With gas prices through the roof, but no choice in still watching Jace every day for his summer vacation, changes had to be made to our planned Northeast itinerary.
Changes as in – blowing the itinerary up entirely and sticking to inexpensive Corps of Engineers parks for the summer and staying down South to minimize mileage on the motor home.
So the good news is that we saved some money over the past month and still had some fun with Jace. The bad news is that our usual goal of chasing cooler temperatures in the summer by heading north was toast. Mid-summer in central and southern Alabama is BRUTAL, especially when you're staying on water in COE parks. And the worst thing is you can't swim there, because even if they did have beaches at the two parks we stayed in (they don't), there's a little problem with alligators in Alabama – as in, they have them. Oh, and using an inflatable kayak? Not recommended.
So it was lots of walks on fairly level roadways and fields, and lots of bike rides for me and Jace. At six years old, he's a bit behind his peers in bike riding, as he still uses training wheels due to lack of practice over the past 1 ½ years since he got the bike, but he's almost ready to lose them. Maybe during our last 2 weeks of summer vacation in Georgia. Hasn't kept him from barreling down roads at high speeds, though. With daily highs in the mid to upper 90's, Grover's extended walks needed to be early, or just following an afternoon rain, as the pavement was too hot for his paws.
Our first campground was a new one for us at Issac Creek COE. It's an older park, but nearly all the lots are shaded, if a bit narrow. There are about 10 older lots up by the entrance that consist of small gravel, but the rest are cement pads with paved driveways.
On arrival, our camp hosts knew exactly who we were, as they had tried to reach us earlier in the day to change our reservation. They thought we might not be happy with the lot we had booked (Lot 2, one of the older gravel lots) and thought we might not even fit comfortably in it (we did). But while an alternate lot had already been booked by the time we got there, they promised to find us another one if it opened up. The next day, they were showing us Lot 17 by the creek, and we moved. These hosts are the epitome of helpful people, and go out of their way to make sure you're happy at Issac Creek.
As with many COE parks, a dam is involved, and Jace got his first closeup view of the dam that formed the lake on which this park sat. With all the heavy summer rain we endured, he got a chance to see spillways opened up to release the excess water upstream, which was pretty cool.
Issac Creek is located about a half hour's drive from Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville is famous for two authors; Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Harper Lee wrote 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (one of my all-time favorite movies). The courthouse in downtown Monroeville is the inspiration for the trial's movie set, and was painstakingly replicated in Hollywood for the filming of the movie. It was kind of chilling to stand in the actual courtroom and imagine Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch defending his client. Afterwards, we went upstairs and sat in the balcony where Jem and Scout watched the trial take place.
Not so close by, but still a day-trip away is Mobile, AL. While there is much to see in Mobile, the problem with not staying too close is making sure that Grover isn't left alone for the majority of the day. It's not that he'd do something bad, but it's not fair to him to be left alone for so long.
But there was one attraction I'd been waiting to see for a couple of years, but hadn't been able to because of time or weather constraints, and that was the USS Alabama at Battleship Memorial Park. Unlike many naval displays across the country, Battleship Memorial Park features more than just the featured attraction – that being a World War II battleship. It also has the USS Drum, a WWII-era submarine that you can venture through, lots of military aircraft and even some tanks!
There's one snack in Alabama that we haven't been able to find elsewhere, and that's something called “cheese straws”. I don't know if they're available anywhere else, but we've only found them in Alabama. It's a delectable treat of cheese, flour, cayenne and other spices squeezed out of a pastry bag and baked to crunchy goodness. Tried them about a year and a half ago when visiting Hodges Winery outside of Montgomery, and I can't get enough of them since. What's interesting about this trip is the brand we found at a local Publix. It's called “Mook Mills”. “Mook” is the nickname I call my grandson, Jace, so we just had to buy these!
One of our neighbors, a fellow 36LA owner, told us about a play place for kids on the other side of Montgomery called Nutopia. Lots of padded places to jump on and from, lots of slides, and lots of places upon which to climb. It was a perfect place to take Jace to keep him occupied, and to burn off energy without killing us as well. Jace hooked up with a 10 year-old boy named Jai who helped Jace get over some fears he had with some of the taller slides, and they both had a great time playing together.
We also visited a local sunflower field. Got a ride through it on a tractor-pulled trailer, and got some nice pictures of Jace.
After 2 years of rehabbing my right shoulder, I decided to attempt swinging a golf club again. Montgomery has a very nice city course and driving range about 15 minutes away from where we were camped out at Gunter Hill, so Jace and I hit the driving range. Needless to say, after 2 years removed from swinging a club, and this being Jace's first time (and him using an adult club as well), neither of us are ready for the pro tour anytime soon.
Finally, Jace spent a lot of time riding his bike in both COE parks we stayed in. We had gotten him the bike a couple of years ago, but he really hadn't had a chance to do a lot of riding over those two years, so he was still on training wheels this trip. Following a month of many hours bombing around COE parks in Alabama, he finally soloed without training wheels at our next stop in Georgia!
Now into early August, it's time for Jace's summer vacation to end as he heads back to school, and Mimi and Papa get some much needed rest and relaxation until the next time we have him over in early September.
One of the ways many RVers save money, and get to stay in some really beautiful locations, is to hang out in US Corps of Engineers parks.
The mission of the Corps of Engineers for OUR purpose was established back in the 1820's to control and protect US waterways; especially as concerns flood control. The Corps is also the largest supplier of fresh water in the United States through the construction of dams and creation of reservoirs. The electricity these dams create account for 25% of all hydroelectric power generated in the US. While the Corps of Engineers manage 8 different districts across the United States, the one's that interest those of us who RV are the three southern districts, as they manage the majority of Corps-created parks and campgrounds.
As you can imagine, when you create reservoirs to provide drinking water to many areas, or to simply control flooding during wet seasons, you inevitably create shorelines. Those shorelines become prime real estate for recreation, and the Corps of Engineers have provided the US with hundreds of parks and campgrounds to enjoy. A few are small and only accommodate tent camping, but the rest range from mid-sized parks that encompass 50-80 largely level campsites that can take most RVs, to larger campgrounds that swell to more than 200 sites and can handle the biggest of motorhomes.
