Gainesville and Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park

Having evacuated Tyndall AFB’s Family Camp to flee the path of Hurricane Michael, we landed at Cousin Robb and Colleen’s in Gainesville.  We have stayed with them a couple of times before, enjoying short stays in an actual house and bonding with the twins, Maeve and Nola.  Things were even more convenient this stop; they have moved a few blocks from their previous home and the new place has a larger driveway that accommodated Serenity.

Big ole driveway, room enough to even put out the left side slides.

When staying with friends or family, we try to make ourselves useful to offset the inconvenience of house guests, however welcome we may be.  In addition to springing for pizza and bread rolls at their preferred joint, we made sure the fridge was stocked with beer (though we consumed our share as well,) made a repair to their jammed and off track pocket door, put a new handle on the porch screen door (admittedly after I broke the original,) helped the twins with geography studies, and upon request extended our stay one day to mitigate a latch key situation.  Yay us, such responsible house guests.  Don’t you want us to visit?

Not at Robb and Colleens.  This is foreshadowing…

I spent a good amount of time geocaching the local area, and even took the girls on a short hike to find a couple.  They had done some caching as part of a school event once before, but this time we found a great one in the woods that had a selection of trinkets for them to pick over while I added some replacements from my stash.

PKM, however, was not happy with the new addition to their family, a still young cat named Nova.  Apparently Nola had made a presentation to the family, including charts and other visual aides, justifying the acquisition, and who can argue with that?  PKM can, that’s who.  As chill a cat as she is, happy with all adults, nearly all children (even graspy little toddlers,) and even most dogs, the one thing she hates is other cats.  She instantly goes into hissy territorial mode whenever one is in sight.  We kept them separate, but between Sunnybelle’s (their dog) intensive, insatiable curiosity and Nova’s mere presence, our cat devolved into an angry “NO ONE TOUCH ME EVER” critter until we were able to engineer a greater degree of distance between her and the animal hosts. A lesson learned for other visits with cat owners. 

Still looks angry.

We were lucky enough to secure a full week reservation at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park in High Springs, about 30 minutes west of Gainesville.  Haven’t heard of this Florida State Park?  Probably because it was a private place between 1958 and 2017.  The state purchased the 407 acre property and, after a few months of renovations, opened it in October of last year as Florida’s newest state park. 

I say we were lucky to get a week because the place is popular and has only 18 RV sites (plus another 7 tent only spaces.)  The popularity is fully justified: the park is fantastic, and is near the top of our list not merely for Florida State Parks, but for any state park, perhaps even any RV park at all.  The main spring is gorgeous!  A little smaller than the similar looking Wekiwa Spring State Park, but with a jumping platform and a much longer crystal clear swimming run and boating run out to the Santa Fe River.  One clear advantage it has over Wekiwa is that the RV sites at Gilchrist are a hundred yards from the spring rather than two miles.

In addition to miles of hiking and biking trails, the park also has two other clear springs just a couple of hundred yards from the main one, and one of them is great for casual swimming and snorkeling.  Apparently most of the visitors are unaware of or don’t care about the existence of these other springs, so even during peak hours you might very well have them to yourselves.

The second spring.  Hard to see from this picture, but its a great little swimming hole.

Robb stayed with us one night there, and got to enjoy the place after the park closes to day users, meaning the normally crowded main spring was virtually empty.  Colleen brought the girls out for an afternoon after their Wednesday half day at school.  We all had a fantastic time, swimming in the main spring, snorkeling, paddling or wading down the main run and up the secondary run to the previously mentioned smaller stream, and generally being as loud and excited as ten year old kids can be. 

Halfway down the run from the main spring to the Santa Fe river.

We spent a lot of time on the jumping platform, perhaps 8′ above the water’s surface, even Colleen took a turn.  I managed to catch a few underwater shots just as the girls were entering the water. 

Rose and I sprung for a half day tandem kayak rental in order to spend a few hours on the Sante Fe River.  In addition to the natural beauty and wildlife, we ran across other springs leading out from short runs into the main river.  Apparently this region of Florida has the highest concentration of fresh water springs in the world. caches and a bunch of others in the general area.  It is not exactly a high density caching area, but there were plenty of rewarding hides and I picked up a surprsing number of “trackables” (serialized items that you can track the movement history of online) that I will move to another city or town.

We also did a bit of geocaching, clearing all but one of the cache’s in the park and a bunch of others in the nearby area.  I found a surprising number of “trackables” (serialized items placed in caches that you can register on line an check their travel history.)  I dropped off some I had found in other states, and plan on moving these to other cities and towns.

We found one geocache inside this giant cypress.  

