78 Months Full Time RVing: June 2021 Report

The Distance: 1,333 miles as we worked our way north into Washington. While hardly as aggressive as our 2,400 mile run from North Carolina to California in May, over thirteen hundred miles is a good chunk of RV driving, and we expect to slow things down in July. Our 2021 distance is up to 5,091.

The Places:  Four national parks and two family visits during a busy month. We started with four days near Sequoia National Park before heading to Travis Air Force Base while visiting Dolores, Josh, and Tamiry. Then it was three more national parks, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, and Mount Rainier, broken up by a couple of stops in Oregon. We closed out the month with a couple of days at Joint Base Lewis McChord and nearly a week in Enumclaw while Rosemarie was in New York City for sister Melissa’s baby shower.

Cooling off in the lake at Horse Creek COE campground near Sequoia National Park.

Another month with a wide variety of campground types: 10 days at military parks, 17 at public spots (4 Corps of Engineers, 2 national forest, 9 county, 2 public utilities) and 3 at private places. We had 21 days with full hook ups, 7 with power and water, and 2 days dry camping.

Slushies for all my friends! (And nieces.)

The Money: 107% over budget. Yeah, a bad month, money-wise. The main problem was Loki. While the rebuilt engine is running great, the rest of the 24 year old little truck was due for significant work (brakes, shocks, leaks) which we got done while near Travis AFB. It was also another month of tire drama, with two new front ones for the motorhome in addition to the plugged flat on one of the rear dualies. Our 1300 miles of motorhome driving translates to a good amount of gas money as well, and our average nightly camping fee was higher than we like at $28 despite six free nights. Unfortunately, we have had additional mechanic related expenditures since then, and we are really hoping that September marks a turn around in this area.

Fumaroles at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The Drama & Improvements:  A flat tire on the motorhome while camping near Crater Lake necessitated a plug and some backtracking, and two new front tires on the big rig have significantly improved our ride and reduced road noise.

Crater Lake National Park.

Next up: Sequim, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Joint Base Lewis McChord, NYC, and Enumclaw

It’s baby season. Not for hunting, mind you; the liberals put an end to that years ago, but for birthing, rather. We have a new niece back in Asheville, and Rosemarie’s youngest sister, Melissa, was quite far along, with friends and family planning an elaborate baby shower in New York. Context for future readers: this would have been after wide spread COVID vaccine availability, but before the Delta variant wave ramped up, so this would be an in-person affair. Rosemarie had no intention of missing it, and Melissa was kind enough to share an unused JetBlue voucher for a flight from Seattle-Tacoma airport to JFK.

Melissa and Hamed

In support of that we secured two nights at Joint Base Lewis McCord’s travel camp south of Tacoma. There were options closer to the airport, but nothing nearly as affordable, and JBLM worked out quite nicely. The JBLM Travel Park is not to be confused with the other two local military parks, Camp Murray Beach and Holiday Family Camp, both just a few miles away on the same expansive base. All three have mixed reviews with lots of complaints about how they are managed and maintained, but other than some delay in getting hold of an actual person on the phone, we found the travel park quite nice, but at $29 a night just a little pricier than the typical military park.

Tamiry, Dolores, Melissa, and Rosemarie

I dropped Rosemarie at Sea-Tac the morning of our second day. While she was in NYC, the Pacific Northwest was preparing for a massive heat wave expected to break all kinds of records. With the military and state parks full for the coming weekend, I expanded the search west, and found a full week open at the Enumclaw Expo Center, which is like an overpriced county fairgrounds, but with a nicer than usual RV section. It was nothing special, but the sites were level, well maintained, and had 50 amp service for $40 a night on their mid-tier rate.

Before heading their, however, I spent part of the morning at GCR Tires. Serenity had developed a quite annoying cyclical vibration and “wah-wah-wah” noise as a result of significant cupping wear on the front left tire. After consulting with the specialists there, I opted to replace both front tires; the right one, while not as bad, had noticeable wear as well. The final tally was $565 all in, which is not bad at all for motorhome tires, and the ride is vastly improved.

The heat wave was no joke; its not simply that every town in the region set a new record, its that these record breaking triple digit temps were sustained through multiple days. To put it into perspective, during the last 76 years of tracking SeaTac had recorded temperatures of 100 degrees or higher only twice before, and yet they did so three days in a row this June. It was a good time to have uninterrupted power and fully working ACs.

Not even sure this was peak heat.

While wandering about the campground I met a surprisingly high parentage of very new full time RVers. Next door a family with young children had recently begun the adventure in a fifth wheel, directly across from me a retired couple was new to it as well, and next to them a single retired gentleman in a motorhome was in his second week of full time RVing. I enjoyed talking to them, hearing their enthusiasm and reasons for making the jump, and shared a bunch of lessons Rosemarie and I had learned during our nearly seven years on the road. The solo traveler, Don, even signed up for Passport America on my recommendation, and gave me us credit for the referral, resulting in a few months added on to our membership.

Heavily discounted sea scallops from the last commissary run. Experimenting while Rosemarie was in NYC. Fantastic.

Meanwhile, Rosemarie had a busy time staying with Melissa in the city. Born and raised in NYC, Rosemarie still has a lot of family in the area. She was able to reconnect with a good number of them at the baby shower and other events, some of whom she had not seen in many years.

Rosemarie with Cousin Junior (Jose) at the shower. It has been decades since she had seen him.

Rosemarie was not the only one to fly in, Dolores and Tamiry came in from California as well. They stayed in the city for three weeks (Dolores doesn’t believe in short visits or doing anything half way: “if you’re gonna go, make it worth the trip” seems to be her travel motto.) One of the highlights was a family trip to Coney Island with the sisters and niece. With such vivid and nostalgic memories of the place, Rosemarie took particular pleasure in experiencing it through Tamiry’s eyes; a child’s first time visit to this iconic New York venue.

And of course, their was the baby shower and all the associated perpetrations. The sisters coordinated a photoshoot for Melissa and Hamed at Coney Island. The shower was a big affair at a lovely downtown venue, and professionally catered within COVID limitations.

That’s it for New York City, the Seattle-Tacoma region, and June of 2021. Next up: the June Full Time RVing Report and then our visit with friends on the Olympic Peninsula.

