Three Air Force Bases in a row as we continue our run south.

In 2015 we were resistant to military base campgrounds: the added layers of security and rules seemed an unnecessary set of hurdles unless location and price provided a strong advantage, as it did in Key West and Monterey.  But this year we have been significantly more amenable to taking advantage of these highly subsidized campgrounds.  Sometimes they are simply affordable but otherwise forgettable stopover points, e.g. Joint Base Charleston or Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey.  But sometimes they are fantastic deals, like the tiny but glorious campground in Newport, RI.  We stayed in five such base camps during our late spring journey up the east coast, but have not done so since.  photo Bridge_zpsqhrsjbpn.jpg

All that changed during our recent sprint south with our first stay at an Air Force Base Family Campground, Scott AFB in Illinois.  The location was nothing to write home about, but the price ($20/night), security, and access to low cost base amenities such as the commissary and laundry made it a decent value, competitive with Passport America participants.  So as we researched our short stay options during our route planning towards Florida, I made a point to carefully check into the military campgrounds.  The result of which has been three Air Force Base Bases in a row as we traveled through Tennessee and Georgia.  photo TN sign_zpsziqpekzj.jpg

ARNOLD: The first was Arnold AFB Family Campground in Tullahuma, TN.  This moderate sized campground is located on a ginormous piece of government property.  We had to travel six miles through the heavy forest from the front gate to the recreation center, and then another several miles to the camp itself.  This is what I mean by extra hoops to jump through on military bases: google usually doesn’t know which gate you need to enter by or where the recreation centers are.  You often have to go to a couple of different places and ask at each one.  Regardless, we found the right spot and got settled in.  And if we thought Scott AFB a good deal, this was an outstanding one: a more picturesque setting on a large lake, with far larger individual sites, a robust free wifi, and for only $15 a night!  photo Arnold 1_zpszdyb40ff.jpg

Was it perfect? No: the gravel sites were not particularly level, the bathhouse and other campground facilities were dirty and in need of upgrade, and it had no camp host to coordinate after hours requirements.  But despite all that, it was a significantly better value and experience than Scott AFB’s offering ($5 cheaper, better views, more amenities) and with just a little bit of work, such as fresh paint and maintenance on the bathrooms and the securing of a camp host to keep them up, it could be outstanding.  photo Arnold 3_zpspozb8t48.jpg

The other thing to mention is the golf course.  Like all AFBs, they had a nice set of links.  The old military joke is that the Air Force, upon procuring money for a new base, builds the golf course and amenities first, and when they run out of money for the air strip, they just go back to congress to get that, because, heck, the base is already built and who can say no to a new bomber runway, right?  Yeah, its totally true, they all have nice courses and landscaping, and since I had just bought a $12 set of clubs and bag, I took advantage of the $7 twilight rate to play nine holes on two of our three nights there.  Considering I have not played in 15 years I was not unhappy with my score of 53 for each set of nine.  The group of deer I spotted on the first hole fairway and green each evening was a bonus.  photo Arnold 2_zpsh7knuoke.jpg

DOBBINS: After Arnold we moved south to Atlanta and Dobbins AFB.  This is an odd one for us to review: we had no small amount of trepidation since they had been absolutely savaged in the RV Park Reviews and received very moderate “damned by faint praise” comments in the Military Campground reports.  And yet this is prime example of reviews being, quite simply, out of date.  The campground has clearly gone through a heavy amount of improvement since most of those write ups, and we found nearly every negative issue mentioned to have been resolved.  It was in excellent condition, with a brand new bath house and laundry facility, each site properly maintained, and the surrounding area quite nice.  Given that this is one of a handful of RV parks close to Atlanta, with the private options in the $40+ per night range, Dobbins is a great value and deserving of far better reviews than you will find on line.  photo Dobbins GA Sign_zpswh363vta.jpg

The camp is tiny, only 18 sites, with no reservations accepted, but since we arrived on a Monday we didn’t anticipate a problem getting a spot.  We were surprised to find only one site available upon arrival though, so never assume!  At $14 a night for the electric and water, it was also a better deal than Scott, but with no wifi probably not as great a value as Arnold, depending on what you hold important.  We only stayed one night and did not explore the base, so we can’t comment on the golf course, commissary, exchange, etc.  photo Dobbins 1_zpsq2scegzk.jpg

Returning to my 2015 theme about military campgrounds having additional layers of security and hoops through which to jump, Dobbins drove this home with the requirement to drive to the commercial truck delivery gate on the back side of the base, and there call security at the posted number and wait for a guard to open and clear us.   Not a huge deal, just one more thing, especially since google maps doesn’t seem to have the different gates available for guidance.  photo Dobbins cat_zpsgrxfdtoa.jpg

ROBINS: Finally, we continued south to Robins AFB near Macon, GA.  After six roughly 200 mile legs in a row since leaving Minnesota, it was nice to have a shorter, three hour run. Unfortunately, the need to find Gate #4 for commercial and oversized vehicles, combined with google’s uncertainty and topped off with confusing directions once inside the base proper, meant for a four hour journey, regardless.  photo Robins 1_zps4zmhxnoj.jpg

But what we found upon arrival!  The Family Campground office may only be open a few hours each day, but they have a rigid and professional system in place to handle after hours arrivals.  Our reservation and welcome package was posted on the office bulletin board, along with detailed instructions for any non-reservation people that might show up.  And the price and facilities are fantastic!  For $15 we got a spacious, full hook up site on a fully leveled concrete pad in the light woods.  Is that too many services for you?  Then select the power and water only option for $8 a night!  photo Robins 2_zpsmynucghf.jpg

It doesn’t end there: the bath house was clean, and the laundry facility was… free!  The campground boasted a playground, nice office, ponds with docks, recreation room, amphitheater, etc.  In short, it was being managed well and given the funding and maintenance attention it deserved.  And finally, after three strike outs at Scott, Arnold, and Dobbins, Robins actually had the frequent camper package for sale.  At a $40 one time purchase price, we are confident it will pay for itself more than twice over in the first year alone.  photo Fall colors_zpswffitqo8.jpg

