sat in a lot since the fall of 2006. No maintenance do to bumpy roads and I drive the 08 View. Love your BLOG AL. Never miss it.

  9. tanya grove says:

    Good for you, Al, for turning even the mundane and necessary into beautifully written, highly readable prose. Speaking as one who barely knows which one is the Phillips screwdriver, I enjoyed reading your account of motor home maintenance. And that last sentence is one I never imagined I would say…

  10. Colleen Rae says:

    I’m like-minded with Tanya in that I don’t know a wrench from a chisel, but you made the maintenance of your RV interesting with your prose. Ratchets and hatchets and cutters – oh my!

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