new mexico

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Grapes

We traveled to wine country recently. No, not Napa Valley, although I have been to that beautiful area, the wine country I am referring to is in the south central region of New Mexico. Even though California is renowned for producing wine, according to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, New Mexico is the oldest wine growing region in the United States. (Incidentally, another bit of trivia I picked up is that there are wineries located in each of the fifty states.) The first stop of the journey was in Deming, New Mexico at Luna Rossa Winery. The location of this winery was a surprise because this area is arid and appears to be too much of a desert to sustain grapevines. None the less, Luna Rossa Winery is the larger, multi-staff winery of the two we toured.  It has a large mail order enterprise, which bodes well for my future cravings. The other winery we visited is La Esperanza Vineyard and Winery, located in the beautiful Mimbres Valley. It is a small, family run business on the owner’s homestead. It is named after the daughter of the original landowners and is run by Esperanza and her husband David.

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Both wineries had wine to my liking and while I am no sommelier, the wine I sampled was just as good, if not better, than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley. In fact, I would have to say that I liked the wine I sampled at these wineries better than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley because I purchased bottles from each winery, while I did not sample any wine I felt compelled to purchase while touring in the Napa Valley region. My favorite of the purchased bottles was a blend called Born in Space, which was purchased from La Esperanza.

DavidDavid tempting us with more wine.

JimJim yielding!

To my chagrin, La Esperanza does not sell by mail order and I did not have the foresight to purchase multiple bottles. More wine tours are definitely on the itinerary as we travel to various states. I definitely have to stock-pile bottles of wine that tantalize my palate due to my recently adopting the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas:“ Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine”.

food        The epicurean delight prepared by my sister Celeste to accompany the wine.

wine bottleThe weather was perfect for sipping our libations outside.

Celeste and JimMy sister Celeste supervising Jim’s wine portions.

For many years I have wanted to explore more of New Mexico, but various obligations, until now, have prevented me from doing so. There are mountains, plains, deserts, ghost towns, lakes and almost everthing associated with New Mexico all within hours of the cabin.  When we first arrived this year, it was still at the tail end of monsoon season and thunderstorms can make traveling off the beaten-path difficult.  Even though the truck is built to tackle most anything, it is far too easy to get into the back-country of New Mexico during inclement weather and find yourself really stuck! So, we tried to pick a day when the thunderstorms were more spotty than widespread to embark on a day trip to the Slaughter Mesa.  Slaughter Mesa has a mountain peak that is 8763 feet and despite the fact it is  less than two hours from our cabin, we had never been there.

First stop off the pavement was Quemado Lake. It is definitely on the “return to list” with kayaks or paddle boards.

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Although there was a very large forest fire in this area several years ago, it still has some of the biggest Ponderosa Pines I have seen in a while. They absolutely dwarfed Pamala! Unfortunately, this one was blocking our path up the canyon.  Note to self: pack chain saw for next trip into the wilderness!

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Making our way up to higher ground, beautiful grasslands surrounded us.

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The thunderstorms laughed at our efforts at planning around them and seemed to stalk us all day but we remained dry except for a little sprinkle here and there and fortunately, although we heard alot of distant thunder we didn’see any lightening.

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As we worked our way up over a rocky ridge, we were treated to this view of the valley that we would descend into.

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On our last stretch of dirt road before reaching pavement, we came upon a few of the last remaining buildings of Mangas ghost town.

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In retrospect, it is hard to believe that we have been traveling to Albuquerque annually for over 15 years and never once booked a hot air balloon ride. Albuquerque is the home of the largest balloon festival in the world. No where else have I visited and awakened to see the sky littered with colorful balloons of various sizes drifting over the city. Sooooo, finally, on our 21st wedding anniversary, we climbed into a hot air balloon basket and trusted our pilot, Dar of Rainbow Ryders, to dip us into the Rio Grande, clip the top of cottonwood trees and eventually ascend 4000 feet above ground level, giving us spectacular views of the world below us. The experience did not disappoint and was worthy of the 15 year wait. The two-hour flight could only have been enhanced by an in-flight gourmet meal with a three-person band serenading us. None the less, the entire experience, with the exception of an initial problem with the booking process, was enjoyable.  We especially appreciated the celebratory mimosas that awaited us once we were on the landing pad.