The golf course at Robins was better (and more challenging) than at Arnold, but also had a fantastic twilight, no cart rate of only $8 for nine holes.  Had it not been for an electrical problem with our rig necessitating a push south for repairs (more on that next post) we would have stayed three rather than two nights at this great camp.  photo Cotton field_zpsbifkyjxa.jpg

Of the four AFB Family Camps we at which we have stayed, I would have to rate Arnold the best value if wifi is important, but give Robins top honors if it is not or if you can live with electric and water only.  And since the office told me that wifi services are coming later this year, that might give Robins the clear victory.  photo Robins cat queen_zpsz7fyawlc.jpg

Sprinting South towards Florida: Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and our first Air Force Base Family Camp

At the very end of our last post I alluded to a pending report on our sprint towards home.  Take a look at the screenshot of our 2016 travel map below, particularly the magenta waypoints beginning with “H” in Iowa and ending with “K” in western Kentucky.  It’s not just that these points are generally further apart than most of the others on our map, it’s also that we stayed a shorter time in those last three stops.  Specifically, one day in Missouri, two days in Illinois, and one day in Kentucky before moving on down the road.  photo 2016 RV Map towards Florida_zps43vjsyx5.jpg

For us, this is an aggressive pace. As I have mentioned before, driving a 13 ton, 35′ long rig with an additional vehicle under tow is far more demanding and stressful than driving a car.  While I am long past being comfortable with a “drive through the night” scenario, in a car I don’t terribly mind a 500 mile travel day.  In the RV, however, I prefer to keep it under 200.  So when Rosemarie announced that she was ready to be home with family ASAP, the timing of which coincided with our decision to skip Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks, I started plotting a track home that, after we visited Andrea in Iowa, would get us there rapidly but with enough multi day stops to keep us fresh and happy.  This meant a couple of things:

  • A direct route, so no big deviations just to see something. I.e, Chicago was out.
  • Perhaps seven 200 miles legs to get us to northern Florida, and then two shorter legs to visit family in central Florida and the Gulf Coast.  Roughly 1,550 miles, all told.
  • Three full tanks of gas just to bee line it to the Florida Gulf Coast, but likely four fill ups of the 75 gallon tank during October to meet our travel requirements in the state.
  • Likely no opportunity to sell Rosemarie’s jewelry at farmers markets since we would be sprinting through towns with stops of only a day or two.
  • The gas cost would pinch our budget, and since it would not be offset by vending at markets, we would need to select very affordable campgrounds along the way.
 photo Through St Louis 2_zpsikk0yjpt.jpg

Passing through St Louis.

The magenta points in the above map represent the the first 40% of that route planning.  We left Iowa and headed southeast for 200 miles to the northeast tip of Missouri.  Passport America came through with a full hook up site for less than $15 all in at The Catfish Place Campground in Arbela.  This is an odd place.  The property is centered on an affordable, all-you-can-eat buffet featuring comfort food: fried chicken, fried shrimp, baked and whole fried catfish (natch,) mashed potatoes, hush puppies, corn on the cob, fresh baked bread, salad bar, etc.  The entire meal: $12.60 plus tax per person, with a 50 cent discount for cash payments.  Beats the hell out of Paula Dean’s similar fare in Savannah.  We sprung for it despite our budget concerns this month, and consider it money well spent.  Besides, how can you stay in a spot called “The Catfish Place” and not find out what that’s all about?  photo Through St Louis 3_zpslhudmaew.jpg

The campground itself is on a well manicured property with an unexpected assortment of amenities.  They have a decent sized pond with boats and giant inflatable transparent balls into which a person can crawl and then “walk on water.”  In lieu of a basket ball court, they have a basketball shooting rig, similar to those you see in amusement parks but using full sized rims and balls.  They have a small island gazebo accessible by walkway out in the pond, a horseshoe pit, and a partially enclosed rec room.

 photo Catfish place site_zpsqr2bomfx.jpg

Our pull through site at The Cat Fish Place.

The west portion of the campground was not nearly as attractive as the eastern half, but it had strong wifi and a pull through site available.  Since we were only staying one night, we went with it.  A lot of RVers specifically seek out pull through sites to avoid a troublesome backing experience with their rigs.  We have never felt so constrained: Rosemarie and I have worked out a great signalling system, and are quite proficient at backing our rig into tight spots.  But when you are doing a minimum stay with no plans to drive into town, a pull through site is incredibly convenient, allowing you to break camp in no time and get on your way.  photo Catfish Place pond_zpssomtt68b.jpg

Which we did the very next morning, with a 220 mile push into southern Illinois.  Here we experienced our very first Air Force Base Family Campground at Scott AFB.  We arrived without reservations, and were fortunate enough to snag the very last spot available.  It was awkwardly positioned, with the power and water pedestal on the wrong side, as are half the sites in the campground since they use a shared connection point between each pair of spots, but by pulling forward, rather than backing in, we were able to make it work. The campground itself was pleasant, though nothing to write home about; our site was unlevel and the bathhouse dirty, but the rest of the base was, as pretty much all Air Force facilities are, very well maintained and huge.  photo Scott AFB 1_zps8dojq0xy.jpg

At $20 a night it is a reasonably good deal, and we took advantage of our two days there to shop at the commissary (my god the meat prices are amazing) and do multiple loads of laundry (as an RVer, when you find $1 machines, you use them.)  Ever since the ridiculously good thrift store sale we stumbled across at the Newport Naval Station, we have kept our eye out for other base thrift shops.  While the Scott AFB version did not have a ludicrous sale going on, we did pick up a couple of things dirt cheap, including a trilogy of books by one of Rosemarie’s favorite writers.  photo Scott AFB 2_zps2pntja8c.jpg

While at the base we also learned about the Air Force’s Frequent Camper Program.  Apparently, for $40 you can buy a package that gives you five certificates for free nights at AFB Family Campgrounds and a passport book of all the participating bases.  Collect stamps from ten of them and get another five certificates for free night camping.  The catch?  No one seems to have the package available for sale.  Sure they all know about the program and have a stamp available to mark you passport book, but neither Scott nor the next two AFB’s we called on our route had the actual initial package available.  Perhaps not the best run Air Force program.  Maybe the $163 BILLION in cost overruns of the F-35 Lightening II/Joint Strike Fighter have led to cut backs in the camping program.

