The COVID-19 virus has caused many of us full-time RVers to find new and creative ways to pass the time, mainly because our home is no larger than 16' by 45'. This means that there really aren't many “major” projects that need to be done. Honey-do lists – even they even exist – are incredibly small. It's not as if we can finally get that new sun room or porch built that our spouse has wanted for years, right?
So how have your intrepid Parental Parolees been passing the time while sheltering in place? Thankfully, we're both healthy so we've been able to devote all our waking hours to these activities.
We hope these tips help you make it through these trying times of sheltering in place. Be safe, and be smart!
Rule #1: Don't straddle the front end of your tow dolly while driving the Mini Cooper up the ramps unless you know the hitch has been locked down. Better yet, just don't ever straddle the tow dolly.
Don't ask me how I know.
Now that I have your attention, let's move on to boondocking in a Tiffin Open Road gas model motor home.
For the uninitiated to RV living, boondocking is living off of any hookups (water, sewer and electric) for one or more days. Whatever your motor home's capacity is to store these three items is all you've got. For a Tiffin Open Road gas model, all the capacities are the same:
Freshwater: 70 gallons
Gray water (sink and shower waste) : 66 gallons
Black water (toilet waste) : 50 gallons
Propane (for cooking, heating and hot water) : 20 gallons
Gasoline (for running the generator) : 80 gallons
Now, for those who have taken the time to memorize Tiffin's brochure, you know that propane is listed as 24 gallons, but since you can only fill it to 80% of capacity, the effective capacity is 20 gallons. In addition, the supply line for gasoline for the generator is set at the ¼ tank mark, so the generator will not run if the tank gets that low. This is to ensure that you will always have gas in the tank to move the RV by not allowing you to drain it using the generator. I also inspected and filled our 4 “house” batteries with distilled water to make sure they were operating at peak efficiency before beginning this adventure.
These are the capacities and parameters we work with when boondocking. So it makes sense to approach boondocking with full freshwater, propane and gasoline and with empty black and gray tanks.
It also makes sense to remember certain rules about human water use. Gray water use is generally higher than black water use, so it pays to balance them out when boondocking. Freshwater can be added using large containers, but you still have to account for the associated waste products that entails. In short, you have to balance out ALL usage to extend your time as long as possible.
Rule #2: No matter how much anyone complains about the desert Southwest being so dry, the first thing they notice when they come back into the Southeast is that it is too muggy . . .
Our goal this last trip was to see just how long we could stay “off the grid” while still being comfortable and clean. It helps that we have a bedroom that can be closed off from our rear bathroom and or living area in order to seal in our body heat when sleeping. It also helps that we have a half bath that contains a typical RV gravity-fed toilet (which uses only as much water as is needed to do the job), in addition to our macerator-style toilet in the rear bath which uses electricity AND extra water. So except for using our shower in the rear bath, that door remained closed for the duration of our boondocking test. For informational purposes, we have the residential refrigerator installed in our 36LA.
We boondocked for just over 9 days, even though we had all the data we needed to know how successful we had been by the 7th day.
Our routine was this:
Used extra large baby wipes on non-shower days to get clean
Used dry spray shampoo to remove oil and dirt from hair.
Washed hands in cold water and soap.
Took “Navy showers” every 3rd day. This entailed wetting our bodies down, shutting off the water at the shower head, soaping down then rinsing off completely. Used the attached shower head and hose to keep water targeted and not sitting under a constant stream.
Collected cold water waiting to come out of the hot water system into a 2 gallon bucket. Used to fill our Berkey freshwater drinking system.
Washed dishes every other day, and heated water in large pot to reduce waiting for hot water at the kitchen faucet.
Rinsed soapy dishes in small plastic container, then used the soapy water to flush toilet. This is because people normally use less black water then gray water, and this way we balanced our black and gray tank usage to keep one from filling up earlier than the other.
Used paper plates to reduce water usage.
Unplugged toaster unless needed.
Only charged our iPhones and iPads when the generator was running.
Only used our 3 LED entry lights at night instead of the 8 LED ceiling lights.
Watched TV as normal; probably about 4 hours per day.
Temperatures didn't require A/C, but set front thermostat to 62 at night for front furnace.
Opened all three Fantastic fan covers during the day to reduce heat.
Reduced usage of any appliance which had a heating element (toaster, hair dryer, no space heaters at all, and minimized microwave usage).
Set front thermostat to 62 at night.
Rear furnace set to off.
Conserving gasoline for generator
Set Automatic Generator Module (AGM) to come on when house batteries got down to 12.0 volts, and only run for 2 hours if generator started.
Ran generator for 2 hours prior to bedtime to maintain charge throughout the night.
Rule #3: Your awning is pretty much a useless accessory 9 days out of 10 in the Southwest. Too windy. Sit under your slides or orient your RV to have the sun on the driver's side in the afternoon.
So what were our results? Pretty outstanding.
The data below details each days usage and environment. Your results will vary based on temperatures and comfort level.
Chosa boondocking summary
Propane High Temp Low Temp Gen usage (Hours) Overnight Hours to AGS
Day 1 91% 66 50 2.5 19
Day 2 89% 50 39 3.0 13
Day 3 87% 48 39 5.5 13
Day 4 78% 62 39 6 11
Day 5 75% 57 41 5 11.5
Day 6 72% 70 52 4 12
Day 7 70% 71 50 4 13
Totals -21% 60 (avg) 44 (avg) 4.2 hours per day (avg) 13 hours (avg)
We used 14 gallons of gasoline to run the generator, which averaged out to .4 gallons of gas per hour of generator usage.