Two stops in Oregon, then Mount Rainier National Park in Washington

Having visited our 34th US National Park we made plans for the 35th, but first a couple of stops in Oregon along the way. As mentioned last post, we had to backtrack at low speed into Klamath Falls to deal with a flat tire on the motorhome, and though it was taken care of rather quickly at Basin Tire, the delay put is into the afternoon before we even began our journey north. We could have pushed on all the way to Salem, but with leeway in our schedule we felt no urgency, and thus sought one night accommodations just a couple of hours down the road.

Forgot to take a picture during our one night stay at Hoodoo’s Crescent Junction, so enjoy this pic of Mount Rainier and the White River, our destination for this week’s travels.

There were a variety of low cost dry camping options at national forest spots along the route, but coming off of two nights without hook ups and headed into higher temperatures, we sought a full service park for the night, and found nice and affordable accommodations at Hoodoo’s Crescent Junction RV Park. With a modest veterans discount we had full hook ups for $33, which is certainly better than the top tier price we paid near Lassen Volcanic National Park, but noticeably higher than we had become used to during our month long streak of military, Corps of Engineers, Passport America, and free sites. We did not make down the road to Crescent Lake, an excellent fishing destination according to our two neighbors staying the entire month here specifically for the local angling. In fact, we barely left our campsite other than for laundry and an evening walk.

A gorgeous, vibrant rose flourishing in this crisp northwest air. The flowers are nice too.

The next day we continued north and west, stopping at Polk County Fairgrounds outside of Salem. The region and route left us with few discount options: no military bases or Passport America participants, and coming into a warm weather weekend most of the affordable state and county options had quite limited availability. The fairgrounds, however, were wide open. They let us pick our spot among the many still available, and we set up in the back corner under one of the few trees, looking out at the fields.

There is not a lot that the campground or the region had to entice us; the former was a gravel lot surrounded by pasture, the latter a nice but typical midsized city, so its a little odd that we chose to stay for three days. But after five days in the mountains with limited cell phone connectivity much less wifi, full civilization at $25 a night during a hot weekend just sucked us in. We caught up with some TV shows, did a bit of shopping in preparation for Rosemarie’s upcoming trip to New York, enjoyed couple of local restaurants in the “Diner’s, Drive-ins and Dives” category, and geocached, of course.

Not bad for an otherwise forgettable spot at a county fairgrounds!

After our longer than expected weekend stay, we continued north into Washington, bound for the Mt Rainier National Park area. Budget RVers are always going to have a dicey time finding affordable campgrounds near any of our national parks; they are high demand destinations for campers of all types. Sometimes you get lucky like we did near Sequoia, sometimes you rough it a bit like we did near Crater Lake, and sometimes you pay out the nose, like we did near Lassen Volcanic. Near Mt Rainier, we found Rocky Point Campground, one of four associated with Alder Lake Park four miles down the lake shore. They are operated by Tacoma Public Utility, and after nearly seven years of full time RVing this is our first utility owned campground.

I initially erred by turning into the day use area rather than the campground, which was quite tight as far as maneuvering room goes, and we had to disconnect the Tracker and make a multi-point turn around at the boat ramp to get back out. Though we were inside the reservation window there were a few first come sites available. We selected the first large one, but after pulling in but before setting up, we noted the near constant dog barking next door (with multiple adults present, none making the slightest effort to quite the beasts.) We repositioned to another, quieter spot.

Alder Lake

The Alder Lake campgrounds are not exactly cheap, but at $39 a night for power and water, they are far from the priciest we have experienced this close to other national parks. Our only concern was the ambiguous wording on the information board regarding a $15 per day fee for an extra vehicle. This would push our daily rate up to $54 a night, brought back memories of both the Texas and Michigan State Park “gotcha” charges (the former charging a day use fee in addition to the camping fee, the latter requiring a purchased access pass for each motorized vehicle, also in addition to the camping fee.)

Savvy readers will recognize the home page.

Honestly, I thought the clearest interpretation was that we would indeed have to pay the additional money for our Tracker, but decided to wait until the camp host or an employee brought it up, which they did not do during our two day stay. We did not “get away” with anything: as I prepped this post, I found the actual rule on the TPU website, which does not mandate the fee for towed vehicles, which seems quite reasonable.

Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but we have done a pretty good job of finding short notice and affordable sites even in high demand area. While Alder Lake is not our best deal, it was an attractive, serviced site just a dozen miles from the southwest entrance to Mt Rainier National Park. Our free veterans annual pass acquired back in Petrified Forest once again saved us the $30 vehicle fee, so we highly recommend that any of you who have served go get your free pass!

The park itself has many of the standard accessibility features found in US national parks, including a well maintained perimeter road with numerous pull offs and parking areas for trail heads and look out spots. We spent the majority of our time looking for waterfalls, of which Rainier has an abundance. We particularly enjoyed the mile hike along the White River up to Carter Falls.

When we first developed our west coast plans we had high hopes of visiting several Central California national parks, but competing demands, weather, time and distance limited us to just Sequoia. During this run through Northern California (Lassen) and Oregon (Crater Lake,) and into Washington (Mount Rainier) we have made it to all three on our list, though the might have gotten a bit of short shrift with only two day stays each. Ah, well, nevertheless, often these initial visits to such locations serve as scouting runs for future, more expansive stays, and I can easily see us returning to each of these three wonderful parks, equipped with a bit more first hand knowledge about where to stay and what to see.

There’s a geocache on this train.

Next up: Rosemarie flies to NYC while Jack seeks shelter during a record shattering heat wave.

Into Oregon and Crater Lake National Park

After departing the Lassen Volcanic National Park area we backtracked 30 miles west to Redding; from there our route would take us north on I-5 then US-97 to Klamath Falls and Crater Lake, Oregon. Before leaving Redding, however, we decided to get a mechanic to take a look at an odd noise the motorhome had been making. It had started with an occasional definitive “click” near the front, left and below the driver seat. It had become more and more frequent such that now, after a few minutes on the road, it would click several times a minute. My efforts to identify the cause were in vane, nor could I correlate it to any other symptoms beyond road vibration from an oddly wearing front left tire.

After a couple of calls we were referred to R and R Auto, conveniently located a minute off our route on I-5. They could not promise to fit us in right away, but they did have space for us to stay over night if needed. Upon arrival we parked in their large repair yard and killed time until the manager came out to triage our case. After some discussion of the symptoms he had me open the front engine access and drive slowly forward while he walked alongside. He was able to very quickly pinpoint it to the exact same box of electronics containing the battery isolation solenoid switch that went bad back in 2017.