In any case, after leaving Scott AFB we continued south 200 miles into Kentucky, stopping at another Passport America participant, Pirates Cove Resort in Hardin.  Arriving at what must be the end of their season, we found the office closed, but got hold of the owner or manager by the posted phone number, and he walked us through our options within the three campground areas on his property.  We selected a power and water site near the nearly deserted lake front area in campground C.  While none of the spots were technically pull through, the lack of other campers allowed us to “pull through” the spot behind our selection directly into our site, removing the need to unhook Loki for our one night stay.

The next morning we broke camp in short order and stopped by the office to make payment for the previous night before starting our fourth 200 mile leg towards Tennessee and another Air Force Base.  photo PC stream_zps5nslkerf.jpg

South to Iowa

After leaving the Lake Superior shore in Wisconsin we began our move generally south towards Florida.  With our departure from the Twin Cities region, we accelerated that journey, pushing nearly 200 miles down to the outskirts of Ames, Iowa to visit my daughter, Andrea.  She recently moved there, so this will be our first visit to her new home town, though we did RV in a great Iowa county park last year, a place that helped to cement out love of county parks in general.

Neither the military nor Passport America had anything for us in the region, so seeing on All Stays that the state is awash in county park options, we selected a nearby one that had the top marks from RV Park Reviews for the Ames area: Little Wall Lake County Park.  It was a little further from Andrea’s apartment than Ledges State Park, but Ledges’ reservation system revealed that it would be full for the upcoming weekend, whereas Little Wall, like many county properties, operates predominantly as a first come – first serve campground, with only 6 of the 108 RV sites reservable.  Since we would be arriving on a Wednesday, we had no doubt that something would be available.

Sure enough, we arrived to a campground less than 20% full.  No check in office to speak of, just a self serve booth with forms and a deposit box.  We broke the code on site selection, and eventually aided by the camp host we picked a full hook up spot near the east end of the property from the score or so lake front options available.  We would normally choose to save the three bucks per night by choosing one of the electric and water only sites, but none of those were available lake side.  At $25 a night the full hook ups were not unreasonable.

The only downside to our site selection: we were at the very edge of the free wifi antenna’s range, mostly unable to connect.  Having walked down to spots nearer the antenna, computer in hand, and verified that the campground wifi “pipe” was pretty robust, we elected to move our rig back towards the center of camp the next morning.  Since we had not pulled out our chairs, grill, hammock, and other camping accoutrements that first day, it was not that big a deal to unhook services for the move.  The excellent wifi for the remainder of our stay made it worth the trouble, and our new site, though not quite as nice, was still lake front with at least one decent sized shade tree.  For any future Little Wall campers: the closer you are to site 10 or 11, the better the wifi.  We started in 27, but moved to 15.

As mentioned last post, Rosemarie had come down with a stomach bug, and was down hard for the first two days of our stop in Iowa.  This had two consequences: since my little shutterbug was unable to maintain a minute by minute photographic record of our time in Iowa, we had a grand total of maybe 15 pictures (as opposed to the couple of hundred I normally have to sort through) from which to select the 9 you see in this post.  It also meant that on day two I visited with Andrea and her boyfriend Nate alone, letting them show me the middle eastern market and associated deli (fantastic lamb gyro and baba ganoush), the food coop, and a couple of other sites.

By the next day Rosemarie was feeling mildly better, so we ate dinner with Andrea and Nate, bringing them Wisconsin pickles and cheese (as is tradition) while they prepared butternut squash risotto.  While hardly a vegetarian like Andrea, I thought it was fantastic, needing only a slab of bacon on top to push it into Manna From Heaven territory.  photo IMG_1885_zpsy5k51v0x.jpg

The next day Rosemarie and I visited the downtown Ames farmers market, but for the first time in over a month, merely as attendees rather than vendors.  It was a nice market with a score or so of sellers and two live music acts, one at each end of the two block set up.  We met up with Andrea at her new favorite thrift store, where on a whim I purchased an entire set of golf clubs (putter, perimeter weighted irons, 2 carbon graphite shafted woods) and a compact golf bag, all for $12.  I have been hankering to play a bit after being out of the game for 15 years or so, and upcoming campgrounds look like they will present some very affordable opportunities for a few rounds.  photo IMG_1879_zpsisqfp6kb.jpg

We finished off the day with a pint at Alluvial Brewery on the outskirts of town.  They offered up a selection of eight or so craft beers plus cider, kombucha, and house made root beer.  We have had the opportunity to visit a good number of local breweries during our travels, and finding ones with a stout or ESB on tap is not common: Alluvial had both.  photo IMG_1888_zpsgmw04bhx.jpg

After a pint we said our goodbyes and headed back for our last night in Iowa before pointing our rig directly towards Florida.  The next week would see, for us, a recklessly aggressive push towards our home state, covering an amazing 800 miles in only five days!

21 Months Fulltiming, September 2016 Report

Until we finally got around to posting about our stay in Chetek River, we had fallen nearly four weeks behind on this blog again.  Now that we have The Big Kahuna update posted along with our Minnesota stay and this monthly report, we have closed that down to only about ten days behind.  Progress!  Our Where Are We Now tab is usually more updated than the blog itself, so if you are ever wondering where we really are despite having not posted in a while, you can always check that.

The Distance: 580 miles, a significant slow down from the last two months as we lingered in the Michigan Upper Peninsula and only slowly worked out way through Wisconsin to Minnesota.  We only hit those two new states, and averaged nearly a week in each town.     Our 2016 total is 6,406 miles.  Expect October to see a big increase in our pace, and might even be our biggest mileage month yet.

