After almost a year of living on the road, we tried something new this trip on our way to Red Bay, Alabama for final warranty work.
We stayed at a COE park.
Specifically, Holiday COE park on West Point Lake in Lagrange, GA, right on the GA-AL border.
For those who didn't know, COE stands for Corps Of Engineers, as in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many people north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi probably haven't heard much about the Corps of Engineers, because most of their work has been done managing rivers and creating lakes in the southern United States. The COE has a long and storied history of managing (and largely controlling) the mighty Mississippi and other lesser rivers for decades, and their work has resulted in the creation of fresh water reservoirs and lakes across the South.
One of the side benefits to these lakes are a series of Corps-managed parks along their shorelines, and they are a hidden gem of camping opportunities for the uninitiated (like us) when it came to using a resource we knew about, but hadn't yet experienced. Being a former country commissioner in a north Georgia county that borders Lake Lanier, I knew about COE parks, but primarily as day use parks for swimming, boating, fishing and picnicking. But never having an RV before meant that I knew little about COE parks when it came to camping.
Only one park under our belts, but what an eye-opener!
Two resources are best used when trying to figure out if a COE park is nearby, and if it is best for you. The first one is corpslakes.erdc.dren.mil, which I have linked here. This site allows you to find COE properties by state, and once identified, gives you the specifics of each park's amenities. Pick a state to search, then check off which activities you're looking for to refine your search. A map shows up with each location, which can be zoomed in to find lakes where multiple choices are available. Click on the lake and you get breakdowns of each amenity for each park or area. For instance, there are 35 places maintained by the COE on West Point Lake alone. Not all are considered parks or campgrounds. Campgrounds will be notated with whether they require reservations or not. Clicking on the campground name will take you to Recreation.gov if reservations are required, or you can use the Reservation.gov app on your smartphone.
Once on Recreation.gov, you can put in the parameters of your needs for your specific rig. Put in your date range, and site options start popping up for you to select. There are few choices with full hookups, so water and electric with a dump station is the usual setup you'll get. I believe there is a maximum 14-day stay allowed before you have to leave, but given the lack of sewer setup, that's probably not a problem for many of us. There are pictures of sites that may (or may not) help you to decide if it's what you want depending on the quality of the picture, but here's a couple of tips to help you find a site suitable for your motor home:
2. Be careful about choosing a 30 amp site based on it's length.
While there may be more 30 amp sites on or near the lake, and the lengths look good to you, many of those sites have some uncomfortable slopes to them, probably because their slabs were built to accommodate shorter campers with lower power requirements. You'll have trouble on many of those sites getting level. The longer they are, the better chance of manageable slopes.
3. The brighter the picture, the less trees are likely overhead
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Just keep that in mind as you look at the site's pictures.
Our site at Holiday was huge! The parking slab was at least 55 feet long, easily long enough for our 36LA, Mini and tow dolly. The only weird thing was it was situated on the left side of the campsite, which meant that our awning couldn't be extended due to the wooded area next to us, and our “patio” faced away from the bulk of the site.
Otherwise, it was a very large site. At least 50 feet wide (not including the parking slab), and extending over 80 feet in length. The site had a picnic table on a cement slab, a fire pit and grill, and a large graded and sanded area for a tent. The only neighbor we could see was at least 50 yards away; otherwise, except for street frontage, we were surrounded by woods.
The park itself has 2 boat ramps, a small playground, a basketball court and a tennis court. Shower and bath facilities were alternately interspersed throughout the park. We weren't here long enough to take the inflatable kayak out, but it seemed to be a great lake, especially with all the coves, to paddle an afternoon away.
Spent a great afternoon and evening with a good friend and former co-worker, Katie Jesser, and her husband, Tom. Hadn't seen her in well over a year, and it was time to catch up with each other's lives.
If there was one downside to West Point Lake in this day and age of connectivity, it's that there was no usable signal on our cell phones for data. In fact, it was horrendous. We could call out and text to people, but the one bar of 3G signal we had wasn't enough to even check email or our banking app. And forget about Facebook. I get it; we're supposed to be getting away from all this when we spend some time in these remote locations, but I suspect that connectivity will be an issue in most COE parks. Check out any reviews beforehand if you need any signal more than minimums. It also looks like a cell signal booster and WiFi setup is in our future.
But the beautiful part of all this was the price: about $12 per night using our US Parks Senior Pass!
More COE parks are definitely in our future!
Now, for my obligatory rant. There is one flaw in the reservation system on Recreation.gov, and it's that it allows people to make reservations without any possibility of verification at time of arrival for length or power needs. This allows people with tents to take up a space clearly designed for a motor home (55' long parking slab and 50 amp power) just because it has a killer view of the water. We passed at least a half dozen sites where tent campers, who clearly had no need for any power requirement exceeding 20 amps, took up sites where a motor home would have more efficiently made use of the site. Because of this, we had one site – one! - available to us at reservation time that met our needs for length and power.
There should be a disclaimer on Recreation.gov which says that your reservation is subject to change or cancellation pending verification of power needs at time of check-in, and that you agree to this before submitting your reservation.
There's an old adage about motor home living: “Entertains 6, feeds 4, and sleeps 2”.
