JUNE 2017. Barreling down I-15 at 80 mph, “Harrison Ford” the 1998 Pleasure Way motorhome carried the Alzheimer’s victim southward, a product review being the farthest thing from the driver’s mind.
Truly. I was a whole lot more concerned with the van’s handling properties. “It’s pretty squirrely,” I advised my wife, referring to the vehicle’s tendency to wander all over the road like a wayward child escaping the leash at your local shopping mall.
Pam didn’t need to be told. “I can feel it. I’m just glad you’re a former big rig driver.”
She had a point. Any pro driver worth his or her salt has had to deal with eighteen wheelers sporting a variety of problems and requiring high levels of awareness at the wheel, sensing the interface between rubber and road, quick reaction times, and even sheer athleticism. This Harrison Ford beast was one of those you herded more than drove.
Which should not have been the case, but then we shouldn’t have needed the camper built on a Ford Econoline van chassis in the first place. Sierra Vista, Arizona, was still nearly 1,300 miles away, the trip only necessary due to a serious lack in western Montana’s medical community. (That lack being a lack of courage, lack of competence, a lack of ambition, or maybe all three.) No Big Sky Country medical practitioner wanted to even touch Pam’s highly complicated and pain-management-required-among-other-things case. Result: We have to tote her south, nearly to the Mexican border, every other month, just to see her Arizona doctor.
And after fighting a dozen different problems in her body and mind for nearly nineteen years now, she can no longer handle making that bimonthly odyssey in a small vehicle. Hence the purchase of Harrison Ford, so named because (a) it is a Ford and (b) I seem to keep running up and down Harrison Avenue in Butte, Montana, chasing parts and information.
Pam could move around inside as she needed, her body never able to stay in one place for very long without suffering even more than usual. To allow that movement, our luggage (and her power scooter) were trailing along behind us in a small 5′ x 8′ trailer. My wife could rest on the bed in back (a “power sofa” in the “down” position with layers of gel foam added for extra padding, a sheet, a blanket, and of course pillows)…or shoehorn her tiny body into the even more miniscule toilet stall…or ease on up and belt herself into the shotgun seat for a while, watching the world go by.
Harrison had received some TLC since its purchase two months earlier, too. A title snafu had been straightened out. Cracked windshield replaced. Worn ball joints replaced (all four). New radio installed. And the driver’s seat…wow. You know how newer vehicles have the headrests all curving forward, forcing the victim out of any semblance of erect posture, pushing the human head down so you end up resembling a sheep hunting for grass on the ground? Yeah, well, I don’t accept that; it’s one of roughly one thousand reasons I will never again buy a new vehicle. So I’d removed the seat, sawed the headrest completely off, and had a Butte upholstery shop recover the raw top end. It’s old school now, no headrest at all, though there is a slightly padded wall back there in case of a good, resounding crash.
Which the Pleasure Way has obviously been in, possibly more than once, but more about that later. This was our first real shakedown cruise. I could handle the nutty squirrel on the road, though I was going to end up with forearms like Popeye.
On and on we drove.
And then Pam decided to give herself a concussion.
Okay, so it wasn’t a conscious decision. She’d come up from the back, was about to sit down sideways in the shotgun seat, then turn forward, enjoy being with me for a while. But instead of sitting down and then relaxing…she let go while her butt was still a good eight inches above the seat.
It was partly my fault. One of my buckskin work gloves had made its way over there. When her bare foot felt that, she may have slipped or possibly may have jerked her foot up in reaction. Whatever the case, her derriere came crashing down on the edge of the seat. Her upper body flew backward, across the seat area, the back of her little punkin head bouncing rat-a-tat-tat against the shoulder belt mount bolt cover.
So now I had a redhead with a concussion or close to it–certainly a whopper of a headache, complete with multiple lumps–and we were finally realizing just how dangerous the Pleasure Way was to drive. Not just being thrown sideways by turbulence from passing vehicles. Much more than that.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are numerous forums online discussing this very thing. Even new from the factory, Pleasure Way motorhomes are notorious for being squirrely on the road…and the company makes it quite clear they don’t give a rat’s bony bottom about you the consumer, either. But I didn’t think to check online forums until last night (Sunday), after we’d gotten back home to Deer Lodge, Montana. Some Pleasure Way owners have solved the problem(s), but only with the application of aftermarket solutions.
My habit on these runs is to cover roughly 800 miles before stopping for two or three hours of sleep during the wee hours of the following morning after departure, then arrive at the destination (hotel or home) by midafternoon. We made it to the Windemere Hotel in Sierra Vista by 2:00 p.m., checked in, unloaded what needed to be unloaded, unhooked and parked the trailer, and chilled out as best we could.
By this time, I knew the handling problems inside out and also knew what had to be done immediately to hopefully correct the situation. The problems:
1. Harrison Ford pulled to the left, not hard but steadily, enough to make it clear wheel alignment was needed.
2. The Bridgestone tires had lots of tread left but might be contributing to the problem; nobody in our family likes Bridgestone.
