Our trip to New England and back complete, it was time for a bit of R&R&R (Rest, Relaxation and Recovery), and what better place to do that than in our favorite Corps of Engineers park, Gunter Hill in Montgomery, Alabama. Unlike last time, we knew the campground inside of the park we needed to book (Catoma), due to it's spacious, level cement sites and more importantly – full hookups!
The trip from Georgia is usually just a single day, but our reservations weren't going to start for another day, so we threw in a quick overnight stop using our Harvest Host membership at Hodges Vineyard and Winery about an hour outside of Montgomery. Harvest Host sites are generally boondocking sites with no amenities, sometimes with occasional electric or water hookups. Not so at Hodges. Two dedicated RV sites situated right beside their store, and full hookups as well. A very pleasant surprise. If they have more than 2 RV guests scheduled, there is an overflow parking lot with no hookups, but plenty of space.
In addition, they allow you to sample just about any wine they make, which is nice due to the fact that their wines tend to run a bit sweeter than most others. Their Pinot Grigio was more the color of a white zinfandel than a traditional white wine. It appealed to our taste buds as we like sweeter wines, but it might not be to other's tastes who appreciate a more traditional Pinot. We bought 4 bottles of wine (they have a blueberry dessert wine which will go perfectly poured over vanilla ice cream) and a large package of locally-made cheese straws - they are to die for!
We also had our second encounter with a hurricane this season, as the remnants of Hurricane Delta was working it's way northward. Sadly, it kept us indoors and unable to walk the grounds, but our brief view between tropical bands showed a very beautiful property. It was a short 1 ½ hour drive from there to Gunter Hill the next day.
We had booked two separate weeks in different sites due to no site being available for the whole two weeks we planned to stay there. Or so we thought. Our first week was scheduled for Site 4, while our second week was just down the road a bit at Site 21. What we failed to realize is that making reservations on Recreation.gov is different than making reservations everywhere else in the RV world. In the RV world, you book nights, allowing you to leave the NEXT day. On Recreation.gov, you book days, and the last day you book is the day you have to leave.
So there we were, doing some food shopping on a Saturday afternoon about 25 minutes away from the campground, and we get a call from the camp hosts telling us we were supposed to have checked out of Site 4 by 3:00, and it was 3:15 and the next people who had reservations wanted their site! Rushing back to Gunter Hill, we hastily pack up and unhook our utilities to clear the site. The next people to use our site were parked on the grass next to the driveway and had already plugged in their basic 20A power cable. Theirs was a school bus “conversion”, still painted in pasteurized processed cheese yellow, with the back rusted out and open to the air. But it was now their site, and we vacated.
However WE had no place to go, since our next site (21) was already occupied, and wouldn't be free until 3:00 the next day!
So we pulled into the parking lot for the bath and laundry house and proceeded to get back on Recreation.gov to see if there was a site available for the evening. Fortunately, we found Site 35 open for the night, booked it and backed our way in. We didn't bother to hook up everything – just power – as we were only there for the night. It was a shame that this site was already booked for the following week, as it was right next to the water; we would have changed our following week's reservations in a heartbeat. Our next site still had an obstructed view of the water, but it was not as good as what we had for the evening in Site 35.
So the next day, I make a number of reconnaissance trips on my bike past Site 21, hoping to see it unoccupied. No such luck. The couple using it had just bought a brand new 2021 Tiffin Open Road 34PA gasser and were giving it a shakedown for the night and following day, and needed to use the whole allotted time to test things out. I did manage to speak with the guy, point out a couple of things to look for (he has the dreaded softball-sized dimple on his front cap that we had), and gave him advice on how to best have it fixed in Red Bay. Finally, the site was ready for us by 2:30. Didn't take long to move, but I did have to haul my tow dolly around a second time in two days.
So lesson learned. If you're making reservations on Recreation.gov, remember that you're booking for the DAY – NOT the NIGHT. The last day you pay for is the day you have to vacate your site, NOT the next morning.