Taking your two grandsons and a daughter on a 4-day birthday celebration to Pigeon Forge violates every bit of that adage. You would think I'd know better after a full year of RV living.
But grandsons are grandsons, and when one of them is turning 11 and you haven't seen him in a while, you agree to violate a lot of rules you've set for yourself.
For instance: Never golf with a four year-old. Even miniature golf. And especially mini golf in blacklight where no one can see anything in detail. Very tough to teach a four year-old with the attention span of a gnat fine motor skills when there is little sight, and lots of sounds.
11 year-olds are tricky. First they tell you they want to do something with you, then they use you as a “lab rat” - his words – so that you have to go first when he's not sure of the ride. Like on the Flying Ox Zipline Roller Coaster attraction where the 63 year-old grandfather is coerced to climb about 8 stories of stairs, then has to take the drop first
Or The Island Rope Course, where the 6-story simulated free-fall has to be done by Papa first (lab rat again!) – after he climbs most of the rope course with the 11 year-old.
Traveling with one grandson ensures that at the end of the day, you have a tired and quiet grandson ready for sleep. Traveling with two grandsons ensures that neither will be ready to crash at bedtime, because they play off each other's last remaining ergs of energy.
RVing with a four year-old can be challenging in more than one way. Many campgrounds have gravel roads or gravel sites, and four year-olds are attracted to rocks like iron is to a magnet. And all you have to do is turn your head away for 5 seconds to do something they wanted to help you with, and rocks may be flying. Oh, and the whole “Can I help you, Papa?” bit is just a ruse to get outside to find rocks.
Grandsons eat a lot. I mean, like locusts through a field, or sharks through a surfer kind of eating. Pack lots of food if you're going to be traveling with grandsons. Even for just 4 days. And given you usually have less room for, well – everything – in an RV, it's hard to keep them full sometimes.
Grandmothers are essential. Without "Mimi" there would be no pictures, and no one to carry all the many items needed during the day..
A daughter is allowed on the trip for one single purpose – crowd control. She's not there to socialize or visit with you; she's there to herd cats. And you have no problem bringing her - even if you have to ignore vehicle occupancy laws in a Mini Cooper - because her role is much more valuable than any moving violation ticket you might receive.
Four year-olds are a study in contrasts. While most of the time Jace lives in a shiny object or “Squirrel!” kind of world, when it comes to food or certain attractions he can be laser focused. His favorites were bananas and cheese popcorn, and Pirate Golf and the tornado that made the upside down house at Wonderworks (a very cool place to visit, btw).
Finally, plan for decompression time after your trip with grandsons. We're back at our favorite park in North Georgia – Leisure Acres – to rest and relax before heading out to our next decompression spot – Holiday COE on West Point Lake. Be sure to break out the wine you had to forego during the grandson's trip.
All-in-all, it was great to see them again, but it was just as great to see them off at the end of four days.
Our final stop on our Midwest trip was West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis, Tennessee. Two reasons for stopping there. I had heard a lot about the Tom Sawyer RV campground on many online forums as a great place to stop and relax right on the Mississippi River, and I'm a huge Elvis fan, and have wanted to visit Graceland for many years. Figured it was a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
The drive down from our last stop in Missouri was pretty easy, even if the roads in some places were pretty beat up. We even went through a bridge construction site where the maximum width allowed was 9 feet – 6 inches, and we're 9 feet wide! The end of the drive was a bit disconcerting, as our GPS program took us the shortest route through some of some pretty sketchy parts of West Memphis for about 3 or 4 miles. It was a pretty depressed area to say the least, and made us question our choice of campgrounds.
But it did manage to get us to Tom Sawyer RV campground.
You head down this small, tree-lined road that reminds you that you're now in the South, and you come to a rustic camp office to do your contactless check-in. They have everything waiting for you since you've given them all the payment information they need, so you grab your packet and find your site. Tom Sawyer has a few sites in the trees where some blessed shade can be found, but most of their sites are on a level field divided by an access road. To the right are some sites without trees at all, and to the left are three rows of sites with trees on many sites.
We did not get any trees, even though we stayed to the left.
Nevertheless, we did get a very nice site on the end of a row, so even though we didn't have one of the closer sites to the Big Muddy, we had an unobstructed view of the Mighty Mississippi out our front and kitchen windows.
It's really one of the charms of Tom Sawyer; to be able to park within about 50 yards of the Mississippi and take in the peace and quiet of river camping and enjoy watching water-borne commerce still going on in the form of river barges being “towed” up and down the river every hour of the day.
Might have enjoyed it a bit more if it wasn't so blisteringly hot during the days we stayed there. Many springs, this campground is unavailable due to flooding; it's that low and close to the river bank. But we were high and dry during our visit.
Day 2 was the obligatory visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. I've got to say, the folks handling his estate have done a wonderful job of preserving his property and collections, as there is a wing in the museum area across the street from the actual mansion that houses everything from his cars, to his time in the Army, his movies and his Vegas career.
And everything else. Barbara swears Elvis never threw anything away!
