Week three in the UP: A new routine for fun and profit.

Having spent the better portion of a week in our favorite UP location, Grand Marais, we sorted out a plan for our time here that would allow us to participate in the local Thursday afternoon informal event as well as the big Saturday downtown market back in Marquette.  The challenge is that we need to be at the latter no later than 8:15 AM, and it is a two hour drive each way from Grand Marais.  We aren’t morning people, dawn doesn’t break until after 7 or so, and we just didn’t want to have such a long day.  Our solution was to secure a Marquette hotel for Friday night using our still hefty stash of reward points.

Packed up and on the road to Marquette. Good thing our tow vehicle is so spacious.

So Friday afternoon saw us loaded up and headed to Country Inn & Suites where we could enjoy the heated pool and hot tub, luxuriate in an actual bathtub, treat ourselves to an affordable restaurant (Hong Kong Buffet in this case,) and not have to worry about getting up before dawn to make the market.  This plan was doubly efficient because we expended points from a program that has been a bit challenging to effectively use in the past.

Yes, this sort of thing is not for everyone, but I have a strong affinity for Chinese Buffets, and Rosemarie was surprisingly in the mood for it as well.

We also stumbled across yet another casino on the way to Marquette, so free soda and about $5 in profit from their new member sign up promotion made the day that much better.  I have lost count of how many casino’s we have visited, but it has to be more than a dozen by now, almost all of which provided us a bit of extra funds due to our disciplined gambling with only house money.  I figure we have almost paid for that stolen generator by now.

The Kewadin Casino in Christmas, MI.  This little town goes all in on the Santa thing.

As pop-in vendors rather than full season participants, our particular spot at the market is subject to availability, but market manager Myra has been very proactive in getting us assigned and aware of our general location before we arrive.  We set up in our spot, enjoying excellent weather and a reasonably steady stream of customers.  The day was not as completely fantastic as the previous week’s record breaking sale, but we were more than happy with the final result.

Our loot from this latest Marquette market: shallots, two types of garlic, an heirloom tomato and some cabbage.

As I mentioned last post, Downtown Marquette Market coordinates with the local food co-op to conduct healthy food demonstrations, and this week it was delicious and rather unique spring rolls, with 90% of the ingredients purchased from the farmers at the market that very morning, along with a few things from the co-op itself.  The rice sheet wrapped rolls were so popular that getting a sample could be contentious, with two rather rude people stepping in front of those that had waited longer and trying to take twice the allotment.  Thankfully the vast majority of the people here were better behaved.

After the market we took advantage of being in “the big city” to visit the local big grocery chain, a Wal-Mart, and the Goodwill thrift store before making the drive back to Grand Marais, with a quick stop at the Ojibwa Casino to enter the weekly NFL drawing and grab a complementary soda.

Lake Superior beach life: drinks, dip, and cheese curds along with an actual dip in the lake. Brisk!

And end the day with a great sunset.

Once back in Grand Marais we settled in for another week, including another Thursday market (which continues to provide surprisingly consistent sales results and interesting additions to our cupboard) and a dinner out with our friends Nancy and Bruce, whom we had met in Whidbey Island and had made the trek here before they turned south for Ohio.

Serves basic pub fare along with fried white fish.

During longer stays like this we try to be productive, Rosemarie steadily producing an abundant supply of jewelry while we both take care of other necessary tasks.  During a nice spell of weather I took on the front of the bus, the paint having become heavily oxidized and bug embedded.  Through the miracle of rubbing compound, followed by polishing compound and then sealed with wax, I was able to get things back to nice, if not brilliant conditions.  

We plan on running our Friday hotel/Saturday Marquette Market venture again the following week, but with some modifications to make it that much more enjoyable and efficient.  Despite our hope that the manufacturer would get it here quicker, our refrigerator delivery is still estimated for early October, so we are making plans to continue the routine in some form until then.

This, of course, means we are pushing our luck with regard to the weather.  So far we have enjoyed a pretty good run: lots of warm sunny days, some overcast but otherwise perfectly fine ones, a few socked-in foggy days, and a couple with drizzle to heavy wind and rain.  Furthermore, all five of our market days have been quite good, no rain and but one challenging event with heavy wind gusts.

Not every day was sunny, we had a few heavily fogged one as well.

But that doesn’t stop our sales or purchases: pickled veggies, hot mustard, and crescent rolls

What we have not had is an early cold spell, which we are hoping to avoid as we are not cold weather people and would worry about not properly winterizing Serenity and thus sustaining possible water line damage.  Last year we had already left the UP by this time, so considering we will be here until around October 8, we are taking a risk.   We’ll keep an eye on it and modify as needed, but right now we are just hoping for tolerable weather the rest of our stay.

