One thing that is really hard to get used to, since both of us are introverts, is that the people we meet on our journey just want to talk, mostly about themselves. This is actually great, because I personally never learned anything while flapping my jaw and, since I retired, I have the time and inclination to be a much better listener. I’ll never be an extrovert, but once we started down the fulltime RV path, we have met hundreds of people – RV’ers and otherwise – and I find that I can learn a great deal from them if I just listen to them.
We have a dynamite opener to the conversation, because the first thing people ask when they meet us is, “Where are you from?” Our stock answer: “Everywhere.” That leads into the explanation that we’re fulltime RVers and the road is our home, and that usually opens the floodgates among whomever we talk with.
Sometimes, after we meet someone new that just loves to talk about really interesting things, Pat and I just look at each other, shake our heads and wonder, “How did that just happen?” Like the native american scholar and author in Nebraska who, once he found he had a listener, talked to me for an hour about everything he knew about Plains Indians, explorers, the Oregon Trail and the history of the settlement of America. Really interesting stuff, and all he lacked was an attentive listener. Or the guy in Missouri, retired history teacher, who just wanted to tell me everything he knew about how Missouri became a state. We’re not talking about just anybody we run into, although there are plenty of those, butthat one person who knows cool stuff and is just itching to talk your arm off telling you about it. This doesn’t happen to us just occasionally, it totally happens all the time now.
It happened again tonight, when Pat and I spent the day up in the mountains at Grand Teton National Park. We had let church slide this morning, mostly because the only mass in Dubois, Wyoming – where our RV was located – was at 8AM. My heart doesn’t even start beating until at least 9AM, so lets just say that the spirit was willing but the alarm clock was weak. So then, when we got to the park we were sort of disappointed because the prevailing wind today clouded the mountains in smoke from forest fires in Washington, Idaho and Montana – we took pictures but they were very hazy and disappointing – plus we were getting a little aggravated at the large crowds of people who seemed to want to see the same things we did, all at the same time. Topping it off, we found that the animals in the park – it’s known for its photogenic wildlife – seemed to be on strike today.
But on the way out of the park we noticed this pretty little chapel, beautifully built out of whole cedar logs, in the woods on a lake and we thought, so lets stop in and take some pictures. It was called the “Chapel of the Sacred Heart.” Turns out, the chapel is maintained by the Teton County Historical Society, is located on National Park land, and the local catholic diocese supplies a circuit-rider priest to do a Catholic Mass once a Sunday at 5PM, according to a sign on the door.
So here we were, at 4:30 PM, thinking, “Boy, I bet it wouldn’t piss God off if I actually went to church, it being Sunday and all.” So we stuck around. At 4:45 people started showing up, and the place – pretty small to start out with – managed to pretty much fill up. We figured the priest would be a “circuit rider” – a member of the Catholic clergy who handles the Sunday masses at churches too small for a regular priest, sort of “Have Chalice, Will Travel.” At 5PM, in walks this bishop, complete with shepherd’s crook and skullcap. As he explained, he is an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese of Chicago, and he just happened to be in the area for some kind of conference when he got drafted into handling some of the circuit-rider load. With that kind of mojo in our corner we figured we’d made the right choice. so after the service was over, as is our wont, we went looking for a restaurant to have dinner. The only one open on a Sunday night was in a very upscale hotel complex run by the National Park Service, and they had a diner-style food counter as one of their restaurant choices. We sat at the counter next to this elderly lady sitting by herself, and the usual “Where ya from?” started things up.
As it turned out, the lady worked part-time for the hotel complex as a site historian (who knew they had them?), and was a retired historian for Teton County. We mentioned the chapel we went to and her eyes lit up. Boy did she know a lot about that chapel, and the floodgates opened. She said it had originally been named “Our Lady of Grand Teton,” until her organization approached the local Catholic diocese and informed them that they had just named their chapel, “Our Lady of the Big Tits.” The Teton range was named by French explorers, known to be a ribald lot, not too prayerful in their naming habits, and in this case they let their imaginations roll about their favorite topic. Since the local Catholics realized that they didn’t want their chapel named after an anonymous, particularly well-endowed lady, they hastily changed the name to “Chapel of the Sacred Heart.” Not as dramatic perhaps but also less comical if you’re trying to call yourself a serious diocese. That tale turned our entire day around.
So Okay! Who would have figured that the one person who could regale us with that kind of story would end up sitting next to us, alone, in a restaurant right after we had a genuine bishop from Chicago celebrate our Mass in a back-country log cabin chapel in the middle of the Wyoming woods? On top of that, the funk that Pat was into about not having any wildlife to photograph began to dissipate, because on our way home from the restaurant we saw bear, antelope and all sorts of critters, as if they were lining up for our camera. The meal was excellent. and the smoke disappeared from the mountains. Musta been that bishop, I’m telling you.
There’s not really much to say about Wakeeney, and we’re here for 4 days. When we were still 100 miles east of there and rolling down I-70 we saw a billboard with a script “Wakeeney” and the words, “We’re Affordable.” The only thing on the Internet about Wakeeney I could find is that it has a motor speedway (not operating during our stay according to their web page) and the police chief was arrested when he tried to blackmail someone to get his son off after junior did a few naughty things. Okay, I thought, if you haven’t got a lot, you make the best of what you’ve got and put it on a billboard. Wakeeney (a mashup of Warren and Keeney, two of the town’s founders in the late 19th century) is a small farm town with a main street and several blocks of WW2-era bungalows, with farm-related businesses on the edge of town located near the railroad line that runs through the middle. I-70 runs along the southern edge of town and was the only evidence of activity, due to a couple of truck stops, fast-food vendors and the KOA we’re spending a few days in. Might be a long, long four days if we’re beset by 90’s temps and very few attractions. I dissolve in the heat.