Our freshwater tank was almost exactly at the halfway point after 7 days, and our black and gray tanks both registered 1/3rd full. That means that we could have easily gone 10 days, and probably 14 days without having to fill our water tank or empty our gray and black tanks. Propane wasn't an issue at all, and neither was gasoline. In all, we couldn't be happier with the performance of our 36LA and it's boondocking capabilities.
Rule #4: Don't even try to keep your toad clean on a regular basis when you're traveling on the road full-time. It wastes time and money, and just frustrates you the next day after getting it washed. Just accept that it will be filthy and move on to important things – like finding toilet paper.
As always, if anyone reading this has any questions about things I may not have covered, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below, or on our Facebook page.
Heading to New Mexico from Arizona, we were looking forward to some fun. Everything from beautiful natural wonders to quirky tourist traps. It also marked the beginning of our trip back East, with a planned return to Georgia (and our grandson Jace) around April 1st.
Heading east on I-10, we find ourselves in Las Cruces, NM, worming our way northward to our eventual destination of Tularosa - just 30 minutes north of White Sands National Monument. This was our first planned destination we wanted to see in New Mexico, but the weather wasn't going to co-operate for a couple of days. High winds and colder temperatures made visiting White Sands something we needed to delay. Fortunately, our hosts at Mountain Meadows RV Park were able to extend our reservations an extra day to give the weather a chance to die down.
But now what to do for two days? 50 degree temps with wind chills down in the 30's require some indoor attractions. Good thing Alamogordo and Tularosa have some neat things to keep us busy.
One of the things we vowed to do in our RV journey was to stop at any place billing themselves as “The World's Largest” - anything. Having already stopped at The World's Largest Popcorn Ball last year during our drive through Iowa, we were ready for another “World's Largest”. In this case, The World's Largest Pistachio, located just a couple of miles away from our RV park in Tularosa, NM. It's located at McGinn's Pistachioland, and it's 30 feet tall! Besides all things pistachio, they feature local New Mexico wines that are very tasty. In fact, they offer wine tastings in their store, and you can sample up to four different wines to delight the palate. We picked up a couple of bottles each of a very nice Gewurtztraminer and Sangria.
The next day found us at the New Mexico Museum of Space. Not the largest museum you'll ever see, but it nicely captures New Mexico's significant contributions to our space program. After all, White Sands Missile Base was crucial to our successes in the heady days of early space flight. The museum also features one of the coolest looking elevators I've ever ridden in.
Thursday dawned sunny and warm, which meant White Sands National Monument was firmly in our sights. Our park had plastic saucers we could borrow for the purpose of “sledding” down the dunes at White Sands, so we grabbed a couple and headed south on Rt 70.
I've really never seen anything so starkly beautiful as White Sands. Bright white gypsum sand, blown by nature into dunes that can rise over 30 feet, sitting in a basin surrounded by majestic mountain ranges. The road in begins as paved, but changes over into hard packed sand approximately 5 miles into the 8 mile loop. Very weird for this former Massachusetts boy to see sand plowed to the side of the road just like snow!
We got to the park late, because we wanted to take the Sunset Stroll, a park volunteer-hosted walk that highlights the flora and fauna of White Sands. Very informative. Our guide was a full-time RV-er with a diesel Newmar who camp hosts the park over the winter. The stroll is timed so that he finishes up his presentation and positions the crowd at the perfect site to watch the sun drop down behind the mountains to the south and west of White Sands. It is a very moving and beautiful way to end your day there.
With our first of three destinations in the books, it was time to head east to the extraterrestrial capital of the world – Roswell, NM. And it is every bit as campy and touristy as advertised. Little and big green Roswell aliens decorate every shop and corner in and around town. Even the front entrance to our RV park wheels out 4 alien statues every morning and back inside every night. They're EVERYWHERE! Our visit to the UFO Museum downtown certainly had enough information inside to make you believe that SOMETHING happened there that was more than just some weather balloon crash. The other places we visited (the Alien Spacewalk and the Alien Zone) were campy and over the top, but fun to take in. Funniest comment was from the owner of the Alien Spacewalk, a place with lots of black lights and fluorescent paint, saying that the Alien Zone was a bit campy compared to his place. Personally, they BOTH give campy a run for the money. For Star Trek fans, the Alien Spacewalk has an actual Mugato costume on display.
We were able to take a 90-minute drive in the Mini down to Carlsbad to scope out our next destination (the Chosa BLM campground where we were going to test our boondocking skills for at least a week), and our visit to Roswell was complete. It is certainly a destination not to be missed, if only for a day or two.
Chosa BLM campground is a hidden gem just off Hwy 62 at mile marker 9 heading south from Carlsbad Caverns. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, and it's government land set aside for public use. No water, electric or sewer; just real estate to park your RV or pitch a tent to get off the grid for a while. It's free to stay there for up to 14 days at a time, and then you must leave.
Since we had never really boondocked before (except for a night here and there at a local WalMart), we wanted to give the 36LA a real test to see how long we could make it unhooked from everything. So we filled our freshwater tank (70 gallons), our propane (20 gallons) and our RV's gas tank (80 gallons), emptied our black and gray tanks, and found us a nice spot right up against the fence facing back towards Carlsbad Caverns just about 8 miles distant. One nice thing about boondocking is that I have less to do once we get on-site. Jacks go down, slides go out, but I don't have to do a thing with electrical cords, water hoses and sewer hoses. I just take out my Genturi exhaust extension to send our generator exhaust up and over our RV instead of into our neighbors campsite, and I'm sitting back sipping an adult beverage. Life is good!
Three things on our list to do in Carlsbad; The Caverns (of course!), Sitting Bull Falls, and Guadalupe National Park just south of us in Texas for a hike. And maybe a round of golf.