3. Under medium severe braking at highway speeds, the van tried to dive so hard to the right that the steering wheel has to be forcefully manhandled–and I do mean forcefully–to even keep the vehicle in the proper lane…which meant a full panic stop to avoid hitting a deer would be out of the question; I’d just have to smack the critter (and there are always deer on that run, and sometimes elk).
4. Applying even moderate braking at highway speeds produced heavy shuddering until the vehicle stopped completely.
5. The beast wallowed like a drunken whale in heat, bouncing Pam on that back bed (whenever she chooses to lie there, which is often) like so much popcorn on a hot skillet. Bad shocks.
On our “free day” in Sierra Vista, Eric at Jack Furrier’s Tire shop in Sierra Vist (AZ), tells me, “Fred, you don’t need new brakes.”
I snapped. “Don’t tell me I don’t need new brakes!”
Furrier’s is my favorite place to buy tires in the entire world. Over time, I’ve purchased a lot of rubber there. Eric and his crew are always looking out for the customer, so if something doesn’t look like it needs replacement they don’t usually replace it, but it didn’t take long for me to make it clear what I was requiring. “I need it stripped down to the bones and taken from there,” I said, realizing that perhaps I hadn’t explained my thinking very well at first. “New rotors, new drums, new brakes, new shocks, new all weather tires good for the snow in winter, and alignment, and every part the best you can lay your hands on.”
Eric got it. In fact, he’d shown me just how bad the tires were. “See this four digit number at the end here?” Indicating the raised lettering on the side of one of the Bridgestone tires, he pointed out, “This 1002 is a code for which year the tire was produced. These tires have been on here since 2003!”
Since we were nearing September of 2017…yeah. Definitely time for new rubber. In the end, Furrier’s installed Bosch rotors for the front brakes (used most commonly for cop cars in the area) and new drums with fleet (commercial) grade shoes in the back. The Monroe Magnum shocks gave them fits, but they finally got them installed.
The toe-in (which way the vehicle’s front wheels are aiming down the road) was way off.
Manual specification: 0.
Left wheel: 11/32 of an inch toed in.
Right wheel: 1/4 of an inch toed in.
I inspected the old parts. They looked and felt just fine; the problems were not something a visual inspection could detect at all.
Out of the shop on new B.F. Goodrich aggressive-tread tires, the improvement was obvious. In town, Harrison Ford was now fun to drive, very nimble, responsive, no shudder on braking, no bad-shock wallowing. Yay!
Of course, the real test would be the open road.
In the meantime, Pam’s post concussion syndrome was hammering her with a vengeance. She never lost consciousness or the ability to speak clearly, but the headache was frequently ferocious and whenever she ate a decent sized meal, it came right back up an hour or two later. Still, she was enjoying the staff at the Windemere. The hotel’s people have always taken good care of Pam, allowing me to rest or run errands with no worries while they escorted her back to her room if she needed an arm to lean on, made special little meals for her in the restaurant, the works. The place isn’t perfect, but the people are; we wouldn’t stay anywhere else. Or so we thought at the time, not knowing that management would eventually get on our “never again” list after firing one of the most helpful housekeepers for “fraternizing” with the customers–and naming my wife as one of those customers. Gr-r-r.
Meanwhile, blissfully ignorant of what was to come, Pam was buzzing around in her scooter like crazy, having a blast with that, even on the “TURTLE” setting.
APPOINTMENTS DAY. Not only did Pam’s favorite hairdresser get her a great do, complete with a fresh color job, but the cool dye made her head bumps feel much better!
The appointment with Pam’s doctor went very well. We even got to say goobye to our favorite nurse at the clinic before he moved out of state to care for his aging mother.
I ran errands during our final “rest day” on this journey. The Windemere was also hosting a gun show, at which Pam ran into her previous Arizona doctor, the one who betrayed her in 2014 by arbitrarily cutting down her pain meds with no discussion whatsoever. Pam greeted him cheerily by his first name, causing the man’s don’t-you-know-I’m-two-steps-above-God-I’m-a-doctor syndrome to flare brightly and widening the eyes of the sycophants orbiting around him. “Are you still on those pills?” He asked snottily.
“I sure am. Wouldn’t be walking without them!” True, she was subtly leaning for support on a display table at the time, but he didn’t know that.
“How many are you on now?” (More snottiness.)
Chipper as she could be, cuter than the dickens under her darling straw hat, wearing a really sharp long sleeved top over blue jeans and looking better than good with her new hairdo and all, she retorted, “Pretty much max PDR all around.”
