After a great week in Gunter Hill COE, and specifically Catoma campground, it was off to sunny Florida to do the first of our planned explorations of the Gulf coast. The goal was to find a park (or parks) that might be suitable for spending the upcoming winter months in bit warmer weather than we did for certain times last year. We know we're behind the 8-ball on doing this, as many parks get filled up earlier in the year in advance of snowbird season, but we're really not interested in the middle and south Florida parks many people look for, because frankly they're usually too expensive or too packed in and crowded for our tastes.
We don't like opening our awning and wondering if it will hit our neighbors slide-out. I don't care how warm the weather is.
And we also have a budget to consider. Sure, we can go as high as $40 per night, but we'd much prefer something in the $30 range, and some of these places are way too proud of themselves when it comes to monthly rates in the winter season. I don't care what you offer, $2,000 per month is simply robbery (unless it's for a beach view)!
So while the Gulf coast isn't as warm as the Florida peninsula, we think it is a good balance between warmer weather and lower prices – and we don't need a beach view, either.
Our base campground was Five Flags RV Park just west of Pensacola, Florida. It's a quirky little park that (like many these days), caters to full-time residents with a few transient sites for people like us.
There are doors leading out of their fence to the local convenient store and to a bar-b-cue place. One looks like you're entering an Airstream and the other just some other camper. Their laundry rooms are a couple of old modified trolley cars.
The have an old drive-in style sign at the front entrance with silly puns that change on a regular basis.
But the really nice thing is that their sites are wide, with concrete and crushed rock pads to handle just about any length or weight RV and grassy areas between. They have two different “dog parks” which double as retention ponds when it rains. Which, btw, need to be mowed more frequently. When the grass in certain areas is taller than Grover, it's too high by far. Poor Grover picked up a little slice on the bottom of one of his pads, but he's healing nicely; even if he hates his cone head.
Grover did get to see his first beach and got a stroll in some water. He was NOT impressed.
Otherwise, it's a gem of a park just about 20 minutes away from beaches, and nicely situated just 7 miles away from the Alabama border and only an hour away from Mobile Bay. We booked seven days, with the intent on scouting out some local Alabama and Florida parks first-hand, while enjoying some drive time in the Mini. Largely, we were unsuccessful in finding anything that suited our criteria both east and west of our base camp, but thanks to some fellow Open Roader Facebook friends we have a couple of other potentials to look at (via Google Earth) that just might do.
And why are we now relying on Google Earth to do our research?
Our original reservations had us staying until Wednesday morning – the 16th of September. As the week wore on, Sally's track looked like it was going to hit New Orleans; bringing heavy rain and some tropical force winds to the Pensacola area, but not much else. But then she started wiggling around in the Gulf, and her track kept getting closer to the east instead of the west. We've been in heavy winds and downpours before (although not at the same time), and we knew our 36LA could handle the early forecast for our area, but my Spidey-Sense was tingling on this storm.
Sunday night we disconnected just about everything except power, and went to bed still thinking we could either stay or go the next morning. About 4:30 AM I'm up and glancing at the latest storm track, and it doesn't look very good to this amateur weather guy (I studied meteorology in grade school). Too much rain being forecasted – as much as 20-plus inches – and the northeast quadrant of the storm was uncomfortably close to the tip of the Florida panhandle (remember, we're 7 miles from the Alabama-Florida border). Barbara and I speak briefly, and it's determined that we are going to be slides in and jacks up by 8 AM. We're outta here!
Good call as it turned out . . . As you can see from the news, we dodged a big bullet by leaving two days early.
We headed directly east along I-10 in order to stay away from the effects of the storm. The winds weren't bad – gusts to 30 MPH – and we pass through a couple of tropical rain bands, but we get to Tifton, GA and Wallydock for the night before continuing on to our go-to park in North Georgia, Leisure Acres. Here we'll be picking up our youngest daughter and our grandson Jace for a three-week trip to New England to see family and friends and get our annual seafood and roast beef sandwich fix. This trip will be a bit different than last year when we had Jace; he's older by a year and his mom is around to herd him instead of just us.
That being said, this blog will be on hiatus until after that trip, as my PC time is usually short-lived when Jace wants to hit the keyboard. We'll still do updates on our Parental Parolees Facebook page, so be sure to keep up with us using that media.