Is Gilchrist for everyone? No, no it is not.  I was reminded of this as I swam in Wekiwa Springs the other day, and chatted with a couple of other RVers there, one of whom had a lot of negative things to say about Gilchrist, which he had also recently visited.  The road in to it is about 1.5 miles of pure washboard dirt that requires you to creep along at less than 10 mph or risk vibrating your molars out.  The dirt road from the front gate into the campground is very rutted, and you have to be very careful so as not to bottom out. 

Rose caught this great picture of me diving down to the bottom of the main spring.  If you find the negatives of Gilchrist too much, I will happily take your spot.

Some of the sites are quite awkward to back into. Ours had a very large oak nearly in the center of the entry way, requiring me to turn around and drive the full loop in order to make a rather challenging back in from the opposite side.  Last, the loop itself has not been cleared of tree limbs and branches such that a big rig will have a very tough time with parts of it.   So if these are things that concern you, stay away! 

That oak tree that sort of looks like it is right in front of my RV?  It really is.

Next up: Our first Fall market, and its a big one!

Advertisements

Return to Florida: The Panhandle, Another FL State Park, and Dodging a Hurricane

We left Wanee Lake headed south west towards Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Florida’s panhandle.  It was a bit out of our way; normally we would hit this region of the state on our way out as part of our run towards the west part of the country like we did in 2015 and 2017.  But since Dad and Marcia had secured a two month work camping gig there, we made the drive.  Besides, Topsail has been on our “must see” list of Florida places since the very beginning of our RV full time adventure.

This is one of those really popular Florida state parks that can be tough to secure anything more than a few weekday openings, but by frequent checks on Reserve America we caught a five day slot off of a recent cancellation.  The timing worked perfect for us, leaving plenty of days to meander back towards Central Florida for our first market obligations there.

PKM sporting her halloween pig costume.  She does not enjoy it.

The place exists on the high end of the price and amenities spectrum for a state park: 50 amp full hook ups, digital cable, swimming pool, shuffle board, the works, really, and feels a lot more like a private RV resort than a state campground, at least until you explore the area beyond the RV park.  It has miles of hiking and biking trails through the scrub forest and a beautiful white sand beach.  The park even provides a shuttle service for the half mile run to the beach.

All of this comes at a steep price: about $48 a night after taxes and the reservation fee.  Dad and Marcia are doing this place the right way, getting that expensive site in exchange for a half days work every other day or so.

We had a great five days there, spoiled a bit by the onset of red tide about half way into our visit.  We biked to the shore on our second day under great conditions on the beautiful beach with very clear water and light waves.  By day 4, however, as soon as we got within a few hundred yards of the water you could feel a sharp pungency in the throat and allergy reactions quickly followed.  At the time we were hearing reports that this year’s red tide was covering areas that had not experienced it in decades.  The campground was far enough away and blocked by forest such that we did not notice the effects there. 

As is often the case when we visit friends or family, this stop focused heavily on food.  In addition to some shared meals at the campground, we all hit Bang Bang Shrimp Wednesday at Bonefish, one of Dad and Marcia’s favorites and fast becoming one of ours.  After three years we finally made it back to Hurricane Oyster Bar near Grayton Beach.  This place had really made us happy while we were on an Apalachicola oyster binge in 2015, and our return visit this year did not disappoint.  We highly recommend it, particularly the oyster po’ boy.  We also split a big breakfast at one of the very well reviewed local spots, The Donut Hole.  Eating out three times in five days is very unusually for us, and we will be reeling it in for the remaining part of the month.

 

Having picked up our geocaching hobby in earnest ever since Iowa, we of course headed out on bikes to find some of the ones at Topsail.  Almost all of them were green containers hidden in green vegetation, which Rose is far better at finding than I, so a good thing she came along.

 

This is an unusually large container for geocaching, most of them are very tiny.

Oh yes, we also had a major electrical issue crop up.  It started with the rear AC failing to come on at all, not even a hum.  Upon investigation we found other things not working, such as the water heater and certain electrical outlets.  After some research I figured the likely culprit was a partially bad Automatic Transfer Switch, the electrical component that detects power provided from either the shore power cable or the generator, and shifts the connections to one of those, and when absent shifts back to the house batteries.  Once we emptied the compartment blocking access to it and removed the wood divider, it was instantly apparent that this was the problem as part of the plastic cover was melted.

Noting for it but to get a mechanic, and I found a well reviewed local service that was available to come out and replace the ATS with a better model that same day.   So thanks for Lacey’s RV Service for the quick response.  No one wants an unexpected $697 repair bill, but we are grateful it was a relatively quick fix.