The Places:  After finally leaving Grand Marais we hit five new campgrounds in September, starting with a three day stop at Perkins Park in Big Bend to be positioned for our second Marquette market.  After that we left Michigan but stayed on the shore of Lake Superior, in the Ashland-Washburn area, with one night at the clean and attractive but management challenged Prentice Park, and then a week at the excellent Thompson’s West End Campground.  We continued through Wisconsin with a five day stop at Chetek River before crossing into Minnesota, spending the last six days of the month at Lebanon Hills Park, a county facility on the outskirts of the Twin Cities.

For the second month in a row we did not drycamp at all.  We had at least electrical, usually water, and occasionally sewer or even cable the entire month.  We stayed in private campgrounds for 5 days and county parks for 25.

The Budget:   18% under budget!  Of course, the seven farmers markets we attended accounted for pretty much all of that and allowed us to live a bit higher on the hog than we otherwise would.  The budget was helped by only having to fill up Serenity’s tank once, but challenged by the high campground fees we experienced.  All those $33 and $37 a night stays pushed us up to nearly $27 average per night.  We had a 14% discount for three nights in Grand Marais and a free night at Thompson’s West End both based on weekly stay rates, and two 50% off Passport America nights at Chetek River, but the rest of the month was at full cost.

The Drama:  We had a minor glitch with Serenity’s automatic door steps when we were in Minnesota, and of course the entire ordeal of picking up The Big Kahuna in Charleston and getting him stored in Florida, which also entailed having to purchase new starter batteries.

The Improvements:  We finally have Kahuna back in our position, running better than ever, with new starter batteries to boot.  We will be putting him up for sale online in the next week to two.

All of our monthly reports, as well as our first full year report, 2015 in Review, are linked below.

2016 Reports:

2015 in Review

An unexpected extended stay in the Twin Cities: Lebanon Hills Regional Park

As discussed last post, I needed to find a nice place to stash Rosemarie, the cat, and our rig while I flew to Charleston to retrieve The Big Kahuna.  I planned for up to a week long ordeal.  As we have mentioned previously, we find that county parks seem to offer the best value and experience, at least for the types of natural settings we prefer.  Research on All Stays revealed a slew of such options in and around the Twin Cities.  Based on reviews, specific location, and availability, we secured a week at Lebanon Hills Regional Park.  “Regional” being another term for “County” in this area, apparently.  photo P9251092_zpsou5j1k2n.jpg

It wasn’t cheap, just over $33 a night with no weekly discount, but it included full hook ups, a clean bath/shower facility, nice walking trails, a laundry room with oversized, industrial type machines, a reasonable number of over the air TV channels, and best of all since I wouldn’t be around to entertain Rosemarie, fully working wifi.  Our site was of a decent size,  but a number of others in the park were rather crowded in with their neighbors.  photo P9261102_zpsswquzgvg.jpg

We had a small bit of drama associated with Serenity’s door steps: they wouldn’t go down. Despite a healthy amount of yelling at them, banging on them, and repeated attempts to reset the system by turning the rig on and off with the step switch in different positions, they resolutely refused to extend.  Since our spot was particularly unlevel, the front jacks were at full extension in order to get some semblance of an even floor.  This meant that the front tires were completely off the ground leaving a nearly three foot drop out of our front door!  I finally managed to clear whatever “fat electron” was jamming up the system by disconnecting the house batteries using an isolation switch, the stairs immediately dropping after I reconnected.  Crisis avoided.  photo P9261099_zpsy5weldrk.jpg

The day before I flew to Charleston we hit the Hy-Vee to resupply.  One of the mildly interesting things about travelling all over the country is experiencing the various regional grocery chains.  Hy-Vee gets two thumbs up from us.  And since we will not be passing through Chicago this trip, I researched and selected a consolation prize here in Minneapolis for lunch: traditional Chicago style pizza from The Italian Pie Shoppe.  Fantastic, and I look forward to comparing it to The Windy’s City’s offerings some time in the future.  photo P9261101_zpsk7npbo6v.jpg

I flew out the next day, leaving Rosemarie five days to binge watch all the Netflix she could.  This was unfortunate.  We have an agreement that we don’t watch our “together” shows independently.  That’s cheating.  We also happen to have a lengthy list of shows that we have not yet fit into our schedule, but plan to watch together some time down the road.  During my absence Rosemarie “conveniently” pretended not to know about the future list and watched, I kid you not, nearly five seasons of our future “together” shows.  Three seasons of Peaky Blinders, and one each of Stranger Things and Turn.  This shall not stand.

I returned a day earlier than planned, probably just in time to prevent her from watching another season of Turn.  This also allowed us to spend part of the weekend at the Minneapolis Harvest Festival.  Live music (classic rock,) local fair type food (fried cheese curds!) a cornfield maze, a corn pit, a petting zoo, etc etc.  We enjoyed the day, and got to hold a baby kangaroo.  Named Joey, apparently.

The next day I came down with some sort of stomach virus that incapacitated me for about 48 hours.   This necessitated an extension of our stay, pushing us to ten days total, before we could continue south towards Iowa.  Rosemarie caught what we assume is the same bug upon arrival there, probably some sort of karmic response to her netflix cheating.  Ah well, we have truly made our turn back towards Florida, with our next stop another 200 miles southward. photo PA021196_zps4iq6sldl.jpg  photo PA021188_zps4klv7vmk.jpg

Retrieving The Big Kahuna and storing him in Florida

At the end of our 20 Months Fulltiming Report I mentioned that big things were afoot with regard to The Big Kahuna.  The agonizingly long transmission rebuild was finally nearing completion, we could expect it would be shipped back to Charleston from Illinois soon, and if successfully installed and operationally tested, I would need to fly to South Carolina for pick up.  So nine months after it was delivered to the rebuild company, they were finally done with it.  Heck it would have taken  even longer if I had not gotten, er, very excited during recent conversations with the head mechanic.  I was under pressure from General Diesel in Charleston to get our bus off their lot one way or another.  They have been pretty patient with us, but they had a point.  photo Bob 1_zpsbtbeqpri.jpg