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The Dodge has been through so many changes over the years, I’ve lost track. From now on any big mods are going to be cataloged by year and occurrence. So I give you “Dodge Ram version 15.1”!

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After many years of ownership, countless “patch jobs”, an incalculable amount of parts and money, as well as endless hours of exhaustive research; I finally figured out how to fix the factory Dodge steering and suspension woes…

Step 1:

Remove the stock Dodge axle along with all associated steering and suspension components down to the bare frame rails and discard!

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Seriously, there are so many things wrong with the 2nd gen Dodge front end this may seem drastic but it’s where I ended up. Here’s a list of some of the problems and possible repercussions:

  1. flimsy stamped control arms with eccentric bolts for caster adjustment (adjustment bolts are prone to seizing)
  2. two piece driver’s side axle shaft with vacuum operated sliding collar instead of locking hubs(axle failure and vacuum leaks preventing 4×4 engagement, also increased drag and reduced mpg due to constant drag of rotating internal axle components while in 2 wheel drive)
  3. unit bearing hubs (expensive to replace and have been known to fail catastrophically while driving, also almost impossible to replace roadside as the center nut is torqued to 240+ ft lbs)
  4. under sized track bar with ball joint end (premature wear causing “death wobble”)
  5. undersized y-link configuration tie rods (vague steering feel and premature failure)
  6. un-braced steering box (vague steering and premature steering box failure)
  7. undersized ball joints (huge problem on these trucks: premature wear causing a myriad of problems, big repair bills and possible catastrophic failure)
  8. inadequate bushing assembly in bottom of steering column (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  9. undersized steering shaft (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  10. seriously low quality undersized shocks considering the weight of the Cummins diesel engine and the weight these trucks are designed to carry (premature failure and inadequate size cause poor ride and vehicle control characteristics as well as increased tire wear)
  11. I’ve also heard of the two piece, Dodge Dana 60 axle housings bending under severe use but I have not experienced this

I’m sure I’m missing something but those are the basics. This probably makes the Dodge engineering sound really bad, and it is, but truthfully most American made trucks are no better and if you actually use your truck, repairs/upgrades are inevitable.

The biggest piece of the puzzle was a custom front axle assembly built by John at Hillbilly Wizard. John answers his own phone and is more than willing to think outside the box and build you what you need. John and I agreed the stock housing was adequate for my needs and proceeded from there. In addition to the “fixes” a gearing change was needed along with a traction aiding device. What John built for me is a hybrid of Dodge, aftermarket, and 80s era Chevy K30 parts. I warn anyone trying to duplicate this axle build that John had a lot of parts incompatibility issues and machine work to do to put this axle together. This was not a bolt together project for him! Luckily for me however, the finished product did bolt in place. The two biggest drawbacks to this approach were a loss of ABS and a little less powerful front brakes, neither of which have posed a problem and the gains in strength and reliability far outweigh the disadvantages.

The axle build:

  1. stock Dodge Dana 60 housing
  2. 4.10 gears and ARB air locker
  3. 35 spline, 4340 chrome moly inner and outer axle shafts with a 1 piece passenger side shaft
  4. tube-end axle shaft seals
  5. Chevy kingpin inner C’s, kingpins, steering knuckles, roller bearings, brakes, hubs, etc
  6. bronze upper kingpin bushings
  7. Yukon locking hubs
  8. 1.5″ x .25″ DOM tie rods with Chevy 1 ton tie rod ends
  9. the high steer arm in the picture ended up not working out with my steering geometry, but that was due to my bad calculations