Because of their location, most sites in Corps campgrounds offer views of the water, and that's their charm. Very rarely are there site that are landlocked. It's one of the big positives to Corps camping. The downside is that while most sites offer power and water hookups, very few Corps parks have sewer connections. This means that the longer you stay, the more you have to leave your site temporarily to dump your black and gray water tanks. Not the most difficult thing to do, but disconnecting from water and electric, as well as securing items in the RV for a move, can get a bit tedious the more you have to do it. One other minor downside: If you're visiting people at night outside of the park, you have to time your return to be before 10:30 as the park's gates close then.
It actually helps that the Corps has restrictions on how long you can stay at their parks, and how long BETWEEN stays at the same park. This keeps full-timers from establishing “permanent” residency in parks like many do in private parks, and reduces the amount of “junk” that people bring to recreate. At least most people. I'm always amazed at the amount of “stuff” people pack into their pickup trucks and storage spaces that get unloaded for a week or weekend, only to be crammed back into their spaces when people leave.
Anyway, back to limits on stays. The rule is that you can stay for up to 14 days at a time, and only within a 30-day timeframe. So for example, you can stay from the 1st to the 14th of a given month, but you have to leave the park and cannot come back in until 30 days from the 1st has transpired. So if you want to keep moving between local parks (like we've done in Georgia from late March until the end of April), you need a rotation of at least 3 Corps parks to make this work. Two weeks in one park, two weeks in another park, and because you've only taken up 28 days thus far, you need at least one week in a third park before you can go back to the first one. All this is predicated on being able to find an open campsite for the timeframes you need if you don't plan way ahead when campgrounds begin to take reservations.
It can be challenging.
But the payoff is HUGE. Not only do you get to recreate on (or near) water, but Corps park are generally quiet due to being situated well off of most roadways. In addition, most of them have long driveways to handle your vehicles, and wide spots separated by relatively dense trees so that you don't see or hear your neighbor very often. In addition, they have level packed-sand areas for chairs, tables, and shelters that the RVer might bring with them, plus fire rings so you and your friends can gather around a warm and cozy fire at the end of the day.
And you can't beat the price. Anywhere from $26 - $30 per night, and if you have certain passes like our Senior Park Pass or Military Park Pass, you pay half price for every night. Very nice, even if you do have to dump tanks every 3-6 days.
Reservations are handled on a very user-friendly app at Recreation.gov.. You can look at pictures of your specific site at many parks, and the site descriptions detailing what equipment is allowed are usually pretty accurate (if on the safe side). We've seen quite a few sites that their description might have caused us to avoid, yet could fit our motorhome in with just a bit of difficulty.
If you're an RVer and haven't tried Corps of Engineers campgrounds, you're missing out on one of the best benefits of RVing.
For full-time RVers like us, "home" is where we park it. But heading back to Georgia for a Jace fix is kinda like heading home, just as heading up to Massachusetts for a visit is much like heading home. Spending approximately 30 years in each place will make it seem that way.
Our next real stop was in the Houston, TX area, but that meant we had one day to get to the eastern edge of New Mexico in Las Cruces, and two travel days across the length of I-10 in Texas. Fortunately for us, while the stretch of I-10 east of Beaumont, TX and into Louisiana is legendary for it's poor condition, I-10 through AZ, NM, and much of TX is in pretty good shape.
One of the more striking views on I-10 is near the border of Arizona heading into New Mexico, and it just so happens that a rest area exists right in the middle of it, making for a great photo opportunity. It's called Texas Canyon, and it has some of the most unique rock formations we've ever seen in our travels thus far. Giant, smooth rocks perched in various positions, almost as if placed there by some unseen hand. Huge boulders perched vertically on top of other rock formations that look as if they would tumble down with the slightest touch. It's no more than a half mile long, which makes it all the more reason to believe it's been staged, but it's not.
Our goal with the price of gas going up so much in between the time we got out west to the time we needed to leave was to “overnight cheap”. Our first night was at a rest area over looking Las Cruces, NM from the west. It's up high, allowing you to look down upon the entire city, had dedicated RV parking spots where you could extend slides, and featured the world's largest road runner sculpture made entirely out of recycled scrap metal.
We battled high winds the entire trip eastward through New Mexico and Texas, and fortunately they were tailwinds which helped our gas mileage considerably – especially given the recent high prices for gas. And the further east we went, the lower the gas prices became. But it was very nice to see an extra 100 miles on my “miles to empty” display as the newer tailwind efficiency was calculated by the on-board computer. At one point I was getting 11 miles to the gallon, where usually I get 8-8.5 mpg. Winning!
Once in West Texas, the winds that helped us out so much also brought a brief period of driving trouble as well – dust storms! We've managed to avoid those potentially dangerous driving conditions so far, and these certainly weren't the worst we were warned to expect based on the signs that are posted in New Mexico, but they were bad enough to make me drop down to about 40 mph in places for the next 35-45 minutes of driving. I can only imagine what one of these would be like at night.
Our fuel stop at the Ft. Stockton Flying J was downright treacherous. By this time, the winds were constant at 40+mph with gusts into the 50's and we pulled into the RV pumps facing directly into the teeth of the wind. Opening the heavy door to our motorhome was a challenge, especially getting down the stairs without it slamming back into you. Grover wouldn't even stay outside long enough to do his business! Good thing our fuel fill is in the rear of the coach, so I could hide behind the bulk of the RV out of the wind, but I still got plenty of grit in my eyes during the 10-15 minutes it took to fill the tank.
After another night in a rest stop along I-10 and a drive through the very quaint town of Fredericksburg, TX (a place we are DEFINITELY coming back to), we finally found our home base for the next 3 days just south of Houston, TX. We were there to catch up with long-time friend Bob Johnson and his wife, Susan, both fellow RVers we had camped with 2 years previously, and to visit Space Center Houston.
Passport America got us a $20 per night stay at Safari RV and Mobile Home Park. They have about a half-dozen pull through sites for RVers who are just passing through, and the rest of the sites are for full-time residents. For the price, it's really not bad at all, and it put us just 15 minutes away from the Space Center.
For space buffs like me, Space Center Houston was – okay. The highlight was being able to actually enter and walk through the 747 / Space Shuttle combination that once transported the shuttle from it's original landing site in California (before they began landing at Cape Canaveral) back across the country to Florida, and also served as the means to test fly the first shuttle Enterprise to validate it's glide characteristics. Another treat was to walk through a building which contained an unused Saturn V rocket that would have been used on a future moon landing mission had the number of flights not been scaled back by budget cuts at NASA.