The caverns are spectacular. We opted to walk down into them from the Visitor's Center and do the entire tour, then take the elevator back up. Figured it would be the easiest for us seasoned citizens. Ended up being about a 2.5 mile hike up and down and around the beautifully lit features over 750 feet below the surface. Too many pictures to post on the blog, so I'll try to upload them to a separate section on our website, or link to them if I can. Most of the pictures I took used the lighting provided by the Park Service, but there were a couple of places which required some flash photography to be able to appreciate them. Either way, a truly spectacular day underground. No bats this time of year, but Barbara and I both agreed that bats weren't high on our viewing list anyway.
Now, for this next spot I'm going to temper this section with the fact that Barbara and I have both seen Niagara Falls and Amicalola Falls. The latter was right up the road from us in Georgia, and they begin 725 feet above their base. Niagara Falls speaks for itself; we've been above them on viewing platforms, below them on the famed “Maid of the Mist” tour boats, and have stood both behind and underneath them. We've felt a small portion of the power of these falls as they cascaded on top of our heads while standing on a wooden platform on the American side as the water hammered you from above.
Sitting Bull Falls is none of these.
That being said, for a set of falls in the desert southwest, they are pretty nice. But I can't help thinking that if Sitting Bull were alive today, he'd be saying, “What? Is that all I'm going to get named after me?” The interesting thing is that no river feeds Sitting Bull Falls. It's fed from an UNDERGROUND spring that bubbles 150 feet up. The hike down to the base is very easy and very short. The hike up to the source can be a bit challenging. You'll find Sitting Bull Falls about an hour or so west of the Caverns in the Dog Canyon area.
Our last destination was Guadalupe National Park, only 16 miles south of where we were based at Chosa BLM. We wanted an easy hike of about 1-2 miles just to stretch our legs and our stamina a bit, so the folks at Guadalupe sent us about a mile back north to Frijole Ranch. Beautiful hike, but still a bit challenging for our fitness level, but give us time – we're retired! We still managed to climb over 500 feet vertically and about 1.8 miles in distance.
Our biggest challenge at the end of our New Mexico adventure has been seeing how well we and the RV adapt to boondocking without any connections. In short, we have been VERY impressed with the operation of this motor home in a remote environment. After a full week, we have used just a half tank of fresh water, we're down to 70% on propane (from a high of 92%), our gray and black tanks are at 1/3rd each, and we've used about 14 gallons of gas for the generator. That breaks down to about .4 gallons of gas per hour of generator use.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Basically, we could do 10 days easy, and maybe up to 14 days if needed. We used paper plates to minimize dishwater usage, took 2 “Navy showers” each (let the water get you wet, shut it off, soap up and rinse off), and in between we used full body wet wipes and dry shampoo to keep clean. Let me tell you, we REALLY appreciated Navy shower days!
Finally, we checked off another state on the golfing list. Played 9 holes at Lake Carlsbad Golf Course, a municipal course in typical municipal shape. Fairways in need of grassy attention, greens recently sanded in anticipation of the upcoming Spring season, and no real hazards to keep you honest. A bit disappointing from a golf perspective, but about what I expected to see.
Now it's time to make our way back to Georgia to visit with our grandson, and prep for our next big trip – Utah's Big Five National Parks – beginning April 15th.
We'll skip over our New Mexico experience after escaping Texas (for the moment) and come back to it when we leave Arizona, as we'll be hitting some New Mexico destinations on our way back East.
Arizona was our next state to visit, because family was involved. Our first stop in Arizona was EXACTLY one of the reasons why we decided to RV in order to see this great country. Just about 50 miles into Arizona at Exit 322 is something that had been advertised for the past couple of hours on billboards along I-10. Literally dozens of billboards reminding us to stop in to see what “The THING” really is. It's one of those weird, wacky roadside attractions you can't really bypass in good conscience. So we pulled off at Exit 322 to discover just what was so darned strange about “The Thing”. Come to find out, it's a very entertaining 20-30 minute stroll through a museum that a very inventive mind has put together, suggesting that aliens from outer space came down to Earth millions of years ago and tamed the dinosaurs. They then stayed around in two warring factions; one bad and one good, who aligned themselves with the forces of good and evil on Earth. It ends with a display case inhabited by something that looks like an alien (apparently unearthed in a cave about 50 miles from the museum), but it could just as easily be a large, creatively carved piece of cottonwood.
My brother Doug has lived in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert for more than 15 years now, so we camped out at Blue Star at Lost Dutchman RV Park in Apache Junction, AZ, just about a 25 minute drive to Doug's house. It's an interesting park; it's been here a while so the amenities are a bit dated, and the spots are configured differently than what we're used to. There's a narrow, 4-foot strip of concrete pad in the middle of the site, then you back in your motor home to the right of the pad on gravel, while your toad is parked on the left side of the pad. The pad is used for your chairs, grill and various and sundry other things you might have brought with you. Our 37.5' 36LA BARELY fit in site #62 assigned to us. The site is about 38.5' long, so we have a 6” clearance for the back and front of our unit. There are longer sites, but they're in the middle area usually reserved for snowbirds, or other sites on the right hand side that could take a 45' motor home.
The other strange thing is that their office closes at 5 pm. Not so unusual there, but what IS unusual is that they don't have an after hours board to direct you to your site if you show up at 5:30. Fortunately, the after hours emergency line got us in touch with their maintenance guy, who helped us find AND back into our site.
Met one other Tiffin owner here, and by coincidence he has a 36LA , too!
