Pigeon Forge, TN: Do Not Go Here. Find another way to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Listen, I don’t like to bad mouth a town, and we have been able to find “the good” in many places though they might not be on anyone’s bucket list.  But this place?  Pigeon Forge?   We can’t recommend anything about it.  I know, I know, and I’m sorry if this is your home town or you have fond memories of Dollywood and the unending glitzy, tacky tourist shops and venues along the main strip.  I get it, I really do!  I grew up in Central Florida and have the same soft spot in my heart for Orlando’s unbelievably touristy and tacky International Drive. DSC_0091

But seriously, as an RVer?  Skip this place and Gatlinburg too.  Heck, the only reason we went at all was it seemed like a good base camp from which to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Plus the town offered three Passport-America campground options.  Had we but known.

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Yet another back road in Pigeon Forge. 

Start with the roads:  Our GPS was continually trying to route us onto the very twisty, very steep back roads all over town.  This happens occasionally in lots of places, but in Pigeon Forge it happens all the damn time because the too-smart-for-its-own-good GPS is not only foolishly cutting the corners off of perfectly good main highways, but is also desperately trying to help you avoid the horrific traffic jams seemingly present 24 hours a day on the parkway.DSC_0093

And the town!  Good god did I mention that it is tacky?  Words fail.  It is a continuous assault on the visual senses with terribly touristy traps filling every foot of the drag in a density that may very well defy conventional physics.DSC_0064

OK, let me come clean here.  We had a pretty scary RV moment in Pigeon Forge, and it has cast a bit of a pall over our memory of the place.  I foolishly followed one of the many GPS short cut recommendations, and disastrously misjudged a very sharp turn, the ground seemingly falling away from the right rear tires, leaving us precariously balanced on the edge of a ditch.  We were seriously concerned that we might roll over into the creek below.

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Within minutes three local gents showed up, then a cop, who was actually relieved to see that the situation was not, as the 911 caller had stated, “a bus crashed into the river.”  We quickly disconnected Loki, and then one of the locals started directing traffic around us (how many places would an on scene cop allows some civilian to do this?)  The other local gents and I walked around the bus wisely scratching our heads and discussing options.

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When they learned I had an air ride system, they helped direct my application of it to raise the back end sufficient to remove the tow hitch assembly that had completely bottomed out on the road.  Then I lowered the front air nearly all the way, changing the angle just enough that I could get full traction with the back left tires.  Despite my doubts and The Big Kahuna’s under powered, over-geared set up, and with everyone holding their breaths, we drove out of that ditch and out of danger.

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So that was bad, but we shook it off and headed for our RV campground, which took us far longer than expected because even after narrowly escaping total catastrophe, we unthinkingly continued down the back road GPS route.  After miles of winding, narrow, shoulderless and hilly roads we finally stopped short, eyes wide, staring up at the impossibly steep hill to which our electronic navigator had lead us.  Having had enough excitement for the day, we took a deep breath and back tracked to the safer main highway, which of course took us into all that terrible bumper to bumper traffic the GPS was trying to avoid!

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So we arrived at Creekside RV after dark, simply thankful that the front office was still open to check us in.  Creekside’s spots are pretty narrow, but certainly not the smallest we have experienced, and bigger than at least one of the other two Passport-America options in town based on a quick drive by.  If we were there for a more relaxed stay we would definitely have kicked in the extra couple of bucks a night for one of the actual creek side spots; the creek running through the property was quite beautiful.  Our site was level enough for us, and mostly solid packed gravel and dirt.  My one complaint was how far back the electrical and cable hook up connections were positioned: we had to borrow an extension to our 25′ cable to reach it.

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Let’s add insult to injury:  After all that trouble, finally safe and sound in our spot, could we find a drop of liquor in this town to celebrate?  NO, no we could not.  A partially dry “beer and wine only” town, we had to drive the 25 minutes to Gatlinburg just to get a bottle of the real stuff.  Which we did, of course.

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The next day we headed for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though we have had some unkind things to say about RV campgrounds in the various national parks we have seen, the visitor centers are universally awesome and helpful.  Smoky was no exception.  We watched the traditional park video, bought another patch for my collection, and got some advice on a nice drive and short day hike from one of the rangers manning the information desk.

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We headed up mountain in Loki, marveling at the rapid temperature change as we climbed, and pulled over at the picnic area with an adjacent short mountain hike, Hard Cove trail.  It was fantastic, and we were the only two people on the trail the entire time we were there, despite later realizing that the park was pretty crowded overall.

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Afterwards we continued up the Newfound Gap road to the NC-TN border, and then side tracked up to Clingman’s Dome.  The views were fantastic, but due to the cold, wind, and crowds we chose to forgo the hike to the actual observation tower.

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Had we been less turned off by the town of Pigeon Forge we might have stayed another day.  As it was we were itching to get out, and took off late the next morning.  Despite my attempt to research the roads and avoid any further difficult maneuvers, we ended up on yet another twisty, hilly, shoulderless road as the beautiful six lane highway I chose narrowed and narrowed down to a tiny two lane path.  That would have been all well in good if it wasn’t for my guilt and stress from holding up a long line of cars behind us as we struggled up the inclines on a road with no pull outs at all to ease everyone’s pain.  We are actually grateful that we have procrastinated getting our Shell On Wheels logo painted or applied to the back of the bus; I can only imagine the hate mail we would have gotten after that long and painful sojourn.DSC_0035

Incidentally, if you are, as I was, confused about the spelling of The Great Smoky Mountains, rather than the Smokey Mountains, let me school you as I have been schooled:

Smokey is a proper noun and first name, whereas smoky is an adjective referring to an object being filled with or smelling of smoke.