The electro-mechanical sound I had been hearing and the lack of any other symptoms suddenly made sense: when the switch had failed four years ago, Thor’s official recall “repair” was simply to “jumper” it, electrically isolating the switch by wiring around it, effectively removing its function and from having any impact on the system. After years of continued degradation, the switch finally progressed from unexpectedly, though rarely, opening under heat and stress, to the current, near continuous opening and closing once things warmed up in the engine compartment. It presented no problem, just a mildly annoying nose that could barely be heard at highway speed. Sometime down the road I hope to remove it, but until then I can live with it.

Relieved, we continued on our way towards Crater Lake, where campground options were even more limited than near Lassen Volcanic. The on premises campground within the national park had mixed reviews, with a lot of complaints about the site selection process, but the bottom line for us was that there were only a few sites with power, none available, and the dry camping spots were $31 a night. Outside the park proper there were a good number of “dispersed” campsites on public land, meaning boondocking pull offs from dirt and gravel roads similar to our spot in Sedona, but that would involve possibly hours of trial and error searching along unfamiliar mountainous roads. There was a single moderately expensive RV resort about 45 minutes from the park, and a tiny state park in the vicinity as well, but we elected to take a chance on Annie’s Creek Sno-Park.

That’s our rig up there in the Sno-Park. Photo from an Off Road Vehicle play area down below, on the path to Annie’s Creek.

The Sno-Park is a strategically placed equipment storage and prepositioning site for snow removal and other heavy equipment, which also serves as a cold weather shelter and unofficial RV campground. It consists of a modest sized paved but unlined parking lot, a log cabin style shelter, and a roughly 50′ enclosed garage. The place was well suited to our needs: a free site on level ground, surrounded by trees, a nearby mountain creek (Annie’s) and only ten miles from the national park. Damn near perfect, particularly with the beautiful weather during our stay.

Annie’s Creek. Cold, but refreshing on a warm day.

The national park has the usual hiking trails and creek side picnic areas, but the reason people visit, the reason you should visit, is the absolutely stunning namesake attraction, Crater Lake. Formed from the volcanic explosion and subsequent collapse of Mount Mazama nearly eight millennia ago, the resultant lake, at just shy of 2000′, is the deepest in the US. Fed entirely from precipitation and snow melt is is also one of the most pristine; the azure color is rather spectacular. Rosemarie had the added pleasure of no expectations before our arrival, apparently assuming that this crater would be about the same as the one we visited in Arizona back in 2015, i.e., probably fascinating to geologists, but from a visual perspective rather so-so.

The 33 mile perimeter road, or rim drive, circles the entire crater, but the northeast portion of it was closed due to snow, even in mid June. We greatly enjoyed the sections we could drive and the numerous overlook pull offs. The one thing I would have liked to do that we missed was hike the single approved trail down to the lake’s edge, but it was closed as well, though for safety reconstruction rather than weather.

Lady of the Forest, a well known local rock carving, and part of a geocache.

Though only there for two days, they were fantastic in nearly every regard, and I hope we can return sometime when the rest of the rim drive and trails are open. Our only negative for the visit was discovering a flat (another one!) on the motorhome the morning of our second day. We picked up a road nail somewhere, and the leak was slow enough that we did not notice until it deflated overnight. I was able to plug it with a tire repair kit, but with a tire this size getting it to take air is quite difficult without special equipment; I could not get the edge of the tire to seat against the wheel rim (or whatever the correct terminology is) and thus air just kept escaping out the gap.

It was the outside tire of our left pair of duallys, and we have been in this position before, and chose to nurse the rig back to Klamath Falls at low speed to get it fixed. An expert at the very large and quite active Basin Tire Center inspected my plug, found it sufficient, and with the assistance of a specialized tool or two managed to get the tire seated and filled. We were on our way in less than an hour, headed north.

Next up: Two more stops in Oregon before hitting our next “destination spot” in Washington. (It’s another national park.)

Lassen Volcanic

Since our first year full time RVing we have made it an unofficial goal to see as many national parks as we can. At first it was less of a goal and more of an aspect of our route planning, i.e., defaulting to include any unvisited national parks on our itinerary as we passed through various states and regions. Not all of them have been home runs; I can think of two off the top of my head that did not seem to deserve the exalted status of being a national park, and I’m not even counting the truly weird Hot Springs in Arkansas. But far more of them either lived up to the hype or knocked our socks off off despite having barely heard of it before visiting.

Can you smell what we are cooking? Sulpherous Mudpots!

We have been so rewarded by this process that it continues strong here in our seventh year on the road, having already hit Sequoia National Park last month, with several more lined up for June starting with Lassen Volcanic, located deep inland in Northern California, about 150 miles north of Sacramento. We made the nearly four hour run from Travis AFB to our chosen campground in the park area, Living Springs RV and Cabin Resort.

The campgrounds within the park itself were either for smaller rigs or full up, and the options on the private market were limited and pricey. We paid $68 a night, and that’s with a 10% veterans discount, which is a much higher rate than our usual and surprising given my impression that Lassen is not exactly one of the big destination national parks. Aside from the sticker shock, the place was quite nice. The sites in our section were oddly laid out, but we had a full hook up, pull through site under a nice tree canopy in a well maintained campground that even had an on premises geocache. The place had a “living in nature but not roughing it” ambience.

The northern park entrance was conveniently located about 15 miles up the road from Living Springs. During pre-pandemic times we had a bit of a routine for new national parks that included an early stop at the information center for brochures and maps and to see the park movie, a staple at nearly every one we have visited. With COVID restrictions the visitor centers are limiting indoor numbers, and all their theaters are closed. This was fine for Lassen since the main info center was at the opposite end of the park, so we just grabbed the park map at the gate and followed along the numbered and clearly described points of interest on the park road.

Neither of us knew much of anything about the place before going, and so it exceeded our practically nonexistent expectations. Lassen is a beautiful park and we had a lovely day touring it using one of the better constructed park guide maps and roadside information markers that we have seen. Each stop gave you a piece of the geologic history and its impact on the flora, fauna, and sparse local population. The short version is that Lassen Peak, after decades of observed sporadic activity, exploded big time in 1915, causing a massive lava/mud slide and ejecting large rocks that ended up miles from the peak.