Another highlight of our trip eastbound back to Georgia was a stop in Beaumont, TX to visit with fellow RVers Byron and Lynn Hill. They have a Tiffin Open Road 34PA built the same year as ours, and they liked our color scheme so much they asked if they could use it as well. We had been in the same park with them twice before, but had been separated by about a dozen or more spaces each time. This time, just by happenstance, the park office had us both in adjoining sites! Given our unique color scheme, it was very strange to see the two of us parked side-by-side!
Our final stop on the way to Georgia was a trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi. We took a driving tour of the Civil War battlefield, then went downtown to eat and see Vicksburg's famous flood wall mural.
Overall, the trip to Arizona was a good one, and I suspect we'll see that state again in future winters, perhaps for a bit longer next time. Our first trip with flat-towing the Jeep Cherokee was an unqualified success and proved to be much easier than our previous tow dolly setup with the Mini, even if the Jeep isn't quite as much fun as the Mini was to drive.
Upcoming is 5 weeks in and around Lake Lanier Corps of Engineer parks (one to take care of our grandson, Jace, during his Spring Break), and then it's time to head out to an early May trip to New England to visit family and friends, and take in an all-important high school reunion for Barbara!
They say getting there is half the fun. Sometimes, but not always. On our way through West Texas, the Flying J station that purportedly had dedicated site for motorhomes to park in didn't actually have them, so we ended up driving into the sunset, finally stopping at the last exit in Texas at another Flying J, which did have spaces for us in which to park.
When last we left things, our bedroom slide was back to better than it ever was, and we were headed to the Phoenix area for a month.
But first, a little diversion.
Since we were staying at the Pima County Fairgrounds RV park, we decided to check out one of the various shows and events they host there on a regular basis. One was an animatronic dinosaur show that Jace would have loved to see, but we passed on that. The other was a relatively small (for us, anyway) RV show put on by the local LaMesa RV dealership. Now, we have no intention of upgrading to a newer or different unit, but we're suckers for an RV show.
So we're looking through some bigger diesel motorhomes, most of them Tiffins, and remarking that the prices seemed pretty reasonable, when suddenly we see a sticker on the unit that we're in. It's NOT a new Tiffin diesel motorhome, but a 2018 resale! Then we suddenly realize that ALL the “reasonably” priced diesel models were 2020 or older resales!
Now, the reason we're shocked is that we have always been told that RV's are a depreciating asset. In our history with them, they ALWAYS lose value once they're driven off the lot. No so (apparently) in the topsy-turvy, post-COVID world where everything has been turned upside down. Five year-old motorhomes are worth more than, or at least equal to, the price they were new (including ours, btw). Never thought I'd ever see that.
Now it's time for a month in blessedly warmer weather. Casa Grande, AZ is about 40 minutes south of the Phoenix area; a reasonable drive to see my brother Doug and sister-in-law Tracey, but far enough away to save some money on resort fees. And instead of a “campground”, we get to stay in an actual “resort” for a month.
What's the difference between a campground and a resort, you ask? Usually a pool and a working hot tub. And a 30% increase in cost. But I digress . . .
Casa Grande RV Resort is nestled in the outskirts of the small town of Casa Grande. It's an older, but relatively well-maintained park. The sites are wide enough that you don't feel like you can hear your neighbor showering in the morning (I hear that's a thing), and the staff for the most part goes out of their way to help. Like the front desk person at check-in who insisted I owed $200 LESS than they had quoted me just two days earlier when I made our reservations. Hating surprises, I decided to point out her error rather than take the win, because I knew it would catch up with me later on. And true to it's designation as a “resort”, it has two pools – one for adults only and one for families - and a working hot tub!
They also get high marks for having multiple events to keep their snowbirds happy each day, including a free breakfast every weekday. French toast Monday's were the resident favorite, btw. The other weekdays revolved around pancakes or waffles. You know you're truly retired when your schedule revolves around free or discounted food, like French toast Mondays or getting to the Golden Corral before 5 o'clock for the Senior Special.
Grover got a chance to lose some weight when he accompanied us on long and swift walks around the campground. He had recently been declared “obese” by his vet and put on weight management food. So walking was good for both him and us. He also made many new friends of the human variety and a few of the canine variety at the dog park.
Arizona, like West Texas, has a stark beauty all it's own. It's not only a “Miles and miles of miles and miles” thing, but much of the scenery isn't found anywhere else in the US.
Saguaro National Park is home to one of the densest concentrations of Saguaro Cacti in the US. Some of these can reach as tall as three stories high, and can have a dozen or more arms poking out in any direction. Holes found high up in the cactus are homes drilled out by birds to provide shelter from the heat and desert predators. The drive through the national park is full of dips and rises, but there is no shortage of bike riders getting their exercise in some beautiful scenery. Lot's of pull-overs to stop and view the unique natural beauty of this park.
Our visit in Arizona also brought us to a walking tour of Biosphere II, an experiment to see how long humans could live in an enclosed space without any outside assistance. Created way out in the boonies, Biosphere was an interesting concept that almost worked. Even though it didn't enjoy complete success, it advanced our knowledge of self-sustainable environments and is paving the way for new experiments that will help us learn about Planet Earth on a micro scale. I could never handle living in Biosphere. No meat protein.
In the middle of our Arizona stay, we made a relatively short trip over to Gila Bend to visit with Tiffin friends Joe and Susan Pierce. We met them in Red Bay a while ago while we were both undergoing warranty service on our new coaches. Really nice people. While in Gila Bend, we all visited the Space Age Restaurant for lunch. It's a totally retro place with lots of shiny metal booths, and a pretty good menu of burgers and other sandwiches. While there, I met a new friend . . .
One final place we visited was the Casa Grande Ruins. About 700 years ago, indigenous people inhabited an area about 40 miles southwest of where the city of Casa Grande now stands. These people lived, farmed and built amazing structures – some of which were 3 stories high! – in which to live. Their history is short (they moved away suddenly and without much notice), but they left a legacy that is still being investigated today.
A couple of visits with my brother, Doug, and it was time to head back east.