The foggy days and drizzle really had the fungus popping out: these two pics are from driftwood right on the beach

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Second Week in the UP: More markets and we reach Grand Marais

With the knowledge that it would be a couple of weeks before our refrigerator was ready for installation, it was time to head for our intended September destination: Grand Marais, a 95 miles drive west of Marquette.  Grand Marais is the little town on the shore of Lake Superior that sucked us in so much last year that we kept extending our stay, ending up there for 19 days.  But before we made the Saturday afternoon ride, we left the RV at the Ojibwa Casino and drove Loki back into town for another Downtown Marquette Farmers market.

Another robust Downtown Marquette market

This week we had perfect weather, which led to a big turnout.  A steady stream of buyers that were willing to explore and linger in the temperate, sunny, and festive outdoor atmosphere began even before the official 9 am start time.  We ended with our best result ever, with the very low $10 table fee pushing our net profit over our previous top result at the Beachcomber Bazaar on Whidbey Island by a bit.

This market has a different food oriented demo each week, usually in concert with the local food co-op.  This time it was a tomato tasting, all varieties from the local farmers present.

We packed up, restocked our food supply (options for doing this in Grand Marais are very limited and pricey,) reconnected Loki to the tow rig at the casino, and headed to our home for the next few weeks: Woodland County Park.  Having watched the place empty out after Labor Day weekend last year, we were surprised at how full this first come, first serve park was upon our late afternoon arrival.  The excellent weekend weather had the part time RVers out in droves and the seasonal visitors extending their stays. The lake view spots on the front row were all full, but we found an excellent large back in spot with plenty of tree cover in the rear.

PKM exploring our first site at Woodland County Park

Woodland Park’s RV campsites are 50 amp electric and water, with a nearby dump station and well maintained bath house and laundry facilities.  Lake front spots are $30 a night, all others are $27.  We planned to keep an eye out for open front row option once the weekend crowd thinned out, but given what a nice spot we lucked into in the nearly full park, we were willing to wait for a really good one.

Beach cat making sure owner is following along…

We spent the week reacquainting ourselves with Grand Marais, which, frankly, does not take long given the small size of the place (after all, there are no stop lights and a grand total of three restaurants and one food truck.)  This included participation in the very informal Thursday evening market.  We worried that over the course of a year this pop up event might run afoul of state or county regulations and either fade away our start requiring paperwork and table fees.  But no, it’s just like last year: all are welcome, set up wherever there is an open space on near the sidewalk, and no vendor charges.

Fired U.P. food truck makes enormous burgers and other concoctions.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s small in both number of vendors and potential buyers, but at only two hours long the time investment makes our consistent, if modest profit there worth it, particularly since we are the only jeweler and the locals are so welcoming.  The only notable change from last year is that the actual start and end times have shifted forward nearly an hour, no matter what the legacy advertising says.  Next week we will know to set up a lot earlier.

Over our first four days we passed on several lake front spots that opened up; either they were narrow, had poor views, or were too close to the bathhouse and associated foot traffic.  On the fifth morning, however, I drove the tracker around the front row with our reservation tag in hand and discovered an excellent recently emptied option: wide, long, level, with an excellent view of Lake Superior out the front window, and plenty of grass and trees along the back.  I parked Loki there and hung the tag to claim it, and we made a quick job of packing up and moving before I notified the office of  our site shift and paid the additional $3 a day.

Our front row site we moved to on day 5.

Late in the week I called Hilltop RV for an update on the shipping time frame, and received the unfortunate news that the supplier did not have the fridge in stock, and was waiting on a shipment from the factory.  Their best guess was that we would not receive the unit until the first week of October.  We had not planned on staying in the UP that long, but it doesn’t look like we have much of a choice.  We resigned ourselves to it, thankful that we have a nice and reasonably affordable place to stay, and hopeful that the weather will not turn too cold.  With this new timeline established, we worked out a plan for how we would maximize our market participation through the rest of September.  More on that next post.

Last thing: the Woodland has “free WiFi” though in typical RV park fashion, it is rarely usable.  Our relatively new unlimited WiFi plan with Verizon, however, allowed us to keep track of those facing destructive weather in the south, and we were relieved that Hurricane Irma, for all of its devastation, did not cause significant damage for friends and family throughout Florida.  Since then we have watched Jose wander around the Atlantic and are now seeing Maria reek havoc across the Caribbean.  Stay safe, fam.

… and also keeping an eye on that dangerous water.

First full week in the UP: Repair shop Kabuki Dance, another successful market, and one more great casino.

We packed up early and left Squaw Lake campground making the 45 minute drive to Hilltop RV in Ishpeming for our troubleshooting appointment at Hilltop RV.  We went through our list with Elizabeth, the maintenance adviser, and she helped narrow it down to the things that our easy care policy might cover based on her experience with various third party warranty programs.  They got to work diagnosing our problems and had answers within 90 minutes:  Refrigerator has multiple component failures and (as we suspected) would need replacing, microwave is not serviceable and also needs replacing, and a couple of minor things wrong with our awning would need parts and adjustment.  There were other items they diagnosed, but these are the only three that EasyCare would consider covering once Elizabeth gave them a call.