“PDR” is the acronym for the Physicians Desk Reference, which among other things gives the maximum dosage allowed for each prescription medication currently authorized for use in “accepted” medical practice. Pam was exaggerating deliberately, just to drive Mr. Snotty Doctor crazy. She is on “max PDR” amounts of two meds…out of more than half a dozen. Heck, during this last appointment, the three of us (Pam’s doctor, Pam, and yours truly) even decided to reduce one of her key meds by a full twenty percent. Not one of her meds is prescribed without careful thought involving all parties concerned; we’re a team. Or so I thought. Again. My crystal ball sucks when it comes to predicting the future.
But Dr. S.D. (Snotty Doctor) couldn’t quit there. Far too many people believe having Alzheimer’s is equivalent to being stupid when nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, Pam can at times be easily confused or overwhelmed. Yes, her short term memory is a spotty thing. But she owns it, this demyelination of the brain, along with her numerous other ailments, and owns it completely. This day, she was fully on her game, fully prepared when Dr. S.D. fired his next question.
“Didn’t you and your husband buy some properties?” This of course was none of his business, and we don’t know which little birdie cheeped that in his ear, since the only property we owned when Pam was treating with him was our homestead.
But she was up to the task. “Oh yes! We’ve got four in Montana and a couple in Arizona!”
Windy city, right there, but Pammie wasn’t just winging it wildly. She knows nothing drives Dr. S.D. nuttier than seeing her looking good (and being successful materially as well) in defiance of the illusory power he thought he had over her life, so she exaggerated. A lot.
With my errands run and supper out of the way, we topped off the Sierra Vista experience in the evening by dancing in the hotel lounge, jitter bugging to live music as the band played a lo-ong, extended version of Sweet Georgia Brown. Pam and I had not danced together in (Gasp!) twenty years. The kid on alto sax was pure talent; if he doesn’t make it to the big time, there is no justice in the world.
The older man on lead guitar, mentor to the younger bunch, asked Pam (about me dancing), “How did he do that in tennis shoes?”
Believe me, it wasn’t easy. It was high-traction terra cotta, not even a dance floor. Next time, I’m taking my boots.
But Pam was in her element. The longer the song went, the less she needed to hang onto me for balance. When I spun her? She twirled with perfection, every cell in her body radiating unadulterated joy. After the dance, I returned to my room but Pam stayed behind to dance some more, tutoring some of the wait staff who wanted to learn, “Teach me how to dance like that!” Ah yes, “fraternizing” they were. So who ratted them out? Only the Shadow knows.
This is the woman who was supposed to die in hospice last November.
FAST FORWARD TO APRIL 2018. We couldn’t believe it. Rather, we could believe it well enough. We were just outraged. Beginning the previous June, we’d been driving Montana-to-Arizona-and-back every other month for Pam’s medical appointments. During the summer, Harrison Ford had been upgraded even more: Oversized tires and wheels for the rear, which helped with stability and kept the rubber from overheating on long, high speed runs. Heavy duty swaybars front and rear. A steering stabilizer as the final touch that made the motorhome incredibly stable on the highway, possibly the safest RV out there. I’d gone through two sequential bouts of flu that had given me a belly button hernia (from coughing super-hard for weeks on end) and dropped my weight from 160 lbs. to 140 lbs. Friends who saw me during that period were less than impressed.
And then, after all of that, we’d been informed that her Arizona doctor would have to see Pam face-to-face every single month or she could not prescribe any key medications at all. The feds were constantly increasing their pressure on practitioners; the doctor would lose her license if she did not bow to the strictures of the Gestapo. The governmental crackdown was of course inspired by the nationwide opium addiction epidemic.
It has only gotten worse since, with no end in sight. Except death. Bureaucratic good intentions have definitely paved the way to Hell for patients in need who do not abuse their medications.
We had no better option. Pam could no longer survive in Montana and I’d learned I could no longer survive in Arizona. We rented her a house down south. She lives alone, albeit with a number of friends and family who do their best to give her support. I don’t mind being alone (except for our daily, sometimes lengthy telephone conversations). She’s learned that she sleeps better when someone else (that she can trust) is in the house. Ever increasing federal pressure is forcing her doctor to cut her psych meds, of all things. We’ve agreed that I need a full year at home (in Montana) to completely recover my own health; half of that time remains as of this writing. So we get some time together once a year now.
Curiously, Pam’s mental clarity seems to have improved somewhat since she’s been living alone…at the expense of her physical and emotional health. She battles depression more days than not. Hooray for big government. [sarcasm]
All the while, Harrison Ford sits quietly in the driveway, calmly waiting for the spring day in 2019 when its V-10 engine can once again power a run to Arizona, towing a load of “Pam goodies.”
And finally, my product review rating for this 1998 Pleasure Way motorhome on a Ford Econoline chassis:
THREE STARS ***
As I’ve upgraded the machine, it rates five stars–but one star is deducted for the many aftermarket upgrades necessary to make it safe on the road and a second star is deducted for the extreme lack of care and concern shown by the company.
NOTE: I wrote this last summer and thought I’d published it…but just came across it in the Drafts folder. Here’s hoping you found it worth reading.