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, tickets are limited so that social distancing can be observed, and masks are required while you're on the property. That's the bad news. The good news is that because of this, you have the grounds pretty much to yourselves as they appear to allow only about 6-8 people per group to go through the self-guided tour. You get a tablet and headphones which has John Stamos taking you from room to room, allowing you to spend about as much time as you could ever want to go through the bottom floor of Graceland. No one goes upstairs, as that is off limits because it's where Elvis slept (or maybe he still sleeps there – who knows?).
Anyway, if you've never been there, the outside and grounds are a beautiful oasis just down the road from a pretty seedy part of Memphis, preserved just as it was on the day Elvis died.
The inside is another story. Don't get me wrong; the inside is every bit as opulent as you would imagine someplace Elvis would call home, it's just that Elvis' taste in décor was a bit – garish. The famous Jungle Room, where he recorded many of his later releases, literally looks like a jungle. From the heavy wooden furniture carved with animal motifs to the green carpet on the floor – AND the ceiling. His recreation room down in the basement had three of the biggest tube TV's made at the time on one wall, a pretty good sized bar, and was decorated in midnight blue and gold.
We learned that Elvis was an honorary captain on the Memphis police force, and was known to pull over people occasionally to tell them to drive safely, but also learned he was an absolute menace on the road himself! Col. Tom Parker allegedly refused to let Elvis drive certain vehicles Elvis owned, because he surely figured Elvis would damage them.
No trip to Graceland is complete without being able to sample the foods that Elvis loved, and I was no exception. In the diner on-site they offered a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich with bacon, and gave you your choice of grilled with butter, or Elvis's favorite – bacon grease.
Of course I chose the bacon grease.
And let me tell you, it is pure culinary genius! I've always loved peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but adding bacon and grilling it? Absolute mouth-watering goodness!
Barbara took the safe route and had the hot dog.
Graceland complete, we headed back for some more relaxin' on the river. Thank you . . . thank you very much . . .
Our trip back to Georgia to pick up our grandsons for our oldest's soon-to-be 11th birthday was uneventful, but it did include a stop at the Georgia-Bama RV park in Heflin, Alabama. Even though it was right off the exit ramp from I-20, there was little noise overnight. Only about a dozen sites, four of which were drive throughs, and they take Passport America (and cash only), but we were also parked right behind the Damned Yankee Steak and Fish restaurant. Let me tell you, the place wasn't much to look at from the outside, but the food was especially well-prepared and presented in a way that would rival some 4-star restaurants. A very tasty end to a long day of travel.
Our Midwest trip complete, we next take on the daunting challenge of keeping a 4 year-old and an 11 year-old entertained in Pigeon Forge without going broke or crazy.
OK, so when you're a full-tire RVer with no sticks and bricks house, there really is no such thing as a “voyage home”, but we're heading back to Georgia where our kids and grandsons live, so that's about a close to home as anything can be.
One thing we've noticed in our time traveling the Midwest is the use of ATV's on public roads. No plates, so no registration apparently needed. Seems to be a great alternative to getting from one place to another, especially if your neighbor owns a farm like yours with a couple of miles of frontage.
Weird thing about gas in South Dakota and Nebraska; we're used to three grades of gas in the Eastern half the country – Regular at 87 octane, Plus at 91 and Premium at 93. In South Dakota and Nebraska their Plus gas is 87 octane (priced like our Regular gas), and Premium is at 91 octane. Then they have an ethanol-free gas at 85 octane which they call Regular gas, and it's about 15 cents more expensive per gallon that the 87 octane Plus gas. Don't know how many cars they have that can run efficiently on ethanol-free gas or why they've determined they need that 85 octane version, but it's a bit weird.
One really nice thing is that there seems to be many more local gas stations in SD, NE and IA who place signs on their overhangs telling you their height. Makes this RVer much happier knowing if I'm going to clear that roof if I find some good gas price or easy access in and out of a station.
Our drive from Rapid City took us south on state roads, working our way towards the great state of Nebraska. We had only hit the northeast corner of Nebraska last year on our trip to South Dakota to register our Mini, so this was essentially our first trip to the state. We'd always thought Nebraska was a fairly flat state - much like Iowa - but we found out very early that there is a western part of the state that has some impressive elevations, and an eastern part which is much more level.
Our first stop was at the end of a short ride; Alliance, Nebraska. Why did we head to Alliance, Nebraska you ask?
One word: Carhenge.
This is one of those weird, wonderful, quirky attractions we love to find on the road. Carhenge is an EXACT replica of rock creation of Stonehenge all the way over in England. There really is no “Why?” behind the creation of Carhenge. It's just – because! Or “Why not”? Either way, it's a very entertaining ½ hour stroll through the property to view it, and other strange metallic sculptures by local artists.
Carhenge is certainly not a destination all by itself, but we stopped here because it was going to be our jumping off point to our next driving segment.
The Sand Hills of Nebraska is a 275 mile drive across the heart of the state, and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful drives across any Midwest state. Many people run the route from Grand Island on the east, ending up in Alliance to the west. Because of our departure from South Dakota, we ended up doing the Sand Hills drive in reverse.