One of the big rocks ejected from Lassen Peak during the 1915 explosion.

The area remains volcanically active; many mud pots and fumaroles are quite visible, particular near the old Sulphur works. We appreciated the variation within the park, the harshly beautiful blasted areas still recovering from volcanic devastation, the idyllic meadow streams, clear mountain lakes, and snow on the western slopes. Upon reaching the southern entrance we stopped at the gift shop for coffee and a park patch to add to my growing collection.

The park road is not a full circle, but rather a zigzagging crescent, and once reaching the southern end, we were left with the choice of backtracking to the northern entrance, or taking a scenic tour east and then north back to our campground. We chose the latter, and had a great drive through further interesting and varied scenery, particularly once we took to the back roads to work our way across a valley before reemerging in the small town near our resort.

Aside from the interesting geology and history, the area is stunningly beautiful; the 30 mile park road comes highly recommended by travel connoisseurs at Shell On Wheels. Don’t miss it if you are in the area, and it is well worth a day trip as well. We enjoyed our short stay, and considered remaining another day, but other adventures called.

So that is 33 out of 63 US national parks we have had the pleasure to visit. Those numbers do not include the 18 other categories of properties managed by the national park service such as national monuments, recreation areas, lakeshores, seashores, historic sites, parkways, preserves, reserves, trails, etc. (which currently totals 423 places); just the official national parks. In fact, when we first started this full time RV adventure there were only 59 of them; with Gateway Arch, Indiana Dunes, White Sands, and New River Gorge added since 2018. We don’t expect to hit all of them; some require a lot of effort (i.e., money) such as the Gates of the Arctic national park in Alaska, accessible by air taxi, but we do plan on hitting as many as our travels allow.

Next up: Into Oregon and Crater Lake National Park.

Travis Air Force Base & Concord, CA

We had set aside five days near Sequoia National Park, but we didn’t feel like we were really enjoying ourselves with the heat and potentially overheating car concerns. So we packed up and headed out after four days, bound for Travis Air Force Base where we had a week long reservation, and Rosemarie’s sister’s town of Concord, nearby. We made the decision to head for the base a little too late to adjust the reservation for our early arrival; their office was closed for the weekend, but prior experience and online research suggested there were likely a few walk up sites available.

Our drive would take us quite close to sister Dolores’s house, which is why I did not realize until I was practically in her neighborhood that I had plugged in her address rather than Travis AFB into the GPS! Ah well, the suburban roads were plenty wide for the motorhome, so we pressed on and ended up dropping Rosemarie off at the house while I continued half an hour up the road to check in at the base and set up camp. Travis’ Family Camp did indeed have a couple of open spots for the night, though the next day I would have to move to the site assigned for our original one week stay. This was no problem since it was a pull through site and I did a minimum set up.

The FamCamp is a decent place in a convenient location near the San Francisco Bay area. It provides full service sites at a typical AFB campground price of $25 a day, which seems so much more of a subsidized bargain in this high demand area than that same price in some of the out of the way bases at which we have stayed. The park is decent, though unremarkable by AFB standards, and there is a noticeable difference between the front and rear halves of the RV loop, with the former significantly better landscaped than the sparse back section. This disparity has been quite apparent since at least as far back as far back as our first visit hear in 2017, and the word appears to be out among the California military RV community, and so it was unsurprising that both our one night stay and our week long reservation were in the back forty.

We have stayed at over 25 different military campgrounds, enough to know and appreciate the significant variation in services, maintenance, and amenities. This one, located as it is on a full size Air Force facility, is pretty well maintained and has the full range of traditional base services, including a large commissary and exchange, on base gas station, thrift store, playgrounds, and in different times, a gym and pool. However limited the views and campground décor from the RV sites, Travis FamCamp is in an expensive, touristy area and yet provides all the amenities you could expect from a military base at a market crushing $25 a night. We have stopped even looking at private or state park options when in the area.

Over the course of the next week we spent most days enjoying company, catching up, and making a few outings to local fun spots. Rose spent probably half the nights at Dolores’, while I kept the cat company on the base. Since both Josh and Dolores are quite allergic to cats, we make whatever adjustments are necessary when we visit.

We had timed our stay to overlap Rosemarie’s birthday, on which Dori took us to Mount Diablo State Park, a nice place for day hiking and picnics about 15 miles southeast of Concord, though the drive takes an hour due to the moderate, zig-zagging climb into the hills. We had a great day on a couple of the short trails, scrambling on the interesting sandstone formations and admiring the views from the lookouts. Tamiry helped me find a local geocache near Elephant Rock, an unusual formation with an obvious entomology (though it looks more like a bison to me.)

We finished the day with a nice celebration with just the five of us. I made pasta and clams, and after some negotiation, ended up with one of Whole Foods’ famous Chantilly cakes for the traditional candles, singing, and dessert. Those are some top notch cakes, but I don’t think anything will top the strawberry shortcake we got for her birthday back in Maine two years ago.

While in town Josh took us to his Mom’s house in Oakland for a late lunch along with two of his brothers and their kids; a small portion of the Foster clan’s local extended family. We had great food, a bit of wine, and conversation: I don’t get a lot of opportunities for “sports talk” outside of our Key West winters, so it was cool to have enthusiastic discussions and debate, particularly since this was during the NBA playoffs, with the LA Clippers looking to end their status as NBA perennial post season losers. We also visited the nearby Lake Merritt Saturday open market, a frenetic event that combines the vendors options of a farmers market, the pop up casualness of a swap meet, and the energy of a block party. We loved it.

Since Rosemarie was spending a lot of time and nights with Dolores and Tamiry, I occupied myself with geocaching in Fairfield and a couple of the other towns near Travis. Even without getting into the more esoteric aspects of the hobby, geocaching tends to take you to places you might never have known existed, like the Cold War missile bunkers some of us cached near in the Lower Keys. But if using multi-billion dollar satellite networks to find Tupperware in the woods is not sufficiently interesting to you, the hobby provides many options for increasing the challenge, adventure, and fun. Enjoy puzzles? There is an entire cache type just for that. Into geology, history, or earth sciences? Try doing some Earth Caches.

One of many historical plaques I have run across during geocaching. This one was part of a mystery puzzle cache requiring the use of information on the plaque to solve for the final coordinates.