Until recently smokey was an accepted spelling of smoky in the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it is now thought of as old-fashioned.”DSC_0023

A side trip into Kentucky to visit Mammoth Cave National Park

Among the major guide posts for our RV route planning are the locations of national parks.  Not so much national monuments or national historic sites, but specifically the 59 officially designated national parks.  While the RV campgrounds within them are not always great, the parks themselves are usually astounding.  With our November visit to Mammoth Cave we have logged 19 national parks this year.  And yes, we plan to see them all, eventually.DSC_0016

So, during our eastward push through the full length of Tennessee we scheduled a detour north across the Kentucky border to Cave City.  But before that turn, as the trip from Hot Springs to Mammoth was significantly longer than our preferred daily driving distance, we pulled over an hour outside Nashville to do a bit of internet research for a cheap one night stopping point.  Passport-America delivered again, pointing us 30 miles up the road to Tanbark RV Campground.  After taxes it was still less than $14 for a full hook up (30 amp) site including free (and mostly usable) wifi and hot showers. Admittedly it’s not a destination resort, but conveniently located right off I-40 (but just far enough from the interstate to eliminate the highway noise) the price vs. amenities is hard to beat.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We used that precious wifi (having yet again maxed out our own monthly data plan) to research and finalize an RV park for our two day stay in Kentucky.  Despite the excellent experience we had in the official National Park Service campground in Hot Springs, we remain skeptical of NPS campgrounds in general.  Based on cross referencing Passport-America and  RV Park Reviews I was leaning towards Rock Cabin Camping, a small and quirky place just outside the national park grounds with only ten RV spots plus nine variously sized rock cabins.  But during my conversation with the manager on duty (perhaps Ralph, one of the owners?) he convinced me that they might not be a good and safe fit for a rig as large as The Big Kahuna.  He provided a a couple of recommendations, and those combined with our previous research lead us to the Singing Hills RV Park just outside Mammoth Cave’s boundaries, where we made reservations.DSC_0087

The next morning we finished the drive to Cave City and Singing Hills.   Mrs. Beth checked us in, providing us with not only clear instructions for her park, but also recommendations for local attractions and an invitation to her group’s bible study.  I don’t think they are ready for a militant atheist, but it was a kind and honest offer, which once again confirmed my respect for individual evangelicals in contrast to the the actions of the community as a whole.

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This full hook up park is reasonably spacious and includes a “catch and release” fishing pond, warm showers (though the bathroom is awkwardly arranged) and volleyball, horseshoe and basketball facilities.  Having done our research and explored the area, I can comfortably say that if you are visiting Mammoth Cave you will be very hard pressed to find a better value than Singing Hills.  PA rate: $17 a night.  We are ready to refer anyone interested in Passport-America!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But what about the park itself?  Yes, well.  We had two reference points for cave type tours: Florida Caverns State Park (in Florida, shockingly) and the astounding Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.  We were thinking that Mammoth would be something along the lines of the latter, however geology intervened.  While Carlsbad is a deep and hydraulically active cave system, Mammoth is a shallow, dry, and mostly inactive network.  What makes the Mammoth Cave system utterly amazing is it’s size: over 400 miles of explored tunnels, with miles more discovered each year.  It is, by far, the largest cave system in the known world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The below ground permeable limestone cavern system is capped by a thick layer of less permeable sandstone, which has served to protect and stabilize the huge Mammoth Cave system.  Various “separate” cave systems, such as Mammoth, Diamond, Crystal and Flint Ridge, were eventually connected by spelunkers, demolishing the international competition for world’s largest system.

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And that’s the allure.  A massive, and even as of 2015, only partially explored cave system.  If you are a general tourist looking for astounding sites, Mammoth, mostly consisting of dead brown cave tunnels, cannot possibly compete with the extraordinary beauty of Carlsbad’s active system.  But if you are an adventurous explorer looking to crawl through tight passages, Mammoth is most definitely a better fit for you.DSC_0053

During our two day stay only three tours were available due to the winter season and closures of the historic areas for improvements.  We chose to do the Domes and Dripstones as well as the Cleaveland Avenue tour.   If we had it to do over again we would have skipped the painfully slow Domes and Dripstones in favor of the shorter Frozen Niagra option, but probably kept the Cleaveland tour.   Had we been there on the weekend, I suspect the Wild Cave tour, involving significantly more tight cave crawling, would have been pretty awesome if we could handle the claustrophobia.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Perhaps as enjoyable as the caves themselves were the abundant examples of wildlife, particularly the deer and wild turkey.  Each evening after our afternoon tour we observed multiple groups of both.  Deer with fawns, yearlings, and five or so turkeys wandering across the park roadways as if taunting us that Benjamin Franklin was, perhaps, right all along.DSC_0068

Bottom line: we liked, but did not love Mammoth like Carlsbad.  Perhaps next year we can compare both of them to the Luray Caverns in Virginia.