After setting up in the KOA, which is nice by the way – good hookups, grassy sites, pool and nice people – we had some ice cream in the office, jumped into our air-conditioned toad, Li’l Bessie, and drove the streets of Wakeeney looking for signs of life – congregations of cars, platoons of people, etc. – and the only evidence was a group of six pickup trucks (I guess that represents a quorum in these parts) parked in front of a storefront restaurant on Main Street called the Western Kansas Saloon & Grill. We joined them and had a pretty respectable dinner and glass of beer, then retreated back to the RV before someone could spot our Dakota plates and ticket us for vagrancy.
Okay, Charlie (Kuralt, my imaginary fulltime RVing role model), what would you do? Well if the tourist traps won’t come to us, we’ll go to the tourist traps. So on Saturday we took the toad southward 90 miles along route 283 (good-quality secondary road) to Dodge City. The stark landscape of Kansas was very apparent during the drive down there, as the only things that popped up along the way were nodding oil donkeys, cell towers, farm fields and many, many wind turbines. We got hungry about 1:30PM and scanned the main street of one of the two tiny towns along the way – Ness City – for some kind of restaurant. The only thing open was a corner cafe run by a couple of cheerful hispanic ladies, and even though they were about to close for the afternoon siesta they let us in and cooked up taco salads. I glanced across the deserted street and noticed a storefront labeled “Ness County Museum.” I noted it to the two ladies and they laughed, said it was a “very creepy place” and they hadn’t ever seen it open. Okay, that’s a pass.
Dodge City is a bustling town along a major rail line, and for 150 years it has been one of the main transit points for cattle, agro, and in recent years oil products. During Wyatt Earp’s time as town marshal, this became the backdrop for the drama of his interaction with local cowboys. They would deliver their cattle to the rail yards and, flush with cash from being paid off for the job, they would cut a swath through Dodge City. The town was happy to oblige them with liquor, working women and whatever else they were willing to pay for. The town eventually ended up with their pay, which the cowboys weren’t too happy about, and Earp’s efforts to keep them on the side of the law didn’t go down too well either, leading to an increase in the reputations of the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and bunch of other marshals, who put quite a few of the miscreants in the ground. The main tourist trap in town is the Boot Hill Museum, built on the site of the former boot hill cemetery, and consisting of several storefronts arranged to copy the original Dodge City Front Street, faithfully reconstructed from photographs. We bought “upgraded” tickets, which in addition to access to the museum, also included a mighty fine roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, a spectator seat at a reenactment of a gunfight between the law and some alleged cattle rustlers – the law won, predictably – and a seat at a floor show put on in Miss Kitty’s Saloon (the Gunsmoke theme was also strong here). The show consisted of comedians, a couple of female singers, four young can-can dancers, corny jokes and typical saloon song themes accompanied by a piano player (complete with a “Don’t shoot the piano player” sign) and one of the resurrected outlaws on drums. The kids who did the heavy lifting looked like summer stock players waiting to go back to school in the Fall.
It was totally corny but clean fun and worth it. The show let out about 9PM, to great applause, and we hit the road back to Wakeeney. My previous preconceptions of Kansas were that it was really flat, and populated by angry old ladies riding bicycles and chasing Toto. I got the flat part right. The drive back was in complete darkness, down an arrow-straight road with zero traffic and no ambient light. That was the thing that most unnerved this former east coaster – lack of light pollution. Darkness here is, like, really, really dark. The darkness was so complete, and the oncoming traffic so non-existent, that one could see the streetlights of small towns 15 miles away, long enough to take 15 minutes to dim the high beams, dial down the cruise control and crawl down the deserted main streets until reaching the far side of town, when things got dialed up again to 65. The cafe where we ate lunch was dark at 11PM, but their neon “Open” sign was the only thing still shining brightly in this town other than the streetlamps. I guess the ladies were in a hurry to get to their siesta after we left. We got back to Wakeeney about 11:30, and immediately called it a day.
We hit church on Sunday morning (big handwritten note inside the hymnal cover, “Pray for Rain!”), ate lunch at Wakeeney’s Pizza Hut and found a car wash to clean off the copious carpet of bug slime from last night’s ride across the Kansas prairie. It’s going to get pretty hot here in the next few days, over 100 – a major topic of comment at church – so Monday might just be a good day to dig the air conditioning in the RV, read a bit and maybe finish this blog post. We had a nice Sunday afternoon nap, then went down to the pool to meet the other guests at the park, most of whom were either going to or coming from Denver. RVers always seem to find something common to all of us to talk about, even when soaking up the waterin the park’s swimming pool. The KOA folks seem to realize that there’s nothing much to keep people here long-term, and so they tailor their efforts to serve transients who stop for a night and then jump back on I-70 in the morning. We noticed that the park clears out about 10AM (except for us), and then refills in the afternoon and early evening as people stop, looking for an overnight, completing the next day’s Circle of RV Life.
We’re planning on leaving here Tuesday morning, and arriving in Limon, (apparently pronounced “Ly Mun” as it is not known for its lemons) Colorado, for the next leg of our trip vector towards Denver. It’s about a 3-hour drive – a veritable chip shot now that I’ve found my RV-driving boogie.