Our visit with my brother Doug was great. He and his wife Tracey have a beautiful home nestled in a nice subdivision. Grass areas in the front and back yards are well-manicured by their long-time landscaper, Carmelo, and Doug has created a wonderful place in the back yard to chill out with a fire pit and Tiki bar to go along with the usual pool necessary in Arizona. It had been a couple of years since I had last seen Doug, back when we were helping our Dad move out of his apartment to his senior living facility.
Doug and his sister-in-law Tam returned the favor and visited us the next day so they could see what RV living was all about. Doug had earlier expressed his reservations about our decision to retire early and do the RV thing, but he seemed suitably impressed with our 36LA.
Following the visits, we had a couple of days to goof off, so we decided to try a bit of hiking, something we had been unable to do based on our health problems early on in the trip out West. So, a late morning visit to Camelback Mountain was in the cards. We knew we weren't in shape to make one of the summits, but we made the effort to climb as high as we could safely do. I was able to make it a bit higher than Barbara did (she wanted me to go farther up), but was only able to get to the highest point between the two peaks. Still, it was a great hike, and the views were just awesome.
While we were coming down, we were held by park rangers and fire personnel to allow a helicopter to land, for the purposes of dropping off men and equipment in order to effect a rescue of an 11 year-old boy who had fallen and injured himself. Apparently, this happens all too often on the mountain. After a 20 minute wait, we were allowed to finish our descent.
On our way back to the RV park, we decided to see what all the fuss was about regarding In and Out Burgers. We had never tried them, as they are not in the Georgia area as yet, but many folks who have tried them had raved about them to us, including my brother, Doug. There was an In and Out on the route back, and we were hungry from the hike, so it seemed like a good idea to give it a go.
It was – disappointing.
Look, we come from an area where Five Guys burger places are plentiful, and had one right down the street from the apartment in which we lived. You can't beat their fries, especially when reheated the next day because they give you so damned many in that bag of theirs. In addition, their patties are bigger, juicier and they really know how to cook their bacon crispy. In and Out was nothing like Five Guys. Not impressed at all.
Moving day brought us halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, to a beautiful place called Picacho Peak RV Resort. It is situated right next door to the state park by the same name (we tried to get in but it was booked solid) and was right at the base of Picacho Peak, a 3,400 foot peak all by itself in the middle of nowhere. Absolutely stunning sunsets and wake up views as you look at this mountain each day.
It's also right next door to the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, a nice little tourist trap that allows you to feed deer, goats, chickens, rabbits, ducks, lorikeets, and even stingrays. If you've got kids, this is a great stopover for a couple of hours. Barbara was able to become one with the lorikeets while feeding them nectar in a small cup.
Another day was spent in Tombstone, about 90 minutes south of Picacho Peak. The show that was put on recreating the Gunfight at the OK Corral was over-acted and campy, but pure fun to watch, especially with the audience participating in loud choruses of boos for the bad guys and cheers for the good guys. One of the things you have to plan for in Arizona is the change in elevation. Tombstone was a few thousand feet higher than our spot in Picacho Peak, and it was a good thing we checked the weather and temperature there before heading out. It was a full 15 degrees cooler in Tombstone, and would have been uncomfortable without the heavier jackets we brought.
Before leaving Arizona, a very nice Sunday afternoon and evening back in Tempe presented itself in a meet and greet scheduled by our favorite RV couple, Marc and Julie Bennett, also known as RV Love. They had been very helpful in answering some questions we had before deciding on full-time RVing, and we always wanted to camp with them at some time once we hit the road. While we didn't have the time to share a campground, we were able to spend some quality time with them and some of their other friends who attended. They are every bit as warm and personable as they seem in their videos and over email. We vowed to meet up at a later date.
Unfortunately, our Arizona adventure came to an end without any golf being played, but it was time to start heading back East. But first, New Mexico beckons . . .
Our first 2 weeks in Texas were great. Got reacquainted with some long-time friends in Dallas and Houston and found a promising place to return to another time in Port Aransas outside of Corpus Christi. Seemed like a nice place but the weather didn't cooperate.
Now it was on to the Big Bend area, where some prime Texas golf had been planned for quite a while. I had read about a really nice (and really expensive) golf course as part of the Maverick RV Ranch down in Lajitas, Texas. It's in a very remote area along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande River, literally a stone's throw across from the Mexican border.
But first we had to get there.
Leaving San Antonio after a 2 day visit, we head as far west as we've ever been in the RV to Ft. Stockton, TX. It's going to be our jumping off point to the Big Bend area. We stay at a nice, no-frills park called Hilltop RV. $27 a night if you pay cash. Taz is beginning to have some reservations about staying in Texas, as there are very few grassy areas at many RV parks out here, and she likes to do her business on grass – not gravel; but she muddles through, even as I have to spend extra time outside with her in order to make sure she is emptied at the proper times during the day and night.
We head south the next day towards Lajitas, passing through the small town of Alpine – which will fit prominently in our future dealings with Texas. It's about a 3-hour drive in the RV, only hitting a couple of steep inclines on the way out of Alpine. The rest is very desolate and fairly flat – and very beautiful in places. Two notable places along the way are the Kokernot Mesa and Cathedral Mountain, about as majestic a set of views as we have seen on this trip so far.
Arriving at Maverick RV Resort, we do the obligatory check-in, finding out they do something we hadn't yet seen in RV living – back-in and pull-in opposing sites. Actually not a bad way to maximize your social space by putting your utilities up against one neighbor, and opening up the other side to enjoy a larger area to meet your other neighbors.