Despite all the mix-ups, our second stay at Gunter Hill was fantastic! With generally level paved roads, this was a perfect campground to break out our Montague folding bikes for some much needed exercise. Since the weather was good for both weeks, we averaged a bike ride a day, and sometimes two. In between, we got Grover into the exercise act by taking him on very extended walks at least once per day. One night, he was so tired he got himself out of my chair and promptly went into our bedroom, burrowed his way under our covers and went to sleep before we did!
We also met some really nice people during our stay; Jerry and Marsha in their Newmar diesel, Tim and Deb in their 5th wheel next door to us the first week in Site 3, and especially Tina and John Caparella, who full-time in their Denali travel trailer with their dog, Moose. We had planned to break out our Advanced Elements Lagoon2 tandem kayak during our stay, and it just so happened that Tina and John like to kayak as well. Making a play date for 10:00 on Wednesday morning, we haul our associated stuff and bagged kayak in the Mini down to the boat ramp parking lot, and have everything pretty much inflated and assembled by the time Tina and John arrive to unload their kayaks.
Two hours fly by as we take on the Gun Island Chute of the Alabama River. Beautiful scenery. Lots of waterfowl. No gators! Life is good. Arms are tired as we're hauling the 35 - 40 lbs of kayak and paddles back up the very steep boat ramp, but we make it. Everything packs back up the way it was supposed to, and we get back to camp to turn around and inflate it all over again so that the kayak can dry out before we leave on Saturday. It's not the first time we've used the bikes and kayak, but the first time we've used them in the same park, and more than justifies our purchases over a year ago.
By the end of the week (and double-checking the last DAY of our reservations) we're ready to head down to central Florida to scope out some potential January sites and see some friends and family.
Our first weekend at Mill Brook RV was a reunion of old friends. My best friend growing up, Rick, and his wife Marielle (my big sis) had purchased a Grand Design Reflection 5th wheel earlier this year to replace the toy hauler trailer they sold last year. Even with a shortened camping season due to COVID-19, plus some health issues, they've managed to get in a good bit of camping (now glamping) this year. This weekend with friends was the end of their season in New Hampshire. We ended up getting about 10 people around a campfire and some nice grilled burgers and dogs. And wine. Lots of wine. Maybe it was just me having lots of wine. I'm not sure.
The rest of our time in New England was spent reacquainting ourselves and introducing our daughter and grandson to New England food and the Atlantic coast.
The food was covered by roast beef sandwiches (lean roast beef, white American cheese, served on either an onion roll for some or just a plain hamburger roll for others with BBQ sauce as an option), a New England specialty which puts Arby's to shame, or some of the best and freshest seafood on the planet. So a trip to the Clam Box in Georgetown, MA, Costello's in Plaistow, NH, and our favorite - Simard's Roast Beef in Wilmington were hit up early.
And of course, golf had to be played. My buddies I used to work with at Xerox years ago get together each week, and I'm usually able to make a guest appearance each trip up north. COVID shutdowns have caused a change in taking care of reservations for tee times. Some places require you to pay for your entire group at the time of the reservation. Others will hold the reservation for a couple of days while your players call in their individual payments. If a person needs to cancel, many are just giving a credit instead of a refund. Let's just say it's both confusing and a bit irritating.
As to my golf game, let's just say it still needs a LOT of work, as I have not been getting out as much as I planned to do when I first started retirement. But as they say, there I a never a bad day on the golf course.
While I was being taken through the torture rack known as Granite Fields Golf Course just 5 minutes away from our campsite, Barbara and Alicia had to keep Jace occupied and entertained – not always the easiest thing to do. Enter Demeritt Hill Farm. Nice petting area, apple picking, and the always present pictures with head cutouts for photo ops. There is nothing like New England apples fresh picked in the Fall.
One of the great joys about traveling with our grandson, Jace, is his fascination and love of water; in this particular case, the ocean. He loves any body of water, but he REALLY loves waves crashing onto the shore. Big or small waves, he's on it.