 

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Other parts in the front end rebuild include:

  1. Great Lake Off Road diff cover
  2. Ruff Stuff Specialties y-link steering kit
  3. custom made upper shock towers from Extreme Articulation (I had to modify these a bit but that was due to a miscalculation on my part)
  4. Borgeson steering box, pump, hoses, and billet steering shaft along with a Mr Gasket power steering cooler
  5. heavy duty replacement ends for existing DT ProFab track bar
  6. custom made PMT Fabrication adjustable control arms set 1″ longer than stock (ask for the “Dalton Highway spec”)
  7. Rock Solid Ram Truck Steering column bushing
  8. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir shocks with custom tuning from Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road (more on the shock tuning coming in another blog entry, short version: awesome!)
  9. slightly modified existing DT ProFab steering brace
  10. Buckstop front bumper that I’ve been running for several years had to be modified to clear the new 37″ tires and longer control arms
  11. Daystar bump stops

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That pretty much wraps it up for the front end. No small feat!

A lot of other things got done on version 15.1 also:

  1. rear axle received new 4.10 gearset, ARB air locker, and Great Lake Off Road cover
  2. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir rear shocks
  3. transmission was overhauled with billet torque converter and shift kit added
  4. transfer case was rebuilt
  5. 37×12.5×17 Mastercraft Courser MXT tires
  6. stock 3rd gen Dodge 17″ steel wheels
  7. LED backup and driving lights
  8. air tank and ARB compressor to activate lockers and inflate tires
  9. re-installation of camper box that I built a few years ago
  10. new windshield
  11. unplanned was a radiator, hoses, thermostat, and oil pan gasket replacement
  12. I’m sure there’s something I missed after almost 6 months of work

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So good for another 16 years and 180,000 miles right? We’ll see, I was actually still working on the truck 2 hours before we left! Reports on whether or not this round of modifications worked are coming soon.

Many thanks to John at Hillbilly Wizard and Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road for listening to what I needed and delivering awesome custom work!

 

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You have probably figured out by our lack of postings that the “Big 2014 Alaska” trip, for all intents and purposes, is over. We arrived at our cabin/second home in rural New Mexico in late September. We thought we would venture out from the cabin on a short trip or two since we planned to stay through the end of December, but other than a few hikes and a little back road exploring, it just didn’t happen. We still have to get back to Florida, but that will mainly be a road trip visiting friends and family along the way.

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Our cabin is an ongoing project and we just keep finding things to do! One of the first projects was to import a little Inuit cultural influence in the form of an “Inuckshuk”.  We were introduced to these in Western Canada and immediately decided we needed one of our own. The Inuit used them for various purposes including navigational markers and indicators of a place of significance.

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We had tentatively planned to go to Moab, Bryce Canyon, and the White Rim Trail but ultimately decided to save those for next year. With winter quickly approaching and no trips planned we decided to winterize  the trailer and put it away for the winter. It was a bittersweet moment…

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… but a timely one!

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We had been planning this trip with Alaska as the focal point for many years. Sometimes you worry the experience will not equal the anticipation but that was definitely NOT the case. This trip delivered! Look for some “best of” photo compilations in the near future. We hope you have enjoyed following along on our journey and rest assured there will be more in the future.

For now it’s back to Florida and I have some interesting vehicle projects on the agenda.

Stay tuned…

Finishing the prep for our first post retirement trip. It’s going to feel good to be able to travel for the first time with no deadlines!

The schedule has been changed a few times but the basic premise is the same; Florida to the end of the road in Deadhorse Alaska and back. The route? Who knows, we’ll figure that out as we go. We hope to do a lot of back road/dirt road exploring and stay off the beaten track when we can. The truck and camper are “off the grid” capable for extended periods so we hope to do a lot of remote camping along the way.

This was a little shake-down run on the trailer in New Mexico last year. Nothing like views for miles and total seclusion!

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test run