You're surrounded by a beautiful set of very colorful mountains on one side, and prairie on the other. They're trying to make something of a destination down there in Lajitas, and they're marginally successful with golf, zip lines, shooting, riding, a spa and some shops, but it all seems a bit too contrived at times. And expensive. But if you like to hike, ride a bike or kayak down the Rio Grande, this could be a nice place for you. Not so much for us as yet.
I golfed early on, and Black Jack's Crossing was everything I had hoped for. It's a long course from the black tees at 7413 yds, and even a bit long for those who usually play from the whites at 6858 yds (they don't have white tees there, but maroon for the “average” golfer. I played from the gold tees (senior) which brings it down to a manageable 6111 yds in length, and avoids many areas of carry that I would never have cleared with my limited tee game. Beautiful undulating greens kept in championship shape with just enough sand guarding the greens to make it worth your while to be accurate. Even though I didn't play my best it took a 10 on the final par 5 18th hole to finish with a crowd-leasing 113 for the round. Still, it's a great course and one I would return to someday, if it wasn't located in Lajitas, Texas.
Barbara had been fighting a medical problem for the past few days, and it wasn't getting better, so the next day we head to Alpine (almost 2 hours away) to what looked to be the nearest competent medical facility (there is nothing but a nurse practitioner in Lajitas, who wasn't going to be taking calls for the next week). After picking up her prescription and heading back another 2 hours, we hoped she was on the mend, but the prescription knocked her for a loop. Two days later, I develop flu-like syndromes (obviously picked up in my visit to the clinic in Alpine) and I'm down for the count. As bad as Barbara felt, she was the healthiest of the two of us and was assigned Taz duties. We extended our stay in Lajitas to recover from each of our maladies, but as was detailed in our earlier post, Taz became sick and died. Having had enough of what was turning out to be a cursed place called Lajitas, we head north to drop Taz off in Alpine to be cremated and to grieve. This was on a Sunday.
Hoping to pick up Taz's remains on Tuesday morning after the promised 10 am time frame, we drive the hour down to Alpine (we were back at Ft. Stockton at Hilltop RV) only to find out Taz would not be ready until after 4 pm that day. With nothing to do in Alpine, we head back to our RV with plans to pick her up the next day. HOWEVER, a winter storm was coming into the area the next day! Thought we'd have to stay TWO days because of the roads and delays, but the folks in Alpine were able to get Taz taken care of mid-day Wednesday. WE still had to endure the 2 inches of snow, two days of below freezing temperatures and two nights of turtling in our 36LA to conserve heat, but on Thursday morning we FINALLY headed westbound on I-10 for a relatively short 360-mile drive towards Deming, NM, where we planned to spend the next week resting, recovering and getting our physical and emotional strength back.
But the great state of Texas wasn't through with us just yet. For the entire drive we were hit with 15-20 mph winds and up to 32 mph gusts, coming in mainly from the front but occasionally from the drivers quarter, slowing us down and absolutely killing our gas mileage. After 6 hours of fighting this I was wiped out, but at the 5 hour mark we FINALLY entered The Land of Enchantment for the first time.
The upshot of this past 5 weeks is that we love Texans; but we're not enamored of the state itself. So except for a speed-run back east once we experience New Mexico and Arizona, it will be off our list of places to visit for a long, long time.
Saturday night at around 10 PM, we lost the light of our lives. Our beloved fur baby, a German Shepherd / Yellow Lab mix we had named Taz, crossed over the Rainbow Bridge unexpectedly. And all too soon.
It was about 8 years ago, when Taz was only about 2, that she entered our lives. Our daughter's boyfriend was trying to take care of three dogs; 2 males and 1 female. The female (Taz) kept going into heat as no one had bothered to have her spayed, and the two males would attack each other when she went into heat, so our daughter volunteered to mind Taz. It was thought to be a temporary situation. But as time went on and she went into heat two more times (this time at OUR house), Barbara stepped in and told our daughter that we were going to pay for Taz to be spayed, and that she was now our dog.
We named her Taz because she was a bit excitable at the time, being cooped up in our daughter's room a good portion of the day. She wasn't naturally excitable, but you could sure get her going if you wanted to!
Taz was the original cuddle bug. She had to be in contact with one, or both of us at all times. If I was sitting in my recliner watching TV, she was pressed up against my side. In bed, she staked out her spot between the two of us, either above the covers or under them if she was cold. If friends came to visit, she was either laying on their feet or leaning up against them on the couch, making sure they got the full Taz experience.
Once we started RV-ing, she would stake out her spot at Barbara's feet, looking out her doggie window as the world went by; only lifting her head when I would occasionally stray onto some rumble strips (as if to say, “Hey Dad, you wanna keep it between the lines?”), or if (Heaven forbid!) Barbara left her seat to get us something to eat or drink.
Taz was not very good with other dogs. This is not to say she was mean or anything; she just didn't know how to do anything calmly and got too excited to meet new friends, usually turning them off. We were really hoping her time on the road would have allowed her to get better at that. She was also extraordinarily patient around kids, especially our 3 year-old grandson Jace.
Taz was full of love, adoration, laughter and life. She had a huge soul, and you could see it in her eyes.
Saturday morning in Lajitas, Texas began as any other, with one exception. I was sick with the flu, so Barbara had Taz duty during the day. As Taz was taking her usual time to find just the right spot to do her business, she apparently spotted something on the road beside our campsite. Could have been some bone from someone's trash, or maybe even a scorpion that got Taz's attention; we'll never know. She lunged for it, crunched it up and swallowed it before Barbara could do anything about it. For the rest of the day Taz was fine, until 5 o'clock rolled around and she began to get lethargic. She wouldn't eat, even when her favorite (cheese) was offered. Not a whine or a peep out of her. Laying on her side around 8, she pooped on the floor (something she would NEVER do), and she couldn't get up on her feet.