I have been working on my “Jasmer Challenge,” which involves finding a geocache placed in every month of every year since the hobby started back in 2000. I started casually working on this and my “Difficulty-Terrain Matrix” two years ago in Florida, and now I am in the habit of checking for qualifying caches in each new area we visit. This is what led me to the decades old “Lifesaver” cache near our campground in Sedona, and half a dozen back in the Asheville area. Here in California, I filled in several holes on my Jasmer list during a couple of days of local caching, including one in which I did 23 caches in one day.

A modest hike up to the top of a hill and along the ridge in a county park took me to this cache location.

Though we paid for a complete engine rebuild and installation earlier this year, our drive across the country had made clear that we needed to put some additional work and money into both the 24 year old tow behind vehicle and our 14 year old motorhome. We decided that the rest of the summer we would pay for whatever needed doing on both vehicles, even if it busted the budget for a couple of months, and come fall we would start making up for it, financially.

A hawk on Dori’s roof.

Our eight day stay in Concord allowed the time for a couple of appointments, and in the process of getting the smoky smell from the Geo’s catalytic convertor area looked at, the mechanic pointed out that our shocks were completely dead and rusting through, the rear brakes were overdue for new pads, and one of the front axle components needed replacing. We settled on a critical work plan that accomplished most of his recommendations, though kept a couple off the list so that I could explore my options.

Near the end of our stay Tamiry stayed the night with us in the camper on base, which involved having to find all the parts for and install the rear seat to the Geo Tracker, which had been in deep storage under the RV for two years or more. Honestly, I can’t recall the last time we had it installed. In any case, it was good to find all the parts and do a little maintenance on them as part of the installation process. Tamiry enjoyed staying with us despite so man of the cool things on base (swimming pool, splash pad) being close for COVID.

Yes, it’s an old and very basic car.

This was a fantastic stop. We had the joy of family, a full service and affordable place to stay while there, plenty of things to do in a modern and energetic metropolitan area, and time enough in one place to take care of a few important repairs. Next up, we begin a series of National Park visits on our way north.

77 Months Full Time RVing: May 2021 Report

The Distance: 2,406 miles while traversing the country from Southern Appalachia to Southern California, our biggest travel month in a long time. And since we did not leave North Carolina until the 19th of the month, we did al of that in less than two weeks. This nearly tripled our 2021 total so far, bringing us to 3,758 miles.

Look at that nearly dead straight shot! When we say we are headed west, we mean it.

The Places:  So many places! We finished our slightly more than two month stay at Lake Powhatan, then sprinted across the country with mostly one day stops all the way to Arizona. This included a COE campground (Seven Points in Tennessee,) two Air Force Base Family Camps (Little Rock and Tinker,) and two spots in New Mexico (Blaze-In-Saddles and Red Rock Park.) We then had two “destination” stops at Petrified Forest and Sedona. After that we finished the month with a modest sprint to California, stopping for a night each at two inexpensive sites near I-40 (Route 66 Golden Shores and Arabian Oasis.)

But making such a journey means exchanging the leisurely life of camp hosting in Asheville…

Breaking it down by campground category and services: we stayed 23 nights in public spots (18 national rec area, 1 COE, 1 municipal, and 3 BLM,) 3 in military Family Camps, and 5 in private parks. We had full hook ups for 24 days, partial for 4, and dry camped for 3.

The Money: May was a month of financial contradictions. On the one hand, we received our last 2 1/2 weeks of camp host pay, enjoyed heavily discounted camping fees, and did not have anything break on the motorhome requiring significant expenditure. On the other hand we drove over 2,400 miles (with the associated gas expenditures for our 7 miles per gallon motorhome,) paid a modest sum to the IRS, purchased an eye exam and prescription glasses, made our annual $84 WordPress blog hosting fee, and had a $446 mechanic bill for Loki. That all balanced out to a modest 9.5% over budget.

…for an arduous life on the road.

A few of those points deserve clarification, You would think after the ordeal we went through to replace the entire engine on our Geo Tracker that we would not have anything significant to repair for some time, but this latest bill was for a transmission seal replacement and AC troubleshooting. The WordPress bill increased significantly this year due to our reaching the maximum picture and media storage limit for the cheap plan. You don’t think this level of online literary and photographic entertainment comes without a cost, do you? Rose had not had an eye exam and real prescription glasses in years, for the first time in four years our federal tax bill was more than $2, and we spent $986 on gas just for the motorhome this month.

And also swapping the wet mountain forests…

That is probably a bit more than you cared to know about our monthly finances, but since I have already delved this deep, why not a bit more? Our campground fees for the month averaged just under $14 a day, which is quite good and well under our loosely applied goal of $30 or less. When we first started full timing back in 2015 we aimed for closer to $20, but its been nearly seven years and both inflation and realistic expectations have affected our assumptions. Our campground fee while working at Lake Powhatan was heavily discounted ($450 a month) but we also benefitted from the nearly defunct Air Force Frequent Camper Program (which provided us one night free at Tinker AFB), three nights on the Passport America 50% discount rate, three nights boondocking for free in Sedona, and otherwise quite cheap rates at military, COE, city park, and gift shop parks. That’s about as cheap a month as we can do without settling in for a seasonal rate in one place or cranking up the boondocking ratio. We aren’t for staying in place that long yet, but nor are we living like Nomadland.

…for the deserts of New Mexico and beyond.

The Drama & Improvements: As our time at Lake Powhatan ended, we made preps for an aggressive year of travel. That included the aforementioned eyeglasses and Tracker repairs, but also standard things like oil changes for both the Serenity and Loki, generator checks, storage compartment reorganization inside and out, and the resulting trips to donation centers to drop off all the things found during the reorganization.

Next up: Travis Air Force Base and Concorde, CA.

California! Sequoia National Park and a Shockingly Good Deal on Our COE Campsite

Once we left Asheville we made what is for us an aggressive drive all the way through New Mexico in five legs, with all but one ending in a one night layover. We slowed down in Arizona, spending five days between Petrified Forest and Sedona, but now it was time to pick up the pace again to reach our next destination, Sequoia National Park in Central California. Keen eyed and sharp minded readers might remember our painfully long explanation of our “Texas to California” route planning, and that the final proposal included a stop at The Grand Canon. Yeah, we skipped that. “The Plan” was always just a starting point from which to deviate, and since we have been to the big ditch before, we decided to forego it along this section of our 2021 tour, with the hope of putting it back into the mix later on.