The first trip to the shore was to our, and Jace's favorite beach; Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA. A favorite of my Mom's and my Auntie Marge's when we were growing up as kids, because it's nestled in an inlet so any wave action is benign, and it's shallow so a four year-old can walk way out from shore and not get knocked over. It also features a sandbar that has been there for decades which gets exposed during low tide, but submerges during high tide. You don't even get your navel wet. Getting Jace out there doesn't take a lot of time, but getting him back to shore takes forever. I know; you're shocked, right? An afternoon well spent, and Jace comes back with a few seashells to bring to his Dad.
Next trip out was to a treasured place for both Barbara and me. Nubble Light in York, Maine was the site where I proposed to Barbara all those years ago, and it still holds a special place in our hearts. For Jace, it meant some serious rock climbing with Papa while waves came crashing into the shoreline. Nubble sits on a beautiful rocky promontory and stands as a beacon to provide safe harbor to fisherman and recreational boaters in southern Maine.
A cookout at my sister-in-law Debby's house gives us another visit with Dad, and a chance to see our nephew Mike, his wife Nicole, and their beautiful daughter Phoebe. Jace and Phoebe seem to get along very well, even if they can't get the whole see-saw thing down pat. Earlier in the week we had a short visit with my cousin Gary, his wife, Lisa, and my Uncle Don. Don and my Dad are the surviving patriarchs of the Fudge and Richard families.
IN an earlier edit of this page, I neglected to include another family visit; this time by Barbara's cousin Joy and her husband, Mike. Joy and Mike stopped by our site and brought gifts of wine for us, and activities for Jace. (good thing it wasn't the other way around!) Sorry, guys! It's hard to remember what I have for breakfast some mornings, let alone all the things that occurred almost a month ago!
Our final visit to the Maine shoreline holds great memories for Barbara. Officially known as Cape Elizabeth, it's commonly known as Two Lights. This is because there are actually two lighthouses still on site, as the older one was never disassembled when the newer, taller lighthouse was erected. Barbara's grandparents had a place in nearby Old Orchard Beach, and Two Lights is a short drive away. Many a summer day was spent by Barbara climbing the vast rocky shores. It's also a great place to get inspiration for the painting she used to do, and hopefully will again. Two Lights also features a small restaurant where we were able to have our final fill of fried clams and scallops.
A final night in New Hampshire with our best friends Rick and Marielle (and one of the best pepperoni and bacon pizzas I've ever eaten), and it was time to hit the road again. Bypassing Western RV Village in Carlisle, PA so as not to repeatour earlier boulder encounter, we stop at a place we stayed last year while on the way back from New England – Camp-A-While in Hegins, PA. Less than a mile down a steep hill off of I-81, it's halfway between Hazelton and Harrisburg. They have three pull-through sites they usually keep for transient RV's that need a lot of room without having to unhook our toad. A nice young couple bought it last year and they have been making improvements to the park, and it shows.
One final stop before dropping off Jace and Alicia was in Max Meadows, VA at Pioneer RV Village. It's our go-to stop heading north and south on I-81. Right at the junction of I-81 and I-77, it's a perfect one day drive to and from Georgia. It features large sites with small trees and an open meadow bordered by a meandering creek. Perfect for Jace to throw hickory nuts into to keep him entertained.
While New England is no longer our home, we still consider it to be something close to home. The food, the friends, and the family will always make it so. But our home now is wherever we park it. And even Grover is getting very comfortable on travel days when Barbara has a weak moment.
Our intended trip to New England to visit friends and family having been canceled due to COVID-19 this past June, we FINALLY get the go-ahead to make the trip in late September – early October. Our earlier trip was put off due to private campgrounds and interstate rest areas being closed along our way, and while we could have stayed somewhere in New England to do our visiting at that time, the prospect of me driving 24 hours straight made our June trip impossible.
Not that we still didn't encounter some issues along the way in September. Massachusetts state government kept changing their rules for RVers so much that certain campgrounds stopped taking reservations from out-of-staters because they got tired of refunding money. Maine still insisted on a 14-day quarantine for people traveling from certain areas (areas we had traveled to and from). New Hampshire finally got around to allowing out-of-staters to finally come in to private parks, but not into state parks, limiting our choices And to top it all off, some campgrounds were limiting their discounts to try to recoup losses suffered during the early part of camping season.
