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!
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.