After our five days at Top Sail were finished, we headed an hour and a half down the road for our first visit at yet another Air Force Base family camp, this one at Tyndall AFB a little east of Panama City.  We managed to catch the last available spot for the weekend in this wooded, medium sized campground on a bayou leading into the East Bay.  Reasonably spacious full hook ups with free “WiFi” (a Verizon MiFi Jetpack hotspot good for 15 gigs of data, but requiring a $100 security deposit) for $25 a night, all in.

The campground is quite decent and to our tastes.  Though some of the sites were a bit tight, that was due to big trees and vegetation, not because of the closeness of neighboring rigs.   We planned to explore the local area and beaches on our last full day there, but mother nature had other plans. 

As we were making the transition to Tyndall, predictions for Hurricane Michael were solidifying, and we were right in the path with landfall expected around the time we would be leaving.  So we pulled chocks and left a day early, sprinting east to Gainesville to stay at Cousin Robb and Colleens to ride things out.  Dad and Marcia evacuated from Topsail in the opposite direction, heading west and inland.  Our understanding is that Tyndall’s family camp, like the base, sustained heavy damage from a near direct hit, and may not be open any time soon, if ever. 

Next up, Gainesville and Florida’s newest state park.

45 Months Fulltiming: September 2018 Report

The Distance:  2,270 miles!  The most of any month this year, one of our biggest ever.  We made our great casino run from Michigan through Wisconsin and into Iowa, then turned east through Indiana before shooting due south all the way to Georgia.  Total for the year is up to 8,286.  Pretty sure we will crack 10K before New Years.

Google route maps only allow ten points, which made creating this screen shot a bit challenging.  That’s a lot of movement for us!

The Places:  We spent our last night at the Marquette Tourist Park before making our casino run, which finished with a one night stay at HoChunk Gaming in Nekoosa.  After another one nighter in a Walmart lot, we had five days at Hickory Park outside of Ames, Iowa to visit daughter Andrea.  We had another one night stay, this time at Condit’s Ranch, before beginning our eight day window repair stop in Elkhart, Indiana.  We turned south to meet up with Dad and Marcia in Brown County, Indiana before Rose flew to Virginia and I took the rig south.  I had a relaxing few days at the Arnold Air Force Base Family Camp in Tennesee before pushing on to Snellville, outside Atlanta, to pick up Rosemarie and hand out with cousin Marissa and family.  We finished the month with a four day stay at Wanee Lake Golf and RV Resort.

Saw an awful lot of asphalt this month.

All told this month we spent 9 days in a public parks (6 county, 3 state,) 6 in private parks, 3 at military bases, 9 in parking lots or repair facilities, and 3 in the driveway of family.   Some of that was just me while Rosemarie stayed with family in VA for five days.  We had full hook ups for 5 days, partial for 18 day (surprisingly, 15 was electric only, and three with power and water) and dry camped for 7.

Lakefront site at Hickory Grove outside of Ames, Iowa.

The Budget:  Sadly, almost 28% over budget.  The amount of miles we put in meant spending a whole lot at the gas pump this month.  That combined with $570 on tires for Serenity and our new Captains Chairs left our finances a bit stretched.  We are still under for the year, but since we have some significant repair and upgrade work in mind once we reach Florida, it’s going to be a real challenge to stay that way.  We only had one market this month, right before we left Marquette, but will pick up the pace with weekly events starting in late October and continuing on until just before Christmas.  Hopefully that will get us back on track.

My high tech planning and budgeting tool.

The Drama and the Improvements:   Oh yes, we had some of this.  If you read this post, you already know the story.  It started with excessive wind noise inside the rig whenever we got up to speed, the investigation of which revealed a large gap between the top right corner of the windshield gasket and the frame of the motorhome.  This is the same spot that had come loose previously, with that windshield repair less than a year old.  We duck taped the gap until we could be in one spot long enough to arrange for a fix.  We were relieved to find that Duncan Systems, the company contracted by our insurance agency (Progressive) to do the previous windshield accepted this as warranty work.

I’ve pulled part of it down, but you can still see some of the duct tape above the windshield.

On our last day in Ames, Iowa we drove to a glass shop, thinking this would be a relatively easy job.  Unfortunately, Duncan Systems had not adequately explained the scope of the work, and upon arrival this local shop said it would be at least a half day job and they could not fit us in until after the weekend.  We skipped it and made arrangements with Duncan to do the work at our next destination, Elkhart, Indiana.

Looking out the front of our rig, windshield removed.