Pat and I hang out on several sites populated by people who are either contemplating RVing full-time or are already doing it. The questions are endless and there seems to be no threshold for what is considered too unimportant: Gas vs. Diesel, how do you do your wash on the road, how do you deal with pets, what does it cost, what can I afford, how this, how that, etc. I thought I’d do this blog entry that touches upon a number of questions I’ve been asked, and even though I’m not an expert yet, at least I’ve been through the retirement -> house sale -> domicile -> rig purchase process and I’ve got some insights from having done it. This one is about our coach and our thoughts on what we thought we needed to hit the road and make it stick.
We’ve been driving and living in our 2017 Fleetwood Bounder 35K for a month now, so let’s do a gut check on our satisfaction level. Depending on the price point, every RV has things we love about it, and things we don’t. When Pat and I went shopping for our full-time RV, the one we’d live in for the foreseeable future, we had done about 3 years of Internet research, and didn’t have much practical experience. In the words of one RV tech I talked to along the way, when I told him I was a rookie RV’er who decided to go full-time, “Man, you’re sure not afraid to dive into the pool without finding out how deep it is, are you?”
What we thought…
Well it wasn’t just a dive. More like walking down the pool stairs instead of doing a cannonball from the pool edge. We researched the hell out of this (Internet is your friend here), went to RV shows, asked people – both who were trying to sell us coaches and those who owned them with no dog in the fight – what they thought and what they’d do over again. In effect, we were the people on the introductory paragraph above. After much argument we came up with a list of criteria that our RV had to satisfy:
It had to be a Class A coach. I got lots of advice on this from wonks on the Internet. The most popular types of RV are 5th-wheel trailers (towed by a $70K beefy diesel pickup truck that we didn’t have), Class C coaches, built on a van base, Class A coaches like the one we ended up with, and “travel trailers” that are towed behind a pickup truck in a typical bumper-hitch configuration. Every type has its fans and supporters who think it’s the bomb, and we heard arguments from all of them.
Pat didn’t like the idea of driving a big pickup all over the place to do our sightseeing once we reached the RV park and unhitch, so 5th wheels and travel trailers were out, and we found that full-time living space was a problem in all but the largest Class C’s, so that left a Class A coach as the obvious choice.
It had to be 35-38 feet long. This was for ease of driving, and because many RV parks out there are older ones from the bygone days of shorter RVs, and it’s hard to fit a 45-footer into one of their sites. And, really, no way do I want to drive one of those down a secondary road and tow another 20 feet of car behind me. We thought anything smaller than 35 feet just wouldn’t be big enough to allow for gracious living for the length of time we were contemplating doing this.
It had to be a gasser. Class A’s come in two flavors: diesel (known as a Diesel Pusher or DP, because the engine’s in the back) and gasoline. I was unfamiliar with diesels, plus they cost more to maintain and cost about $30-50K more than gas rigs of the same basic amenities. I was told by diesel wonks, well yeah, but you can get a 7-8-year-old used one with plenty of miles left for about the cost of a new gasser. Well, maybe next time.
It had to have a washer and dryer. These rigs don’t feature a lot of closet space, so our downsized wardrobe demanded a lot of washing. We could use the campground laundry at a cost of about $3 per load, but we figured it would work out cheaper to have our own facility in the coach, which is only really useful if we are in a park with water and sewer supplied.
We had to have a King-size bed – It was what we were used to at home, so why not? The model of RV we ended up with had a queen bed, but there’s more to the story.
We need a big shower. This might not be a big deal to others, but we’re not small people, so it made no sense at all to buy a coach with a shower too small for Superman to change his clothes in. The shower is built into the design of the coach layout, so it was not negotiable or fixable after the sale. We walked around the RV dealership with a tape measure just to be sure. Ours is 30″ x 40″, about the minimum that we considered acceptable.
We didn’t need four TVs in a 35-foot coach. Since this was two TVs more than we had in our house, we were amused when we’d tour RVs that had TVs all over the place. Bedroom, Living Room, above the dashboard, and even one accessed through a hatch on the outside of the coach. Some high-end coaches even have one in the bathroom. RV manufacturers seem to think that their chances of selling the coach is proportionate to thenumber of TVs it has. We really only wanted two – bedroom and living room.
We wanted a kitchen table and chairs rather than a dinette booth like you would get in a fast-food restaurant. This one was harder to find, since we were bucking the buyers’ trend. And, although we could have swapped out a booth for this setup at great expense later, we really wanted it from the get-go.
After sifting through all those criteria, we settled on a 2017 Fleetwood Bounder 35K. It had all of the stuff we wanted and, as this coach has begun to educate us in what it can do, we realized that we got a winner.
The Gasser – while a diesel pusher can do a bit better going up and down hills, our recent trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains convinced me that our coach is no slouch in the mountains, either, even when dragging our car behind it. Yes, there are times when we have to pull into the truck lane and put on our 4-ways while going up steep grades, but on the whole it does pretty well. In 2016 Ford introduced a new, 6-speed transmission that is night-and-day better than the previous 5-speed, and we’re very happy with it. The length is 36 feet (including the rear ladder) and that fell into our desired range. It would take a lot to convince me that we would need to go any larger, and in fact there’s a lot to suggest that we could do with a smaller coach a few years down the line if we decide to buy a new one.