The Sand Hills have been touted as one of the most scenic drives in America, and it's – nice. But I wouldn't go so far as to state that it's one of the most scenic drives I've even been on. The eastern end of the drive is just more Nebraska corn country. The western half has a charm and quality of it's own, and you can readily imagine Conestoga wagons making their way through the hills filled with families heading for a new life. You can also imagine just how remote and lonely any trip taken through this area would have been on a horse or prairie schooner. The stretch we covered took us just under 4 hours; a wagon train back in the 1800's would have taken 20 days!
The great part about taking state routes like Rt 2 in Nebraska is that you get to see some very interesting and different country than you do traveling the interstates. The not-so-great part is that there are few (if any) places to pull over and rest, and towns so tiny that their businesses' parking lots are so small you can't pull into them and expect to get back out again if you're driving a motor home. So you'd better make sure you fill that gas tank before crossing the Sand Hills; if there is a station on the way the access into and out of it is very tight, and the gas prices are hideously expensive even if you could pull in.
Golf in Nebraska was accomplished at Sky View Golf Course in Alliance. Very manageable course, and an easy walk if you're not 63 and out of shape. I'm both (and also stupid), so I still insisted on walking the course. Didn't affect my game, but played havoc with my legs for the next couple of days. Note to self: rent a cart next time.
A quick trip to the Air Force Strategic Command Air and Aerospace Museum finished off our Nebraska segment.
Next it was on to Riverside, Iowa. This was our destination for one specific reason – it's the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. Like most small Midwest towns, Riverside doesn't have a lot of life left to it, but this quirky bit of future history helps to keep Riverside on the map. There's a life-sized bronze statue of James T. Kirk (complete with COVID-19 inspired social distancing mask - which we removed for the picture),
a Voyage Home Museum where Trekkies and Trekkers can find all sorts of items to gawk at or buy,
and of course the “official” birthplace of James T. Kirk behind a small shop just off the main drag.
BTW, the difference between a Trekkie and a Trekker is that a Trekker actually has a life.
Riverside, Iowa in our rear facing camera, we head south to Missouri. Not for any particular reason, just because we hadn't visited there before and it's on the way home. Stayed at the Lazy Day Campground in Danville, Missouri about 90 miles west of St. Louis. Hoped to get in some golf, but the only local course was closed on the day I had available, so we took in a local country store and rested and recharged for a couple of days. Very, very nice campground with very friendly owners. Level, gravel sites with grass in between, and plenty of length and width. Also, very quiet at night even though it's just a short drive off the interstate. We'd stay there again in a heartbeat. There's a lot to do in Missouri, and it's on our list of return places to go when we have a bit more time.
Next up – a visit to the King and Graceland!
We decided to bypass some of the attractions in the eastern part of South Dakota this trip, saving them for our next trip west when we take on North Dakota and some Canadian provinces next year.
But western South Dakota still has much to offer. One place every traveler has to stop at is the town of Wall, SD. Wall isn't known for very much, except for the famous tourist trap of Wall Drug. Truth be told, we didn't see a single thing that resembled a drug store at Wall Drug, but there were plenty of overpriced and bargain souvenirs in a series of connected stores on both sides of the main street. Moccasins, Black Hills gold jewelry, pens, pocket knives, t-shirts, hats and all manner of trinkets and trash designed to relieve unwary travelers of their hard-earned cash.
And of course, food. Continuing my quest to depopulate the buffalo and bison herds in South Dakota, I of course order yet another buffalo burger. And since they pretty much have a captive audience in Wall, the prices aren't cheap. Barbara's and my lunch came to $45. However, it WAS a buffalo bacon burger, so I was OK with that cost.
After a quick refueling to top off the Mini, we scouted out a potential boondocking site just 6 miles down the road from Wall. Known as “The Wall at the Badlands”, it is a tract of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land on a cliff overlooking the Badlands section of the Black Hills. The view is absolutely majestic. We had planned to stop there for a couple of days after leaving Rapid City, but temperatures were expected to be in the '90's both days, and we really didn't want to have to run our generator all day long just to keep the motor home comfortable. No problem; we'll be back in cooler temps.
During our earlier foray into Custer State Park, we drove past Sylvan Lake. Beautiful rock formations in and around the lake, and Sylvan Lake has a bit of history to it. If you're familiar with the 'National Treasure' movies starring Nicholas Cage, in 'National Treasure 2', near the end of the movie where the cast is searching for the secret entrance of the location to the lost treasure, they are searching a rock formation overlooking a lake. The rock formations and lake in that scene are surrounding Lake Sylvan!
It's not a very big lake, but it is absolutely beautiful to view in person. So out comes our inflatable kayak and an hour and a half of weaving in and out of rocks and traveling under five and six story cliffs. Great way to spend a morning. If you want to enjoy Sylvan Lake, go early in the day. It's a very popular destination for adults and kids, and offers kayaks for rent, a small beach for access to the lake, and hiking trails.
One of our off days found us staying put in the 36LA due to potential thunderstorms in the area. If you watched out last video, you saw a small hailstorm on our trip down from Custer State Park. Apparently hail is much more prevalent in the Great Plains than we've been used to on the East Coast, because while I was outside talking with one of our neighbors in the RV park, I hear some sharp reports all around us. A closer look showed them to be hailstones, and they're becoming a LOT bigger than the little versions that hit our Mini in the last video
And they're becoming much more plentiful. And bigger still.