Antebellum graffitti

Antebellum graffiti

Our Weirdest National Park: Hot Springs, a monument to historical snake oil salesmen

What a bizarre place!  The vast majority of our 59 national parks are gigantic areas of natural wonder.  Think Yellowstone, Death Valley, or The Everglades.  A handful are geographically limited points of staggering beauty, such as Carlsbad Caverns. Hot Springs National Park is unique and out of place among the list; it is, essentially, a monument to 19th and early 20th century European style bath houses of ever increasing opulence making dubious health claims.  The official park patch is an embroidered bathtub!  And yet we extended our stay to four days.

One of the two still operating bath houses

One of the two still operating bath houses

Being unexpectedly limited to only one day at Natural Falls State Park put us ahead of schedule in our turn east to Hot Springs, Arkansas.  This also meant we would arrive without reservations, but research suggested that should not be a problem since the sole campground, Gulpha Gorge, is a little known destination in a relatively unknown park.  Sure enough, despite arriving on a Friday in advance of a beautiful weekend, the place was perhaps half full.

One of our two spots in Gulpha Gorge campground

One of our two spots in Gulpha Gorge campground

Gulpha Gorge offers either drycamping or full hook up sites, $10 for the former and $30 for the latter.  While there were a few hook up spaces available, we really wanted one of the prime spots directly on the creek running through the campground, and only the drycamping spots there were open.  Good enough, that allowed us to save some money in a month where we are determined to be under budget despite an aggressive, fuel eating schedule.

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We backed into our site, made payment at the automated kiosk, hooked up the generator, and almost immediately took Loki into the historic section of town.  After some mildly frustrated exploration for parking during which we realized that we had forgotten to bring any cash, much less change for the street meters, Rosemarie spotted the free parking garage one block from Bathhouse Row.  What luck that we didn’t wait until the next day to come into town; at one of the historic bath houses, now converted into a cultural welcome and contemporary art center we learned that on the first Friday of each month the numerous galleries in town host an evening art walk, and we had arrived just in time.  We explored the welcome center, headed back to the bus for a quick meal and to make ourselves a bit more presentable, then returned to town for the 5PM start.

Inside one of the former bath houses

Inside one of the former bath houses

We started with a tour of the art gallery in the former Ozark bathhouse, culminating in a short comedy show from a local troop of elderly performers.  Then it was on to the rest of the venues, most offering refreshments, usually including wine and light hors d’oeuvres.  The galleries ranged from very affordable places that were not much more than a local knick knack craft store, to high end displays of multi-thousand dollar original works.  At one such place a local wine enthusiast was “sharing” bottles from his private collection, including excellent vintages going back to 2002.  It beat the crap out of the Barefoot zinfandel next door (though we were thankful for that as well!)  He had a tip jar and seemed to be doing quite well.

While the town was interesting, the real reason we extended our stay to four days was the campground, which vastly exceeded expectations.  We have been disappointed with the RV sites in most of the previous national parks we visited. Everglades’ was weak, Yellowstone’s was awful, Big Bend’s was a parking lot with power, and Joshua Tree’s was a chaotic hell. The pattern seems to be that most of the drycamping areas, operated by the National Park Service, are great and affordable, whereas the full or partial hook up campgrounds, usually operated by a concessionaire, are some combination of overpriced, ugly, crowded, and run down.

View of our site from a point on the adjacent hiking trail

View of our site from a point on the adjacent hiking trail

Gulpha Gorge defies this pattern.  As mentioned above, it is a mixed facility with both drycamping and full hook up sites, and it is beautiful. Plenty of trees, hiking trails directly accessible from the campground, an idyllic, clear stream running through it, and located one mile from downtown but seemingly isolated by the mountains and forests.  We just loved it, and relished a slightly extended stay beyond our usual two or three days.

Steam from one of the hot spring vents

Steam from one of the hot spring vents

It’s not a perfect campground; an unfortunate number of the sites are unlevel, some exceedingly so, and there is no shower facility at all.  In deference to the later and tiring of the generator noise, when two of the creekside hook up sites opened up on Sunday we pounced on one, enjoying our last two days there in luxury.

We found a brochure with the actual chemical analysis of all the public springs, and filled from the purest one.

We found a brochure with the actual chemical analysis of all the public springs, and filled from the purest.

After our fantastic first day in town, we spent the remainder of our stay touring the area on foot and in Loki.  We drove the steep mountain road to the historic tower overlook, hiked the loop trail from the campground, and filled up multiple water jugs at the purest public spring station in town.  We also sought out the public library, as we had done in Loveland, and used their free wifi since we had blown through nearly all of our own data plan for the month.  During our short afternoon there a local choir group gave free concert.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So there you have it, a fantastic stay in America’s oddest national park. Such unexpected discoveries are the sort of thing that make full time RVing a delight, and we look forward to many more of them.

Modern observation tower on top of one of the park mountains.

Modern observation tower on top of one of the park mountains.