Next: The interesting trek back to Georgia . . .
We spent 30 years in the North Georgia area, and never did we have as cold a winter as we experienced from November thru January. Each month was a quick move to the top of the hill to fill our depleted propane tank, and our heated hose was plugged in every day but three.
Needless to say, we were NOT amused.
But we did get to see Jace a whole bunch, so there's that.
Finally, it was time to leave. Our next firm destination was Tucson, AZ, both to have a much needed slide mechanism replaced on our bedroom slide, and then to spend a month in the warm sunshine of the Phoenix area for a month in March. Mainly to thaw us out from North Georgia!
OK, to the slide issue first. Our smaller bedroom slide is moved by a company called Schwintek. They have been the go-to company for smaller slide systems in the RV world for years, mainly because they are virtually the ONLY slide system company for smaller slides in the RV world. Our larger slide is handled by a hydraulic system due to it's size and weight.
The Schwintek system is poorly designed, at least for full-time RV living as far as I am concerned. It's rails and gears are lightweight aluminum, uses small gears, and relies on a complex ballet between 2 small motors and a weak camshaft on each side of the slide. The motors move until a voltage spike ensues; usually when the slide stops at the end of an extension, or stops when it is brought in for travel. The problem comes when the slide, for whatever reason, binds when coming in. This bind creates a voltage spike as well, so guess what happens?
Yup! The motor in question stops moving, putting the slide out of adjustment. A simple but cumbersome procedure is then needed to re-synchronize the motors, usually a few times to get everything back in business.
Our bedroom slide would not re-synch properly, causing the slide to need a stopping and starting routine to get it in and out, and making it uncertain whether it would work every time we stopped for the night. I think part of the reason why this system fails so often is because it's built for part-time RV-ing. Let's face it; our slides come in and go out on a significantly higher basis than part-time RV-ers experience. Theirs might go out 2-6 times per year, while ours can go out 2-4 times per WEEK.
It's a poorly designed and engineered system, but it was the only one available unless manufacturers wanted to run hydraulic lines to every slide.
Enter Brian Vroom of Tucson, AZ. Brian's dad bought a Tiffin Allegro Bus diesel motorhome a year or so ago, and on his very first trip in it, the Schwintek slide failed on him - twice. Being a mechanical engineer, Brian looked at it and said, “I can do better than that!”
And so he did.
Bigger gears. Deeper guide tracks for the gears. Thicker camshaft. Stronger motor. His system counts revolutions on the gear instead of waiting for a voltage spike to indicate the right placement in or out. And finally, he allows for the system to be disengaged from a bad motor so that the slide can be pushed back in by hand, because he locks his system onto his solid rails.
He's poised to revolutionize the RV slide industry. He has expanded his one bay operation in Tucson by adding an installer in Red Bay, AL where Tiffins are made, Tiffin's service center is replacing Schwintek slides that exhibit 5 or more mechanical failures, he's added an installer in Connecticut, and two in California, and he's looking to expand into the heart of RV country – Florida. Rumors abound that Tiffin is going to drop all installs of Schwintek slide systems in favor of Vroom, which would be another game-changer for Tiffin and Vroom.
The Vroom system replacement is a bit pricey at $2,975 (tax included) per slide, but given just one service call on a Schwintek slide will set you back between $1,100 and $1,500, the peace of mind knowing your slide isn't going to fail at the wrong time is well worth it. We just spent 12 days traveling across the country waiting for our appointed service day without moving our bedroom slide in or out. 12 days of no access to clothes because the slide bumps up against out dresser drawers. 12 days of climbing over the bed to get to my side of the bed, or get to the main bathroom to take a shower or get much-needed laundry done.
12 looooong days . . .
So how did everything work out?
Beautifully! They began promptly at 7:15, and were done by about 2:30, including the clean up. As they began to disassemble our slide, they showed me where the original Schwintek mechanism on my side of the slide was already beginning to bind up and could no longer be moved by hand when disconnected from the motor. It was ready to fail completely.
Now, our bedroom slide moves smoothly, with no herky-jerky movements, and moves straight as an arrow. They showed me how they reinforced our slide walls to better handle the stops when extending the slides that can warp the slide walls.
And our slide is so quiet now coming in and out! A larger motor helps because it no longer labors like the under-powered Schwintek motor, but it's also due to the smoother mechanism now locked in place. Bottom-line, this is how an electric slide should operate. When I mentioned how quiet it was, Brian looked at the moving slide, smiled and said, “Yeah, it's happy now”.
And so are we.
Next up: Some views on the way to Phoenix . . .
Happy Belated New Year to all our friends and family at Parental Parolees! We hope everyone had a safe and joyous holiday season, and that you're ready to hit the road.
I know WE are.
We're about to end our 3-month stay at Leisure Acres Campground in Cleveland, GA, and while it's always nice to be here to be near friends and family (and to feed the ducks at the campground) staying in one place for anything longer than 2 weeks gets on this RV-er's nerves. However, we got to see Jace for an extended period of time during this stay, as we had him for Thanksgiving break, Christmas and New Year's break – these kids get 2 weeks straight – a 4-day weekend for Martin Luther King Day, and a short remote learning stay of 2 days when his school system couldn't open due to COVID-related personnel shortages. Nice to be around to help out family, but it's time to get some bugs on our windshield!
And being stuck in North Georgia, we also don't get to enjoy the much warmer weather of Florida or Arizona, and it's been unseasonably cold this winter. Three months, and three tanks of propane have been used, and we had one snowstorm which dumped 5-6 inches of the Devil's Dandruff on us. Jace enjoyed it, finally being able to make his first (very small) snowman, and have a snowball fight (he lost big). Too many nights where the overnight temps dropped into the mid-low 20's, and we even lost power for almost 10 hours over the snowstorm.
Fortunately, we keep our generator in good shape and filled with oil, so we weathered the outage enough to run some space heaters to minimize our propane use during our time without shore power. We were even able to help out a fellow camper across the street, who used one of our outside electrical outlets (and a few extension cords) to run a space heater for him and his cats.
But our stay wasn't just sitting around trying to keep warm, or watching Jace.
We got us a new TOAD!