There began our eight day fiasco at Master Tech RV.  We parked overnight in their lot so as to be ready for inspection first thing in the morning, as arranged.  Upon examination, they informed us that the gasket needed to be replaced to do this right, and it took Duncan two days to get it to us, even though it was only 15 miles away.  Once installed, the left half of the windshield cracked!  It took Duncan systems three days to get us a replacement, but once received was installed the same day, and we were able to be on our way after a few hours of cure time.

Morning fog outside of Master Tech RV’s warehouse repair facility.

We also had tire issues.  Back in Ames I had purchased a used tire to replace the inside right rear, very bald tire, thinking that a one year old used one would better match up tread-wise with the one year old outside tire.  Less than 800 miles later this tire completely failed, requiring me to nurse the rig up a back road for 9 miles to a truck tire shop, where, $350 and one hour later they had me back on the road.

Beefy new drive tire.

In the area of upgrades rather than repairs, while in Elkhart we stopped by the RV Furniture Outlet and purchased new captain’s chair to replace the horrific looking ones we have been living with.  This was badly needed, but had we known about the amount of repair work we would be facing in the coming months we might have skipped this improvement.

Our monthly reports so far this year:

January Monthly Report

February Monthly Report

March Monthly Report

April Monthly Report

May Monthly Report

June Monthly Report

July Monthly Report

August Monthly Report

And here are our 20172016, and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.

Georgia! Snellville and Wanee Lake

I made the run from Arnold AFB in Tennessee to Snellville, a town on the outskirts of Atlanta, parked the rig in Marissa and Ray’s yard, detached Loki, and make it to the Atlanta airport arrivals lane just in time to pick up Rosemarie as she was coming out of the terminal.  Perfect!  Last time we visited I parked Serenity beside the driveway, which has a pretty steep grade, making it very difficult to get even close to level.  This trip we opted for the front yard: plenty of space, quite level, apparently not against the neighborhood rules, and easier to get back onto the street when it was time to leave.

There followed three days of family time with cousin Marissa, Rey (her husband,) Titi Clarivel (grandmother,) Annalise and Sara (daughters,) with Betsy (mom) and her teen children Gabriella and Gami stopping in regularly.  We celebrated my birthday on our first evening there, complete with a cake and candles, and on our second we had a big barbecue cook out with way too much food, though not nearly as much as we had over purchased during our last visit.  We would end up leaving with a lot of leftovers from the event plus some of Titi Clari’s dishes to boot.

I did a bit of geocaching, Rose got to catch up with family, and next time we stop in we hope we can do it on a weekend when Rey isn’t having to work all day and then come home each evening to visitors crashing his pad!

Accurate in every way.

From Atlanta it was on to the tiny town of Ashburn in south Georgia for a five day stay at Wanee Lake Golf and RV Resort.  This place has been on our short list of best value RV campgrounds ever since we stumbled across it two years ago during our return run to Florida.  We now make it a regular part of our route planning.  When we stopped in earlier this year, new ownership had just purchased the property and were beginning upgrades.

At the time we worried how much prices would go up, and now we have our answer: three nights on the Passport America 50% rate is $19.50 ($16 in 2016),  additional days for PA members are $35 (which is 10% off, in 2016 they were $24, i.e., 25% off,) the weekly rate is $200 (previously $140,) and monthly is $500 ($425 in 2016.)  For that you get full hook ups (50 amp power, water, sewage) in a spacious, pull through site, and discounted golf.  Specifically, unlimited walking golf, or $13 for an 18 hole round with a cart.  If my notes from 2016 are correct, that is actually a price drop from $16 for the golf cart use.

Somehow deleted our Wanee Lake photos except the sign as we were leaving. 

So yes, prices are up a bit, mainly for those extra days beyond the Passport America three and the weekly/monthly rates, but the improvements are quite noticeable.  The course itself is in much better shape and getting better every month with ongoing projects.  The remaining facilities are moving in the right direction as well, e.g., the pool looks nearly brand new after some extensive renovation this summer.

Wanee Lake also hosts Tuesday and Thursday evening 9 hole best ball scramble events for $5 plus the $8 cart fee, which are quite fun with all skill levels welcome since they let the best players pick teams based on known handicaps.  I played 45 holes plus both scrambles while there, and my scores are dropping: I broke 50 on a couple of 9 hole rounds, something I have not done since picking the sport back up on 2016 after a 15 year hiatus.  