Update to our route planning back to Florida

A couple of weeks ago we posted our proposed route back to Florida.  We have executed about half of that route, and as expected there have been changes, adjustments, deletions, and additions.  I have updated that original post with all changes indicated by line out (deletions) and italics (additions).  For a simpler explanation, here is the route, broken into two maps, in the first what we have already accomplished, and in the second the rest of the planned way.

Oh that’s what reservations are for! One night in Oklahoma at Natural Falls State Park

Natural Falls SP signEver since leaving Colorado we had gotten used to the fact that we were visiting places out of season, and that even the popular ones would only fill up on weekends.  It had held true though five parks, and we foolishly assumed that as long as we arrived at the next stop before the weekend we would be able to claim a site.  NFSP site

So it was rather surprising and disappointing to pull into Natural Falls State Park before noon on a Thursday only to be told they had one site left but only for one night.  Doh!  We had not even considered trying to reserve online, partly because of the above stated pattern, but also because we are still a bit nervous about The Big Kahuna’s reliability and don’t want to pay cancellation fees if we run into trouble. Besides, we are picking all these places based on the recommendations of others, and since we don’t always agree with “others” we enjoy the flexibility of staying longer or cutting it short in each location.

Dripping Falls from the observation platform

Dripping Falls from the observation platform

Natural Falls was our top pick for Oklahoma because it was the best Trip Advisor rated natural attraction located conveniently close to the state’s eastern border. Oklahoma would be our last state in a southern run before before we turned decisively east.  We had limited our stay in Missouri to only two nights in anticipation of spending three in this great little campground and the associated state park.

Just a bit of frogspawn plant on the river surface

Just a bit of frogspawn plant on the river surface

Alas, we would have only one day, so we made the best of it.  Fortunately the drive from Missouri was one of our shorter runs, only 75 miles or so, and we had gotten an early enough start that we still had most of the day.  We did a quick hook up to the electrical and water before heading out on a slightly drizzly hike to the Dripping Falls and along the resulting river.

Another view of Dripping Falls from the pool at the bottom. No swimming allowed, unfortunately for me.

Another view of Dripping Falls from the pool at the bottom. No swimming allowed, unfortunately for me.

We could see why this place is so popular, the falls are beautiful, the river strikingly pretty, with an abundance of easy to moderate trails.  Even during our short hike we spotted plenty of wildlife, mainly birds, turtles, and a snake in shallow part of the river itself.  We probably would have hiked longer but the drizzle had started in on us as we reached the river, and just as the online weather forecast predicted, it was getting worse.

Tan colored water snake in the lower portion of this pic

Tan colored water snake in the lower portion of this pic

The RV Campground is small, around 30 sites total, but well arranged with many easy pull through options.   In yet another case of a midwest state park with very solid value, we had water and electric for $18 as well as access to warm shower facilities and a dump station upon departure.  All in all another great little state park campground.NFSP lower falls

Working our way south through the Midwest: Roaring River State Park, Missouri

Pushing south another couple of hundred miles along our evolving route back to Florida, we entered Missouri, another state we had not yet visited.  Most of the drive was off interstate passing through beautiful forests and farmland.  The last hour or so added stress as we encountered a series of increasingly small back roads with no shoulders to speak of, culminating in a steep downhill run into our destination for the next couple of nights.

Another state for the sticker map!

Another state for the sticker map!

We loved the country park in Iowa, were not particularly keen on the state park in Kansas, but our latest stop in Missouri put us back on track with a great place in the Ozarks.  Roaring River State Park has around 180 sites in the three separate camping areas, though two of them are closed during the off season, which had started a few days before our arrival.  This meant we payed a lower rate ($19/night), but had less of a selection, with no actual river front spots available.

Our practically private campground at Roaring River, not another RV in sight.

Our practically private campground at Roaring River, not another RV in sight.

Our disappointment at the lack of a river front option evaporated once we got a view of the remaining available campground: with the exception of the camp host and a motorhome in one of the double priced “family” spots, both near the front, the 70 site campground was empty.  We drove the length of the place before selecting one of the easy pull through spots near the back.

Dry creek bed within a stone's throw of our spot

Dry creek bed within a stone’s throw of our spot

As you can see in the pictures, the campground is in a heavily shallow gorge situated beside a dry river bed.  The only downside to the place is that it is mostly electrical only sites; only a handful of the expensive family spots have water or sewage, and that depending on the season and weather.

The river itself

The river itself

They also have free wifi, which actually worked, though I can’t say how well it would if the camp had more than just us in it.  We had some difficulty with the signal strength, particularly as it was attenuated coming through our big metal Faraday cage, but we also discovered that we happened to park near the weakest (RRSPCG1P3) of the four available public wifi antennas.  If we had moved down near any of the others I think we would have had much better luck even inside the bus.  As it was, as long as we sat outside we had a reasonable connection.

Working the wifi from in front of our spacious site

Working the wifi from in front of our spacious site

The Roaring River itself is not all that roaring, but it is beautiful and clear with picturesque bridges and observation points.  It is mostly spring fed, and has a fish hatchery near the source.  It is definitely worth the hike or drive up to the hatchery to see the working breeding and grow out ponds, as well as the striking spring and tiny waterfall dropping onto it.