Washer & Dryer – I really like our Splendide combo wash/dryer, and I didn’t think I’d like it as much as the other alternative – an over/under dryer/washer combo. With this model, we just put our clothes in and start it up, go do something fun, and when we return they’re clean and dry. It tends to wrinkle cotton, but liquid fabric softener takes some of that away.
Our Samsung residential fridge requires that we run the generator while we’re on the road for 5 hours or more, but on shorter hops we just keep it closed and it doesn’t lose any cool inside without 120v power. Samsung is not a brand I think of when it comes to RVs, but it works well. Somebody – probably Fleetwood – tried to add a little lever to lock the doors when the coach is bouncing down the road. It sucked and made it harder to open the door and get stuff, so I drilled out the lever and Pat found a better lock (those two little white squares on either side of the freezer, plus a bungie cord wrapped around the door handles on top) on the Internet and we’re much happier.
We thought we needed a King Size Bed – Wrong. Fleetwood (and other makers) found out lately through their marketing data that people really like King beds, so within the last 5 years or so they began pushing them either as an option, or as a primary choice on medium-priced rigs like ours. Pat and I are big people, so we figured that only a king-size bed would make us happy. We were wrong about that, and it only took a couple of nights sleeping in our coach for that to sink in. Ours came with only a queen bed, and we had overlooked the advantages of this size. First off, whether you have a queen or a king, the width of the slide is the same, so what you gain in bed width, you lose in nightstand width as they shrink the nightstand on either side to accommodate the wider bed. We kind of like a wide flat place to charge our phones, place our glasses at night, and hold my CPAP machine, and we wouldn’t get anything that wide with a king bed. Second, the narrower queen gives us more space to stand on the side of the bed in the morning to make it or to get up for something.
Cargo capacity – If I were to think of the worst thing about the coach, it’s that it’s built on a 22,000 lb. chassis. This means that it can’t take more than that weight on the axles or risk a tire blowout or chassis failure, leading to an accident. This leaves us about 2200 pounds for two people, groceries, clothes, plus the liquid capacities of the various fuel and holding tanks, and the weight of our towbar assembly. The first thing we did after we loaded up the coach with all the stuff we brought down from South Dakota or bought in Florida, is run over to a truck stop and weigh the coach with us inside, and we learned that we only had about 260 lb. left for additional cargo or passengers.
Why a 22,000 lb. chassis instead of, say, a 24K or 26K chassis? To save Fleetwood a few bucks and help them meet their price point by cheapening things up. It’s one reason that the interior walls in the coach are made of thin, wobbly fiberboard and stapled to very lightweight studs. Walls in a gasser tend to be very flimsy and easy to break, but to put in sturdier walls would mean beefing up the chassis, or dialing down the cargo capacity even further. One thing Pat and I are learning is to be very aware of what goes into the coach and what goes out, and that we can’t have one without the other. The gross weight above (21740 lb.) tells us that even just the weight of one of our kids on the road would be enough to put us over the max cargo capacity.
Handling – Another baddie is that this coach is hard to handle on the road. This has more to do with the fact that the heavy engine is in front, unlike a diesel pusher, and there is a lot of “tail” (the house that sticks out behind the rear axle). Trucks push us around on the road, and I’ve found that I cannot relax my attention for even a second, leading us to only drive 4-5 hours without pulling off the road due to driver exhaustion. In addition to the tail, which can “wag the dog” if I’m not careful, the height of the rig causes some alarming sway. Also unlike a diesel pusher (which has airbag suspension) our coach has a leaf-spring suspension, and this contributes to the alarming swaying and “float” when taking some turns.
One thing we can do to reduce the sway and improve the steering stability is to install an aftermarket sway bar to harden up the suspension, and also install an aftermarket steering damper – sort of a shock absorber for the steering gear. Pat and I are certainly going to do this within the next 6 months. These two generally run about $3500 for both, so it’s a major expense but worth it in terms of peace of mind while driving. Here’s a video done by a couple of full-time RV vloggers about the process performed on a bounder a year older than ours, but basically the same suspension. It also shows the realities of driving a 35-foot motorhome.
Another option is to install Sumo Springs, which sort of mimic the action of airbags on the leaf suspension. They run about $600 and can have a dramatic effect on sway. These vloggers drive a Tiffen Allegro rig about the size of ours, and it uses the same Ford chassis and suspension as our Bounder.
The Merely Inconvenient
The thing that falls into this category is POOP! And how we deal with it. We have to empty the black tank (what comes from the two toilets only) every four days or so, because our black tank only has a capacity of 42 gallons. Our habit is to always find an RV park with a sewer at the site, hook up a very high-capacity hose (known as the “stinky slinky”) to the sewer dump, and open the dump valve when the tank reaches 2/3 full. Then we use a separate water hose to shoot water into the tank via a special fitting through the tank wall to flush it and clean it out – takes 2 or 3 repeats of this before the water draining from the tank appears clear.
The toilet system our RV uses is called a Sealand Vacuflush system – used in many RVs and yachts, and it’s got some quirks. If you’ve ever used the head on an airliner, you’re familiar with the roar that our toilets produce when we flush them. Then a quite loud vacuum pump kicks on and recharges the vacuum in the entire system for the next flush. Nobody can use the system until the vacuum gets restored by the pump, and this can take a minute or so. There’s even an indicator on the wall that tells you when it’s OK to flush, if the person in the other bathroom has beat you to the punch and flushed first. The trick to the black tank and when to empty it is to keep an eye on a tank volume indicator above our front door. If I forget and ignore it, some very bad things – like some very nasty stuff working up the vent pipe to the roof and giving everyone a poop shower – can happen if the tank gets too full, so it’s something you just have to accept that’s different about the mobile lifestyle.