Arriving at Hilltop RV

Great, right? That’s still worth the trouble, so lets get them parts ordered!  Not so fast, said the EasyCare agent, first they needed to send an inspector to certify the diagnosis and requirements.  Since it was Friday before Labor Day weekend, we could not expect him out until Tuesday.  They were inflexible on this, so we locked in a spot at the somewhat overpriced ($36 a night after 10% military discount) but incredibly convenient RV campground right behind the repair shop, Country Village RV Park, and tried to take care of business while we waited.

We asked for a spot with a tree… they complied.  A tree.

This included setting up our tent and table at the Saturday Downtown Marquette Farmers Market, an event we did twice last year during our month in the UP.  We had mixed results then: one fantastic weekend and one terrible one, but only because of an at times torrential rainstorm that lasted the majority of the event.  Once we had decided to return to the UP this year, we contacted the market manager, Myra, who remembered us and approved our application as drop in vendors.

Overcast and blustery, but a successful event.

As we set up our stuff we were pretty concerned; the weather looked a bit ugly, but it didn’t do more than lightly drizzle sporadically through the morning.  We did have to fight the wind all day, and ended up bungy cording down several of our stands.  Despite the wind and water, we had a solid day of sales.  Since we had to remain in Marquette anyway, we were happy for such a successful local market.  Once we got to Grand Marais, we would have a nearly two hour drive to get to this event each weekend.

We spent the long holiday weekend in our partial hook up spot at Country Village, part of the time second guessing our decision to come this far north since we had to actually turn on our furnace part of each night to combat the 50 degree lows.  By Tuesday early afternoon we were antsy to move on, and having heard nothing from Hilltop RV, we started adding some pressure.  We called the repair shop and then EasyCare demanding some answers about when to expect the inspector.  It took a bit, but eventually EasyCare got the man to call Hilltop and “clarify” the plan: He was never going to show up on Tuesday, they blamed the repair shop for misunderstanding that he was simply going to call on Tuesday to schedule his visit, which would not be until Thursday or Friday.  I complained to an agent and his supervisor to no avail: we would lose a full week before we could order parts.

PKM quite concerned about Hurricane Irma during one of our visits to Hilltop RVs waiting area

Grumpily we packed up and departed Country Village, moving 30 minutes down the road to the Ojibwa Casino.  Our good luck there helped salve our irritated souls since they were running a nice set of promos for RVers.  We got the usual sign up and email opt in free play money, but for staying overnight in our rig we each got an additional $5 free play money, a free well drink, and $10 in blackjack “match” money, and we got all this every day we stayed.  By the end of the week we had turned that free stuff into $199, largely because we got very lucky at the blackjack table, winning 11 out of 12 hands.

Bare bones but free with electricity at Ojibwa Casino

As for Ojibwa’s RV accommodations: They no longer have an actual RV lot in the nearby wooded acre: that’s been bulldozed in preparation for their new hotel.  What they have done in the interim is wire three of the light poles in their parking lot with a standard 20 amp, 110V outlet, effectively allowing up to six RVs to stay overnight with enough power to run the basics, though not an AC.  Unfortunately, they did not mark those spots as RV only, and since two of the poles are up relatively close to the casino entrance, they almost always have cars next to them, and the distant option is very unlevel.

Another view

We were fortunate: upon our arrival the pole not blocked by cars didn’t have an RV around it, so we were able to hook up our shore power with our 20 amp adapter, level out as best we could, and once we were done in the casino we settled in for a relatively quite night.  The place is isolated, lacking any through traffic from non-casino people, and the lot was well lit and secure.

PKM didn’t much care for our stay at the casino: nothing to hunt.

The morning of our second day we got a call from Hilltop RV informing us that the inspector was on the way and should arrive in less than an hour.  We broke camp immediately and headed back into town, arriving just before EasyCare’s contracted man.  What followed was the most perfunctory and unnecessary “inspection” I have ever seen.  He took pictures of the outside of the motorhome, our tag, the VIN sticker, and the mileage.  As for the actual damaged parts, he had no interest in looking at the components of the fridge, verifying the microwave didn’t work, or inspecting the awning damage.  The entire event was just, as the post title indicates, Kabuki Theater, supposedly keeping us all honest with the threat of an inspection that turned out to be pretty pointless.

After two visits PKM feels pretty much at home hanging out at Hilltop RV

The good news is that an hour or so after the, ahem, inspection, EasyCare confirmed that they would cover the full replacement cost of the fridge and microwave, the parts for the awning, and all labor.  We would only be responsible for our $250 deductible and any shipping/freight charges.  Those would probably be a couple of hundred, but the amount the warranty covered is considerable, so we were happy.  It would be a couple of weeks before all the parts would arrive, so we headed back to the casino for two more nights, where we prepped for another market and a follow on move to Grand Marais.

PKM meeting a very skittish “Sissy” at Country Village RV Park.