The spring near the hatchery

The spring near the hatchery

Our second and last night we built a fire in the provided metal ring as it was just nippy enough to truly enjoy. We thought of staying another day, but the next destination is a small park with limited sites and we did not want to arrive on a weekend and risk it being full.  campgfire at RR

As I mentioned earlier, of mild concern was the last 3/4 of a mile leading into the park on 112.  I don’t think we had even seen one of the “steep grade ahead” warning signs since leaving Colorado, but the one posted here was no joke, at least a 9% grade overall with some sections noticeably worse.  Since it was less than a mile I was not worried about going down; our brakes are so much more effective since getting adjusted back in Idaho.  Rather, I was worried about departing and having a repeat of the infamous Portland incident where we encountered an uphill grade that The Big Kahuna simply could not manage, forcing us to back down a narrow and twisty road for nearly half a mile before being able to turn around.

Given the steepness, we chose to exit the park with Loki disconnected, Rosemarie following behind as Kahuna charged up the hill at a blazing 10 mph

Given the steepness, we chose to exit the park with Loki disconnected, Rosemarie following behind as Kahuna charged up the hill at a blazing 10 mph

Our post incident research back then suggested that we had been stopped by a 17% grade, and I really didn’t think this one was that steep, possibly 12% in places, but it did not offer much of a “run-a-go” leading into it or at any point up the curvy climb.  As it turned out we struggled but made it, with the bus chugging along at 10 mph most of the way despite having the throttle on the floor.RR selfie

Finally, anyone know what kind of birds these are?  We came across flocks numbering in the thousands in the fields along our route.

We weren't quick enough to capture the biggest of the swarms

We weren’t quick enough to capture the biggest of the swarms

Clinton State Park, Kansas

In planning our route back to Florida by way of Wilmington, NC we could have chosen the shortest and fastest, basically retracing the path that we took to Colorado with Loki last month.  By this route we would visit five states between Colorado and North Carolina: mainly Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee along with a corner of Kentucky and Illinois.  But with a bit of imagination and with what we find to be a reasonable addition of time and distance, we are able to swing through nine states and add three National Parks to the itinerary.  Clinton State Park entry sign

Yes, we are “state collecting,” but we firmly believe that every state has amazing natural attractions that we will love.  Chimney Rock in Nebraska and Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa validated this plan.  With research on Trip Advisor, RV Park Reviews, and Campendium, along with google searches such as “top ten things to see in Oklahoma” we are confident that, while not every place will blow us away, most will be fantastic.

Finally got our state sticker map back up after our paint job back in Oregon

Finally got our state sticker map back up after our paint job back in Oregon

For the east edge of Kansas, we selected Clinton State Park.  Comparing and contrasting it with our last campground, the Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa, they are both located on similar sized plots of wild land and offer either primitive or partial hook up sites.  But while Hitchcock’s campground was small and intimate with only 18 sites that filled up on the weekend even this late in the year, Clinton was huge with 383 sparsely occupied spots during our Saturday through Monday stay.  Our site

Clinton State Park has two main campgrounds, CG1 and CG3.  The volunteer at the entry station suggested that CG3 had more tree cover, but our exploration did not suggest such a difference: both areas offered plenty of options ranging from extensive tree cover to virtually open field spots.  We chose CG1 since it had a row of sites positioned directly on Clinton Lake.  Pulling in nose first rather than backing in allowed us to see the lake out our larger front windshield and still (barely) reach the electrical and water connections.

The evening view of Clinton Lake from our spot

The evening view of Clinton Lake from our spot

The park offers plenty of amenities, including shower houses, hiking paths, a laundry facility, dump stations, an archery range, a frisbee golf course, playgrounds, a swim beach and a huge marina.  We took advantage of part of the trail areas to walk down to the lake side where, yes, of course I swam despite the cold.  We also used two different shower houses since one of the park host suggested that the one in CG3 was better.

Yet another cold water swimming experience.

Yet another cold water swimming experience.

Which brings us to the two main complaints.  Many of the facilities are in pretty good working order and rather clean.  The shower and bathroom facility in CG1, for instance, was well maintained.  The facility in CG3 however, was filthy.  It looked like someone was regularly using it to clean mud from their entire body while spreading it to as much floor area as possible.  Every fixture was rusty, dirty, missing or broken, and the windows were matted with dead bugs and cobwebs.

The view from the large marina.

The view from the large marina.

Second, the fee system is incomprehensible.  Only after going back and carefully reviewing the website have I figured it out, but only by combining the information there with what was verbally explained to me by a camp host.  The matter is further complicated by the inaccurate signage at the campgrounds, which, in addition to being wrong on the fees, straight out says they have full hook up sites.  They do not.

Us, trying not to think to hard about the crazee system at Clinton State Park.

Us, successfully not overthinking the crazy fee system at Clinton State Park.

Here is as best I could figure:  They have two different seasons, we stayed during the cheaper off season.  At the entrance you pay $5 a day vehicle access/entry fee, which is not waved if you are staying in the campground.  For a motorhome and tow vehicle you only pay for one vehicle, though they give you access tags for both.  At the campsite, either to the camp host or deposited in the honor system boxes, you pay a base fee of $7 per day plus an additional daily fee for the type of services available at your site: $0 for primitive no hook up, $9 for electric only, and $11 for electric and power.  Add to that a one time $3 transaction fee.  Putting it all together it cost $72 for a three day ($5 x 3 in access fees, $18 x 3 in power/water site camping fees, $3 transaction fee.)