It was a mess.
Finally, some friends of ours were able to secure a couple of weekend sites for themselves and a relative for them to camp with, and a spot was also available for us for our 2 week stay. Mill Brook RV Park in Kingston, NH became our go-to campground for the second straight year. It's well situated to hit the NH coast, Maine and Massachusetts from one location, so it was perfect for us.
Also similar to last year, we had our grandson, Jace, with us. Fortunately for us, we also had Jace's mom, our daughter Alicia, with us this year to play the role of cat-herder. Jace is the proverbial cat.
Our drive up was a bit different this year, in that our usual place to stay, Pioneer RV Village in Max Meadows, VA (right where I-77 and I-81 meet) was fully booked for the one night we needed. It's a great park with wide, grassy pull-through sites that are perfect for the one-night stand (and longer stays). So after trying all other parks in the area and coming up empty, we found a Harvest Host site called Draper Village / Draper Mercantile. There were 3 parking spots available at a farm up the road from the Mercantile (don't pull into the Mercantile itself as it doesn't have a way for you to turn around or back out), and you can take a short walk to the Mercantile once you get settled in. Unfortunately for them, we got in late and left early, so everything was closed by the time we got around to supporting our hosts. The Mercantile looks interesting, so maybe next time.
It was very foggy and dark when we left the next morning, which gave me an opportunity to see if the headlights that had been adjusted in Red Bay last November were still working correctly (they were). Barbara followed me through the streets of Draper and onto I-81 North in the Mini, as I didn't want to reconnect the toad in those conditions. Mated everything back up at a rest area about 30 miles north where the sun was up and the fog had dissipated.
Our second night's stay on the way north was, frankly, a disaster. Unless you were Jace. He got a playground. We stayed at Western Village RV Park in Carlisle, PA, a park we used last year as a base for the Hershey RV Show and our trip further north. Barbara had called ahead, requesting our typical pull-through site. The spacious sites up front for “transients” were all booked, but the person on the other end of the line said she did have a pull-through in another section of the park. Understand, we ALWAYS tell people at parks that we're a 38 foot Class A motor home with a tow vehicle when asking for a site.
Well, we got a pull-through, but it was better suited access-wise to a short travel trailer. Narrow site, with large boulders on one side and trees on the other, extending to the back and front of the site, so when morning came there was little room for me to take the turn out of the campsite.
Long story short, the large tail swing on our 36LA was too much to make it's way past a boulder on the passenger side exit, and we caved in our rear basement bay door and some fiberglass on our rear cap. We also bent back the steel fender on our tow dolly. I was seriously pissed!
On our way northbound Barbara called the campground to inform them of our damage and to tell them to never recommend putting a motor home in that site, and the person in the office says, “We never put motor homes in that site!” Well, maybe you should tell the person working the desk LAST night that, ya think? If there is a silver lining in all of this, the folks at Progressive Insurance have been very easy to work with thus far, and we hope to be able to schedule some time in Red Bay in November to have the damage fixed.
Our final stop on the way to New Hampshire is one of the only rest areas I think I'll ever stay at. On I-84 in Connecticut, there is a rest area heading northbound in Southington, CT. What makes it special for me and the rest of us fellow RVers is that it is one of the few (if only) rest areas with dedicated parking for RVs. No cars, no 18-wheelers allowed (they each have their own dedicated areas). It has plenty of room both wide and long to park dozens of RVs, and it gives us the ability to park against a curb so that we can open our slides for the night and run our generator. And of course it's free.
A short 2 ½ hour drive the next day, and we're in place for 2 weeks. Jace is free to be free, and we can start putting together all the visits needed to see everyone we need to see. I have to get my Dad's taxes done because the Senior Center no longer offers that free service due to COVID-19, Enterprise needs to be washed after a couple of thousand miles on the road (thanks again Wash and Wax All!), and we need to prep for visitors coming in for the weekend.
Next up – Sightseeing on New England's rocky shores.
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.
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.