32 Months Fulltiming: August 2017 Report

Having done our usual flurry of posts as we realized how behind we were, this end of month report nearly catches us up.  In the coming days we will have posts about our first week in the UP, an update on our refrigerator and other mechanical issues, another great market event, and yet another solid casino camping (and gambling!) experience.

We bought Serenity, a 2007 model motorhome, less than 2 years ago with less than 13,000 miles.  I think we are using him a bit more than the previous owner!

The Distance:  2,930 miles, the biggest month we have had during our entire time RVing! We crossed the length of Washington and Montana into North Dakota, before turning down into South Dakota and Nebraska.  Then back to South Dakota before turning east again as we started our revised route plan for the remainder of the year.  We crossed the length of South Dakota by continuing east to Iowa, then finished the month with a northeast run through Wisconsin into Michigan.  Whew, that’s most of the way across the top of the country and puts our annual mileage up to 7,792.  September will see a big slow down since we plan on being in the UP at least three weeks if the weather stays reasonable, and then pick things up with a big sprint back to Florida.

The Places:   We spent the bulk of August visiting a string of five national parks stretching from Washington to South Dakota: North Cascades, Glacier, Teddy Roosevelt, Wind Cave, and Badlands.  Along the way we had a handful of one and two night layovers at various casinos, military bases, and private campgrounds, and also got to visit Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore.  We enjoyed a nice Nebraska State Park right in the eclipse totality, and a family visit in Iowa at Ledges State Park.  After yet another successful casino stay we finally arrived in Michigan the last day of the month.

We stayed 16 nights at private campgrounds (which includes four nights at three casinos,) 5 at military bases or recreation areas, and 10 at public spots (four on national grasslands, six in state parks or forests.)  We had connections of some sort for 26 days (10 full hook ups, 7 power and water, 9 electric only) and dry camped for 5.

During August we filled in the last three states in our “lower 48” sticker map: Montana and both Dakotas.

The Budget:  Yeah, we blew the budget pretty badly this month: over by 34%.  We did this despite collecting more than $200 in free money and gas from various casinos.  Basically, we spent nearly three times as much on gas this month compared to our average as a result of our nearly 3,000 mile run across the country.  (That plus another $267 for the new tire.)

But, we sorta new going in to August it would be a tough month financially with no markets to help offset it, and once we decided on our revised plan to head to the Michigan UP, we new it would get even worse.  The upside is we will be in the UP for about three weeks with up to six vending days.  This was part of our plan: make the sacrifice in August so that we could reap the benefits of selling at markets and limited gas expenses in September.

The Drama and the Improvements:  We had another flat tire, but it turned out to be the last of the original old ones, so we are now completely riding on less than two year old rubber.  More significantly, our refrigerator went out the last week of the month while in Iowa.  We have since learned that it will require complete replacement, but more on that in a later post.   Lastly, we rebuilt and reorganized our several of our jewelry displays in anticipation of coming farmers and artisan markets in the UP.

2017 monthly reports to date:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.

Turning North to Michigan, and stumbling across our best Casino deal yet along the way.

So we are executing option 3 of our revised route planning, but encountered a wrinkle during our stay in Iowa: our fridge stopped fridgerating.  At first I thought I had left the door ajar over night and lost all cooling, but after giving it a day, trying it both on electrical and propane power, it didn’t get any better, and finally I started getting a diagnostic flashing light which my manual helpfully informed me meant it required professional servicing.  At eleven years old, I suspected the thing might have completely given out: for these RV two way (powered by either electric or propane) appliances, they tend to blow compressors and leak ammonia when the get older, usually meaning the entire thing needs replacement.

Our poor little fridge, room temp and empty.

After looking at our primary options: stay in Iowa while we got diagnostics, probably had to order parts, and wait for installation, or just continue our plan and take care of it near Marquette on the Upper Peninsula, we opted for the latter, making arrangements with Hilltop RV to see us when we arrived.  Since we planed to stay in the UP for about three weeks, we figured it would work out about right even with a week or two delay awaiting parts.  Along the way there we would make a full list of things for the RV service techs to look at that hopefully would be covered by our EasyCare Extended Warranty.

A rare few minutes on the road when PKM doesn’t insist on sitting on Rosemarie’s lap.

So with our big Coleman cooler pulled from under storage, cleaned, loaded with our perishables and a lot of ice, we turned northeast for our roughly 600 mile journey.   Encouraged by our renewed luck finding casino resorts, I sought out one for a midway stopping point in Wisconsin.  We skipped the first option that looked a bit small and in a less than stellar area, but hit gold with the Ho-Chunk Casino in Nekoosa, stumbling upon our most generous set of casino promotions yet.

Sure, it’s just a parking lot, but it’s free and includes electrical power at each of those little yellow posts.

First, they offered free electrical hook ups, so already we feel lucky and grateful.  Once we got inside to register our overnight stay, we learned that in addition to the traditional new member players club promo, they had a special deal just for overnight RVers that we had caught the tail end of.  Each of us got $25 in free play and $5 in food coupons, along with a one time $20 gas coupon for their station next door.  Oh, and if we came in the next morning, we would get another $25 free play and $5 food coupon each.