We rolled into Crossville on Friday night. Crossville is home to a retirement community known as Fairfield Glade, of about 8000 people that seems to have affected the demographics and economy of this part of town in a big way. The community is the snowbird destination for people from the north, particularly Michigan, who can’t stand the heat of Florida and move up here instead. The locals call these people “Halfbacks.” Even the RV park we’re staying at, Spring Lake RV Resort (the “resort” part is sort of a stretch as they don’t really have amenities), is a “55+ park,” meaning that kids can come visit their ancestors for a day but can’t register to camp here unless they’re over 55. In place of the swingsets, pool and play areas that you find at normal parks, they have adirondack chairs set strategically around the central, small lake so we old fellers can sit and stare at the plastic swans anchored in the middle. But it’s clean, close to the people we want to visit, has good utilities, and will serve us very well for our week here. The lake is also stocked with largemouth bass, and I’d be fishing if my poles weren’t in storage back in Maryland, waiting for us to come get them.
The old-age thing hereabouts wasn’t apparent until Pat and I went to Mass on Sunday. We looked around and didn’t see many young people unless they were attached to an older person or persons who were obvious grandparents. The average age of the people at the service had to be near 50. Like everywhere else we go, we don’t know a lot of these local facts until we arrive and start asking around.
Our biggest reason for coming here was to visit dear relatives on both sides of our family. My cousin Jim and his wife Leath, both Ohio natives, have a vacation place right down the road from us in Fairfield Glade. We visited with them later in the week and, thank God, it had nothing to do with a family funeral, which is the only other time, it seems, that we get to see them. On Sunday we drove up to meet Pat’s niece Sherry and her family – some of them for the first time since we hadn’t seen them since she was remarried – who live near Oak Ridge an hour away, for a visit and had a great time getting to know each other.
As far as fun things to do, we’re still looking. We went to nearby Cumberland Mountain State Park on Sunday and had a fine time due to its un-state-parklike amenities. For one thing it has an olympic-sized swimming pool, which seemed to be the main attraction of a hundred or so young folks in the area on a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon. We swam for a couple hours until the place started clearing out about 4:30, then went over to the park’s very nice restaurant for a good buffet dinner of ribs & chicken.
So we’re trying to find things to do and see. Over the past couple days, we’ve been driven around the local area by Jim and Leath, taking in the sights, hiking to local waterfalls, visiting the world’s tallest tree house (abandoned), hanging out at their vacation condo a mile or two down the road from us and fishing on their pontoon boat. We had a great time catching up on family gossip and reconnecting with both of our families that we’ve missed by living in Maryland for the past 30 years. That last is a big reason why we chose this mobile lifestyle and the past couple days’ activities, IMHO, have validated that choice.
Of the two major housekeeping things we had to accomplish this week, as of Friday the 23rd one of them got done and the other is still, annoyingly, pending. The finished item was that we got the plastic bubble skylight – broken by a low-hanging branch on our last leg up here – over our shower replaced by a local repair guy, who talked my arm off with advice once I told him I was a rookie RVer. The unfinished one – our permanent South Dakota license plates – is still in License Plate Limbo. We got a call from our South Dakota mail forwarder, who was doing the legwork of registering our RV, and they were waiting on one little tax document that needed to be faxed from the Florida dealer where we bought the RV. So our Friday departure time has come and gone, and it looks like we’ll be here, unexpectedly, over at least the weekend. Fortunately the RV park office is okay with us staying put in our current site, at the normal daily rate.
This morning (Friday the 23rd) Jim and Leath left for Myrtle Beach for their own family vacation, so we’re here by ourselves. Last night we got a reciprocal visit from Pat’s niece Sherry and her husband, so we had a repeat reconnection with them as well, took them out to dinner and went on a Tennessee backroad snipe hunt trying to get back to our RV, since they unexpectedly and temporarily closed the main road leading back to our park for construction while we were eating dinner. I kept hearing banjo music as we tried to find our way back here down back-country roads, but that might have been my imagination.
The weather turned rainy yesterday and continued that way into today, so it looks like we’ll just be hanging around the RV doing some reading and low-key entertainment. I suspect that this is going to be the pattern for the next couple of days, and my task this morning is to call our dealer to light a fire under them and get the mail forwarder the document he needs to get us our plates. We’ve had to cancel two follow-on reservations so far due to the delay, and every time we do that we pay a cancellation fee so the frustration is mounting.
We had sort of a hair-raising ride up here since I wasn’t used to driving a big rig in the mountains, but once we arrived at Bald Mountain RV Resort we chilled right down and enjoyed our time here. For one thing, we did not have to use the air conditioner 24/7 to keep us cool, like we did in Florida and Southern Georgia – being up in the mountains is its own air conditioner. We opened all the windows and enjoyed the breeze at a 3000 ft. altitude.
This was another of Pat’s shot-in-the-dark planning moves and, as usual, she hit it out of the park almost without realizing it. Hiawassee, the town that encompasses our resort, is a resort area in itself that sprang up from humble beginnings as a logging town when the Tennessee Valley Authority built a hydro dam in 1942 to create Chatuge Lake. Its population is only about 900 people, but the spring and summer vacation crowds triple that number due to the lake’s attractions. The dam is in North Carolina, which shares the Chatuge shoreline with Georgia, and the area has become one of the most popular vacation destinations in Georgia. We didn’t know any of this before we arrived, but we’re always happy to see the infrastructure that tourism brings in because it gives us lots of choices for places to eat and things to do. For our Good Sam discounted price of $31 a night, we got a pull-thru site with full hookups, good internet and cable TV.