Clinton State Park is located near Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas Jayhawks.  With beautiful Fall weather we pulled out Loki’s instructin manual and took down the top for the first time ever.  The back window zipper is jammed in one spot, so we had to wing it a bit, but at least we were able to cruise Kansas convertible style.  We hit up a laundry mat, and while Rosie monitored that process I walked right across the street to a walk in clinic to get my hand x-rayed.

First time we have had the top down on Loki. Note the laundry bag taking up most of the back seat.

First time we have had the top down on Loki. Note the laundry bag taking up most of the back seat.

I had caught it in a spring loaded folding chair, which hurt but for nearly 48 hours didn’t seem to have any after effects.  Two days later it swelled up pretty significantly, then started to go down, and then after an additional three days it again swelled up, stiffened, and hurt to the point of being nearly unusable as a functioning hand. Taking a lesson from my stepmom, who recently ignored a “sprained ankle” until pain and a failure to heal forced her into a doctor only to find a fracture, I decided to take advantage of having stumbled across a clinic so close to address what I was growing to believe might be a broken metacarpal.

Walk in Prompt Care clinic. In and out in two hours on a Sunday.

Walk in Prompt Care clinic. In and out in two hours on a Sunday.

It was great: I was in and out within two hours.  They did the xray, fortunately founding no break, but recommended immobilizing it if nothing more than to force me to stop aggravating what was probably several broken vessels.  The created a half cast with a water activated fiberglass pad secured in place with a bandage.  Two days later the hand is feeling so much better.

Glad we got an automatic transmission!  Left hand not particularly useful for a couple of days.

Glad we got an automatic transmission! Left hand not particularly useful for a couple of days.

On the advise of a local we sought out 23rd Street Brewery, catching the end of a ludicrous New Orleans victory over the Giants in a game with 101 points scored.  We lucked out showing up during a fantastic happy hour special: 10 ounce local craft beer drafts for $1.  Coming from South Beach, that is almost too good to believe, but there you have it: two giant pretzels and four beers for $13 is my kinda post laundry/medical clinic meal.

A brown and an IPA during the ludicrous $1 10 oz happy hour special.

A brown and an IPA during the ludicrous $1 10 oz happy hour special.

So, we are pushing on, heading south to Missouri and another state in our run back to the East Coast.  We liked Clinton State park, but didn’t love it.  If we come back thrugh this region we will try some other site, I think.  You may recall that our fellow RVers at Hitchcock Nature Center spoke glowingly of the great rates with no add-on costs offered by Iowa parks.  They were comparing Iowa to Nebraska, but I can truly see what they mean after our experience here in Kansas.  Clinton State Park is lovely, but Iowa offered greater value. Leaving Kansas

On a final note, below is another shot of our up to date state sticker map.  See that lady bug in the upper left?  You think you like lady bugs?  Think they are cute and cool fun to have around?  To hell with that.  If Kansas and Missouri have taught us anything, it’s that ladybugs are a pain in the ass.  Explanation in another post.State Map Sticker

10 Months Fulltiming, October 2015 Report

Wow, look at this a monthly report that is within a week of the end of the reported month.

The Distance: 873 miles.  Which for us is a pretty good pace considering we only had The Big Kahuna fully operational for 12 of the 31 days!  In that time we cruised from Colorado slightly north and then east through nearly the full length of Nebraska, across the border into Iowa, back into Nebraska and then south into Kansas.  This is all part of our newly planned route back to Florida, which has already changed somewhat.

The Places:  We finished our stay with my Mom and Stepdad in Wilimington, took Loki the rest of the way back across the country to Colorado, spent another ten days in hotels in Greeley and Loveland before finally picking up the The Big Kahuna. Then it was four days in Greeley RV Park to get him and ourselves in order before starting north and eastward to Chimney Rock Pioneer Crossing, Sunny Meadows RV Park, and the dirt lot across the street from Flatwater Repair in Overton.  We had three days of very affordable partial hook ups at Hitchcock Nature Center, then four days free parking at Interstate Powersystems in Omaha.  Finally back on the road finished out the month at Clinton State Park in Kansas.  We stayed with family for two days, in hotels for thirteen, had full hook ups at private RV parks for seven, partial hook ups at public (county and state owned) parks for four, and spent five nights basically drycamping/overnighting in repair shop parking lots.

The Budget:  What to say?  Using the admittedly artificial budget calculation method we used for most of this year, we were still 50% over the monthly budget.  A 500 computer repair, 13 days paying cash vice points in hotels, and having to fill the huge diesel tank twice this month accounted for 55% of the expenditures.  As mentioned above this is an artificial budget that does not include mechanical repairs and upgrades, using the shifty logic that those come out of a separate holding fund. That fund now completely depleted, and we need to start counting those costs.  If we do, then we blew the budget in an almost unfathomable way.

This week we sat down and assessed our finances: not wanting to draw anything from our retirement funds we will need to crack down on expenses for the rest of the year, hope that we have finally gotten Kahuna’s major problems sorted out, and once back in Florida slow the pace of travel for the winter.  If we can claw our way back to a solid footing by March then we can look at loosening the purse strings a bit.