The offer was so good, and since we were effectively a day ahead of schedule for our RV mechanic appointment in Marquette, we extended our stay to two nights, allowing us to take advantage of the RV special three times.  After you add on the new member and text sign up bonuses, we were provided a total of $190 in free play (which we turned into $145 in real money,) $40 in gas (it was supposed to have been a one time but they accidentally gave it to us twice,) and $30 in food coupons.  Ridiculous offer, not sure how they justify it frankly, but we’re not complaining!  We even considered forcing this casino onto our return route because of this deal until we learned that it was ending Sep 5th. Oh well, great while it lasted!

After two days and three rounds of promo benefits (and yes, that means we were gambling right after breakfast on day three) we unhooked and continued north into Michigan.  Having spent most of our UP time in Grand Marais, we were not particularly familiar with the RV options in the area, and our research had not revealed any particularly great deals: no Passport-America, no military base, and the one casino option was further beyond Marquette than I wanted to go that day.  We settled on a little reviewed state forest campground called Squaw Lake in Republic Township.

This turned out to be a bit of an adventure: the entry road was solid packed earth but very narrow.  I wouldn’t want to try it with a rig bigger than ours, and when we met a work truck coming the other way we were fortunate that they were able to back up into a side clearing so we could pass.  Once we cleared the 2.5 miles of dirt road, we arrived into a frankly beautiful campground, completely tree covered with with many large and widely spaced open spots.

This would be drycamping, and not particularly cheap drycamping at $13 a night, along with a daily vehicle pass of $9.  I had forgotten about Michigan’s state park “gotcha” fees, and didn’t realize they applied to state forests as well.  Oh well, it was a beautiful place and we were only here for one night, so we luxuriated in it, the cool weather, and having finally arrived in the UP on the last day of August after our nearly 3,000 mile run from Whidbey Island.

Pushing east to Iowa

Having spent a too short visit at our 30th and 31st National Parks (Wind Cave and Badlands) we headed east for our planned weekend visit with daughter Andrea and her boyfriend Nate near Ames, Iowa before her classes start for the semester.  Normally we might split this 550 mile trip into two roughly equal parts, but I wanted to do the bulk of it on day one, and we didn’t find any particularly great one night stops at the approximate half way point.  Instead our research pointed us to yet another casino resort that offered $16 a night partial (30 amp electrical) hook ups shortly after crossing into Iowa at about 3/4 point of the journey,

Our arrival there, however, was noticeably delayed by another flat tire.  Turns out that the three we had replaced just before leaving the Keys this year were not the last of the old tires, but rather two old tires and one more recently replaced one that had suffered extensive damage in its short lifespan on our wheel, apparently due to a bad valve.  Though still holding air, it was in such bad shape when the mechanic pulled it off from the right rear inside axle this last winter we just assumed it was the last of the old ones.

Unfortunately not, as the actual last of the ten year old rubber gave way during our long run through South Dakota.  It was on the left rear inside, and didn’t blow out badly, just a minor hole with full deflation, causing a significant vibration.  Since it was on the rear with a new tire beside it, we were able to creep along to Mitchell, SD at low speeds to the only tire shop in the area that carried our size.  After an hour, during which we explored the town’s ongoing street fair, TMA Tire and Muffler had us back on the road.

Our run of casinos in California, Oregon, and Washington had accustomed us to a useful pattern: generally safe (with one obvious exception) and free overnight parking supplemented by some free gambling money for new “players club” members.  With birthday month promotions, additional free play money for signing up for email or text alerts, or even downloading their specific smart phone ap, we were used to getting, on average, $15 to $40 in free play slot money between the two of us, along with sporadic food and drink discounts.

A basic, but safe and powered RV section at WinnaVegas.

Montana and the Dakotas, however, had been a disappointment in this regard, since every gas station and bar had a handful of electronic poker or bingo machines, the actual casino resorts were thus few and far between.  So it was sort of a nice surprise to get back to a traditional casino resort, and WinnaVegas in Sloan, IA provided us with $40 in free play between us, which we turned into exactly $40 in real money during our one night stay.

The last available electrical site at Ledges State Park on our arrival day.

The next morning we finished our push to the Ames, IA area, pulling into Ledges State Park in the early afternoon.  This is a great little park, with a significant portion of their sites being first come first serve.  Since we were arriving on a Saturday the park the electrical hook up section of the park was filling up fast. As the drizzling rain increased, we were fortunate enough to snag the very last available powered site.  Situated in a forest with moderate to heavy canopy in most sites, this is sort of our ideal situation: a state park, cheap ($16 a night) with power and plenty of green space.

Andrea and Nate met us for dinner at our campsite the first day, bringing along Iowa’s primary food source, pork chops, which we turned into juicy slabs on our trusty Weber propane grill, along with slicer tomatoes from the local food co-op and roasted brussel sprouts.  We tossed in our Montana Glacier Winery Black Current Desert Wine to finish off a fantastic culinary evening.