On Sunday, we drove up to Brasstown Bald, the tallest mountain in Georgia (4784 ft.) and took a shuttle up to the peak to check out the view. One can see three states from up top, and the visitor center has a lot of info about how the U.S. Forestry Service (yeah, the ones that the GOP wants do away with and sell all their land) did a lot to reforest and restock the area after hunting and logging decimated it in the early 1900’s.
The drive up there was impressive enough, and since it’s a U.S. national park, Pat flashed her Seniors’ card and we both got in for free, redeeming in one instance the $10 cost of the card.
After that we were hungry so we went into Helen, Georgia to find a place that would feed us. Helen is another logging-town-in-decline that reinvented itself as a tourist town, simply by replicating a Bavarian theme, even mandating it in their zoning laws.
On Wednesday we decided to spend the day looking at the sights around Helen. For people like Pat and me, who spent a lot of time in the Austrian and Bavarian Tyrol in our military past, Helen (pop. 510) looked sort of artificial, kind of Disney-German, but they certainly pull in the crowds, as evidenced by the conga line of tourist cars slowly snaking down the main drag. We found a restaurant that some of our fellow campers recommended and had a great lunch, including typical Bavarian fare like kaseschnitzel, wienerschnitzel, spatzle (noodles), sauerkraut, and a pint of Paulaner draft beer.
As we walked around town we noticed that the American mixed with the German pretty well. Next to a restaurant touting Bavarian cooking, there was one offering BBQ and burgers. My Michigan peeps will recognize a lot of similarities here with Frankenmuth, a town that also exploited the Bavarian theme for tourism, but they have it dialed up to a much greater degree here. The Chattahootchee River flows through town, and one of the big tourist draws is tubing on the river.
Since we (especially Pat, who has been walking weird for a couple weeks now) were still recovering from the epic sunburns we got during our Florida kayaking trip, we decided not to add to the sunburn and stayed away from the tubing, but it was fun to watch the tubers float past us. So we walked around town until we got rained out by a thunderstorm and drove home to take a nap during the rain, which has a unique, strangely soporific, sound as it hits the roof of the RV.
Thursday was our last day here, so we spent it wrapping up the sights we hadn’t yet seen. We drove up to Anna Ruby Falls, another National Forestry Service park. Once again our Seniors’ pass let us in for free, and a quarter-mile walk up to the falls produced some very nice pictures.
Today (Friday) we pulled out about 10AM and left Hiawassee for Crossville, Tennessee, where we are going to meet up with my cousin Jim Dickerson and his family this week. They have a condo where they spend time when they’re not renting it out. Jim is a retired teacher and builder, and spends most of his time being Dad-on-call whenever his kids need work done on their houses. When he’s not doing that, he’s golfing at various places in the eastern U.S. We had another nail-biter of a drive up to Tennessee from Georgia, and actually bumped a low-hanging branch in the middle of TN 68, a road I don’t advise anybody to travel in an RV – but that’s where our GPS sent us. It punched a hole in the bubble skylight over our shower, so on the way to Crossville I set up an appointment with a local RV doctor to have it fixed. Hopefully he’ll be able to get it done next week when the part (he had to order it from Fleetwood) comes in.
Another major thing we need to get done is to get our permanent South Dakota license plates. The RV dealership issued us a 30-day temp tag when we bought the coach, which ran out today, so we’re stuck here until our South Dakota mail forwarding service runs our application down to the Pennington County Courthouse and overnights us the plates. So, even though we only booked a week here, if the repairs and the plates take longer than that we’ll have to revise our travel schedule and pay for some extra days here.
We rolled into the new campground around 3:30 this afternoon, which actually is not representative of the drive time up from Georgia since Tennessee is on Central Time and we dialed the clocks back when we crossed over from North Carolina. We’re still up in the mountains, and the coach is running well despite the up/down/up/down of the roads hereabouts. One moment we’re slowing down 10 MPH while pulling up a hill, the next we’re going down the other side and trying to keep the coach from running away from us. I’m beginning to wish for the flatlands out west. After a mighty fine Tex Mex dinner at a local cafe, we decided to call it a night. At least it will be when I post this. No alarm clock tomorrow. Bye!
We’ve gotten that question a couple of times from people not in our situation. Many, many fulltime RV’ers are still working, and their home on wheels enables them to drive from itinerant job to itinerant job. But for those of us who are retired, we have to find ways to fill up our day and sometimes it’s hard. My workplace sort of hinted at how difficult it might be when we were attending retirement seminars prior to our separation, but I wasn’t really listening at the time. Now I know what they were talking about.
Sometimes it’s enough just to find a really nice RV resort to stay at for a week or so, with pools, restaurants and other RV’ers to occupy our time. Other times it’s enough just to lounge about the RV with a book. What we have devolved into doing is to check the internet every time we hit a new place, and try to find any tourist attractions that are worth our time. Usually we can find something that’s worth looking at. We found a must-see place dedicated to Stephen Foster when we were staying in Lake City, Florida. Yesterday we had a break in the rainy Georgia springtime weather and drove the hour and a half up to Columbus, Georgia to visit the Civil War Naval Museum.