We tracked the shipment back to Charleston, and a few days later they reported everything was good to go.  I stashed Rosemarie in a full hook up site at a regional park on the outskirts of Minneapolis, and flew to Charleston on a one way discount ticket purchased with American Airlines points.  I arrived in time to catch an Uber to General Diesel to conduct a road test and make payment.  The engine and transmission seemed strong and smooth, the only catch was the nearly three year old starter batteries were no longer holding a charge.  photo Bob 2_zpsc2lkaybn.jpg

I think the manager and mechanic at General Diesel felt a bit sheepish for not having even tested them after having to jump start Kahuna multiple times following the transmission install, so they did a dynamic load test on them while I waited and confirmed they were shot.  Nothing to be done except pay for new ones, which General Diesel was kind enough to only charge me for the parts, not the brief labor involved in hooking them up.  photo Batteries_zpsmhsoznxy.jpg

And away we went, on the road by late afternoon, I pushed the bus south three hours to Golden Isles RV Resort near Brunswick, GA.  This was one of our first stops after buying Serenity last year, and it is a nice full hook up campground a couple of miles of I-95 that accepts the Passport America rate.  Back in March during a stop to check on The Big Kahuna we had pre-positioned basic living items such as a plate, utensils, cleaning supplies, a towel, sheets and the like, in anticipation of this day, but I still needed to hoof it up the road on foot to purchase a bit of food from the nearby grocery store.    Thus supplied I settled in for what might be the last night I spend in the old bus.

The next morning I pushed on to Geneva, Florida where I parked the bus at Uncle Bob’s while I researched storage options.  The plan was to put the bus up for sale, and have it stored in a location close to where we would be spending part of the winter.  This meant Central Florida north of Orlando, Southeast Florida below Miami, or the Gulf Coast between Venice and Tampa.  Since I was already in Central Florida, and it would be the first place we would be stopping for any notable period of time after returning to the state in Serenity, we elected to go with the first option, at least for now.

Once that was decided I did some internet research backed up with a phone calls to local storage lots and RV Campgrounds that also have storage areas.  I took a few hours of my second day in Florida to drive to half a dozen or so contenders, eventually settling on Wekiva Falls Campground’s storage lot.  It was the most affordable, has 24 hour security, the lot is within site of the front office, allows the bus and the prominent “for sale sign” to be seen by a bunch of RVers every day, and just happens to be in the park that my dad will be spending part of the winter.  Couldn’t ask for a better option.

Once settled in, I changed in some more American Airlines points for a deep discount flight back to Minneapolis from Orlando.  It the bus doesn’t sell in the next couple of months, we may end up moving it south or to the Gulf Coast.  We know this is a very small niche market, and we will need to wait for the right buyer to come along, so patience is the key.   So, anyone in the market for a vintage bus, lots of upgrades, and a freshly rebuilt transmission?  It has had nearly everything replaced, rebuilt, upgraded, or serviced, wish we had gotten it that way!

Turning gently south: Chetek River & Rusk County, Wisconsin

Our plan had been to turn north for a day trip to Isle Royale National Park followed by several days in Voyageurs National Park.  Having waited so long to begin the trip, and after some on line research and a few phone calls, we decided to save that for another year.  Half of the visitors centers and several of the available boat trips within the parks were already closed for the season, which served as a gentle reminder that Winter Is Coming, and we are still at the top of the country.  photo P9201063_zpsmw975j2x.jpg

So instead we turned south, pointed generally towards Ames, Iowa where we will eventually meet up with daughter Andrea.  In between there we sought a couple of stopping points, and once again Passport America delivered with a partial hook up site on the banks of the Chetek River for $19 a night, all in.  This is a full amenities, family oriented private park aiming for the “resort” end of the RV campground spectrum.  photo P9201068_zpsemvwrvnm.jpg

Sometimes the presence of a lot of long term residents can indicate that the place might not be the best for short term visitors, but Chetek River Campground was ideal for us.  We were able to pick from a couple of dozen spacious sites, including a handful right on the river.  The free wifi was excellent, the squirrel and bird life plentiful, and the park peaceful.  In fact, though there were a lot of mobile homes and traditional RVs in the park, there were very few people present.  It seems a good portion of Chetek River campers keep their rigs on site but only use them on the weekend.

Our second day we took ride into the nearby town of Bruce to check on the possibility of participating in the weekly farmers market.  It would mean extending two more days in Chetek, and doing so at the full price rather than the Passport America 50% off rate, but we were in no hurry, and our vending had really helped out finances this month, so we opted in.  We picked up some jewelry supplies at the craft store, and used the next couple of days to prep for the event while relaxing beside the river.  photo P9231075_zps2p3vu8hd.jpg

Thursday late afternoon we returned to Bruce, met the market manager, and set up our tent and table.   It was… very small.  We were one of perhaps five vendors present, our sales were quite limited, and most of those were to the other vendors.  But, it turned out to be one of our more successful markets because of what we learned while there:  The following day would be the county wide market up the road in Ladysmith, and it was timed to coincide with their Fall Festival week of events.  In other words, the county’s biggest farmers market on their biggest weekend, and we had an in because of our participation in the tiny Bruce event.

So early the next morning, on my birthday no less, we returned north to Ladysmith, where the market manager assigned us a site.  It was readily apparent that this would be a big event: By the time we set up there were 25 vendors present and buyers were swinging in even before the official start time.  The scheduled events of the day, including a home coming parade, resulted in a good amount of bleed off traffic to the market.

Our excitement cooled as the morning passed: no one was buying anything from us, but by noon it picked up significantly and we ended up with our second best market performance, behind only the fantastic day we had in Marquette.  We celebrated with the purchase of some baked goods, produce, and spicy pickles, enjoying the significant vendor to vendor discount that is apparently custom for this event.  So a hearty thanks to Blossom and the rest of the Bruce market vendors for making our stay so successful.