We did not go to Grand Canyon, but we did visit another national park. That makes 32 of the official 63 for us so far.

We started the drive by taking 89A north through Sedona to I-40. This is the road I specifically avoided coming to Sedona due to our bad experience with it back in 2015, but I reasoned that it would be much easier to manage going up hill rather than down, and it was no problem, even pleasant when Rosemarie wasn’t whimpering and clutching the seat rests while looking down the cliff faces along the sharp turns.

We had over 600 miles to go before our Sequoia campground, which meant three modest legs. Three legs meant two stops in route, and since these were going to be one nighters, we wanted them cheap and close to the interstate. We consulted our standard sources: All Stays, Campground Reviews, Passport America, and the newly added Campendium, which is the best of the bunch for boondocking sites. The weather was turning quite hot, and since we were closing in on the Mojave Desert, we decided to forgo boondocking in favor of electricity and air conditioning. Many of the options along our expected stopping point were either pricey or had shaky reviews, but Passport America came through for us again, leading us to Route 66 Golden Shores RV Park just shy of the California border.

Desert flowers in a Boron community park.

Now, I’m not gonna lie: this place has some bad reviews, but a close reading of them suggested that the problems described were not ones we were worried about (awkward dump station, unusable wifi, run down, etc.) We just wanted safe, convenient, cheap, and serviced, The place was nothing to look at, could use some maintenance, and needs some signs to clarify the confusing split-level lay out, but once we located the camp host, we were good to go, getting a 50 amp, full hook up, pull through, level site for $20 (cash only.) It even had a bit of a view from the front. No complaints.

We usually try to get at least few pictures from every place we stay, no matter how short or forgettable, but this is the only one we took at Route 66 Golden Shores RV Park. Not a bad view at all.

We departed the next morning, stopping briefly for a geocache in a field along the dirt road back to the interstate, before continuing west and crossing into Cali. We had topped off all of our tanks (motorhome, car, generator, gas can) before leaving Arizona since the prices are more than a dollar steeper per gallon in The Golden State. To my surprise Passport America again provided our stopping point, this time at Arabian Oasis in Boron. I had expected PA rates to be mostly unavailable in California, but Arabian Oasis, a better maintained and serviced campground than our previous one, gave us a full hook up site for $18. Sweet.

Our perfectly serviceable site at Arabian Oasis.

Our short drive and early arrival allowed us to explore Boron a bit, but only on foot as we tend to leave Loki attached for one night layovers in pull through spots. The town was established after the discovery of a borax deposit nearby (borax, used in detergents, is a compound derived from boron) and now sits near the largest borax mine in the world. Given a few more hours and energy we might have checked out the 20 Mule Team Museum or one of the rock and mineral shops, but this short pass through visit we satisfied ourselves with a stroll and come geocaching.

Retired equipment from the borax mine. Also part of a geocache “earth cache.”

In the morning we made the leisurely three hour drive to Horse Creek Campground, a Corps of Engineers owned place on Lake Kaweah about ten miles from the national park entrance. We had considered several possible campgrounds, but selected this one based on price ($20 a night), availability (plenty of first come first serve sites,) and a recommendation (my dad and stepmom had stayed here a couple of years back in their 5th wheel.) It was all dry camping, which we initially did not worry about since the park is into the mountains and we figured it would be reasonably cool. We were quite wrong: the temps were pushing 100 degrees, and even before checking in we had pretty much decided to make this a one night stop and to seek an electric site the next day.

The view from near our site at Horse Creek.

As it was the office was closed and we could not find a camp host or employee anywhere, but during our search we stumbled across a single sentence on one of the posted forms, practically fine print, that suggested the park had three full hook up spots for rent, and we were parked in front of the two empty ones. Rosemarie found a phone number on one of the RV websites, and a somewhat surprised ranger answered and met us in the office ten minutes later. He confirmed that, due to a shortage of camp hosts, they did indeed have a couple of hook up sites available, though they tend not to advertise them.

One of three sites with power and water at Horse Creek.

The real surprise came after I mentioned I was retired military: after doing whatever it is they do to note that status in the computer, he reported that the system was telling him the site would be free. Perplexed, he called his boss, who lacking contradictory information told him to go with it, both of them apparently thinking that some recent rule changes, perhaps associated with the free national park pass for veterans, had changed things. The bottom line: we got one of three full hook up sites in the entire campground, for four days, and didn’t pay a dime.

Now, the arrival day of any RV visit is often a wash: it’s for setting up your campsite and relaxing after the drive. But even during the next three obligation-free days we only visited Sequoia National Park twice. Did I mention it was hot? Like, super hot? Things cooled off as you actually climb in attitude into the park proper, but we were having a bit of a problem with our tracker, with a very noticeable smell of something burning and a bit of smoke coming off the catalytic converter. It looked like a slow leak from something dropping onto the very hot exhaust system, though we could not be sure it wasn’t the cat itself failing, and with the heat, altitude, and uphill grades, we decided to keep things very limited until we could get Loki checked out.

When we did finally visit the park, the “arboreal transformation” was rather astounding. Ever since turning north off I-40 in Bakersfield I kept noticing the arid conditions, with most of the vegetation rather scrub like and stunted, at least the greenery that wasn’t irrigated fields and orchards . Even after turning inland at Visalia and reaching our lakeside park, the trees all seemed rather anemic. It wasn’t until you got closer to the national park itself that things changed, but they did so dramatically. Within a couple of miles you go from “where are the big trees” to being surrounded by giants, though the true monsters are well into the park boundaries.

The largest tree in the world. My distance from the trunk in this picture diminishes how large the tree appears in person. The base circumference is over 100′!

After clearing the park entrance using our free annual veterans pass acquired back in Arizona, we parked at the information center lot and then caught the park shuttle to the main sights. During most of our first year of full time RVing we did not have a tow vehicle, and thus really appreciated national parks that had shuttle services available. While we have not had to rely on them since buying Loki, we still appreciate having the option, particularly under current “smoky engine” circumstances. The downside is usually that those parks with shuttle services are also the most popular and crowded. During COVID such human density would be “no bueno,” but fortunately with school still in session, few international tourists, and limited general travel, the otherwise popular park was rather sparsely attended.