I’ve had this fascination with civil war naval technology ever since I found a book on it in my elementary school library. Cool, I thought. Ironclads, the Monitor and Merrimack, steam technology and all sorts of new ways to kill people (whatever you think about elementary school kids, this is on their minds). So when Pat ran across that one on the internet, I knew we had to go.
Columbus is also the home of Fort Benning, and there was a decidedly military flavor about the place. There was some civil war action there that Columbus was sort of proud of, but not a whole lot of tourism prospects. We did pass lots and lots of pecan orchards on the way back, and stopped to buy a load of them for personal consumption and gifts to mail to various loved ones, but I’m not sure it was worth the time spent on the road to see Columbus if I had to do it over again.
And then there are the times we don’t expect a lot and are overwhelmingly pleased with what we find. Albany is such a place. Just a few miles from our RV park is the town center of Albany, birthplace of Ray Charles, and they have developed their riverfront area into something that just makes you want to hang out there all day.
Walk along the piano keys to the center of the display, and you can see a statue of Ray Charles doing his thing. They have installed a pretty nice hidden speaker system among the rocks and gardens, and if you want you can sit, rock in one of the pergola swings nearby, and listen to his entire discography playing around you. It’s not just a tribute to Ray, it’s also a place for people to come and spend time, kids to play in the water park and playground, and visit an aquarium alongside the Flint River that flows through Albany.
We walked along the riverwalk for awhile, but because the no-see-ums (bane of the snowbird) had made a target out of us we decided to forego the full 4-mile route and then returned to our car. On the way, we passed kids playing in the public sprinkler park and old folks sitting and watching. We stopped in an ice cream parlor and talked to the owner for awhile as we ate our ice cream, then headed back to our car. All in all we filled up a couple hours of our day and had a great time that surpassed our expectations.
…to leave Maryland and begin our journey. We settled the house sale this week and, flush with equity from the sale, we went looking for our next home-on-wheels. I think we found it at Lazydays RV in Seffner, Florida: It’s a used 2017 Fleetwood Bounder 35K that has 3000 miles on it, and it has most of the options we wanted with the exception of an HD satellite dish. So we settled on a price and asked the RV dealership to install a Winegard Slimline HD Trav’ler antenna, and we’d pay for it when we get there on May 12th or so.
So we’re down to our last 2 days in Maryland. We’re loading the car and separating out everything that doesn’t have to ride with us, beginning on April 30, to South Dakota. Once we get there in 3-4 days, we’ll set up our domicile in Pennington County (near Rapid City), and then run on down to Tampa to pick up the RV. I am conflicted about leaving our home in Maryland – I mean, we’ve lived here for 30 years and are familiar with all of the nooks and crannies. And we’re expanding our horizons so far that it will be impossible to know everything about the places we’ll go – we’ll just end up touching a few high spots before moving on. I imagine myself as a 21st Century Charles Kuralt with On the Road, passing through small towns and sampling all of the sometimes weird and wacky things they have to offer, all in the name of bringing in tourist dollars. There’s the Chaffee Barbershop Museum, which commemorates Elvis Presley’s first haircut. Or how about the International Banana Museum in California, dedicated to everybody’s favorite pasty fruit. Or the aptly named, “Museum of Odd” in Kansas? Or (seriously) the Moist Towelette Museum in Michigan?
OK, so most folk are going to say, “but aren’t you going to go to Las Vegas and gamble?” Well, no. I’m as awestruck by spectacular light shows as the next guy, but our journey isn’t really about what everybody else does, it’s about what we do. Picture Dave Barry coming up with material for his blog, and that’s us during our journey. I can’t wait.
The last couple of days have been a hodgepodge of loose ends. I had cataract surgery on one eye earlier in the month, and during the surgery the docs saw something on my EKG that they didn’t like so I had to run the chart past my primary doctor to see if something needed to be done. I had an EKG done by him as part of the pre-op stuff that turned out normal, and so I didn’t suspect that this was anything serious. So I visited my primary doctor this week and he ran another EKG, which also turned out normal. So apparently I am good to go for the launch of the Great RV Adventure.
The person who bought our house turned out to be one of the kids’ teachers from River Hill High School, and even though it’s no longer my home I didn’t want to just take off without making sure that she was happy with the place, since she reported a couple situations of lights not working, problems with hot water, etc. One of the plastic parts of a DIY water irrigation system for the raised garden beds didn’t survive the winter and needed to be replaced, so that’s on my list of things to do for Saturday the 29th, our last full day in Maryland.
We’ve seen more of John and Katie, our two kids, more this month than in all of the previous 6 months combined. They’re busy building their own independent lives and working way more hours per week than I consider healthy, so it was with surprise when they started indicating that they wanted to spend a lot of time with us. I think they realize that we’re not going to be around for awhile and are getting in some last minute parent time before we take off on our adventure. At some point I’d like to see if we can hook up with them and share our adventure, maybe get them to fly out west to stay with us for a few days, so we’re building in some time during the holidays for us to stay a spell in Maryland before heading south for the winter. The “rules” of domiciling in South Dakota sort of make staying around in Maryland expensive, since if we stay a total of 6 months here we become eligible to pay Maryland income tax for the entire year. With that fact in our minds – and the fact that we’ve already been here in Maryland for four months of the year – we might have to cut things short this year. Next calendar year we can devote more time to hanging with the kids.