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Our loot from the Rusk County Farmers Market

Wisconsin has been very good to us:  in twelve days we enjoyed three farmers markets, two great campgrounds, a fantastic food coop, an abundance of cheese, and met some very nice and interesting locals.  But it really was time to move on, especially since we wanted to at least give Minnesota a few days before we continued south into Iowa.  photo P9201065_zpspvpduygn.jpg

Leaving Michigan but not Lake Superior. A week in Wisconsin’s Ashland-Washburn region

After a full month in Michigan (tied with Maine for the longest we have stayed in any state since leaving Florida in April) we have finally moved on to Wisconsin.  We didn’t get far from the UP though, less than half an hour over the border to Ashland, on the western end of Lake Superior.  We had picked the area largely because we did not want to travel much more than four hours but still wanted to be in a new state.  Kinda of a craps shoot, but it worked out nicely.  photo P9181060_zpsmar3w8h6.jpg

We selected the specific park based on our general preference for city and county campgrounds, and a relative paucity of choices in the region beyond such municipal sites. Forget about Passport-America or private parks at all; it’s all city, county, state, or national forest options in this area.  Our first choice based on reviews and location turns out to have been wiped out in a storm earlier this year, so it came down to the two municipal places a little deeper into Wisconsin, either Kreher Marina Park or the recently opened Prentice Park.  We selected the latter since it only had six RV sites, our theory being that the tiny size might mean that the wifi would not be clobbered.

Unfortunately, Ashland is still struggling with this whole RV park management thing, relying heavily on the barely compensated camp host to keep things afloat.  Upon arrival we noted a cost discrepancy between what was posted and what we had read online, there was no posted code to get into the bathrooms or the shower house, and the wifi password likewise unavailable.  The camp host was not present, did not have a contact phone number listed, and would not be back until after dark.

Eventually we called the city’s parks and rec department, and they were able to provide the correct daily rate (lower than what was posted) as well as one of the codes to the bathroom.  They were not able to get us internet access; apparently it has been down for months with sporadic efforts to fix it.  After investigating the other Ashland municipal park (Kreher Marina) I found a working wifi but with the transmission power turned down so low that you had to be directly under the antenna to connect.  Having been without useful wifi for our entire time on the Michigan UP, it was of high priority, so we only stayed one night in Ashland, pulling chocks the next morning to cross over to the nearby town of Washburn.

What a lucky decision!  Thompson’s West End Park is right on the Lake Superior shore, but protected from much of the high winds, resulting in a calm and beautiful bay.  The $25 a night rate was the same as the two Ashland parks, but here we had robust and fully working wifi capable of supporting video streaming and anything else.   We secured two nights and used that excellent wifi to research local farmer’s markets, finding one right in town that had no vendor fee or special local resident requirement.

So we extended another night to attend.  It was a tiny market held in the parking lot of North Coast Coffee.   By the time things were in full swing there were at most seven vendors, all but us selling food of some sort.  It was not exactly a great success; we sold a third of what we had in even the least profitable of the events we attended in Grand Marais, but it was free, only lasted two hours, allowed us to interact with locals and pick there brains about the region, and buy some fresh produce, all of which was more than paid for by the limited sales we made.  photo IMG_1699_zpslrbpvjdn.jpg

Unusually, every single item we sold was from the paper bead jewelry that has heretofore been a minor part of the gigs.  In any case, we walked away from the market with black trumpet mushrooms and a few stalks of curly dock greens gathered by a local forager, a huge garlic bulb, and a great recommendation on where to get local Wisconsin cheese.  photo P9141044_zpsodi2o9zk.jpg

We really liked this park and the two nearby towns.  Ashland, bigger and feeling a bit more cosmopolitan with an aggressive attempt at creating a wholesome but hip city identity, had thrift stores and an awesome food coop, while the smaller Washburn had an older town feel, but with nice neighborhoods and boutique shops.  So we extended another night, and then it looked like rain and who wants to travel in that, so we added one more, and Rosemarie started feeling under the weather so we chilled for one more day and before we new it we were on our sixth evening there, only to have the camp host knock on our door to remind us that if we stayed a week the seventh night was free.  Who can argue with that?

During our stay we made great soup from some pork bones Rosemarie had saved in the freezer with local potatoes, vegetables, the curly dock and some of the black trumpet mushrooms.  Fantastic.  We bought more than six pounds of cheese and cheese curds, most of it from Benoit Cheese, a few miles outside of Ashland, but to be honest some of it from the liquor store, so here’s hoping cheese curds are cheese curds no matter where you get them.

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Having loved the smoked fish dip from Grand Marais, we thought it appropriate to try it in a more pure form, and so purchased a pound of fresh caught Lake Superior white fish, splitting it between one pan seared meal and another lightly breaded and fried.  Ever since we slowed the pace and started working the farmers markets and food coops, we feel like we have eaten like royalty.  photo IMG_20160918_185736_zpsy5dnevor.jpg

So eight days in the region, seven of them in Thompson’s West End campground in Washburn, and it really was time to move on.  We can feel the weather changing, and it will be time to turn south soon.  The only question is where to next?  Can we still fit in Isle Royal or Voyageurs National Parks?  Or should we just start heading towards Minneapolis and further points downward?  Next post!  photo P9181058_zpsdnm9xhya.jpg

Three Murderous days on The Big Bay for another Farmers Market. Did I mention MURDER, and the Anatomy of it?

You know what we have not had much of on this travel blog?  Dead bodies outlined in chalk.  Let’s fix that, shall we?  photo IMG_1638_zpsiqvbked4.jpg

It’s 1952 in the little town of Big Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. ( To be clear the UP is, or at least was, what we from the south might call redneckville, i.e., the Appalachia, the Lower Alabama, the “BFE” of the upper northwest.) Anyway, then and there a local and respected bar owner is gunned down in his own tavern. Army Lt Coleman Peterson, bivouacked in the area for extended support and training, apparently enraged by his wife’s claims that the barkeep had taken advantage of her loneliness and inebriation to assault her, emptied his service revolver into the body of former state trooper and current proprietor of the Lumberjack Bar, Mike Chenowith.