I dive into the RV, abandoning my neighbor, and experience what it's like to be in a very large drum. Looking outside, I see golf ball-sized hailstones hitting the ground, and hear them hitting my roof! Fortunately, we suffered no damage, although my neighbor had the dome above his shower cracked by one.
Continuing my golf quest across the country, I schedule a round of golf at a course just outside Ellsworth AFB just east of Rapid City. It's ironic that I'm playing on an Air Force base golf course. It confirms the old joke about how do you build an Air Force base; first you build the golf course . . . LOL. Anyway, it was a pretty nice course open to the public consisting of nine holes. My golf game was off that day, not because of the lack of playing time I've had recently, but because of the weather. Take a look at the screen shot of the wind conditions during my round. Tough day!
Our last venture out was a trip to the town of Deadwood; another tourist trap north and west of our location, and a nearby meet and greet with Facebook friends Bill and Virginia Goldman. Had a wonderful dinner and drinks, and confirmed once again that fellow Tiffin owners are some of the nicest people on earth. Bill has one of the first Liquidspring installs on his Open Road 32SA, and was the one who got me interested in making sure our 36LA was equipped with it. We're both looking forward to the front-end solution being made available soon.
Out time in South Dakota had come to an end, and it was time to head back to our ultimate destination back to Georgia, but first we need to get there. Nebraska awaits!
Speed run from Tennessee complete, we settle into our site at Lazy JD RV Park just northwest of Rapid City, SD. It's a small park with about 25-30 spaces, fairly level lots with two sections; one with gravel pads separated by grassy patio areas, and one section with grass-only sites. They also utilize the shared patio concept where your hookups are in the center of two sites. You pull into your site and your neighbor on the driver's side pulls into his in the opposite direction. If you're traveling with another couple you get to have your patio face their patio so that socializing is easier. The utilities are staggered towards the “front” of one shared site and the “back” of the next so that you're not exiting your door at your neighbor's door, so it works out well even if you're not traveling with someone you know. They have a laundry room and bathrooms, but that's about it for amenities. Very basic campground, but nicely situated to take day trips to the Rapid City area and points north and west. And very quiet, unlike other parks nearby that are right on the interstate.
Lazy JD only takes cash or checks, so be prepared beforehand. Also, you pretty much get to pick your own site(s); just pull in and hook up. They come around after a while to settle up your payment. Don't know if it was because they were fairly empty or whether that's the usual case. We had called ahead before leaving our previous park to make sure they had space available for the July 4th weekend, and the “pick your spot” rule was in effect, even for our two-week stay.
We had hoped for some cooler temperatures being this far north, but the heat has been murderous pretty much every day of our first week here. Not having trees overhead makes it very difficult for our 36LA to cool off much below 85 degrees, even with the 15k BTU A/C going all afternoon long in the front. And our second week here doesn't look to be any cooler.
But still, we have things to see and work to accomplish, and a Mini Cooper convertible to drive that helps us enjoy the sunny and hot weather.
First up is the obligatory drive through Custer State Park, about a hour south of where we're situated. An easy drive down some very nice state roads gets us to the main entrance of the park. There are no day passes to purchase at Custer State Park; only weekly and yearly passes. Some folks don't like to spend the $20 to buy a weekly pass, but given all the things you can do in Custer State Park it is a great value, as it will take at least 3-5 days (if not more) to see everything that is worth seeing. Our drive on just the Wildlife Loop Road took the better part of a day!
And what a drive! Two different herd of buffalo that blocked our path and were spread out across both sides of the road. Grover was tethered in the back seat of the Mini with our top down, and he wasn't having anything to do with these hairy behemoths looking in and staring at the strange car and people. He stared at them, but knew this wasn't the time to establish any dominance! Later on a group of burros were holding court while people fed them carrots and apples. Finally, a group of deer hunkered down in an area trying to find some shade from the Sun's rays. All encapsulated in a series of beautiful rolling hills.
While there, we decided to scope out a future destination for us later in the week. We have wanted to use our tandem inflatable kayak on trips where we'd have time enough for the material to dry before packing it away for travel, and Sylvan Lake was beckoning to us. Very busy during the day, so we figure we'll head up there real early on a weekday in order to get a parking spot. Good thing we scoped it out. Video and pictures to follow in a future post.
To finish of our first day's visit, we headed over to the Needles portion of the park to take in some majestic rock formations and take the Mini through some very narrow, very low tunnels. There is some very cool video of our visit in the file below.
Due to hot and humid conditions and the elevation involved, Custer State Park can generate some very different weather patterns at times. As we were heading down from Needles, a storm began brewing above us. After a few minutes the temperature started dropping about 15 degrees, and we began getting pelted with hail!
Fun is fun, but there was still business to be done. As we've mentioned before, Barbara and I had to apply for passports to get us into and out of Canada for planned trips next summer to the Maritime Provinces and to Alaska. Renewing can be done online, but applying for the first time needs to be done in person, and in the county of your residence. We made an appointment online at the Box Elder Post Office for Friday morning at 10, and had all our paperwork pre-filled out . You've got to produce originals AND copies of your driver's license and your birth certificates. Be ready to give up your original birth certificates temporarily to the Federal government, as they are needed for verification by confirming the seals used by local clerks of court.