Any down side to the place?  Well, I seem to recall the wifi actually working the last time I was here, and it most definitely does not work now.  The owner is engaged, but is just not sure he can get their provider to improve the situation since they are so far down the data line.  Also, our blog entry from our first visit stated that they do not have any blackout dates or restrictions beyond the three day max for Passport America, whereas now they only accept it out of season (April 15 through October 15) with holidays and special event weekends excluded.  Lastly, I had an extremely unpleasant run in with one very obnoxious drunk.  Speaking with the owner and management the next day, I am confident this will turn out to be an aberration; they were convincing in explaining how hard they are working to make the place family friendly to all visitors.  Enough said, we’ll be back. 

Brown County, Virginia, and a run south

After our unexpected extended stay in Elkhart, we began a complex set of maneuvers designed to meet up with family while continuing our move south.  In retrospect, we made this harder than necessary and transitioned into the southern climate way earlier than ideal given the blazing September and October temps in Georgia and Florida, but we will chalk that up to a lesson learned and plan better next year.

We started the scheme with a run down to Nashville, Indiana (not the other one) to meet up with Dad and Marcia again.  They had social and business obligations there, it was on our route, and we generally like the Brown County area.  We secured reservations at the very large Brown County State Park, but since we did not get out of Elkhart until mid-afternoon we didn’t arrive until after dark.  We enjoyed a cocktail or two with Dad and Marcia to unwind, but had to make it a relatively early evening since I had to get Rose to the airport an hour away in Indianapolis the next morning.

Having failed to take any pictures while in Brown County, I am forced to punctuate these paragraphs with unrelated photos.  Enjoy these peppers and other vegetables.

While Rose visited family in Virginia, I stayed a couple more days in Indiana exploring Nashville with Dad and Marcia.   In addition to a couple of short outings to geocache, we hit several nice places for drinks and food.  The martini at Big Woods Distillery made me reassess my preference for the vodka over the classic gin version, and the meals at The Story Inn and The Hob Nob were both excellent.  I am not sure how the waitstaff kept track of the orders and checks for our big group of 16 diners at the latter restaurant.

This is Serenity in the shop, and yet I have not mentioned a reason for Serenity to be in the shop thus far this post.  This is called foreshadowing.  

After a couple days it was time for the long drive down to Atlanta, which I broke up with a three days stop at the Arnold Air Force Base Family Camp in Tennessee.   My five hour drive turned into a seven hour ordeal when that tire I purchased in Iowa blew out on the interstate.  My roadside assistance through Progressive found me a place truck tire place only nine miles back up the road, and since the blown tire was on one of the rear doolies, I was able to nurse the rig there, and they had me back on the road only $350 poorer.

I made it to the AFB in time to set up and even work in a quick swim before dark.  This is one of those great value military parks in a very tranquil setting with many spots, lke mine, right on the lake.  It offers power and water for $18 a night, and word must be out this place because I was only able to get a late reservation for the weekend due to someone else having just cancelled.   I seem to recall working wifi last visit, but this time I could not get it to function at all.  I managed to get a full day of geocaching in during this stay, setting a new “finds in one day” personal record of 25 caches.  Plans to continue the fun the next day fell victim to heavy rains.

While I was living it up in Indiana and Tennessee, Rose was Linda, Jayson, and the ever growing families of their three sons in Chesapeake, VA.  She was there to help celebrate Jayson’s birthday, and participate in the general chaos associate with nine grand children under ten years.  They took Linda on an outing to perennial favorite Dollar Tree, where Chris, who had never been in one before went a bit nuts because OMG EVERTHING IN HERE IS ONLY A DOLLAR!  Noob.

Linda and Linda Rose

From Tennessee it was on to Atlanta to visit more family and pick up Rose, but we will hit that next post.

Two days turns into eight in Elkhart, IN

Sometime during our run south from Michigan the right upper corner of our windshield gasket separated from the frame of the motorhome leaving an air gap big enough to slide fingers through.  Fortunately, that side of the windshield had been replaced less than a year ago, and Duncan Systems, the RV glass company contracted by Progressive Insurance to arrange the job, agreed that this repair should be under warranty.  We had thought it a simple process, but the first tech to look at it in Ames, Iowa said it was a half day affair, and they couldn’t fit us in until Monday at the earliest.  Wanting to get back on the road, we arranged to have the work done by Master Tech RV in Elkhart, our next destination, first thing Tuesday morning.

Elkhart being longer than our preferred drive, we made a one day stop at Condit’s Ranch in Putnam, IL. Though it was a bit further off the interstate than ideal, the property was very attractive, the management made us feel very much at home, and as a Passport America participant it was very affordable: $20 for full hook ups, though the positioning of the sewage connection meant I simply used it as a dump station on our way out. 