Meanwhile, it's time to break out the cold weather gear for Barbara . . . because, well - Barbara.
Our Tiffin experience finished for now, it's time to head back out on the road. While fun and informative, 4 ½ weeks at Camp Red Bay cannot remotely be described as “glamping”.
We need some trees and water surrounding us, so we made a reservation for Gunter Hill COE, just out side of Montgomery, Alabama, a short 3-4 hour ride from Red Bay. Recreation.gov is the way to reserve spots in any Federal campground across America, so we started looking at descriptions of campsites furnished by the folks at Recreation.gov.
Not a good idea.
What looked to be one of the best sites available was site 131 in one of two campgrounds at Gunter Hill. It was listed as being suitable for an 85' motor home, with 50A service and water (no sewer). The campground was listed as “ANTI”, short for Antioch. There is another campground called Catoma, but no sites were available for the time frame we needed, which was over Labor Day. But hey; 85' long site, right?
Come to find out that the site was long enough, but severely sloped down towards the back. We also found out that Antioch was a more “primitive” campground; older, heavily wooded and narrow sites with sandy / gravel bases. And while you can drop a travel trailer or fifth wheel onto a heavily sloped sandy / gravel site, a motor home does not play well in that environment. After placing three 2x8” blocks under each jack, our 36LA was STILL not level. Even adding 2 more 2x12” blocks under each jack got us to where we could level, but by morning the soft sand had shifted enough to make our jacks unstable.
In addition, our heavily wooded site was sitting right under some hickory trees, and the nuts would drop down a hundred or more feet and crash onto our roof, waking us up and scaring poor Grover! One hit so hard it knocked off a ceiling vent cover and sent it crashing to the floor. Antioch is great for tents, travel trailers and fifth wheels, but NOT motor homes!
After a drive through Catoma campground, we contacted the office to get our reservations changed once a suitable site became available on Sunday afternoon.
Catoma is night and day different than Antioch. Every site has a concrete pad, 50A service, and something rare at COE parks – sewer connections on almost every site. The sites are wider, with picnic table, fire pit and lantern stand. And they are ALL level. We didn't see any site there that we could not back our 38' motor home into, and there were more than a dozen pull-thru sites for the really big rigs with trailers. Our new site 22 had a small view of the lake across the street through some trees, but it was a water view nevertheless.
And NO HICKORY TREES!
Met a great couple over at Catoma. We were walking Grover and passed by another Open Road tucked waaaaaaay back in a site that had to be more than 150' long. Quick check on the slides and noticed it was a 36LA like ours (so we knew they had impeccable taste), so we stopped by to say Hi. We had been playing Facebook tag letting each other know where other Tiffin owners were in the park. Beverly and Billy have had their 2019 just a little longer than we have had our 2020, so the usual stories were swapped about differences between each one, and of course modifications, hacks and equipment. Really nice people we hope to see down the road again.
Overall, we're really happy with our stay at Gunter Hill, especially in the Catoma campground. Definitely one to revisit again!
After 4 ½ weeks in the destination town known as Red Bay, Alabama, we're finally leaving tomorrow morning!
Got our silicone done the day after Diamond Shield was reapplied, and waited rather impatiently for Bay 39 in Mechanical to open up so that they could diagnose and hopefully fix our weird thumping noise when we are on jacks for more than a day. Got the call Monday morning to be in Bay 39 (again) to see what was going on. The thumping noise had been present each and every day we were sitting in our site over the weekend.
Wouldn't you know, when we set up in Bay 39, not a sound was heard. Couldn't recreate it.
A bit miffed with their “You have to re-level most days after you first set up” excuse, I decided that we would set up in our site, wait to hear the thump when we moved around, and re-level the next morning if it happened. Twelve hours after setting up in our site, the thump returned. Re-leveled in the morning, and it went away – until the next night. I had also told them that if it came back again after the first night, they were coming to our coach to check it out instead of bringing everything in and heading to their bay.
Next night, thumping noise as before. Get up in the morning, ready to head over to Bay 39 to collect a couple of technicians, and suddenly there was silence . . .
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!!!!
Barbara and I looked at each other and said, “We give up”. We're done.
So I went over to process our paperwork in order to check out (6 pages of work done and a $0 bill), had them make a notation in our file that it wasn't fixed, and we're finally getting back on the road again.