Used to be that you'd get these documents back within a few weeks to a month, but with the government closing approximately 32 offices that were used to process passport applications due to the pandemic, we were warned that we might not get them back for 6 months! At this point, we're just hoping we'll see our passports in time for next summer's travels. Rhonda at the Box Elder Post Office couldn't have been nicer or more efficient, and we were out of there in less than 30 minutes; but not before being relieved of $220 for the Feds, and $100 to the Post Office for processing fees and pictures. Application complete!
The Feds just cashed our checks yesterday - less than a week from applying for the passports, which was quicker than I thought they'd be. Doubt their processing will be as quick, but you never know!
Now we can get on with Part 2 of our South Dakota adventure . . . Featuring a surprise destination on our way out of state!
3 long months.
We are now well past my time limit for staying in one place, and with COVID-19 restrictions finally being lifted across America, we think it's safe to resume traveling again. Safe, and more importantly, places have now opened so that we can stay in different states along our planned route.
Our ultimate destination for our first trip is Box Elder, South Dakota – our home base situated in Pennington County which encompasses the Rapid City area in western South Dakota. We're headed here because we need to apply for our passports in order to travel to Alaska in 2021, and we'll need to cross into Canada to make that happen. I've never had one, and Barbara's passport expired decades ago. One quirk is that you have to apply in your home county, which would be easy if you actually lived there. But since we just maintain a Personal Mail Box as a residenc, we have to travel a great distance in order to apply for ours.
But hey, it's a good reason for our first trip following lock down, so we'll take it!
Since it's sorta-kinda on our way, we decide to stop at Pigeon Forge, TN to see a friend of mine I used to work for when I worked at Jockey, Jack Simmons. Three days are planned for this portion; one to decompress from the first drive and show off our 36LA to Jack, a visit to Jockey for some new clothes, then a day for some fun and food at local eateries.
But first we have to get there.
Plugging in our destination into our trusty Co-Pilot RV GPS program, the first planned route takes us through some very twisty roads, including one complete circle at one point!
Nope. Not gonna do that one. Alternative two doesn't look so bad and is a shorter distance than Alternative 3, so I decide to take that.
Not as good of a decision as I thought it would be. The video below shows the beginning and end of our first drive in months. It has been sped up 2.5 times it's normal speed so that it won't put you to sleep, so don't think I drive this fast normally; especially in mountains and tight turns. Needless to say, it was a rude surprise!
Fortunately, my driving skills hadn't eroded in the last 3 months, and we arrived at our destination – Up The Creek RV Campground – in a bit over 4 hours. It's a very nice small park with wide, tree-covered spaces. Very level lots with concrete pads to the side with tables and chairs. Some sites even have raised fire pits instead of sitting low on the ground. It's surrounded by a small quiet creek (hence the name), but it does lack the usual amenities some people might like in a park.
While there, two other Tiffins set up shop across from us; a 2012 Breeze – Tiffin's smallest diesel model – and a 2019 Open Road 32SA – a fellow gasser. Had nice talks with both folks and shared some upgrades and hacks they might want to try. All-in-all, it was nice to visit with fellow Tiffin owners, something we hadn't done in quite a while.
Our visit with Jack was great, and after shopping we played a round of miniature golf at a course right next door to the Tanger Mall. It's not the most interesting nor challenging course out there, but it had one hole that called out to Barbara and me. Flying pigs have always been a favorite of ours, due to a line Barbara once said about the possibility of us getting married early in our courtship, and used by our best man during his toast at our wedding. Basically, when asked when we would get married (about halfway through our dating time) Barbara's answer was, “When pigs fly”. So finding a golf course with a hole that contained flying pigs was a natural for us.
Our trip to Pigeon Forge was too short to really appreciate the area, but there are lots of things we'd like to get done when return someday. And return we will. Sure, it's the definition of a tourist trap, but there are some very interesting and different attractions there that are probably not found anywhere else.
A quick breakdown at our site at Up The Creek, and it's time for a 4-day speed run to South Dakota, avoiding every city we can during this time of unrest.
After sheltering in place for 3 full months due to COVID-19 issues beyond our control, many states have reopened and this now allows us to resume travel. I have to say that while I understand how many older RVers like to do the whole snowbirding thing where they head to warmer climates for 3-6 months and park their rig in one place, I have found out during this shutdown that I am not one of them. At least not yet.
Maybe when this lifestyle isn't so new. Maybe when we're older and want to slow down a bit. But that particular type of RVing is not for me. I find sitting in one place for 2 weeks is enough to get me climbing the proverbial walls and looking for our next destination. Three months? Nope.
We originally headed back here to Georgia to get a grandson fix. We had been traveling from Texas to Arizona and finally New Mexico for the first 3 months of 2020, and Barbara was in her “I can't wait to see Jace” mode after a couple of months on the road. Added to that was that we didn't exactly enjoy some of the destinations during that trip for various reasons, and we were ready to settle down in one place for a bit in order to rest, recharge and spoil our grandson.