We found a vet nearby in Terlingua who thought she might have suffered a stroke and gave her something to increase the oxygen in her system (don't get me started on vet services in the Big Bend area of Texas), and we brought Taz back to the RV. Carrying her up the 5 stairs, she immediately collapsed on the floor. We cuddled with her while her breathing became more labored and wrapped her in a blanket to keep her warm; but we knew we were losing her. And still not one noise out of her throughout the night of moving her back and forth in the Mini and in and out of the RV. She pooped again while lying on her side, and there was blood in her stool. Our sweet baby was dying. She rolled over to try to get into a more comfortable position, and as I helped her, Taz let out this long, plaintive wail – her first sound of the long ordeal. Her tongue stayed out, her breathing stopped. Our Taz was gone.
At first I thought she was in pain at the very end, and maybe she was. But maybe – just maybe – it was that giant soul of hers leaving her earthly body to begin her journey over the Rainbow Bridge.
I don't know if there is a Heaven. I do know that if there is, Taz is waiting for Barbara and me to join her there.
There's a quiet in the RV now. Too quiet, in fact. We don't have to worry about a giant tail sweeping a drink around the floor or off of a table. There's no race to see who gets to the door first, whether Taz needed to go out or if I just had something to do outside of the RV. We have room to stretch out now without 70 lbs of dog jumping up on us. We don't feel guilty leaving the RV without being able to take her for her much anticipated rides in the Mini.
Will we ever get another dog? It's too soon to tell. The pain is certainly too raw right now to consider that right now. We're not as young as we used to be, but given our family histories we certainly have plenty of time if we chose to do so, but an RV isn't the same as a house. It can be a cruel environment to bring a strange pet into, and we'll always try to do right by our pets. Time will tell.
For now, we'll grieve and celebrate the life of a magnificent soul – Taz.
After Houston, the thought was to head a bit further south for a couple of extra degrees of warmth, and hit the Gulf of Mexico coast for a change of scenery. The drive itself was a short one, but was almost exclusively in drizzle, some rain, or really low hanging clouds (like, 200 feet low). And the closer we got to Corpus Christi, the foggier it got.
Port Aransas is located on a barrier island to Corpus Christi; specifically, Mustang Island. To get there, you have to cross over a relatively short, but fairly high bridge leaving Corpus Christi, then take a left onto Mustang Island. As you can see from the photo below, those low hanging clouds completely obscured our visibility going over that bridge!
Grateful to be at the end of our drive that day, we settled into Pioneer RV Park, just a few short miles away from Port Aransas proper. We chose it because it had beach access just a short walk over some dunes. Our spot ended up being about 200 yards away from the gulf, which meant we heard the surf constantly. Really nice when you have the vent covers open at night. Good park. WiFi was OK, nice cement pads (a bit narrow for my taste) and they picked up your trash every morning if you left it out for them.
Unfortunately, while the park and location were both nice, the weather refused to cooperate for the entire week we stayed there. Rained just one night, but foggy and misty until our departure morning when the sun finally peeked up over the dunes. One night we had winds so fierce, I almost brought in the slides to keep our toppers from being damaged! And even though we had hoped for some warmer weather, it remained cooler than normal throughout the week. Only had the top down on the Mini Cooper one day, which when you find out about what is so cool regarding Mustang Island, ended up being a huge disappointment.
This is not to say we had a bad time; just that it could have been soooooo much better.
Taz got to see and walk on her first beach, even if the big chicken wouldn't put her paws in the water.
We spent a day touring the retired aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, now based out of Corpus Christi. Nice self-paced tour up and down lots of ladders, a $5 sort of-kinda-almost F/A-18 “simulator” ride, and a good collection of Navy planes on deck that show the progression of U.S. Naval aviation.
We used our new Texas State Parks Pass to check out potential camping sites at Mustang Island State Park for visits later this year.
But the coolest thing we found out about Mustang Island is the driving beach. Yes, you can actually drive onto the beach for about a 12-mile stretch. In fact, it's the only legal roadway in the U.S. on a beach. There are 3 access roads from in-town Port Aransas to almost the state park where you can just drive your car, truck or even RV onto the hard packed sand. Free to drive, $12 to be able to park on the beach if you're going to rough it in a tent, and $40 will allow you to camp for up to 3 nights once per month for a full year – IN YOUR RV! Just pull onto the beach, keep your RV 25 feet away from the dunes, and 50 feet away from the water, and you can wake up on the beach for 3 successive mornings. Definitely on our to-do list!
Since we already had a spot at Pioneer RV Park, we weren't going to shell out the $40 bucks for the beach RV experience, but it is sure on our minds for a return trip to take advantage of this unique opportunity. We did, however take the Mini for a spin on the sandy track.
Met some nice people while we were there, but didn't do too much socializing as Barbara was under the weather for the last 3 days of our visit (she's better now, thank you). All-in-all, Port Aransas is a potentially really nice place, but we just had a run of bad luck for the week. Otherwise, it's on our list of places to return to in the future.
After three great nights in Frisco, TX, we head south towards Houston. It's not supposed to be a long drive, but our GPS program (CoPilot RV) has been set to avoid toll roads, and unfortunately Houston is overrun with toll roads. So instead of a direct drive down I-45 with a quick run across I-10 to our campground, we end up taking some smaller back roads through rural Texas. This ended up turning our 5 hour trip into more than 6 hours, including some very slow sections running through small towns.
But the drive was worth it. We ended up staying in Stephen F. Austin State Park in San Felipe (once known as San Felipe de Austin), but that's a story for later.