This made for a simple and and efficient limited tour. We never had to wait for a second shuttle despite each bus allowing fewer riders than capacity, were able to keep spaced out from other tourists, and even the informal lines for pictures in front of the most famous trees were quite short. The trees themselves were rather astounding. We had thought the ones in the Redwood Forest were giants, but these seemed much bigger due to our ground perspective: though the tallest redwoods grow about 100′ more than the tallest sequoia, the latter are much, much wider at the base, thus giving them the distinction of being the larges trees in the world by volume.

Between the heat and concern for our little truck’s smoking, we really minimized our outings during this four days. No restaurants, just one brewery, a bit of grocery shopping at the little town store, some geocaching, and an evening dip or two in the very low water level lake a couple hundred yards from our campsite rounded out the extent of our activities.

Next post: May 2021 Full Time RVing Report, then our visit is to Concord, CA to see Rosemarie’s sister Dolores and niece Tamiry.

Boondocking Sedona, Some Thoughts on Snowbirds, and Another Awning Incident

Since leaving Ashville we have broken new travel ground, briefly visiting places we have never been. Our 2015 and 2017 routes westward were more southerly than our current I-40 drive thus far, while 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020 were spent in the eastern half of the US and Canada. With our last stop at Petrified Forest and this stay near Sedona, however, we have intersected a portion of our 2015 passage through Arizona. Such repeat visits are one of our growing pleasures in this, our seventh grand RV tour.

Ennui for which only the desert or sea may remedy…

And just as our routes vary across years, so too does our timing, allowing us to experience some of the same regions across multiple seasons. Having lived most of our lives, as well as started and ended each RVing year there, we have seen full years’ worth of weather in the Southeast, but with our travels we have also witnessed, for example, the Great Lakes region from July into October. With this tour through Arizona, we are seeing some of the Southwest for the third time, each in a different month.

Our culture can often look a bit down on, or at least askance at, mere seasonal residents. However “true locals” view tourists, often loving their money while hating their crowds, snowbirds and the like are in a different class. Not content with inflicting themselves on “our town” for months at a time, they have the gall to do so as if it is their town too! Yet I think it an excellent lifestyle choice, and one we might explore ourselves down the road, particularly since it is not merely wanderlust that drives us, but also a strong desire to avoid lengthy weather extremes.

Many people do not have the means, freedom, health, or even desire to spend more than occasional vacations away from their home, but for those of us retirees who do, I am glad there are so many options. I am also glad that, whether full time RVing, part time with a home base, or having a second home far away, there is an abundance of information and support to show us how to do it. But for all those resources, there is nothing like direct experience, and these repeat visits across multiple months help narrow things down and crystalize our thinking: returning might reinforce our love, but it can also reveal the flaws, and perhaps help answer the question “What about this place, could we spend a major part of every year here?”

Such musings are all well and good, but its also important not to tear your motorhome awning off the side of the rig at 65 mph on the interstate, as we did this late May in route to Sedona. It is hard to enjoy any place, much less serenely assess it’s potential for long term livability, while hunting down and then dragging the remnants of the 14′ structure along the highway. The shame of it is we replaced the awning canvas less than three years ago and the entire rear arm assembly and two brackets following a comical series of accidents back in 2016.

We were barely able to get this in the door of the RV: it needed the perfect angle to do so.

I am not sure whether it was the age of the remaining hardware, the weather degraded condition of the attachment points, my failure to properly secure the front locking bracket, or a combination of them all that caused the destruction, because it all happened quite fast. Whatever gave way first, the front of the awning started to deploy, and at highway speeds the assembly rapidly turned into a large sail under high winds, easily tearing it free from the the passenger side of the rig. Fortunately I was able to recover the entire roller assembly and both arms, so I will only need to buy the new canvas and a couple of brackets to get it fixed.

We have the parts now, but have not been in one place long enough for a pro to do the repairs. Tow places I checked with were booked solid a month out. Might have to get brave and do this myself.

That was stressful. What we needed was a deeply unstressful spot to spend a few days. Serendipitously, Sedona, less than three hours west, was our next destination. Our first visit here, back in 2015, started with a white knuckle drive south from I-40 on 89A, which was replete with steep downhill grades and hairpin turns alongside ravines, further complicated by people just pulling out into the shoulderless road from obscured driveways and entries. That drive made a lasting impression, and we chose to avoid it this visit by taking the longer but safer route south on I-17.

Six years ago our stay in Sedona was pure magic, largely due to our last minute decision, aided by a knowledgeable local, to “boondock” in the desert. Back then I explained the different types of off grid and nearly off grid camping like this:

Within the RV community people debate the specific definitions of “dry camping” vs “boondocking” vs “overnighting” with a few additional terms thrown in.  Some see dry camping and boondocking as exactly the same thing.  I tend to side with those that make a distinction:

– Overnighting: staying in a parking lot, e.g. Walmart, for a night, no hook ups. Usually free.

– Dry camping: staying in a campground without hook ups. May include small campground fee.

– Boondocking: staying in wilderness area, not a campground, with no hook ups. Usually free.

As I also wrote “We would not be having a typical Sedona visit: no jeep tours or aura readings, just a couple of days in the outdoors alone.” As most of us can admit, it is quite difficult to recapture the magic from a previous special event or location, but we were determined to give it a go. As such, we researched various camping websites, and on Campendium we found the exact same stretch of dispersed camping on Forest Road 525. Located right off of (the non insane portion of) 89A, FR525 starts as a paved turn off that gives way to washboard dirt and gravel within a quarter mile. We continued along this path, passing various packed dirt pull offs suitable for camping, and selected one about a mile from the highway. With more than a dozen sites, most suitable for multiple RVs, some occupied, we can’t be sure it is the exact same spot as 2015, but it sure looked like it, so we settled in for three wonderful days.

One of the differences caching out here compared to back east is how much longer caches last. The lack of rain and humidity allows even half-hazardly created containers and logs to last years.

We spent those days exploring with daily outings in the Geo Tracker, but did so “on the cheap” with no boutique stores nor restaurants, just beautiful landscape and near perfect weather. Taking advantage of Loki’s limited off road capability we continued further up FR525 into the desert hills, venturing from the gravel road onto dirt tracks for a short way to find a particular old geocache, placed in March of 2001, hidden among the scrub trees. The evening before our departure I hiked a loop near our campsite to gather four more.