But it was only supposed to last for about a month at the most. Like the old joke goes, “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
A planned trip to Utah with friends was canceled. Then a hoped-for trip to New England to visit my 90 year-old Dad and some life-long friends bit the dust. A short trip to Florida to visit family never materialized. Even when things started getting better, many states on the way to our hoped-for destinations were still closed, so even if we had a place to park this thing, we couldn't get from here to there. I get that we didn't know enough about this virus to make sound decisions at first, but once we knew what we were dealing with, previously bad decisions were being compounded by reopening delays; and in our case, ignorance of the RV lifestyle.
And being sheltered in place took away any excuses I might have had to avoid getting things done around the RV. I've been blessed in our 35 years of marriage that Barbara never developed the need to put together “Honey-do” lists for me. In that regard I'm usually the one to give me chores to do, and in an RV (as most of you readers know), there is a lot of little – but important – ongoing maintenance to keep these rolling earthquakes in road-worthy shape.
So in the past month or so, we've been able to accomplish the following things:
Now, most of you wives out there are looking at this list and saying, “Except for the Relectix, my hubby could knock most of that list out in a single day”. And you'd be right.
But I'm retired.
And sheltered in place.
With four OTA TV stations to watch.
So I eased my way through this list in about the last 5 weeks. But hey, it all got done, right? And now we're ready for road again.
This next trip is going to be kind of strange. A short 3-day trip to Pigeon Forge, TN to visit a friend I used to work for, then a speed run up to Rapid City, SD to do some paperwork in our home state. Need to apply for passports in hopes that the Canadian border will be open next year. We plan to do Alaska in late summer of 2021, and possibly some of the Maritime Provinces earlier in the year. For this trip, we might spend about 3-4 weeks in various locations in South Dakota depending on what interests us.
After that, we'll make our way slowly through the corn and wheat states, seeing what they have to offer and basically biding our time until Liquidspring might be ready to launch their front-end CLASS system to compliment the rear end system we already have installed. If all goes well we'll be in Indiana for late July or early August and finished in time to head back to the Mothership – Red Bay, AL – in mid August to have the last of our warranty issues taken care of before our first year runs out. Not a lot of things, and nothing major at all except for a paint issue and a slide adjustment, so we hope the trip will be a short one, because New England beckons in September and October.
Normally, we follow the suggested routes our CoPilot RV system gives to us, but with a summer of potential unrest staring America in the face right now, we're going to be a lot more careful planning our travel around cities in the coming months. Usually we have no problem driving through small to mid-sized cities if the route looks good, and taking beltways around the bigger ones. This year will mean extended use of state road detours well outside of metropolitan areas, which will mean extra travel days and miles. It is what it is.
This will also be Grover's first extended trip in his new moveable home, so we'll see how he handles 5-6 hour drive days and a different nights in different places.
Either way, we're primed and ready for liftoff!
First, a disclaimer: We are not affiliated with Advanced Elements in any way, nor do we receive any compensation from them.
RVers will understand this, but for those who follow this blog and don't own an RV, space is ALWAYS at a premium, especially regarding storage. Sometimes it can be made a bit easier depending on the type of vehicle you tow. Roof racks, pickup truck beds and even small trailers can provide welcome relief for folks trying to bring things like bikes or boats to be used once we get to our destination.
We tow a Mini Cooper. A Mini Cooper CONVERTIBLE. No significant trunk, and the rag top doesn't allow for a roof rack.
So it's really important that we find recreational items that fit in the basement bays and storage cabinets inside our Tiffin. Now the good news is that Tiffin, unlike many other RV manufacturers, puts a great deal of thought into making sure you can stuff an inordinate amount of junk in everything they make. They even call it the “Store-It-All Guarantee”. And we've been impressed with their efforts in that regard. An earlier post on our Montague full-size folding bikes shows how great Tiffin is at making use of limited space.
But what about something for the water? Clearly, we have no ability to bring a canoe, kayak or boat with us, given our choice of tow vehicle. So it all comes down to what can be stuffed into a basement bay on our 36LA.
Enter Advanced Elements. They are one of a couple of vendors offering INFLATABLE kayaks that, when not in use, simply fold up into their own carrying bag for relatively easy storage. These are not some glorified pool toys; these are serious watercraft. Advanced Elements makes kayaks for calm waters like lakes, inlets and bays (more our style), all the way up to Class III whitewater (not a chance). They make single person kayaks as well as 2-person tandem kayaks for couples like us who like to spend time together.
We chose their Lagoon 2 tandem model. We chose it over their other tandem model in the base class due to it's simplicity. We have no need to have 3 positions for seating, as there is little chance one of us would take it out alone. The Lagoon 2 has two distinct openings for each person, as you can see in the picture below. Each seat has an inflatable bottom for super comfortable kayaking, with a semi-rigid back that provides great support. The seats lock into their respective openings to keep them from sliding around while paddling and keep the seat backs upright.
There are two primary air chambers in the Lagoon 2; both are filled by an ingenious spring valve which recesses into the opening to quickly deflate, and with a simple turn rises up and provides a lock to keep the air from escaping after you remove the filling hose. There are screw-on caps to each valve as a backup in case the valves fail. Advanced Elements offers either a double action hand pump or a bellows-type foot pump for about $15-$20 bucks, or you can buy one on your own as long as it has the right size hose opening. Our foot pump came with about 6 different tips to use when another product might need to be inflated. The coaming around each paddling position is inflated by mouth valves. All in all, it takes about 5-7 minutes to take it out of it's carrying bag, unfold it, and inflate it. And even less time to take it down and store it.