As our fellow Parolees know, we've been dolly towing a Mini Cooper convertible since we began this journey 2 years ago, and it has served us well. Dolly towing wasn't a big deal for us, and the Mini was sure fun to drive, especially in warm weather with the top down. But it was getting up in miles (more than 78,000) and we felt is was getting to the point where maintenance was getting very expensive on things that were due to break down based on our usage. A new battery cost us over $350, not because of the battery itself, but because the stupid computer on the Mini needed to be reset to tell it that a new battery was installed. Apparently, it's a “smart system” that doesn't allow the Mini's alternator to charge a battery (new or used) to anything higher than it's previously lowest charge state. That's not smart – it's dumb. Fortunately for us, we had invested in our NOCO charger / jump starter the previous summer, so jumping the Mini was no problem.
In addition, our front brake pads were down to minimum (allegedly) and they not only caused us to need new pads, but new front rotors as well (again, allegedly). I've grown to distrust our local Georgia Mini service department for their ability to “find” problems, but we did know the pads needed replacing, and the rotors “could” have been scored. But now we ended up spending over $700 for pads, rotors and brake sensors – oh, and maybe the engine mounts might need to be replaced in the future.
So, given it's higher than normal mileage for a 4 year-old car, and expensive repairs staring us in the face, we decided it was time to consider another car, and this time look at flat-towing something.
The natural choice (for many RV-ers) is a Jeep product. There are quite a few cars in the marketplace that can be flat-towed, although their numbers are dwindling as certain manufacturers are decommitting from supporting flat towing, and Jeep seemed to be the most prevalent. But as usual, not every Jeep is capable of being flat-towed, so it was time for me to get into research mode again.
Jeep Wranglers are the usual vehicle of choice to flat tow, probably because many people who RV like to go 4-wheeling off road somewhere. They're boxy looking, have tops that can be removed (a plus for us), but they are absolute pigs on gas mileage. Talked to a neighbor and asked if his really got between 15 MPG and 20 MPG on the highway, and his reply was, “On a good day. With a heavy tailwind.”
Okaaaaay. With gas going over $3 per gallon, dropping down from an average of 34 MPG to an average of maybe 16 MPG was not in the cards, especially since I knew we wouldn't off-road in any Jeep.
My research uncovered many Jeep products, but some helpful friends on the Tiffin RV Network of long-time Tiffin and RV owners made sure I realized that just because a certain Jeep had 4-wheel drive, it didn't automatically mean it could be flat towed. In fact, we had to start looking for a Jeep with the Active Drive II system. This is a 4-wheel drive system that allows the Jeep to have it's transfer case placed in neutral to allow for flat towing. This complicated our search, as some Jeeps (we were now looking at Cherokees) have the ADII system, but many do not, and most used car dealers don't know a thing about it so they don't list it on the car's options. Grand Cherokees have ADII, as do Cherokee Trailhawks, but both are more expensive Jeep models and the Trailhawk is in particularly high demand, so every time we thought we found one to look at, it ended up being sold the first day online.
Since used car dealers don't know what to look for, we had to rely on pictures of the interior of the cars in their ads, and specifically those of the shifter. If it had a little button on the shifting console with an “N” next to it, it could put the transfer case into neutral and be flat towed. As luck would have it (and after many disappointments in lost Trailhawks), I'm looking at a particular Jeep Cherokee with surprisingly low mileage, and there it was! The little button on the console, and even a picture of the back of the car with a plate showing that Active Drive II was installed!
We rush down the the dealer, test out the ADII to make sure it works as advertised, take it for a test drive, and we're ready to make a deal. It's two years older than our Mini Cooper was (2015 vs. 2017) but it had 25,000 less miles on the odometer. It had a minor fender-bender which hadn't been properly repaired, but the damage was minor and really can't be seen except up close. Needed new tires all around, but got the dealer to take off $500 for those and got my own set put on. Sold the Mini outright to an AutoNation dealer, sold the American Car Dolly to a nice young couple just starting out RVing, and began the next stage of flat towing.
Setting up the Jeep to be flat towed.
Flat towing is easier to hook up to the RV, but it is far more expensive. Our American Car Dolly cost us just under $2,000, and that was all that was needed to tow the Mini. Now, our Cherokee needs to be modified with a base plate for attaching the tow bar, – also an expense – a wiring kit to drive the lights while towing, an umbilical plug to run power to the Jeep, and, because Jeeps for years suffered from a syndrome when being towed called a “Death Wobble”, a kit to keep power to the power steering when the car is turned “off”.
Base plate - $530
Up-rated Blue Ox tow bar - $1,300
Wiring kit - $50
Umbilical and plug - $100
Death Wobble fix - $450
Trickle charger for battery to drive Death Wobble fix - $125
Install of Base plate and wiring - $300
Total - $2,855
And that doesn't include the future purchase of a brake assist module for about $1,200.
No more moving around a dolly at a campsite, and just a 3-5-minute setup to get ready to tow. But though all this (and thank goodness we were here for 3 months to get this all done), the payoff was our 30-minute test drive that showed that everything was working as advertised and that we're in great shape for our exit from here on January 31st with two quick stops; one for a check on our Safe-T-Steer module, and one in Red Bay for chassis and generator service.
Our ultimate destination is Tucson, AZ (more on THAT stop in my next post) and then on to Phoenix for a month of warmer weather and a visit with my brother Doug.
Breaking another rule of ours, that's what.
The rule is, never visit New England much after Labor Day. Since beginning our RV journey, we've dedicated ourselves to “chasing seventy”. Seventy degrees, that is. We've grown to like warmer weather, and being in Vermont – northern Vermont to be specific - at this time of year is definitely a rule breaker.
We really enjoy driving to new places and taking routes we've never driven before, but I've got to admit that after 32 years of taking the same route to Massachusetts and New Hampshire from Georgia (I-85 to I-77 to I-81 to I-84, etc), it was very strange staying on I-81 past Scranton, PA to head into New York State. I kept wanting to turn that steering wheel to the right after clearing Scranton! The drive was also interesting, as our GPS program took us through some small towns in New York and Vermont. One town in particular, Fort Edward, NY, has their town center festooned with American flags and banners with the names and service pictures of their town's many veterans lining their main street. It's an amazing and uplifting thing to see as you drive through Fort Edward. Apologies for the quality of the video below. Our camera is stationed BELOW our wipers, but hopefully you get the experience. Every American flag has a banner next to it with the service picture of a Fort Edward veteran.