Stephen F. Austin is a wonderful state park, with plenty of sites big enough for the largest rigs down to primitive camping. The RV sites are pull-thru semi-circles with full hookups, and the only downside is that they just have 30 amp electric available. It wasn't a problem this trip, but I'm sure during the scorching days of summer when high amounts of air conditioning is needed, this would be a problem for bigger rigs like our 36LA. Level sites (typical of Texas in general) with a large circle of mowed grassy area, fire pit and grill and a picnic table at each site. If I had to estimate, our site #11 was at least 60' wide by 80' deep. Past the mowed areas the rest of the park is left natural for deer, coyotes and other wildlife to inhabit. Two or more hiking trails for visitors to enjoy.
There is a golf course adjacent to the park, but it was closed for renovations while we were there. It used to be associated with the state park, but is a private concern now. Looked nice. Would have liked to play a round there.
But as good as the park was, we were there to visit with an old friend I hadn't seen in more than 40 years; Bob Johnson and his wife, Susan. Bob just recently retired from the ministry, and he and Susan bought a Ford F150 pickup and a new Lance travel trailer. They've been enjoying it for short trips over the past year, and we've both been looking forward to meeting up once Barbara and I finally got around to retiring to full-time RV living. Really, really nice people who introduced us to things around Houston, including Galveston, while we introduced them to nightly mini ice cream cones for dessert!
We got to experience a bit of early Texas history not generally taught. Everyone knows all about the Alamo, Sam Houston and Texas' fight for freedom from Mexico, but many people (ourselves included) didn't know much about how Texas was founded BEFORE the nasty business at the Alamo. The guy who got it all started was whom the park we stayed at was named; Stephen F. Austin. He was responsible for receiving land grants from Spain (via Mexico) in order to bring immigrants from the U.S. Into the territory of Texas. These people would, in turn, receive grants of land from their local “empresario” (Stephen F. Austin) and they would build, farm and generally make a new life for themselves while developing the land for commerce and paying taxes to Mexico. The Stephen F. Austin museum, located just a few minutes away from the state park in a plot of land that was once part of San Felipe de Austin (the original settlement of Americans in Texas), is an excellent way to learn about early Texas history and a very interesting man. Even if you don't stay at the park, it's a good day trip to take on it's own.
A sculpture outside of Stephen F. Austin museum depicting the flight out of town in advance of Mexican troops. The fleeing Texans burned the town of San Felipe de Austin in order to deny the invading troops anything to make their stay comfortable. Interesting fact: The sculpture initially didn't include the dog I was posing with. It was determined that a blind person trying to access the museum with a cane could possibly hit the woman with the lantern, so the dog was added to block that part of the sculpture!
One big plus from our Houston trip was finding the last couple of skeins of yarn in the right dye lot for Barbara to finish her crocheting project. I was getting pretty tired of hitting every Walmart at every stop we made to find the right dye lot!
A day trip to Galveston got us our first view of the Gulf of Mexico, and even though it wasn't a great day weather-wise, whetted our appetite for our next destination – Port Aransas – a barrier island between Corpus Christi and the Gulf.
We didn't have time to see NASA's space center this trip, but we'll be back another time.
After a quick dash to Texas, it was time to spend some quality time with friends and former co-workers of mine from many years ago at Xerox; people we hadn't seen since 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics.
I used to work FOR Rhonda Lea. I used to work WITH Allen Lea. Rhonda was usually working hard to keep Allen and I from committing professional suicide with our sometimes quirky sense of humor – always funny (to us), but not always understood by others. Fortunately we both survived and lasted many years at Xerox. But we hadn't seen each other for many, many years. So when in Texas, it was a natural thing to head to the northern suburb of Dallas known as Frisco, TX. We don't usually pay as much per night ($60) as we did for this campground, but there is a dearth of available campgrounds in decent places north of Dallas, and as it was also situated on Lake Lewisville we felt the three days there were worth it.
The nice thing we discovered about Texas is that it is very flat, therefore there is little trouble finding level sites upon which to park the motor home. Our levelers have always done a great job of leveling our 36LA, but the more it needs to level, the harder it is to get it just right so that the shower door doesn't slide open while in use, or that the half bath door doesn't fly open when using it. An added benefit is that the lower step is always very low, making it easier for us and our guests to get on up into our home.
The campground we stayed at was Hidden Cove Park and Marina. It's quiet, with very little light spillage due to it's remote location. But it's also close enough to Frisco to get food (I can recommend the Nolan Ryan beef at Kroger) and meals if you want to. Warning signs for this park included being on the lookout for coyotes and bobcats. Didn't see or hear either, which was fine by me. The sites, as you can see by the attached picture, are fairly large; either pie shaped to the back or to the front due to the curves of the roads onsite. Our back-in site was just long enough to tuck our tow dolly underneath the back of the 36LA and still have room to park the Mini across the front of the coach.
Texas features many strange and quirky places; none more strange than the Toxic Waste Dump Farm, featuring the tag line: “Beef To Die For”. OK, so it's not a real cattle farm (or any farm for that matter), nor does it contain any toxic waste on the property. It DOES contain a very disgruntled owner whose next door property is being developed as a pretty posh neighborhood of brand new and expensive homes. Doesn't sound like a big problem, unless you're the guy next door who didn't want the property developed but didn't want to buy it on his own, either. So in his own fashion, he's finding a way to protest development on his terms. Not sure how effective it will be, but I give him high marks for creativity!
After a little sightseeing in historic downtown Denton, TX, and a couple of really good meals where some tall tales were swapped, we headed to our next destination; Stephen F. Austin State Park just west of Houston in San Felipe, but not before we encountered our next Texas institution: Buc-ees.