Our time here has been filled with highs and lows. Met some great people who we hope we'll get to see somewhere down the road, got lots of things repaired (some of which we didn't even know needed repairing), but also kept hitting a wall on this darn thumping noise when we're parked for more than a night. Most of our Tiffin techs have been very good to great, with the exception of Mechanical. I just get the sense that they're going through the motions; doing the absolute minimum required of them, and nothing further. There is just no determination to get to the bottom of things in mechanical as far as I am concerned. It's just not up to the Tiffin quality we've come to expect.
Oh, and we got our motor home and Mini South Dakota registrations done by mail and received our brand new U.S. Passports, all thanks to the great people at Americas Mailbox!
But tomorrow, it's slides in, jacks up, reacquaint ourselves with our tow dolly, and we're headed to Gunter Hill COE outside of Montgomery, Alabama over the Labor Day weekend. It will mark our one year anniversary of full-time retirement RV living, and be a good test for our newly-installed Weboost cell signal booster.
We're really looking forward to this.
This is turning into a kind of out-of-body experience for us.
Usually, the tempo at Red Bay is best summed up as “Hurry up and wait”. Hurry to get here before Sunday. Wait days or more to get into a service bay. Watch Tiffin technicians hurry up to get through your main portion of your list. Wait days for the next specialty bay to open up. Watch Tiffin technicians address your bay-specific needs. Wait days for next specialty bay. Lather-rinse-repeat.
In the past, people have spent 5 weeks or more here, depending on length of their list and severity of their problems.
We weren't prepared for “Hurry up and move”.
Don't get me wrong; I'm all for being swept through the usual waters of the Tiffin Service Center at a more rapid pace, but this visit is turning out to be a bit surreal. We expected we'd need a Full Service Bay for a few days, a Mechanical bay and some work in Paint. Normally, this would translate into a 4 day wait for the first bay, another 2-4 day wait for the second, and we had heard that Paint was so backed up due to a rash of bad Tiffin drivers who needed damage repair that they were a 2-3 week wait time.
Our time frame has looked like this:
Total wait time for 3 bays, not including weekends, is 3 days.
The work here has been acceptable this trip, but not exceptional – except for paint. The back of my big slide now drops down all the way into it's slot when opened, but it's marking up our replacement floor tiles in areas it never did before. Our mysterious thump / thud which occurs when someone goes from the drivers side to the passenger side when jacks are down and slides are extended seemed to have been fixed for a day, but has come back. It was thought that a jack clamp needed to be secured, but either it appears the fix wasn't permanent, or there's something else happening towards the rear of the coach.
So it's back for round 2 to fix the fixes – except for paint.
Every now and again, you find someone in the service industry who is an absolute craftsman. Someone who takes so much pride in their work that they go above and beyond expectations because it's just what they do. We experienced this during our last visit with David and Dave in Bay 4, who were meticulous in their approach to making sure everything was right before returning our coach back to us. This trip our award for exceptional customer service goes out to Cole in Paint Bay 19.
A dimple about the size of a softball had reappeared after a repair last November which had a 50/50 chance of success. Normally, this could have been rushed through in about 2 days, but Cole wanted this one done right this time. Off comes the Diamond Shield, patch the spots where paint has been removed, do a beautiful job in filling the dimple to where you swear it was part of the original fiberglass, tape and cover it off so that not a molecule of paint might travel where it shouldn't go, feather the areas above where the original paint needs to match, and finish it off with a beautiful coat of paint, and two of clear coat.
It's always great to see the front portion of our home look even better than it did when it first came out of the factory. That's how great a job Cole did. Even Brandon, the Diamond Shield guy, was impressed. He checks the area being fixed to see if it has cured long enough before installing his product over it. If too “soft”, it's not ready. After almost 4 days of curing, our area still had soft spots, which means the coat of paint is substantial and not minimal. Good thing we still had more work to do, or we'd be waiting here just for his Diamond Shield installation.
So here's where the self-inflicted delay comes in.