And don't get me wrong about the trip to Vermont; the resort we're staying at is really nice. Apple Island RV Resort in South Hero, VT has wide, level lots with about 40' feet of grass between sites, and great views of Lake Champlain. The lots are terraced to allow for those not right on the shore to still have a relatively unobstructed view of the water, and the staff is super helpful. I'm sure during the season this place is a really great place to stay, with a nine-hole golf course right next door, a marina and boat launch across the street, and a really nice looking pool and hot tub combination at the community building. Apple Island is only 30 miles south of the Canadian border, and would have given us a great opportunity to visit our neighbors to the north if the border wasn't closed due to COVID restrictions.
But it's a bit nippy here during the first week of October, and while our heat pump can handle the nights, the daytime temperatures don't get high enough to allow our top to come down on the Mini. That's a first-world problem as far as I am concerned. Add to that, the expected bright foliage we're used to seeing this time of year is apparently running late, so the Green Mountain State is a bit too green right now. Everybody here says to just head over to Stowe, because the colors are prime there right now, but we're parked HERE, not in Stowe!
One of the really nice thing about being here is that we came at the tail end of a local Tiffin Allegro Club rally. The Hudson Valley Allegros had about a dozen or so members here for a weekend rally, and many of them stayed afterwards to hang out some more. They were nice enough to invite us over to a campfire, and we got to meet some new friends.
Once the weather warmed up a bit, we were able to take the kayak out onto Lake Champlain for a leisurely cruise. Grover decided he didn't want to be out on the colder waters of northern Vermont, so he skipped this outing and sacked out in the RV for a while. He sacks out in the RV a lot.
The last 2 days were incredibly blustery and pretty cold for those of us not used to chilly fall weather. Winds were 16-24 mph all day long for 2 days, so we hunkered down and caught up with TV shows and other internet-based work (like this blog, for instance).
Met another full-time Tiffin couple who have been doing this for about a year now in their pre-owned Phaeton diesel pusher who also have their residence set up in South Dakota. Hopefully we'll be able to meet them down the road elsewhere.
But now, it's 2 weeks in New Hampshire to visit with my Dad and reacquaint ourselves with friends and family. A new park we've never stayed at awaits, as our usual park closes October 11th after Columbus Day.
This blog post is for people planning to become RVers, for those just beginning their RV journey, or just for people who don't RV at all, but are interested in how we make things happen on the road. It will contain no cute pictures of our grandson, Jace, nor any pictures of majestic scenery or beautiful campsites.
It's our self-imposed challenge to see how RV life on the cheap can be accomplished going a significant distance. Frankly, it's a life more than a few RVers do on a regular basis, eschewing campgrounds unless absolutely necessary, and finding opportunities to boondock for (relatively) free wherever possible. This will also detail our search for gas stations in an area which doesn't have our usual RV-friendly Flying J truck stops that can accept our 38-foot motorhome and 15-foot attached towed Mini.
So first, why are we doing this travel on the cheap? “Because we can” is not enough. It's basically because of the time frame in which we find ourselves heading north to Vermont and New Hampshire as late in the camping season as we are doing. A planned high school reunion for Barbara had been scheduled for late October, so instead of our usual “no later than Labor Day” rule for traveling to colder climates, we were forced to push our Fall trip up north to after Columbus Day.
In addition to making things chillier for us thin-blooded former New Englanders, when the weather gets colder, campgrounds close for the season (usually the Monday of the Columbus Day three-day weekend is their last day), making finding a spot a bit problematic for a late-October class reunion. Having done some initial research and planning, I had found a campground in Brookline, NH, just over the Massachusetts border, which stays open year 'round, so an early booking for the 2nd and 3rd weeks of October was accomplished early. Of course, then we find out they're canceling the reunion until next year due to COVID reasons, so we could have avoided all this and just headed up sooner!
“So what's the reason for this post, Dave, since you got your campsite all set after Columbus Day?” you ask. Well, the answer is that getting up to New England in late October is only half the problem.
It's getting back to warmer weather this late in the year which can be the challenge.
To prepare for the travel on the cheap, our fresh water tank needs to be filled to at least 2/3rds full for the 4-day trip to our first campsite in Vermont, where full hookups await. Next, as usual when we leave a campground, the black tank is emptied and flushed as clean as possible, and the gray tank is drained fully. Since we'll be on generator and battery power for successive days, I check and top off water levels in each of the four 6-volt batteries stored under our front steps to make sure they're fully capable to take repeated charges. These batteries can power the coach for about 12 hours or more without recharging, based on how much power we use during the day. I also check the oil level in our Onan 7000 watt generator to make sure that it will keep running for extended periods. If it's a driving day, I don't have to worry about charging our house batteries with the generator, because the alternator on our Ford V-10 engine does the work.
One of the easiest ways to camp on the cheap is Wallydocking, which is staying at a Walmart along your travel route. Not all Walmarts allow for overnight RV parking, but most do. We use an app called RVParky to scout out which Walmarts are RV-friendly based on fellow traveler's reports, then pull in and ask the store manager if it's still OK to stay. We then spend some money to thank our host, so it's not entirely free camping, but it can be. Most Walmarts that allow for overnight parking only let you stay for one night, but we found two in central PA (we stayed at the one in St. Clair) that actually have signs posted that tell you that RV parking is allowed for up to 48 hours. Very accommodating.
Other places for inexpensive boondocking are Cabelas, some of which may even have a dump station on site, or Harvest Host sites, which allow for an overnight stay at a winery, distillery, farm or museum. Just pay back your host with a purchase, and you're good to go. One other app we don't use at all is Boondockers Welcome, mainly because the people offering their areas to park don't have room to accommodate an RV and toad of our length, but it does work for shorter 5th wheels and travel trailers. Finally, Cracker Barrel restaurants can be RV-friendly, but you have to be very careful in finding one whose parking lot can take your RV without blocking too many of their parking spaces. Basically, arrive as far after their dinner rush as possible to find a spot, then get breakfast the next day and scoot!
Finding gas can be a challenge heading up to the northeast, mainly due to two factors; available real estate and limited camping opportunities. People create businesses when there is a need, and there is simply less need to build a travel stop that can accommodate a large RV when there are fewer parks which can accommodate a large RV in that area.