Another day in America, right?  Except that mildly disaffected attorney John D Voelker, who would by most accounts rather be fishing, takes the case, constructs an imaginative insanity defense based on the unused in more than 60 years concept of “irresistible impulse” and… wins.  Despite a complete confession, Lt Coleman walks free. All this is true and verifiable, but not really enough to warrant more than a raised eyebrow in our nation’s convoluted legal history, right?  Except that half a decade later this John D Voelker, defense attorney extraordinaire and eventual Michigan Supreme Court Judge, adapts the true events of the Chenowith murder into a barely fictionalized novel, Anatomy of a Murder.  And a year after that, Hollywood descends on the Upper Peninsula to film a transgressive, boundary pushing film staring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and George C Scott that would be nominated for seven academy awards.  Anyway, The Lumberjack Bar: that’s where we ate chicken wings during our three day stay in the region.  photo IMG_1641_zpsl7a6w1ce.jpg

After our 19 day stay in Grand Marais, we pushed west towards Maquette, and unable to book a spot at the Tourist Campground there, we selected the county operated Perkins Park, half an hour from Marquette, rather than settle for the private parks closer to town. That’s how we ended up in Big Bay, staying on a nice piece of land on Lake Independence just a mile or two by waterway from Lake Superior.  The property has spacious, foliage covered sites with options ranging from tent only through electric and up to full hook ups, with price adjusted by service.  photo Site 3_zpsmzt2mi8e.jpg

We selected an electric only site for our stay, saving a few bucks a night and allowing us to position our rig with a near unobstructed view of the lake.  At $21 a day, this was a pretty solid deal for such a nice location.  The morning of our second day we headed out towards Marquette, with near constant drizzle suggesting that this might not be the best day for a farmers market.  Having already committed to it, we persevered, set up at table inside the crowded commons building, and hoped for the best.  photo P9091036_zpsl1avetys.jpg

Look, it wan’t good.  We could tell from the first 30 minutes that the weather had eliminated the vast majority of potential attendees, and those that did show up seemed intent on grabbing some produce and bolting for their cars.  I estimate half of the attendees never even came inisde the common building, limiting their quick rounds to the farmers’s stands outside under tents.  We made the best of it, enjoying conversation with our vendor neighbors and occasionally making our own trips around the market during breaks in the rain and drizzle.  photo P9091038_zpsb6h3socl.jpg

We ended up selling less than a third of what we had during our first Marquette event the week prior.  But we covered our table fee, gas, and all of the purchases we made to restock our refrigerator and cupboard with local, fresh food.  This time it was more bratwurst, heirloom tomatoes, and garlic cloves.  We were also introduced to a fantastic sort of Indian savory pancake, called a Puda, from a local chef that wasn’t selling any items, just her cooking classes.  This lead to a side trip to the local food coop to get the special grain that serves as a base before making our way back to Big Bay.  Our local food purchases make for some fantastic meals.  photo IMG_1612_zpscqsgjek3.jpg

We spent our last day exploring the region, including a nearby lighthouse and a trip to the not so easy to find Squaw Beach, there meeting a pair of food foragers collecting wild beach pees and another couple picking up some driftwood for his hand carved walking canes.  The partially protected bay is great for finding interesting rocks, but apparently not so much for the agate that we have so fair failed to find even one piece of during our UP stay.

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The day only had one down side: an unfortunate run in with an enraged local.  While looking for the beach we went down the wrong road, turned around, and spotted what looked like an RV hook up post in an empty lot.  Thinking it might be a rental spot, we pulled in to look.  A minute later a heavy set man came out of the next door house, screaming and ranting, repeatedly dropping f-bombs, demanding to know why we where there, not waiting for an answer before screaming additional orders and questions at us. We immediately backed out of the lot, which seemed to enrage him further.  Though the lot was empty of anything but trees, dirt, and the lonely electrical post, I am guessing that this excitable fellow actually owned it in addition to his perfectly manicured and developed adjacent lot.  Apologies, buddy.  Last we saw of him he was still screaming f words while his wife added to the ruckus with futile but loud requests for him to calm down.  photo IMG_1629_zpsfh6ngmhz.jpg

So yeah, there are wankers everywhere; the UP is no exception.  We finished off the day with a beer and the aforementioned chicken wings at the Lumberjack Bar.  The locals we met were a lot friendlier, showing us the outline of where Mike Chenowith had been killed, letting us look through the scrap book about the event, the trial, and the movie.  Ah well, the rest of the people we met here were great, and we look forward to coming back to Michigan.  photo Site 2_zpsgsuijrsz.jpg


Eight more days in Grand Marais and three more farmers markets

We spent the last eleven days of August in Grand Marais, having signed on for a second full week, with discount, at Woodland Park Campground.  We deviated from our normal 3-5 day stop for several reasons:  First, we were growing a bit weary of the pace of our travels. We had told ourselves we would slow that down here in our second year of RVing, but with the exception of our extended stay in Maine we have not really done so.  We also loved Grand Marais and the Upper Peninsula area, so why not stay a bit longer?  Third, we had such an unexpectedly successful farmers market experience the first Thursday, that we committed to at least one more.  Lastly, Labor Day weekend was approaching, we did not have any reservations for it, and getting them in a nice place would be tough, so we might as well stick it out here where we had an assured spot, at least through the holiday.  With that much settled, we prepped for our second Grand Marais Thursday evening market.