Duncan Systems made arrangements for an assessment at Master Tech first thing Tuesday morning, so we arrived Monday afternoon and stayed in the parking lot overnight, but not before we swung into Factory RV Surplus to check on possible discounted captains chairs to replace our wretched originals.  They had a couple of options for us, and we selected some beautiful modern chairs in a dark brown/charcoal color that really look nice in our rig.  The installation was pretty easy, just four bolts per chair.  We are really happy to actually start some of the significant improvements to our interior we have discussed for some time.

The next morning Mastertech took a look and confirmed it would be at least a half day job, and to do it right they would need to remove both halves of the windshield and replace the gasket.  Fortunately, the gasket was in the next town over.  Unfortunately it still took two days to arrive, so suddenly we were at a minimum four day stay. 

Yes, we sulked a bit, but at least Mastertech moved us inside and we had a 30 amp connection for the remainder of our stay, free guest wifi, and a visitors lounge with robust cable and on demand shows.  We spent a lot of time there.  Aside from a bit of geocaching, watching TV is about all we did in Elkhart, the ongoing delays putting us in a bit of a funk.

Making ourselves at home at Master Tech RV

So Friday they completed the installation of the gasket and window, only to have the left side crack almost immediately after it was sealed in place.  Which, of course, meant a new window needed to be ordered.  I spent a good amount of time on the phone with Duncan Systems expressing my displeasure at how long it had taken to drop off a simple gasket from 12 miles away, and trying to increase their sense of urgency such that we could receive the windshield for delivery first thing Monday morning.  Which we did not, resulting in increasingly hostile discussions with them until it was finally delivered Tuesday mid-morning. 

The view out of non-existant windshield while inside Master Tech’s large facility.  

Mastertech got the new glass in before lunch, and after a few hours to let the seal cure, we were finally on our way south to Brown County, Indiana to meet up with Dad and Marcia again. 

PKM is sometimes a bit quicker on the draw than we are, and manages to go for a bit of a run before we can get the lead secured to her harness.  We would like to break her of this, but at least she never runs far before letting us catch her. 

Ames, Iowa, en route to Indiana

Alright so: here at Shell On Wheels we operate with limited advance planning.  That means few reservations more than a week in advance, leaving us the flexibility to adjust our itinerary on the go.  But after careful coordination with Dad and Stepmom Marcia, we had agreed to meet up in Brown County, Indiana, one of the most interesting destinations in that state, during mid September.  But, reasonable route planning meant that we should first visit daughter Andrea, currently enrolled in a nursing program in Ames, Iowa.  As it happened, Dad and Marcia, full time Rvers as well, were coming from the west, and it worked out quite well for all of us to gather in Ames before some of us met up in Indiana.

And so that is what The Great Shell On Wheels Casino Run of ’18 set in motion:  a pre-visit with family in Iowa before an eventual gathering in Indiana.  But where, oh where shall we stay?  Our two previous stops in Ames entailed a stay at Little Wall Lake County Park (a bit further away from Andrea than ideal) and a year later a stop at Ledges State Park (an ideal location, but closed for major repair and renovation work this season.) N

Fortunately Dad and Marcia got to Ames a couple of days before us, settled for a night in a “resort” park, and spent the next day scouting all of the local options; county, state, and private.  Their clear favorite was Hickory Grove County Park, just a few miles east of downtown Ames.  And so that is where we gathered; a two day overlap in our mutual schedules as part of our five day stay in Ames.

This was a great park; for our purposes clearly better than Little Wall because of the location, and surprisingly superior to Ledges, mainly because so many of the sites were situated directly on a nice forest lake.  Sure, it was electric hook up only, but with a fill and dump station, the $17 a night fee was a great deal.

Our excellent site backed right up on the lake.

Is Ames a destination city?  No, it is not.  But does it have some very appealing things for the intrepid RVer to enjoy? Yes, it does.  Daughter Andrea has never steered us wrong here, and this time we all enjoyed a fantastic meal at Provisions Lot.   The  Shrimp Bucatini was to die for, and the Fennel Meatball Pizza was awesome.  Even as leftovers, we loved their food.

While Andrea was working, the rest of us spent some time exploring the small but interesting nearby town of Nevada, and once we had seen both of the antique and thrift shops, we nabbed a couple of local geocaches.  Which, by the way, I feel obligated to again point out that we introduced Dad and Marcia to the hobby, and yet they are, after only two years, well ahead of us in finds!  They have only motivated us to get back into it all.

The observant reader will note that there is not a single picture of any of the so called family members we supposedly met up with this visit.  We failed to take a single one.  In lieu of that, enjoy this butterfly.