The next day Andrea and Nate brought along a couple of their rock climbing friends for a short day hike into Ledges’ canyon area.  The smallish park has a few great views of the gorge and a creek running through it, but it was just a bit too hot and muggy to really enjoy the exertion.  We finished the day with a trip to Alluvial Brewing for a pint or two of excellent local craft beer.

One last note about Ledges State Park: Pad Kee Meow loved this place, and sadly, the reason why is the plentiful prey.  Despite us keeping her on a lead she managed to kill one, possibly two voles (the second one might have simply been the corpse of the first one she rediscovered after I had tossed it.)  We are not in the habit of allowing, much less encouraging, our cat to wage murderous warfare on the local denizens, but sometimes we are not restrictive enough to prevent it.

PKM, on the prowl.

On our final day we met up at Cafe Beaudelaire, a Brazilian restaurant with fantastic sandwich offerings, along with tasty garlic yuca.  The serving sizes were sufficient to allow an entire leftover meal the next day.  That would be it for Ames, as Andrea had classes and and a job to deal with, and we needed to get underway in our plan to sprint north into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Exhausted after a day of killing.

Our revised plan for the rest of 2017

We have stuck to our route plan this year rather well.  Sure, we lingered longer than expected in Texas and Arizona, and our Mexico dental work side trip slowed things a touch such that we reached California later than expected.  But we moved up the west coast fairly fast, and despite spending a month in Washington, we made up time with a relatively fast sprint across the top of the country to the Dakotas.  We took stock a few weeks ago and examined three options for our post Dakotas route and time line back to Florida:

  1. Stick to the Original Plan: From South Dakota turn southwest towards Utah and Colorado to see several of the national parks we missed during 2015.  After that, sprint east to Iowa to see daughter Andrea, then turn towards Florida for an early November arrival.
  2. Head to Iowa for family time, then hunker down somewhere cheap before making a very leisurely return trip to Florida, arriving in late October.
  3. Head to Iowa, but from there turn north and sprint to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for three weeks or so before turning south for a late October arrival in Florida.

Option 1 is likely the most expensive of the three.  It involves more mileage and thus higher gas expenditures, takes us to not particularly cheap areas, and we are not approved for any markets along that route.  The advantage is we get to see all, or at least some, of the five national parks we missed in 2015, and Utah and Colorado are beautiful!

Option 2 is certainly the cheapest.  It involves the least mileage and allows us to pick affordable places to stay with possible weekly rate discounts, though again, we are not approved for any markets in the region.

Option 3, as far as costs go, is in the middle, involving perhaps $300 in additional gas expenditures compared to Option 2, along with taking us to a place with somewhat higher campground and living expenses than Option 2 (though probably pretty competitive if not less expensive than Option 1.)  This route also takes us to a place where we have, essentially, pre-approval to participate in up to two markets a week during our stay.  Oh yeah, we also love the UP!

Anyone who as taken a peek at our Where Are We Now page already knows what we selected: Option 3, Iowa, then Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We plan on being there until about September 24, my birthday, before heading south by an as yet to be determined route.  For those friends and acquaintances in the region, we will be splitting time between Grand Marais and Marquette, and we would love to meet up if you are available.

Back to The Badlands: Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks.

It hasn’t been the most efficient way of exploring the Rapid City area of South Dakota, what with having to insert a run south to Nebraska in order to see the eclipse, but one does what one has to do if you want to see all the National Parks.  Having spent time in Custer State Park and a quick drive by of Mount Rushmore during our first two days in SD, our priorities for this second trip would be Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks.

This is actually kind of rare for Pad Kee Meow.  ON travel days she usually demands to sit in Rosemarie’s lap for the majority of the trip.  That she remained in her bed for a good portion of our drive up to Wind Cave, despite windy and bumpy roads, was a nice change of pace.

Fortunately for us, Wind Cave was generally along our route back north so, we pulled the full rig into the national park lot, and after getting a bit of guidance from the ranger who objected to our initial spot selection, we found large RV sites a quarter mile down the road beyond the visitor center.

Wind Cave was experiencing a massive boom in visitors largely due to people like us:  Nebraska eclipse watchers taking advantage of the parks proximity.  As a result they had extended their peak cave tour schedule by a few weeks, and we were thus able to secure the medium distance “Natural Entrance” tour starting a bit over an hour after our arrival.  We spent the intervening time enjoying the traditional park movie and exploring the gift shop before joining our ranger guide and 38 strangers for the 75 minute exploration.

Wind Cave is our third cave-oriented national park, and while it can’t compete in awesome beauty with Carlsbad, we found it significantly more enjoyable and interesting than Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  Wind Cave has an interesting and contentious legal history, unique “boxwork” calcite and “frostwork” aragonite formations, and incredible complexity: the 140 miles of explored passages are a three dimensional maze work taking place mostly within one square mile of surface area.

Rare and fragile calcite boxwork in the cave.