The Drama: Oh so much drama, again.  Working with B&G in Greeley we tried to time it such that Kahuna was ready to go upon our arrival, but alas we got there 13 days too soon since the transmission was again delayed during repair and shipment, and once installed put up a fight.  Once on the road we quickly realized that B&G had not quite gotten everything back in working order; we had significant leaks and the speedometer and odometer no longer worked.

As that is clearly not enough to deal with, a week after we picked him up from B&G The Big Kahuna simply refused to start when we were getting ready to leave a one night stopover park in Elm Creek, Nebraska.  A mobile mechanic got us up and running, his local shop then did some electrical improvements to the starter cable connections, but sent us to Omaha to take care of the real underlying fuel-air leak problem.  We spent four days at Interstate Powersystems where they fixed the core issue and the speedo/odo, but then found that the transmission repair work had some really inept jury rigged fixes to a big transmission leak, further delaying our departure.  At least in the nearly five hundred miles since Interstate fixed us, we have not had any drama.  Fingers crossed.

The Improvements:  Other than the new leak and speedo/odo problem, the transmission is working better than it ever has.  The transition between gears is incredibly smooth, and even with the extra weight towing Loki we no longer have the problem getting Kahuna to shift into overdrive that we have had since we bought the bus.

Just as critically, the alternator/generator finally works!  We are now able to charge up our starter batteries while driving rather than having to use a trickle charger at each stop, which was barely sufficient to get our two huge bus batteries up to voltage.  In addition to resolving the new transmission leaks, Interstate Powersystems fixed a couple of long standing oil leaks as well.  Finally, our parking/hand brake now works correctly.

Back on the road! Significant repairs in Omaha, Nebraska

This is a long and unnecessarily tedious explanation of our recent repairs.  For those that want the short, tl;dr version:  We spent four nights in the parking lot of Interstate Power Systems while they repaired five of the eight thing we asked them to look at, including the two most critical items.  We simply ran out of time for the other three. We have had previous repairs that at first we thought were great, only to discover shoddy workmanship as we got down the road, so I don’t want to sing the praises of Interstate Power Systems just yet, but so far things are looking good and we will update along the way.  On to the details…

Back across the Missouri River from Iowa into Nebraska four our appointment with Interstate Power Systems in Omaha.

Back across the Missouri River from Iowa into Nebraska for our appointment with Interstate in Omaha.

It was incredibly frustrating to finally get our bus back after nine weeks of repairs in Colorado only to have it break down again within a week.  But we had high hopes that Interstate Power Systems would be a good fit to take care of not only our latest problem, but perhaps some other issues as well, some of them having plagued us for months.  They didn’t balk at the age of the vehicle, they prominently displayed both Detroit Diesel and Allison Transmission signs on their building, and seemed to have a cadre of deeply experienced specialists to address our multiple issues.  We gave them a prioritized list of eight items to examine:

  1. Failure to start problem, possibly due to a fuel line air leak allowing fuel to flow back into the tank during overnight stops, making starting difficult.
  2. Alternator/Generator failure to charge starter batteries.  A long term problem that had once been sporadic and was now constant.
  3. Speedometer/Odometer failure, which began right after B & G arranged the transmission rebuild.
  4. Transmission or Engine Oil leaks, possibly both.
  5. Coolant temperature gauge inoperative, long term problem that had given us difficulty during uphill climbs starting in Idaho.
  6. Parking/Hand Brake way out of adjustment, barely useful.
  7. Oil Pressure gauge reading low despite oil pressure having been verified correct directly at the engine low point.
  8. Left low beam headlight inop despite bulb replacement.  Works when high beams are on.

When we arrived Tuesday afternoon Interstate had no open bays available until the next day, and the right mechanics for our specific problems were not available yet anyway.  Critically, they let us stay in the bus overnight, so long as it was in the parking lot rather than the actual repair bays.  They even allowed us to hook up to a heavy duty electrical outlet: not enough to run our rooftop A/Cs in heat mode, but enough to charge batteries, power the refrigerator, make coffee, and cook.  They even gave us guest access to their wifi for the duration of our stay.

The next day after lunch they pulled us into the hanger style building amidst the tractor trailers, dump trucks, cranes, and other assorted big rigs.  They divided our punch list between two experienced techs: John, the two stroke diesel engine expert would handle the starting problem, Leroy the electrical expert would deal with the alternator issue, with the rest of the list addressed between the two as time allowed. Here is how it turned out:

Fuel line leaks and difficulty starting:  Fixed!  John undertook one primary repair and half a dozen related adjustments.

  • Inspected all fuel lines, and found a leak at the input check valve. Replaced check valve, and installed another on the return line as well.
  • Adjusted idle RPMs from about 470 up to about 650.  Significantly smoothed out the idle performance, nearly eliminating cyclical revving.
  • Changed two of the four air cleaners (filters).  They were filthy.  Only two were available locally, I will have to change the other two myself.
  • Adjusted throttle linkage allowing more throttle travel from the foot peddle, should give me more power at the top end.
The view out our windows from 7 AM until nearly 9 PM for three days. We Halloweened it up a bit at least.