And so once they left for Indiana, Rosemarie and I spent an afternoon hitting a few more local caches, and I met Andrea, Nate, and one of their friends for lunch at the always tasty Pammel’s Grocery and Grill, specializing in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean casual meals.  We spent our last day getting Serenity ready for the road, starting with a tire change of a particularly worn balding on on the rear axle.  The next day it was time to head to Elkhart Indiana to get our windshield repaired (again!) and look for some discount interior furniture.

The Great Shell On Wheels Casino Run of ’18

Since our big run through the Pacific Northwest and then Wisconsin last year, we have fallen out of the habit of visiting casinos, either for free overnight parking (sometimes with hook ups!) or to exercise our “sign up for the players club and gamble only their free play money” method of fun and profit.  Some of the regions through which we have traveled have had a dearth of casinos, and sometimes we just didn’t make the Google effort.  But with our impending journey south through Wisconsin towards Iowa, we recalled the ludicrous deal we had taken advantage of at the Ho-Chunk casino in Nekoosa last year, and this inspired an aggressive bit of internet research and route planning.

The end result of which was a six casino run through Michigan and Wisconsin over two days, with an overnight stop at that same Ho-Chunk Casino in Nekoosa.  It was kind of ridiculous, but the idea was to make a game of the journey, enjoy a free night stay, and perhaps make a few bucks along the way.  Yes, our mileage was a bit higher than a straight run to Ames, Iowa, but not by a silly amount since I only included venues generally along our way.

And it was fun.  But it was tiring.  I had not accurately anticipated how long we would spend at each casino (nearly an hour once you account for parking, signing up for promotions, selecting a machine and then actual gambling.)  This meant that the first leg of the journey, encompassing five casinos, turned into a very long day.  The 6 1/2 hours of drive time combined with four hours of stops meant we finished the day driving in light rain and fog, after dark, on back roads with all kinds of potential for deer collisions.  Never again: next time we start earlier, hit fewer venues, or stop sooner.

Despite that first day stress, the casino run was a rousing success.  At each venue we received, on average, $30 worth of free play money.  Usually this was $5 or $10 each for signing up for their players club, another $5 or $10 for it being my birthday month, and miscellaneous promos for providing an email address or text enabled phone number.  The Ho-Chunk promo in Nekoosa was not as ludicrously great as last year, but it still provided us $40 in free play and $20 in surprisingly decent food.

Our final tally was $137 real dollars earned for the nearly $200 in free play provided.  This is in addition to the food, free soda, and overnight parking with power.  For the curious and uninitiated, here is how it works:

  • Most casinos in the US have a “players club” sign up option.  You provide a drivers license and they provide a member card that inserts into all of the electronic slot machines.
  • As an incentive for signing up, most casinos offer “free play” money to new members.  It’s usually $10.  They often give an additional $5 to $10 free play during your birthday month as well.
  • This free play money is an incentive to get you to sit down on the machines and gamble, with the casino hoping you will fritter it away (because you won’t keep track of how much you lose from the free play pot vs how much you gain from winnings) and then feed some of your real, actual cash into the machine.
  • A big part of the casino’s angle is to lure you into spending more based on “the points” you earn for shoving real cash into the machines.  It’s truly a suckers game: though you might earn a free trinket, food, or even a complimentary stay in their hotel, what it cost you to get there is so much more expensive.  If you do not actually enjoy the process of slot machine or table gambling, avoid this trap.  If you do enjoy the process, then you might as well reap the limited benefits of their players club.
  • Our “method,” if you want to call it that, is to only spend their free play money.  Some casinos don’t make this easy: you have to keep a running tally of how many slot machine “spins” you have used and for how much so that when the free play money is gone you can pull out you winnings.  Others make it a lot easier if you pay attention to the betting screen on the machine.
  • To make matters even more complicated, some casinos require that you feed the machine a buck or two of real cash to cover your first bet.  E.g., if you want to hit that slot machine for an 88 cent bet?  You do it with your own cash, which is then refilled by the “free play money.”
  • I know, it sounds confusing, but we have figured out the system, exercise discipline, make a small amount of money using their promo dollars without gambling any of our own, and do so enjoying the atmosphere, free RV parking, and a whole lot of free root beer.

44 Months Fulltiming: August 2018 Report

The Distance:  470 miles, the vast majority of it in the first week of the month as we finished our Canada to Grand Marais, Michigan journey.  Our running total for the year is now 6,016.

The Places:  We had our last two days in Canada at Panorama Camp in Ontario before reentering the U.S. for a three day stop in Sault Ste Marie.  Alarmed at the reports of a rapidly filling campground in Grand Marais due to the music festival, we accelerated our plans and arrived there for a full three week stay.  Then it was on to Marquette for our final U.P. stop. 