One final comment about Wind Cave: the surface is worth seeing as well.  The 10 square mile park has 30 miles of hiking trails, free ranging buffalo, and a rather beautiful open prairie environment.  One could make the case that if you only had time to see one park between Theodore Roosevelt, Custer, and Wind Cave, the latter might be your best choice.  They have similar features and wildlife above ground, but only Wind Cave has, you know, the cave.

After our great afternoon exploring Wind Cave, we turned west towards Badlands National Park.  We found a reasonably priced private park a couple of miles from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern end of the property.  Badlands Interior Campground is nothing to write home about in terms of amenities and beauty, but at less than $28 a night with the military discount we had (30 amp) full hook ups, friendly staff, and an ideal location for our three day stay.

The basics of Badlands are easily explored by car along the park’s “loop road” which is, in reality, not a loop unless you count leaving the park at one end and taking the interstate back to the other rather than simply turning around and retracing your route.  A one way trip along SD 240, the state toad that runs the length of the park east to west, is 40 miles, and takes about an hour to do with no stops.

We made the right decision to explore the park at different times of the day, experiencing the raw rock formations and wildlife during peak sun in the afternoon, and also later during sunset.  Early morning is pretty much a non-starter for us, so the sunset dusk period turned out to be the best of our drives.

The place is a marked contrast from TR, Custer, and Wind Cave: the geology is much harsher and desolate in appearance, though beautiful in its own right.  As I alluded to in an earlier paragraph: given limited time, seeing all of those three parks might be a bit duplicative, experience wise, whereas Badlands National Park is so vastly different as to deserve its own visit.

Aside from a distantly-spotted possible Golden Eagle or two, the primary wildlife we encountered were Bighorn Sheep, often grazing right beside the road only a bit wary of the handful of tourists slowing down to take their picture.  Given more time we would have enjoyed day hiking on the many trails accessible right from the loop road, but I came down with a minor bit of something on day two that limited our willingness to give that a go.

The Dakotas have been great for us.  If we get back to the region again, I am confident we will spend more time in Badlands and, because of the wonderful national grasslands campground, Theodore Roosevelt NP as well.  Since we have now visited 31 national parks, I think a future post will involve us classifying them into three groups: parks we will eagerly visit again, those we might if it is convenient, and those we will probably pass on in favor of new experiences.

One of our pleasures: local craft beer in every state.  This was a satisfying South Dakota entry.

For now though, its time to move on.  Next post: our revised plan for the remainder of 2017.

Rose looked so content with our desert drive I had to catch her picture, so I rigged the steering wheel with bungee cords and the accelerator with a block of wood, then climbed out onto the hood to catch this perfect shot.  Really 😉

To The Eclipse!

For months, while not knowing exactly where we would be, we knew along what path we would be on August 21st: within the great eclipse totality, the band of total darkness running across the U.S.   As our schedule slowly solidified, I started looking at specifics: could we find an affordable (many places jacked their prices for the event) RV park in the closest path of the totality to our current location, or would it be a day trip in Loki to watch on the side of the road some place?

As usual, persistent daily checks of a couple of NW Nebraska state parks revealed a cancellation, and we locked in the perfect two day window at Fort Robinson State Park.  And so having only spent two days in the South Dakota with lots more on our list to see, we broke camp and sprinted the 133 miles south on the day before the great solar eclipse.

We found Fort Robinson State Park to be a great place for the viewing.  We had a large, level, partially tree covered, partial hook up (electric only) site for $24 a night, but due to a Nebraska State Park “Gotcha” rule requiring the purchase of separate day or seasonal passes in addition to your camping fee, we were obliged to pay an additional $8 a day for our vehicle, bumping the true daily cost up to $32.  This is pretty similar to the Texas State Park gotcha ruleTexas State Park gotcha rule, but not nearly as egregious as the Michigan State Park systems “double gotcha” fees (requiring a day or seasonal pass for both the motorhome and the tow vehicle.)

Yeah, so that ends up not being a great daily rate, but we were happy to have anything at all given how crowded many parks were that day.  Besides, Fort Robinson is a pretty fascinating place in its own right, with some extraordinary, though tragic history.  This is were Crazy Horse was killed under very sketchy circumstances while residing at the Red Cloud Agency.  It is also where the Cheyenne outbreak and massacre occurred, where just over a hundred Cheyenne made a desperate deep winter escape attempt after being locked inside a barracks building, deprived of food, water, and wood for fires.

Our first night at the campground we were introduced to the miraculous “Walking Taco” by a group of young women raising money for some school event.  The gist of it is this: you take a medium sized bag of nachos, 3.3 oz size if I recall correctly, and into that you dump all of the remaining taco fixings; meat, lettuce, cheese, onions, guac, sour cream, what ever.  You sort of mix the whole thing up, lightly crushing the chips, and then eat straight out of the bag with a fork.  Brilliant!