We’re leaving town on Sunday the 30th, and our planned overnights include Elyria, Ohio, Madison, Wisconsin and Sioux Falls, SD until we reach our destination of Rapid City, SD. Each leg includes 6-7 hours of driving, and because Mac the Cat is our backseat road buddy, we’re choosing to stay in Red Roof Inns, which welcome pets with no extra charge. We plan to roll into Rapid City on the 3rd of May.
Being retired means I now have the time to seriously geek out. After having finished rushing around to get our house ready to sell, we’re now faced with a long wait for the closure process for the sale. Whenever I’m faced with a long period in which I have nothing to do, Pat should immediately confiscate my credit cards, because that’s when I’m tempted to do recreational shopping – you know, the kind where you don’t really do have to do it right now, but you “may as well get it done.”
As a case in point, we moved into a long-term hotel for the duration of our sale, and “free wifi” was advertised. What they didn’t tell us is that the free wifi is so abysmally slow (I suspect deliberately, just so they can tout it as free without paying for decent bandwidth, but Extended Stay America is not likely to read this so no changes are expected) that even just checking your email takes minutes instead of seconds. To get “the faster version” you have to pay $15 per week extra. Rather than play this game of bait-and-switch, and since we’ll be here for up to two months, I decided to channel that money into buying what will become our IT suite once we move into our motorhome.
So off to the Verizon store we went. Verizon has the best rep among RV’ers for having a network that covers more rural countryside in the U.S. than its competitors, and it also re-instituted an “unlimited” (reason for the quotes later) data plan, which admittedly costs more but will provide us with the sort of service we were used to with our home-based cable modem. We ended up buying two smartphones and a dedicated mifi hotspot called a “Jetpack”, all of which share the unlimited plan. Our thinking was that the mifi can handle all the RV-based clients – laptops, tablets (both of which we have one apiece) and various RV system sensors – while the phones are for our pockets when we’re away from the RV and can also be used as surrogate hotspots by turning on their tethering functions.
We tried this RV setup in our hotel room using the jetpack as a sort of router/hotspot, both of our tablets, Pat’s all-in-one PC and my laptop, and it sorta/kinda worked. One frequently used client device from our our old home LAN is an 8-terabyte NAS (Network Hard Drive). We use it for keeping soft scans of important documents, lots of videos, music, ebooks and a complete set of all of our family photos. In essence, it’s our “cloud” that we will be taking on the road. Although it can function in a pinch connected via wifi with the inclusion of a wifi adapter plugged into the back, it really likes an ethernet connection to a router to be effective. The 6620L jetpack fails in this regard, having only one micro USB connection. I tried the wifi approach but the result was slow and wonky.
So I chose the Pepwave Surf Soho Mk3 router for this task, and I couldn’t have picked a better device at any price. At $199 it’s not cheap, but it has every feature I needed to run Internet in a mobile platform like an RV:
1. It has a “USB WAN” port in back that connects to the USB port on the jetpack for a USB-tethered Internet signal. The jetpack’s wifi transceiver instantly became unnecessary after I found out how well the Surf Soho worked with the jetpack, so I turned it off and I roll with just USB tethering now. Speed checks in urban Columbia Md. produce results in the 15-25 gigabit range.
2. The “Mk3” part indicates that the SOHO was upgraded to the latest wrinkle in wifi protocols, called 802.11ac, which the 6620L jetpack doesn’t have, enabling much faster speeds to our tablets and wifi-connected laptop.
3. It has the ability to act as a wifi bridge at the same time that it’s tethered to the jetpack, so that it can take a campground’s Wifi signal (when we’re in Verizon dropout zones) and rebroadcast the wifi to all of our devices. This avoids having to reset all of our client devices to the campground’s wifi settings. This doesn’t mean that we can do online banking or other hacker-jackpot activities over an untrusted wifi hotspot. We will still have to find a Verizon 3G/4G signal somewhere for that.
4. The SOHO includes “Automatic Failover,” which allows me to set up a priority scheme covering items 1 and 3 above, so that the jetpack’s USB comes first, but if our RV is in a Verizon blind spot, the campground’s wifi (few of which are really that good but most fulltimers will tell you that, every now and then, you hit a nugget) automatically kicks in as the first choice without being told to.
5. It includes a complete suite of firewall and event logging software for times when we use a campground’s “untrusted” wifi signal.
In general I found the Surf Soho plugged all of the holes that were apparent by trying to use the jetpack as a hotspot and rudimentary router, and all three devices were small enough to fit in a 4″ x 9″ footprint suitable for installation in an RV’s interior cabinet.
When is Unlimited not really Unlimited?
One wrinkle in Verizon’s Unlimited plan is the limit that they place on a device’s “unlimited” activity. After 10 gigabytes of monthly activity (22GB for the phones) the jetpack becomes “deprioritized” on Verizon’s network. Verizon says that this isn’t necessarily “throttling” because it doesn’t just chop your bandwidth when you hit the threshhold. Instead, if anybody new logs onto the network in your vicinity after you’ve hit your threshhold, they assume priority and you take a backseat, possibly with enough bandwidth to keep streaming video but not at the rates that the new guy is getting.
In practice in an urban area I’ve found that my speeds didn’t suffer all that much, and my jetpack’s usage numbers just passed 60 gigabytes 3 weeks into March. I still watch Youtube videos without getting buffered. Of course it may be a different story when we get to the boonies, as Columbia is a fairly upscale city with newer infrastructure. We’ll see as the year wears on.