Four found caches (the yellow circles) in the foothills surrounding our camp site, and the old one a few miles further up the road. This geocaching map gives you an idea of how close we were to the main highway, though you would never know it by the views from our site.

Though just a mile from a major road and less than ten from two towns, the desert hills and rock formations provide a much greater sense of isolation than one might expect. The lack of any buildings or power lines and general open space on public land apparently makes the area quite suitable for hot air balloons, something we learned early one morning when we were awakened by a loud, ongoing noise, which turned out to be a balloons getting inflated right next to our rig. Just one more joyous thing to witness during an already wonderful stop.

On our last day we loosened the purse strings to visit one wine bar, Oak Creek Vineyards, just a couple of miles from our campsite, for a shared antipasto plate and flight of local reds in a lovely outdoor setting. We ventured ten miles north into Sedona and eight miles south to Cottonwood, finding in the latter a small but very nice farmers markets that had plenty to tempt us despite the limited number of vendors. For a modest $15 we left with a dozen duck eggs, local beef jerky, and fresh Italian bread.

I have been meaning to give duck eggs a try for some time, and the Cottonwood Farmers Market gave me the opportunity. They taste like… eggs. The shells are much thicker though, and each one is almost twice as large as a chicken egg by weight and volume.

New Mexico and Arizona have been so good to us this trip, just as they were during our past two circuits of the west. We look forward to seeing more of them in the future, but next up is California.

A Return to Petrified Forest National Park

In the computer gaming world, particularly in role playing games, there are goals that players must do to advance. In addition to these plot-advancing requirements there are extra, optional missions, popularly referred to as “side quests,” that players may do, and while they are not necessary to complete the game, they often add richness, complexity, and challenge. In the game of full time RVing, level 2021, our latest mission was “Go West” and the next necessary milestone was “Visit Dolores in Concord, CA.”

Accordingly, we developed a plan to get there, along with a list of possible “side quests” we might undertake along the way. We would not have time for all of them; distance off the route would be a major factor in deciding which to do, but Petrified Forest National Park involved practically no deviation from our current path since I-40 passes directly through it. Even if it had been a couple of hours off the route we likely would have done it anyway since we really enjoy The Painted Desert region, but being right along the way made it a no brainer.

We left our last stop, Red Rock Park in New Mexico, and made the short drive to the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north end of the park, immediately off I-40. After getting our bearings, we headed for the park entrance, prepared to purchase an $80 annual pass for all national parks (we have tentative plans to see up to a dozen during the coming year) and were quite pleasantly surprised to learn that, as of Veterans Day 2020, all national parks are free to all veterans. Yay us! That almost makes up for having to pay a Tricare health insurance monthly fee starting this year.

Petrified Forest has a 28 mile road running north-south through it that allows visitors to see and experience a lot of the fascinating geology and beautiful scenery from easy pull outs, parking areas, and trail heads. In fact, during our 2015 visit, short on time and lacking a tow vehicle, that is pretty much all we did; driving from the I-40 exit through the park, stopping at various spots along the way, and then turning right around at the southern end and doing it again.

This year we allotted two days for the park, and since we had prepositioned fairly close we arrived in time to really enjoy day one. But first: accommodations. In 2015 we finished our “down and back” tour of the park around sunset, and lacking reservations anywhere we picked the first RV park on the interstate. It was cheap and perfectly serviceable, but current reviews suggested it had gone down hill since then while the price had doubled.

Instead, we chose to stay at the Petrified Forest Gift Shop, a privately owned place just beyond the park’s southern entrance gate, which was perfect. It does not look like much when you pull up, but for $15 a day we got 30 amp power, plenty of space, some nice views, and extraordinary convenience. The gift shop proprietors were very flexible about site selection and how we set ourselves up, which made a difference in our shade and privacy. The gift shop on the other side of the road, Crystal Forest, has pretty much the same RV parking deal, and some of their sites even have a little covered area and picnic tables, and it would have been quite acceptable as well, but we stuck with our first option since the sites looked just a touch more spaced out.

You would never know this is the gift shop parking lot rather than a beautiful desert RV resort, right?

Frequently the first day of an RV destination is a bit of a loss: we don’t start our travel days early unless forced, and after a four hour drive and campsite set up time, well, it’s cocktail hour. Though we had just driven through the park in the big rig, thanks to having prepositioned relatively close at our last New Mexico stop, we were early enough to really enjoy that first day. We took Loki back into the park, and made multiple stops along the park road, staying late enough to really enjoy the views as we neared the golden hour.

A wider view, showing how much space we enjoyed.

Day two we explored the nearby town of Holbrook where we particularly enjoyed the very large Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood store. They have an an astounding amount of petrified wood, a wide assortment of other rocks and minerals, and a very nice sort of museum/art gallery as well. If you visit the Petrified Forest National Park, you will find plenty of souvenirs and interesting things at the official gift shops and the two privately owned ones immediately just outside the parks southern gate, but for the best possible selection and prices we recommend heading into Holbrook and seeking out places like Jim Gray’s.

We also geocached the area for an hour or two, finding ten or so caches in addition to the National Park Service approved caches within the park proper. Geocaching is an ideal hobby for those of us who don’t enjoy shopping as much as our spouses; I can drop Rosemarie off at Michael’s or Ross and find a few local caches until she is ready for pick up. In this case, however, we both went a-huntin’, which is helpful since Rosemarie’s eye is a lot better than mine when searching for camouflaged containers in heavy foliage.

Holbrook and the two entrances to the Petrified Forest form a triangle. We had taken the southern leg of it to town, but for our return we took the northern leg back to the top of the park, allowing us to make one more exploration of the place before the early evening gate closures. We focused on a few of places in the north we had not visited on day one, but revisited some of our favorites. The Blue Mesa loop is not to be missed.

There are national parks where a short visit can’t conceivably allow visitors to see even a fraction of the wonders available. Then there are places where a couple of days is sufficient to take it in, or at least the highlights. We consider The Petrified Forest in the latter category: clearly worth your time, but you don’t need to plan for a week here. If you are passing through Arizona on I-40, it is well worth a stop, even if you only have a couple of hours to drive through it.

Next up: Sedona and our first true boondocking since leaving Florida.

We have been fortunate enough to spot a pronghorn during both of our Petrified Forest visits.