Stations are also smaller in footprint due to higher real estate costs, and those smaller footprints can make is tough to thread something 53-feet in length into and out of a gas station. You also have to be careful in making sure the overhang above the pumps is tall enough to take your over 13-foot high RV!
So unfortunately there are no Flying J travel centers in New England. None. Ditto Love's, which doesn't have dedicated RV gas pumps like Flying J does, but can usually take something our size if we check it out properly. We'll get to an app that let's us do that in a moment. Shell stations can be RV-friendly at times, because they build more of their locations with pumps that run parallel to the road and their buildings than other providers do, making it a straight pull-in / pull-out experience, but even Shell doesn't have a lot of presence in northern states. In New Hampshire, there is a brand called Irving which has mostly decent room for us, but they're a local brand and not very plentiful.
So what's a gasser RV owner to do? Google Earth to the rescue!
If you have never used Google Earth, it's a really cool app that gives you a bird's eye view of anyplace on Earth, and searching is as easy as can be. You can input the specific address, or just the name of the store or gas station and the town you're looking for, and the screen does a little corkscrew thing and gives you an overhead shot of your potential destination!
One Love's station in Binghamton, NY we were looking at just happened to have their picture snapped as a large 5th wheel was pulling into their pumps, so we THOUGHT that that particular location would be good for us. Found out we needed to look at the distance from the pumps to the entrance, because when I tried to pull in, I would be blocking the exit for the drive-thru Wendy's on site. Being a considerate driver, blocking an exit doesn't sound like a good idea when you need to pump 60 gallons or more in your tank. Needless to say, we moved on to a nearby Mirabito station that had room for us. Lesson learned. Google Earth also confirmed a Cracker Barrel north of Albany we were thinking of stopping at. Fortunately, that worked out better for us, with plenty of room to maneuver to stay overnight. So instead of Wallydocking, we Crackerdocked!
So as you can see, the art of traveling on the cheap is a bit more like a science, with a lot of experimentation involved. Planning for the trip back to warmer weather and a likely 2-month or more stay in Georgia, we found a Walmart in New Jersey which will allow us to stop and see an old friend in New Brunswick, and a campground still open until November 1st further south which will find us near the outskirts of Philadelphia to visit a couple of other friends, and hopefully partake of a real, honest-to-goodness Philly cheesesteak. Staying there will also help us officially knock another state off of our list and add a sticker to our map.
But our practice at traveling on the cheap will go a long way towards making life more flexible for us on the road when we need it.
After our trip through Tennessee and North Carolina, it's back to Georgia again to watch our grandson, Jace, while he's on a Fall break from kindergarten. I don't know about you, but growing up we didn't get our first break from school until Thanksgiving. This guy has barely been in school for about 5-6 weeks, and they're already taking a break!
Anyway, while it's nice to get a Jace fix, having him 24/7 for the week reminds us again why we like short visits with him. I think he's part locust, because he's devouring every bit of food in the RV, and if we're not careful he'll probably start eating Grover's kibble!
We stayed in a different location than our usual haunt this time. Instead of a week or so at Leisure Acres, we tried out a COE (Corps of Engineers) park in Gainesville called Bolding Mill. As with all other COE parks we've been to, the park is well-maintained, and has the usual friendly camp hosts. We were originally scheduled to stay just a week, but we extended another 5 days because the sites available were simply too beautiful (and inexpensive) to pass up. Just water and electric, so we had to move a few times to hit the dump station (I refuse to carry one of those wastewater caddies, both in principle and due to limited space), but the 15 minutes or so spent moving out and back was worth the effort given the sites we had.
Our vagabond lifestyle is also subject to last minute changes, so we had to add a single night onto the front of our initial reservation at Bolding Mill because we arrived early, add those 5 extra days on the end, and also wait until a cancellation occurred to be able to book a single weekend night in order to stay in the park for the Saturday night between our initial reservation and our extension. I was literally pulling out of the campground, saying goodbye to the host and telling her we'd be back tomorrow, when she tells me she just had a cancellation on a site that would accommodate our RV. I pull into a parking lot, make my reservation, and pull right back into Bolding Mill COE. In 2 weeks time, we stayed in 4 different sites to make this work. Fortunately, because there were no sewer connections on the sites, it gave us a reason to swing by the dump station to clear tanks in between moves.
Met some really nice people at Bolding Mill COE as well. Our first site was a beautiful back-in (Site 12) that had the “patio” area overlooking a section of Lake Lanier. Our next door neighbors were Peter and Sandy, who spend their summers up in the Georgia area hitting all the COE parks, pulling what Jace calls a “triangle RV” (a decent-sized pop-up camper with seriously sloped roof). Once on site, they open up two “Clam” enclosures for extra room to live in. One is setup as their outdoor kitchen with cooktop, ice maker, toaster oven, etc; while the other one has chairs and tables in which to relax and enjoy a bug-free existence. They use their camper for sleeping and bathroom only.
They also have oatmeal cookies available for the always-hungry 5 year-old who happens to live next door. By the time our week was over, Jace was calling them Meme and Pepe and impressing them with his socialization skills. He did his usual “Can I see your RV to see how clean it is?” routine, which for some reason he started to do in Florida earlier this year when meeting new neighbors. We literally have no idea where he got that from, but he does it to almost everybody he meets in a park.
Another fellow RVer we met was Rick, who has been full-timing in his 22-foot GreyWolf travel trailer for more than three years now. Invited us over to meet some friends of his that he camps with every now and again and sip some cold beverages.
Toss in a few meals with friends and daughters, and it was a pretty nice 2-week stay in Georgia. Bolding Mill COE is definitely on our list of places to return to for shorter visits, we got our requisite Jace fix, and now it's time to head northward to another state we've never visited in the RV – Vermont – plus an extended stay in New Hampshire to visit family and friends. It's a later trip than usual due to some scheduling that will be included in my next post, but we're loaded up with propane if the weather gets too cool for us.