The view out our windows from 7 AM until nearly 9 PM for three days. We Halloweened it up a bit at least.

Alternator failure to charge the starter batteries:  Fixed!  With the wiring diagrams from my manuals, Leroy began trouble shooting, and fortunately confirmed that the very expensive to replace alternator was doing just fine.  He then determined that the voltage regulator was fried, as well as an associated sensing relay.  Interstate Power Systems parts department was exceptionally aggressive, finding U.S. Coach in New Jersey, an old bus parts specialist, that had the relay sensor.  Though they did not have the voltage regulator, they had the circuit boards from inside the regulator.  Good enough, they fed-ex’d both parts overnight.  Once the parts arrived, Leroy was out on another job, but left instructions with young Craig, who installed the circuit board and components.

Speedometer/Odometer:  Fixed!  John pulled off the speedo/odo assembly from the body of the transmission housing and found that whoever did the rebuild did not reinstall the key into the rotating cable housing at all.  Working with parts department, he found a very similar key with a slightly larger head circumference and ground it down to fit.

Transmission and Engine Oil leaks:  Three out of four fixed!  John suspected four different leak areas.  Around the cover plate gasket of the transmission, a plug access point at the bottom of the tranny, the engine oil pan, and the radiator cooling fan hub.  He skipped the cooling fan since he felt that would be an involved process with parts acquisition times that would be better suited for us to address when we were perhaps back in Florida.  He tightened the oil pan bolts, which he described as extremely, loose.  He wrapped the transmission access plug in sealant tape and added some sealant “goop,” thus eliminating leakage.  Alas, it was the transmission cover plate that was nearly our undoing.

I mentioned to him that I thought that one of the mechanics with whom I had discussed the leak might have suggested that the cover plate bolts need to be re-tightened after an initial run time.  He thought that absurd, but then proceeded to tighten them down with his torque wrench set to around 30 foot-pounds.  He was surprised to find that several of the 19 or so bolts really seemed to need that tightening.

Poor Kahuna. Getting good care at least in Interstate's hanger type facility.

Poor Kahuna. Getting good care at least in Interstate’s hanger type facility.

And that’s where the trouble began.  In addition to the cover plate bolts there are two pull out bolts along the rim, the removal of which allows the cover plate to be levered out with the right tools.  One of them had a big glop of sealant all over it, clearly indicating a jury rig fix.  What we would later learn is that the gasket near this pull out bolt had failed, and either the tranny shop in California or B&G in Colorado had “fixed” it not by replacing the gasket, but by filling the hole and covering the bolt with a big glop of silicone type sealer.  Tightening down the cover plate bolts had shifted things just enough such that the cheap sealant fix no longer plugged the gap.  John confirmed this by removing the bolt and spraying cleaner liquid into the hole, watching as it spewed right out of the cover plate gap that should have been blocked by the gasket.

Now we faced a choice: wait until the next week when maybe they could bring in an old Allison transmission guy to assist (the concern being that pulling off the cover might require some specialized tools and knowledge) and then wait until the gasket could be acquired?  Or go for a somewhat more elegant attempt at the same jury rigged fix as the previous jokers had done, although this time at least with my full knowledge.  We went for the latter.  It was Friday afternoon already, and I figured that the gasket and gasket sealer would be compatible, and besides we would let it sit overnight to cure and then run a solid test in the morning.  John pressure forced some of the gasket sealant into the removal bolt hole until he could see it seeping out from the area where the gasket should have been.  The next morning upon testing, I found no leak at all.

Coolant temp gauge: Not fixed.  John and Craig determined that not only did I need a sender unit and possibly a gauge, but I also had a break in the wiring somewhere. They left it up me as to whether to proceed with running new wiring through the bus, which thy could not get to this week, or living with it until I could address in Florida.  I chose to skip it for now: I still had my jury rigged engine gauge that got me over the Colorado passes.

For liability and security reasons we could stay the night inside Interstate's building. Tuesday we never got in anyway. Wednesday and Thursday we drove ourselves out near 9 PM after spending all day inside. But Friday we couldn't start the engine since we needed to let John's transmission gasket repair cure. So Craig towed us out with their forklift after fixing our voltage regulator.

For liability and security reasons we could not stay the night inside Interstate’s building. Tuesday we never got in anyway. Wednesday and Thursday we drove ourselves out near 9 PM after spending all day inside. But Friday we couldn’t start the engine since we needed to let John’s transmission gasket repair cure, so Craig towed us out with their forklift after fixing our voltage regulator.  That’s him to the right of the pumpkin.

Parking/hand brake adjustment: Fixed!  I’m gonna take a little credit for finding the specific adjustment procedure and making John read it rather than have him crawl around under the bus, which seemed to be his preference at first.  Once he read the procedure, he had my almost useless parking brake adjusted to perfect working order in fifteen minutes.

Oil Pressure Gauge reading low:  We simply ran out of time to address this. Another day…

Left Low Beam headlight failure except when High Beam switch is on: Not fixed.  The problem is intermittent: the day I asked them to look investigate, it did not manifest, the lights worked fine!  Three days later when I was ready to leave it failed to work.  Ah well, another day for this as well.