While we had good service in Bay 34, there were new things that developed and some old problems which popped back up. Knowing how good Dave in Bay 4 was, we decided to request his bay for the remainder of our regular work (with mechanical and Diamond Shield still to come). Little did we know Dave had just inherited a diesel Bus that had a list of significant problems which needed to be addressed. In addition, our friend Tom across the way had Dave earlier in his stay, and wanted him to fix a couple of things that weren't quite right, and was now ahead of us in line.
The Bus work took over a week. Tom's took another day. And the way Tiffin works, you have to finish your regular bay work before you can get into a specialty bay like mechanical, so we couldn't get our jack work addressed during the wait time for Bay 4.
Ultimately, the wait was worth it, because Dave found a creak in our floor that had been driving Barbara crazy for months. A shim fixed that. While he was working on the floor he found a bolt loose on our main slide, and tightened that up before something really bad could happen. That's why we had requested Dave in Bay 4 for our final work. He's that thorough.
Diamond Shield was installed on the Friday just before we celebrated our 4th week in Red Bay, and mechanical is still in question. I sometimes think they're trying to avoid bringing us back in, because I don't think they've seen this problem before and are not sure how to proceed with an alternative to their earlier “fix”. Time (hopefully not too long) will tell.
Meanwhile the socializing has started to get to pre-COVID levels; something we haven't experienced much in the past 6 months. Let's face it; anybody who has spent time in Red Bay has pretty much quarantined themselves for at least a week or two, and due to waiting in place for the much anticipated call to a bay, we haven't moved much. Finally got to meet my Facebook buddy and fellow Tiffin owner Mike after swapping comments for over a year. Great guy, fellow escapee from Massachusetts, and fun to be around. We found new friends in Tom and Carmen, and Damon and Kathy, who were both escaping Red Bay after their multi-week stays, and with new friends Roy and Sarah and Gino and Susan, spent a wonderful night swapping stories and contact information the way life intended us to do. Shaking hands. High-fiving a great comment. Not yelling across the street to each other in fear. I suspect that many of the naysayers in the media will be wrong when it comes to the “new normal” way of living post-COVID, at least when it comes to us RVers.
But for us, we are still in the clutches of Red Bay.
Has it really been a year already? Almost.
Therefore, it was rime to leave our beautiful wooded COE campsite for the converted runway / parking lot known as the Tiffin Service Center. Nothing like feast or famine with us sometimes. So like a swallow to Capistrano, Tiffin owners like us return to Red Bay on a regular basis.
But each destination we enjoy has their own purpose. Lake parks are there to rest, relax and enjoy Mother Nature. Tiffin Service Center in Red Bay Alabama is where things get done. Our year warranty on everything in our 36LA expires on August 25th, so we needed to get ourselves back to the Mothership. Our last trip here, which we detailed in multiple posts back in November of last year, centered on repairs needed to our coach following our Liquidsprings rear suspension failure. A failure brought on not by a flaw in their product, but in their documentation on how to operate it properly. Lots of things broke as a result, and immediate repairs were needed at that time. Our Tiffin coach was built so well that we probably wouldn't have needed to make that trip to Red Bay back in November, but this trip is needed to get lots of little things corrected that we've found in our year of living on the road.
Lots of things are still the same at Camp Red Bay; still the 55 or so brand new (within one year of purchase) Tiffin coaches lined up on both sides of the old converted runway. Lots of money tied up in motor homes here from $450k 45-foot diesel Buses to $180k 33-foot gas models, and everything in between. Our Open Road gas brethren seem to be better represented now than back in November, and the color schemes have changed. Less Sunlit Sand (black, white, gray and red), and more Waterfall (blue instead of red highlights), and the newer colors like Smoky Teal and Fire Opal (black, dark gray and red) are better represented. It's refreshing to see people go to more striking colors instead of the same ol' same ol' browns and grays that many manufacturers use.
And it's nice to see our bright blue, gray and white 36LA standing out among the rest. (Just sayin')
COVID-19 has had it's effect on Camp Red Bay operations as well. Used to be two technicians in every Regular or Express service bay. Now there is only one technician in each Regular bay, with three “floaters” to help where extra hands are needed. Tiffin is definitely not back to full strength yet.
Interesting note not related to the Service Center, but we took a drive out past Tiffin's Belmont paint facility, and where there used to be a parking lot full of completed coaches waiting to be delivered, there now sits 5 Open Road gassers like ours, and 4 large diesel models. Frankly there were as many Vanleigh 5th wheel models waiting for paint (five) as there were any one type of motor home. Kinda disheartening to see.