Enough of that, on to the Eclipse.  We set ourselves up in our personal clearing, chairs and solar glasses (obtained from the base library back at Ellsworth Air Force Base), and enjoyed the whole process along with our neighbors.  For starters, it’s not just the full eclipse that is fascinating.  Take for instance the odd shadow forms resulting from the glimmer of the crescent shaped sun scattered through light tree branches:

While we had a pair of solar glasses to share, we found it near impossible to get a good picture with our phones, either through the solar lens or without.  This is about the best we could do at peak totality.

Hard to describe how awesome a minute of darkness can be when it comes from such an interesting alignment of our star and moon, but it was indeed very cool.  We were also happy that we didn’t have to break camp and leave right after it was over like many of our neighbors did.  Instead, we could linger in the aftermath, watching as the odd crescent shadows reversed themselves as the eclipse concluded.

All in all we are very glad we chose to spend the time and gas getting down to the totality. We had other things on our itinerary with an aggressive time line, so we packed up the day after the event and sprinted back up to the South Dakota Badlands.   Next post: two more National Parks!

South Dakota, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore

Rejuvenated from our four day stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we turned due south, headed for our only remaining state in the lower 48 in which we had not yet RV’d: South Dakota.  We were looking for a campground that would allow easy day trips to the nearby major parks: Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Custer State Park, and depending on our time, Badlands National Park.

We chose Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Family Camp just outside Rapid City.  After looking at the private options, the FamCamp was the better deal: with so many major attractions nearby prices were a bit inflated from what you might expect in South Dakota.  For $28 we got full 50 amp hook ups, and used the last of our five free night stays we had gotten for purchasing the $40 Air Force Frequent Camper package.

In total we have derived $117 in value for those free night stays, and we are getting close to earning another five free nights (for every ten different AFB Family Camps at which you stay, you get another five free nights, and we are up to seven different FamCamps.)  If you have access to the military campgrounds and do a good amount of RVing, we can’t recommend this program enough, though we attach two caveats:  The initial package is a great value but many AFB Recreation Offices don’t seem to have it available to sell.  It took us four bases before we found ours.  And though the initial package is well worth the money, you may experience problems getting the second (and subsequent) set of five free nights once you have completed each tier of ten different AF campgrounds.  Word on the street is that the program is poorly run, with members having a extensive delays and little cooperation from the program managers.  I’ll let you know what we experience when we get to that point.

We only secured two nights at Ellsworth since we had plans to sprint south into Nebraska for a couple of nights to be within the Eclipse Totality.  We used our second day to visit Custer State Park, which my Dad and Stepmom insisted should be top priority for the region.  It did not disappoint.  Custer makes a nice contrast to TR National Park in terms of appearance and method of exploration: rugged vistas mixed with grasslands and a long loop road to view the wildlife.  The key difference is the shear density of that wildlife, especially the buffalo, of which we had not seen a single specimen in TR.  Just ask for the herd’s location at Custer’s entrance gate or visitor center, and they will give you the general area you should explore.

That information was dead accurate, as we started spotting single “loner” bison as we neared the herd area, and then had to stop behind a dozen other cars for about 20 minutes as the more than thousand strong herd blocked the road during a slow movement across it.  Encouraged along by the big bulls, the long procession of beasts wandered across the roadway, in between and feet from the vehicles and their ogling occupants.

We also saw plenty of prairie dogs, some pronghorns, and ostensibly wild burros (though they were beyond tame in their interaction with the tourists.)  As I mentioned earlier, Custer Makes an interesting “compare and contrast” with Teddy Roosevelt NP.  They both have great and interesting views, but if you want a guarantee of seeing buffalo, pick Custer.  But if you want something that feels more natural, or stated differently, less “open zoo/controlled safari” like, then TR is probably a better bet, and it is generally less crowded.

Another great thing about Custer, however, is the Needles Highway drive, a winding road through increasingly dramatic rock formations that exits the park on the northwest corner.  It culminates in a series of narrow tunnels that are just wide enough for a single car.  Literally, you can touch the walls out either side window as you pass through.  As you near the higher elevations, you catch site of the incredible formations from which the drive derives its name.

Departing Custer via this route placed us just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, and though we had not planned to include that during our day trip, being so close we couldn’t forego it.  I’ll admit to being underwhelmed.  Yes, it is an amazing engineering and sculptural feat, and its impressive, just not quite as magnificent as I imagined.  Perhaps I was put off by the National Park Service playing a game of “gotcha” with the fees: We purchased the $80 annual pass with the understanding it would give us entry into all NPS properties, and yet Mount Rushmore wanted $10 for parking.  Seems a bit chintzy, particularly since we could just pull over in one of the several wide turnouts from the highway and take pictures.

The timing of the eclipse combined with follow on obligations resulted in a rather inefficient itinerary for our exploration of the major South Dakota parks, but our pleas to reschedule the solar-lunar alignment were ignored so we did what we had to do.  This meant two days in SD for Custer and Rushmore, a sprint south to Nebraska, and then a sprint back to SD for the remaining spots.  All of that in coming posts!