We spent 2 days in a private park and the remaining 29 in public (municipal) campgrounds.  We had partial services the entire month: power and water for 26 days and power only for 5.

 

The Budget:  Nearly 15% under budget!  The limited mileage (and thus reasonable gas expenditures at U.S vice Canadian prices,) slight reduction in campground fees with a weekly rate in Grand Marais, along with generally conservative living helped a lot, but the real budget savers were the 10 market events we participated in.  Four of them we consider highly successful, and all but one of the rest generally satisfying.  We finished so far under budget despite having to pay our annual motorhome insurance and a $251 medical bill that caught up with us from Key West. 

September may be a different story: our mileage will go up significantly as we work our way back south, and we expect to have some repair and upgrade costs on Serenity as well.  Alas, we foresee few, if any, market opportunities to help offset such things. 

The Drama and the Improvements:   Very little to report.  The stairs, which gave us a problem leaving our last Canada stop, have worked well the entire month.  The windshield remains popped out and the seal secured with duct tape until we are able to coordinate a repair in a larger city or town.  We have started to make some cosmetic improvements to the bathroom, but nothing spectacular.  Hopefully September will show some major improvements: we are routing our trip through Elkhart, Indiana, arguably the RV capital of world, and hope to get a few things improved upon there.

Our monthly reports so far this year:

January Monthly Report

February Monthly Report

March Monthly Report

April Monthly Report

May Monthly Report

June Monthly Report

July Monthly Report

And here are our 20172016, and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.

Marquette, and our last week in the U.P.

After thee fantastic weeks, we finally departed Grand Marais and headed west to Marquette, stopping one last time in Munising to grab some of our favorite smoked fish dip.  We had reservations at the city owned Tourist Park Campground for four days in advance of the next Saturday downtown market, and would need only to find one or two more days to make things work out (unlike Grand Marais and Munusing’s Tourist Parks, Marquette’s is reservable until you get inside a five day window of your planned arrival.)

PKM saying goodbye to the glorious warm sand on the shore of The Lake in Grand Marais.

We had contemplated spending this time in Munising or even Copper Harbor, but Marquette had the market and positioned us exactly right for the first leg of our return south.  Besides, we had stayed in Munising nearly a week last year, but had yet to explore Marquette beyond the one day market runs. 

This is the third municipal park at which we have stayed at in the UP, and they have a lot of similarity: medium to very large spots, a good amount of trees, a lot of power or power and water only sites, and a partial hook up price around $30 a night.  With the coming Labor Day weekend we were lucky to get an additional two nights by checking back daily for a cancellation, though it entailed having to move to a different site.  If there is one drawback it is the trains: though I find it nostalgic and it doesn’t bother or even wake me, it drove Rosemarie a bit nuts to hear the train whistles deep into the night.

Our huge site in Marquette.

We had mixed weather, and tried to take advantage of the dry days and explore the area a bit.  We located the Dia de los Tacos food truck, hit a couple of thrift stores, and the local food co-op.  We spent a little bit of time in the downtown area, as much to secure Rosemarie’s UP hat as anything else, and then hunkered down for a day and night full of rain and thunder.

Our best find was Presque Isle park, a really nice bit of land with trails and a beach.  The rugged coastal scenery was great, and the deer pictured up post was right out in the open, allowing us to get rather close for a nice shot.  We were surprised to see a few guys actually surfing, reminding us yet again that a lake the size of Superior acts a lot like an ocean. 

PKM really enjoyed this park; though the squirrels were far too clever, the chipmunks exhibited almost no life preservation instincts.  Despite being on her lead she managed to catch one of the things while we were outside supposedly supervising her.  We weren’t’ the only ones to see the horror unfold, our young neighbors in the next spot got a front row seat at the event.

The animal in this picture as a completely unjustified belief in its immortality.

Kitty was nearly at the end of her lead, which meant the thing would have to approach within two feet for her to even have chance at it.  And that is exactly what it did.  She was on one side of a big oak tree, it walked right up to the other side, and she made one solid pounce, snagging it with ease.  I ran over as fast as possible and shook her a bit and tapped her head until she finally let it go.  I missed it but our now amused neighbors said it went straight up the tree and appeared no worse for the wear.  Come on chipmunks, compared to you our cat is a Balrog, and the best advice is “Run, you fools!” 

We attended our final UP market in downtown Marquette the day before our departure.  Though not a record breaking event like the first two weeks, it was a great sales day, starting off our September right.  We stocked up on heirloom tomatoes, three different mushroom varieties, sweet carrots, and peppers.  We would be meeting up with family soon, and this would add to a planned feast.