And this thing is built like an inflatable tank. The top uses two materials; a high denier Polyester Rip Stop and a PVC laminate. The inner tubes are covered with high density fabric as well. But it's the bottom of the hull that makes this so sturdy, yet packable. It is made of a flexible PVC Tarpaulin material which will protect you from the occasional underwater rock or other obstruction. The bow and stern are rigid casts that can stand up to rocky shores, and also house the control fins built into the bottom. These fins allow the Lagoon 2 to track well even in windy conditions. Our initial voyage in Lake Lanier off the boat ramp at Little Hall COE park was on a breezy day with winds gusting to 14 mph, and we had no trouble tracking straight and true.
Now to the boring but necessary specifications:
Length = 12'
Width = 34”
Weight = 37 lbs (Easy enough for me to lift into the back seat of the Mini, or into a large basement bay)
Max Capacity = 350 lbs of people or cargo
Folded size = 35” X 19” X 7” (the 7” depth does NOT take into consideration storing seats in the carrying bag)
Cost = $530
It also comes with it's own repair kit! There is also bungee deck lacing on the Lagoon 2 for storage of a small cooler, etc, and Velcro straps to hold your paddles in place. Paddles are optional, but a bit pricey beginning at $50; we went to Academy Sports and bought two 4-piece 87” Magellan paddles for about $30 each. They store much easier in the basement bay without having to use our pass-through storage. Most other paddles are two-piece and some are even a single 92” long paddle. Our Magellan paddles came in mesh storage bags about 2' high.
This is a beautiful piece of engineering, and very comfortable to use and enjoy. Using the carrying handles at each end makes it very easy for two people to carry down to the shore and launch. It moves easily through the water, and is very stable from side-to-side. Our first trip was about a mile out against the wind, and another mile back. Very easy and very enjoyable. The seat support for the bottom and back is outstanding. We showed this to a couple of other campers staying in nearby sites; one couple who has another brand of inflatable kayak and another who uses rigid, single person kayaks. They were both very impressed with the Lagoon 2 and Advanced Elements overall.
As are we. This product definitely gets two thumbs way, way up from Parental Parolees!
One month to go.
One month before our three-month shelter in place ends.
As I've written before, I get antsy when we stay anywhere for two weeks. Imagine what I'm like now that we have entered our second month in government-imposed stir, with one more month to go. It's not as if we're forced to stay in place; it's just that there's no place for us to go that has weather in which we want to stay.
Florida was closed until recently, and even now many local parks aren't open yet. Some counties are still keeping their private campgrounds closed to outsiders. We had reservations to go camping with friends in Maine over Memorial Day, but they got canceled since the state isn't opening up their campgrounds to anyone until June or July. New Hampshire is only open to residents; as if residents are somehow immune to the virus while the rest of us full-time RVers are apparently walking and driving sacks of infestation.
Even if the above states had been open, many states on the way to New England have been closed to RVers, so the trip there would have been problematic at best, if not downright impossible.
And it's a shame, given the low prices for gas right now. That would make traveling so much more inexpensive right now, in addition to helping out the local economies and RV park owners where we'd be staying.
But all that ends on the morning of the 16th of June! This bad boy will be all hooked up and ready to rocket out of Leisure Acres RV Campground. Now, if you have to be sheltered in place, Leisure Acres is a great place to be. Nice view of the pond, ducks to come by and be fed, and the people here are simply wonderful. The place is immaculately maintained. Small enough to keep things cozy. It's been nice to see our grandson and have him over every Sunday through Tuesday each week.
But we will be here for 3 full months as of June 15th, which is about 2 ½ months too long for me.
Our time in government-mandated stir has been positive in some ways. Much needed maintenance and cleaning have been done. I've installed Reflectix in all our cabinets to ward of the upcoming summer heat.
And we adopted the newest love of our lives – Grover the Lemon Beagle. They're called that due to the rare coloring on them which is just the light tan and white colors. He's about 28 lbs of cuteness wrapped up in a beagle body. We rescued him from a home where a poodle kept attacking him. Not too sure of kids, although he and Jace have become friends with all his nights staying with us. Grover is a thief – he's stolen our hearts - in just a few short weeks.
So anyway, on June 16th we'll be heading to Seveirville, TN for a few days to visit with someone I used to work for, then take our time and head over and up to South Dakota to get some much needed paperwork done. On the way, we'll hit Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska for a bit of sightseeing and hopefully some golf. Finally, we'll head back to Red Bay, Alabama in mid-August for some final warranty work before our 1-year warranty runs out. Our hope is that New England is opened back up for everyone after that so that we can visit my Dad and some long-time friends in September and October. We're still trying to figure out how to handle snowbirding this year, as we are not going to repeat last year's Georgia – Texas – Arizona – New Mexico trip this upcoming winter. Still trying to see how we can stay warm without having to stay in place for a long time.
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.