If you have never experienced Buc-ees before, well – it's hard to describe. The first thing you notice is the unbelievable number of gas pumps. Nearly 100 at the Melissa location, and that's not even the largest Buc-ees in the state! The interesting thing about Buc-ees is that tractor trailers are NOT allowed in any Buc-ees; it is NOT a truck stop. But it can accommodate our 37 ft RV just fine. Diesel is available for pickups and RV's as well, but NO 18-wheelers! But that's only part of the Buc-ees experience. Spotless restrooms (a miracle given the huge number of customers who stop by). A bakery, a sandwich counter featuring real Texas brisket, homemade candy and fudge, an incalculable number of flavors of jerky, and enough souvenirs to make any traveler happy. Think of your average CVS or Walgreens store, quintuple it's size, and stuff it with all of the above. It is a sight to behold, and their gas prices are the lowest around.
Full of gas, we point our RV south towards the port city of Houston.
Unencumbered with family issues and the occasional drama, it's time to head out on our first big official travel. Time to head to Texas for the month of January, New Mexico for the month of February, and Arizona for the month of March. The early part of the trip has some scheduled stops to visit friends, but beginning the second week we're back to winging it. No reservations; no plans. Just travel and take in the sights.
But first we have to get to Texas; a great state with lots to see and do, and one where Barbara and I have limited past experience. Back in the 1950's, Cunard Cruise Lines had an ad campaign with the tag line “Getting there is half the fun”! This post will show you the “other” side of RV-ing; the part that most people won't tell you about.
We'd already heard about the legendary poor condition of I-10 going through the southerly route to Texas, and fortunately our initial travel to Dallas means we get to enjoy I-20 across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi before we get to Texas. They'll be no sightseeing on this initial leg of our journey, as we have reservations in the Lake Lewisville area north of Dallas for three nights to visit with Rhonda and Allen Lea, former co-workers of mine during my time with Xerox.
In keeping with the 330 rule of leisurely Rv-ing, we try to look ahead to about a 5-6 hour drive each of the three days it will take us to get to Dallas. This will mean we drive about 330 miles per day, and try to arrive by 3:30 in the afternoon at our campsite for the evening.
The one observation I'll have about this dash to Dallas is the elevation. We've been used to hills and mountains living in North Georgia for the past 28 years, and there are a LOT of elevation changes to be had in Georgia.
Not so on this trip. It's flat. Really, really flat. Good for gas mileage, but nothing much for the scenic side of the trip.
Since this is a speed run to Dallas, we're not interested in any amenities in our campgrounds, so price becomes more important. Enter Passport America. We joined them for their 50% off campground fees that take the program; very important for the one or two night stays we'll need when heading from one place to another. Generally, they are older parks, limited in creature comforts. Usually just a pad and hookups for the RV, but a cheap way to get from Point A to Point B for under $20 per night. They also tend to have more pull-thru sites available for folks like us who are just passing through; enabling us to keep the tow dolly and Mini hooked up to save us time and effort.
Leaving our comfy spot in Cleveland, GA at Leisure Acres RV Campground (and leaving our duck friends to fend for themselves), we travel at a sedate 62 MPH on cruise control west through Georgia and Alabama, stopping at Benchmark RV Park in Meridian MS just over the border from Alabama. It consists of basically a couple of loop roads in order to facilitate the large number of pull-thru sites they offer. Cement pads separated with narrow grass that holds the hookups. The ONLY amenity is a “dog park”, which is a chain link fence where dogs can leave their droppings when owners refuse to pick them up, and a propane filling station. Power is sufficient for our RV using 50 AMP service, but there is a strict NO SPACE HEATERS warning in the office, leaving me to believe that the grid is a bit taxed due to age. But it's a short drive off of I-20, so at $20 for the night, it will do.
Since we have a shorter than usual trek the next day, we leave around 10:00 AM in a heavy rain. I'm glad that our destination is less than 300 miles away, because we have to drop down to between 50-55 MPH due to the varying nature of the rain, alternating between a heavy mist and a heavy downpour. Crossing the Mississippi River is always a thrill. The “Big Muddy” was not as wide as it would be closer to New Orleans, but it is still impressive, especially covered in a morning mist. We arrive at our next overnight stop in West Monroe, Louisiana. The rate is even better at $17 for the night, and that's a good thing. It's a park loaded with full-time residents; normally not the worst thing, but unfortunately full-time residents tend to ignore the rules that are written for the rest of us. Therefore, our site bordered a number of spots where people had more than one vehicle parked, making it difficult to maneuver our way out of the spot in the morning. We also heard constantly barking dogs all night long (another rule violation) in at least 2 sites. Frankly, we were happy to depart for Texas then next morning.
The interesting thing about Texas and I-20 is the condition of the interstate. Very, very good. It's in stark contrast with the local roads we encountered in and around the Frisco, TX area north of Dallas where we stayed for 3 days. Very, very poor.
Fortunately, the park we stayed in, as well as the company we enjoyed with good friends, made up for all the poor local roads.
We'll be spending 3 nights in Hidden Cove Marina and RV Park on Lake Lewisville. Beautiful concrete padded site on a spacious level lot within sight of the lake. A bit pricey at $60 a night, but in better weather worth the price when you can enjoy more of the park and it's amenities. But there's not a lot of RV parks in that area, so choices are limited.
Our dash to Texas completed, it's time to enjoy some Texas food and friends. But that's for another post. Stay tuned!
We're Dave and Barbara Richard, and we're planning the ultimate retirement experience - travel the U.S. and Canada in style in a Tiffin Open Road 36LA Class A motor home, play golf and stop at every weird and wacky roadside attraction we can find.