After our Labor Day-induced scheduling delay, we're finally on our way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. From Wilson, it's a relatively short 3 1/2 hour or so drive to our campground in Avon, roughly about 3/4ths of the way down the length of the Outer Banks. But to get there, you first have to cross a series of bridges. Our first bridge over the Alligator River was fairly low over the water, so they incorporated a drawbridge to get boat traffic from one side to the other. We've seen many drawbridges from New England down to Florida, but this was our first rotating drawbridge! Instead of being raised and lowered, this roadway was rotated 90 degrees, allowing boats to funnel their way through 2 side-by-side channels, then it's rotated back and locked into place. Kinda neat.
Our next bridge brought us from the mainland over to the Outer Banks proper, and it was an eyeopener! It's the Washington Baum Bridge, and whoever designed this bridge should be shot. We just call it the Porpoise Bridge now, because that's what your RV or car does for approximately a mile or more. Each short section of the bridge is badly mated to the next, which causes this porpoising effect. It's disturbing to say the least. Watch the video below. It was even worse experiencing it in person.
Safely ashore, we get our first views of the Outer Banks as we take a hour-long drive down Rt-12, the Outer Banks Scenic Highway. With the added height of our motorhome, we get a slightly better view of the sand dunes to the east, and Pamlico Sound to the west. The Sound is relatively quiet, but the surf is up on the Atlantic Ocean side due to Hurricane Larry far offshore churning up huge waves that come crashing ashore.
Our destination is Sands of Time RV campground in Avon. Before the British came, the town was known as Kinnakeet. I kinda prefer the original name, don't you? It's a small campground with level, grassy sites, but they are relatively short in length. I'm not sure that a 45-foot diesel could back in all the way, but it would be close if it could. This campground doesn't have the easier access to the water on either side, but it's $20 less per night than those that do, and it's just a short drive down Rt-12 to get to beach access. We nestle Enterprise into site 19, a corner lot with a bit more privacy than some of the others, and it's time to go exploring.
The drive down the rest of the Outer Banks in the Mini (with the top down, of course) is highlighted by our first glimpse of the famed Cape Hatteras lighthouse, a place we will visit later in the week, and a number of quaint towns and villages until we make it to the southern end where the ferry to the mainland resides. The ferry is not on our itinerary this trip, but will be next time we hit the Outer Banks. One appeal of the Outer Banks (for us) is the almost complete lack of chain stores and restaurants along it's entire length. We prefer the small Mom and Pop eateries when we travel, and there are no shortage of them on the Outer Banks. Our first destination for a meal is the Cockeyed Clam, and it didn't disappoint. Great seafood, decent portions, and reasonable prices. The waitstaff is very friendly and everybody checks in on you to see if you're doing OK.
The disappointment early on is the impact of COVID on these small Mom and Pop establishments. Many restaurants are take-out only due to the limited size of their dining rooms, and too many are closed mid-week because they cannot hire enough people to keep them open on slower days. There is a definite lack of vibrancy in these smaller towns due to the pandemic flaring up again.
Our next day was a beach day, which excited Grover to no end. We still don't know if he's a “swimming” dog or not, but he does seem to love to get his feet into the surf. After a quick dip into the water up to our knees (Hurricane Larry's surf is way too strong to dive in) we settle into our beach chairs on shore for some relaxation time.
For about 5 minutes.
One thing we didn't plan on was the constant swarm of small, biting horseflies which make their home on the beach. Nasty little creatures designed to ruin any day, and they seemed to revel in ruining ours. Beating a hasty retreat while being bitten all the way back to the Mini, we head back to the confines of the motorhome for the rest of the day.
Our next visit (after some minor repairs that I needed to do on our 36LA and tow dolly) was to Cape Hatteras lighthouse. While the climb up the steps was closed (ongoing restoration) - which probably saved one or both of us from a heart attack - the visit was interesting and educational. There is a great history to the Outer Banks of shipwrecks and rescues (and a few war stories) that make this tour very entertaining. Also of note was the story of the movement of the fully-intact lighthouse half a mile from an eroding part of the shoreline in 1999 to it's present location. This feat of engineering was so impressive that sensors on the lighthouse which were designed to alert the engineers if the structure tipped as little as one half of one degree never uttered a sound!
We had intended to take our two-person (and one beagle) inflatable kayak out into Pamlico Sound the next day (as the waters are much quieter there), but winds whipped up into small watercraft advisory levels that morning. And we are DEFINITELY a small watercraft. Maybe next visit.
Still, another great feature due to the narrow nature of the Outer Banks is the ability to see both sunrises and sunsets over the water without any land in the distance. While our day for a sunrise was blocked by some low clouds, the sunset was spectacular. Grover enjoyed it, we met some nice people through him (he's a babe and kid magnet), and the day ended on a beautiful note.
Our last day was the primary reason why I wanted to visit the Outer Banks, because I'm such an aviation buff. Kitty Hawk is at the northern end of the Outer Banks, and it's where Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first powered airplane in history. Our admission to the National Park was free due to our Golden Age Access Pass, and we have free range to wander the site where mankind began flying. The monuments memorializing the first flights on December 17, 1903, are nicely done, with stone markers showing each successive length and duration of all four flights, and who flew them. We walked the entire length of the last flight of 852 feet. Took us a bit longer than the 59 seconds the Wright flyer was in the air, but we made the effort!
Our last stop in the park was the Wright Brothers Memorial on top of Kill Devil Hill, the location where the brothers conducted most of their glider experiments to determine how to best control an aircraft. Having climbed the pathway up to the memorial, one can only imagine the back-breaking work needed to haul large gliders capable of carrying a man up the sandy dune many times each day in windy conditions. Better them than me! All-in-all, it was a fitting end to our Outer banks adventure.
Time to start heading back to Georgia in order to watch our grandson, Jace, while he has his first Fall break from kindergarten, but on the way we stop back in Asheville at Rutledge Lake RV Campground for another visit with Debbie and Chuck Martin and Lynn Wells, another former Xeroid I used to support many years ago. Ate at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, which has an interesting menu if you're adventurous in what you eat, or they make a pretty good ½ pound burger if you're not. Four of us had the burger, and one of us had the pizza. Make your own conclusions.
A week with the Mook is next up, and a stay at a local Corps of Engineers park which will be new for us. Stay tuned!
We're Dave and Barbara Richard, and we're living the ultimate retirement experience - traveling the U.S. and Canada in style in a Tiffin Open Road 36LA Class A motor home, playing golf and stopping at every weird and wacky roadside attraction we can find.