Every farmers market or craft show is different, by which I mean the price range and types of things people want vary significantly.  During our first event on the Key West Naval Air Station we figured out that the attendees wanted very low priced items with an ocean theme.  There Rosemarie pulled out all of her excess jewelry and beading supplies that she had no interest in using and divided them into 50 cent and $1 packages for the heavy concentration of crafters to look through, revised the prices of her already made jewelry to concentrate on $5 items, and replaced most of the spiritual oriented earrings with nautical themed options.  This resulted in significantly better sales during the remaining three events we attended there.  photo GM post office_zpsrvpkblge.jpg

Here in Grand Marais the 50 cent and $1 bins went completely untouched, the sea themed items were, surprisingly, not very popular, the spiritual stuff sold reasonably well, anything with a semiprecious stone in it flew off the racks, and the price range that the attendees were willing to pay was noticeably higher.  And though the paper bead stuff had not sold well at the first event, we sensed there was enough interest if we provided the correct design, particularly stuff from local brochures and maps.  We prepared for the second show accordingly and sold more things, including one of the $20 pieces and six paper bead items.  The first day of September having started the month off so well we rewarded ourselves with a fresh backed wild blueberry pie from our vendor neighbor, along with some heirloom tomatoes, spicy home made mustard, and some cookies as well.  photo GM FM2 loot_zpsshvedjbk.jpg

Backing up a bit: Following the success of our first event in August, we had begun researching to see if there were any others we could attend on the U.P.  We called the market managers in four towns, two of which turned us down flat because we were not locals and their charter was specifically set up to support local products.  Fair enough.  But the other two were willing to let us sell.  Since those events were on the same day we chose the one in Marquette as it was closer to our planned westward route.  Once we had decided to extend for at least a second week in Grand Marais, however, we faced the choice of skipping the Marquette event or making a day trip of it in Loki, and hope that our profits would cover the gas and $10 sellers fee.  Giddy from the success of our two Grand Marais events, we chose the latter.  photo Marquette FM sign_zpsc5nplazm.jpg

So Saturday morning had us up at the ungodly hour of 5 am and shortly thereafter on the road for the two hour drive.  The manager, Myra, had gone out of her way to make room for us at the event, but needed us there an hour before the start to go over the procedures.  It was actually a nice drive despite, or perhaps because of the hour.  The roads were nearly deserted, and in our first 15 minutes on the road we spotted two fox kits playing beside the road. The picture we caught of them came out very blurry and dark, so you have to take our word for it.

Upon arrival Myra assigned us our spot, directed us to the tent and table storage rooms, and went over the requirement that we had to accept “market money” for those that wanted to use it.  This is essentially a work around to allow buyers that only brought credit cards to purchase from sellers, like us, that are not set up to accept them.  The buyer finds what they want, then goes to the central kiosk where they receive the market dollars in exchange for an electronic purchase from the manager’s merchant credit card machine.  The sellers turn in the market money  they receive to the manager at the end of the event, and once a month she sends them a check in that amount.  Though not thrilled with having to wait for a check to catch up with us, we were happy to participate and willing to jump through this hoop in order to do so.  photo Marquette FM table_zpsm843pzai.jpg

We had gone all out during the week leading up to the event, prepping additional items and constructing two more drift wood and wire mesh frames to display them. Not knowing the nature of this market, we brought the full range of items with us, with bags of extra stuff to replace what sold or offer options if we sensed a trend.  It was a beautiful day on a holiday weekend with extra people in town for citywide activities such as the Marquette Marathon.  All of this combined to make for a fantastic market, and our success vastly exceeded our expectations; we sold three times what we had at either Grand Marais event, and done so with sales all the way from the 50 cent bin to the $20 rack.  We again rewarded ourselves by putting some of the profit into the pockets of other vendors, particularly the butcher (brats and thick cut bacon) and two of the organic farmers (basil and a medley of hot peppers) along with some delicious asparagus salsa.  photo Marquette FM loot_zps9wnxbck5.jpg

We had a local craft beer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company, and took advantage of being in the big city to resupply groceries at Walmart and a few critical jewelry making supplies from Michaels.  Giddy but tired, we made the two hour drive back to Grand Marais, contemplating our next step after the success of these first three days of September.  photo Marquette Ore Dock Brewery_zps4c7175tt.jpg

We had committed to staying in GM until after Labor Day, with a tentative departure on Tuesday, September 6th, and our next destination TBD.  After three great market experiences, though, we thought why not make the Marquette area our next stop and participate in their market the next Saturday?  And if we were going to do that, there was no reason to leave Grand Marais until after their next market Thursday evening.  photo GM sunset driftwood_zpsfyv0qslp.jpg

So we stayed, pushing our first stop in the Upper Peninsula out to 19 days, the longest we have stayed in any spot since leaving Key West.  There was no pressure on us at all to be anywhere; we really only had two more states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) on our must see list before heading back towards Florida.  Nor did we have any pressure to sell well at this last Grand Marais market since we had already done nicely.  Nonetheless, we did start to feel a bit of antsy, ready to get back on the road, and mildly concerned about how few people were left in the campground after labor day, which was probably a pretty good indicator of how many tourists and seasonal residents were still here to potentially show up at the Thursday market.  photo GM map_zps8ytksgdr.jpg

We need not have worried about the latter.  Sure, it started a little slow and severely tapered off in the middle hour, but just like the last event at the end of the winter season in Key West, there seemed to be a bit of urgency for those departing Grand Marais at the end of this summer to get a keepsake or presents for friends and relatives.  We had a surge of sales in the last half hour, and ended up doing just as well the previous Thursday.  photo GM site_zpsecpzrgom.jpg

We bought some homemade pickles and celebrated our last night in this great little town with a pizza at the recently opened Grand Marais Tavern.  Apparently started by avid snow mobilers, but novice restauranteers, that found the lack of dining options in their preferred winter playground frustrating.  They solved it by opening their own place that first week of September, pushing the number of options in town to two restaurants, one diner, and one food truck.  They had a reasonably wide selection of craft beer on tap, and the pizza was unusual but excellent.  Even Rosemarie, who is very particular and usually likes only properly prepared New York style slices enjoyed and praised this significantly thicker than NY style pie.  photo GM Tavern pizza_zpsekgl7mlj.jpg

We packed up that evening for a late morning departure, having loved Grand Marais but ready to be back on our adventure.  The U.P. has been great to us so far, and we hoped it would give us one more great weekend during our next stop.