The check-in process is still the same, with the addition of masks. Give the office your paperwork and wait for Jason to come around the next weekday morning to discuss your issues and give you his estimate of where you're going to be placed – Express or Regular bay – and a roughly right estimate of time for any specialty bays. We were given a couple of days notice for a regular bay, but paint might take a few weeks. Apparently there are a lot of bad Tiffin drivers out there, because there are a rash of damage repairs going on right now.
So expecting a few days wait, I get out the grill and the chairs and Barbara gets out her induction burner to settle into some serious Tiffin socializing. Then 2:30 that same day, we get the call to be in Bay 34 at 6:45 the next day.
Now don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining one bit about next day service. Maybe they like us, maybe we got lucky, or maybe the gods were just smiling down on us, but either way, things now need to get back into their bins and bays for movement the next morning. Such is life at Camp Red Bay. Our list isn't very long, and Shane (our Tech) figures he'll be about 2-3 days before he hands us over to mechanical, who will then hand us over to paint.
One other change due COVID-19 is that owners can no longer stay in their coach while technicians are working on them. Used to be it was a great way to learn how things are put together, and how to fix them on the road if need be. Owners with large dogs could not do this due to liability issues, but we had hoped that with Grover being so much smaller than Taz we could have taken advantage of this during our second time here. Alas, it was not meant to be. Owners can no longer stay in their coach during service.
Which brings us to another aspect of life in Red Bay; what to do for 8 hours each day in northwest Alabama when you have a dog. Tiffin has expanded their pet friendly lounge to accommodate the larger number of dogs who can no longer be in their coaches, but you (and the dog) still need to be restrained by a leash, so it's not as if you can take a nap in a leather chair or sit and read comfortably.
And it's hot. We're talking mid-summer, humid-as-all-get-out hot.
Tupelo, MS is about an hour away. Been there, done that, last trip. And we still have Grover. You can drive the Natchez Trace; a wonderful parkway running through Tennessee and Mississippi. It's pretty if you're going from Point A to Point B, but not so interesting if you have to reverse direction halfway through your day to get back to Red Bay. And you can't go too far away in case they finish with you early and have to vacate your service bay for the next guy.
We did explore a really interesting park, Tishomingo State Park just over the border in Mississippi last time we were here, and we decided to check it out a little more closely for potential camping sites when we get finished here. Turns out there are a few good sites both level and long enough for our 36LA that might come in handy at between $16 and $24 per day. It also has some great walking trails that Grover really seems to like.
Those activities got us to about 10:30 each morning. 5 more hours in Alabama heat to go before our 3:00 pickup time, so we sit outside Tiffin's Allegro Club under a shade canopy and fans, and socialize with other Tiffin owners. Grover just looks at us as if to say, “When do I get back into air conditioning”?
Such is life in Red Bay, Alabama.
The socialization aspects of Red Bay is something which has to be experienced. It's not like a typical campground. You have about 25-30 coaches parked diagonally across from another 25-30 coaches facing each other on each side of what once was an old airport runway. Depending on the time of day and season, instead of having your chairs under your awning at the side of your motor home, you put your chairs at the front of the RV and just wait for other Tiffin owners to walk by. And again, there are no Winnebagos or Newmars here; only Tiffin owners.
So invariably, in addition to the usual personal information or great camping sites being swapped, talk ends up discussing our particular rigs. Or on Tiffin as a company. Come to find out, our 36LA is a pretty well-built coach compared to many others here. Our 2-page list of items needing to be looked at turned into a 5-page work order for Tiffin. One customer last week had an 80-page – eighty pages! - work order of things needing attention on their much more expensive Allegro Bus. Are we as nit-picky as many Bus or Phaeton owners are about the imperfections we might see in our 36LA? Probably not. We don't sweat the small stuff like many of these owners with too much money on their hands who didn't do their research like we did before buying their units. And truthfully, Tiffin has had more quality issues in coaches coming out of the factory during this COVID-19 crisis. Thank God ours was built last year.
Shane finishes our list by Thursday afternoon, and now it's time to wait for the call to mechanical for jacks and thumping. Another week at Camp Red Bay is in the books, and the weekend awaits!
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!
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.