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.

Selecting Our Route to California and Another Short Stop in New Mexico

Despite two full months in Asheville, time spent with the full knowledge that we were going west this year, we had somehow not managed to develop a plan much beyond “California, then clockwise.” Don’t get me wrong: we were committed to a western circuit and had a bunch of places out there on our wish lists, but I think, perhaps, we were not yet committed to the painful process of deciding what not to see, i.e., those fantastic spots that just would not make the cut due to time, distance, and opportunity costs. This, plus uncertainties about COVID reopening and family obligations, gave us some cause to delay developing the details (or anything even approaching a detail, apparently.)

Thus late May found us executing Phase 1 (Just Go West) of The 2021 Grand Western Tour not knowing the specifics of said phase nor what Phases 2, 3 and so on entailed at all! But more than six years of doing this whole full time RVing thing had given us faith in our ability to adapt and find wonderful places on the fly. After all, Phase 1 was going pretty well so far.

But a few days actually on the road and eating up miles at a fast pace forced us to the actual business of longer term planning, at a minimum the general route of Phase 2 (Texas to California.) As has been the case for much of our RV travels, we were letting national parks, both new ones and old favorites, define at least the outline of our route. But with so many we wanted to see, our available time (roughly two and a half weeks) would simply not allow us to visit even half of the locations on our list. And so, between Arkansas and Oklahoma, I mapped out three very different general routes to use as a starting point for Rosemarie and I to discuss, modify, and select.

I started with a northern option, a path that would involve turning north from I-40 as soon as Amarillo, TX to reach Southern Colorado’s Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde national parks. From there it would be west into Utah for Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef, maybe Zion again. Then we could continue on to Las Vegas and perhaps Death Valley before heading to Central California. 0f course, we would not expect to visit all of these places; they were just options along the way. The same holds true for the other two routes as well.

Next I looked at a southern route which would entail staying on I-40 into New Mexico before angling southwest towards Las Cruces and White Sands National Park, one of our newest, having been upgraded from a national monument in 2019. From there we would likely continue west into Southern Arizona and Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Finally we would turn northwest, possibly stopping at Joshua Tree, a place we had not really gotten to appreciate during a difficult initial tour.

Having experimented with so many possibilities making the first routes, the third, central option, came quick and easy. For this path we would stay on I-40 all the way to Arizona and the Petrified Forest National Park, one of our favorites from 2015’s grand tour. Continuing west could take short detours to Sedona or the Grand Canyon before continue to California and all those national parks in the central part of the state (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles, Yosemite.)

We discussed the pros and cons of all three options: north had the most national parks but was by far the longest route; south had three national parks plus Tucson and Phoenix but they were not at the top of our desired list, while the center route was the shortest and allowed us to revisit some favorite locations though it did not allow a new (to us) national park until deep into California. Though to some it may seem the least exciting, we chose the central option. The opportunity to visit the Petrified Forest and Sedona again, along with significantly more time for the California parks, were major factors, but some specific plans for the late summer and fall also had an impact.

Walking the cat before geocaching, which will involve finding a route to the top of those sandstone cliffs.

We finalized the plan while at the Tinker Air Force Base Family Camp in Oklahoma City, and our selected route meant that, rather than make a sharp turn in either direction, we would continue along I-40 deep into Arizona. Per last post we had already made a nearly 400 mile run to Tucumcari, about 30 miles across the Texas-New Mexico border. With another 414 miles and perhaps seven hours of driving left before our intended campground in Arizona, we elected to stop for another one night stay along the way.

With a mileage-based goal of “somewhere close to the Arizona border,” I had tentatively picked a free, Bureau of Land Management site a few miles off of the interstate along some unimproved gravel and dirt roads. It was right off the interstate, and had a few (though critically, not universal) positive reviews. When we pulled off at the designated exit and tried to work our way to the coordinates, the roads and turn around options got worse and more confusing. We decided to do a painful multi-point turn (made possible only because, contra our early RV days, I now know how to back up a towed vehicle without jack knifing it, a skill roughly learned fishing with friends in Key West) and regroup back near the main road. We checked a couple of RV apps and web sites (All Stays, Campendium) and continued down the road a few miles to Red Rock Park, a Gallup city owned place with mixed and even contradicting online reviews.

Sometimes you just have to pull into an empty parking lot and regroup.

For us, it was near perfect. Admittedly, the both the lay out and walk up check in process were a bit confusing. Site lines were unmarked, services available unclear, and even the roads were awkward (“Is that part of the road loop or a big pull through site?”) We never saw the camp host even though “wait for them to come around” was supposedly one of the payment methods. Regarding all of that: the negative reviewers of this place were right, even about the large (but friendly!) dog that apparently lived semi-feral at the park.

But in our eyes the environment vastly outweighed those minor inconveniences. Under the shadow of red sandstone cliffs, sand dunes, and beautiful rock formations, the campground is right at the head or along the route of several hiking trails. The electric and water equipped sites were spacious and most were under at least one tree. I did a short but arduous hike with some scrambling up the dunes and sandstone bluffs to find an old geocache that had been placed by a hot air balloon crew during a rally years back. We had a beautiful evening under the New Mexico sky, surrounded by natural beauty. This would have been a great place for an extra day or two, an we will consider doing so should we be passing through the area again.

Geocaching. The view from near the top of the bluff overlooking the campground.

Next up: revisiting Petrified Forest National Park.

Heading West: Asheville to New Mexico and Three Short Stops Along the Way

We left Asheville in the rear view camera, headed west, eager to make up a bit of time in both the recent “we’re getting a late start on this year’s travel” and the long term “we haven’t been able to go west in three years” senses. Regarding the latter: we had planned to do our third tour of the US West in 2019, moved it back a year to accommodate a trip to Cuba, and then pushed it off again in 2020 due to COVID.

As such, we did what for us was a sprint across the country, putting in more miles per day than our usual comfort level (four hours or 250 miles) allows, and making a series of one day stops with almost no prior planning or reservations along the route. We wanted the flexibility to push on if we felt like a long drive or stop short if not. To the extent that we did plan, it was “head west on I-40,” at each night’s stop select a few possible campground options for the next day, and hopefully have our actual western destination sites selected by the time we get to New Mexico.

It worked out quite well. We eased into things with a five hour run to Central Tennessee the first day, stopping at only our second Corps of Engineers campground ever, Seven Points in Hermitage. Seven Points is an excellent campground located on a large lake reservoir, and like most COE campgrounds, it is well maintained and firmly managed. The sites are large, spaced out, and under modest tree canopy, just the way we like them.

We did not have reservations since, as stated above, we were not sure how far we would drive that day, but I had checked the web page the night before and noted a handful of available sites. By the time we got there we ended up with the last open spot. Huzzah! It was $26 a night for electric and water, which is a solid price considering the proximity to Nashville. Given less urgency to keep moving, we would have enjoyed a couple of nights here. Alas, it would be but one this trip.

The second day we picked up the pace, crossed the Mississippi and pushed deep into Arkansas during a six hour, 366 mile run. We made it as far as Little Rock, which has an Air Force Base with a Family Camp (the Air Force specific name for their RV parks and campgrounds.) While writing this post I could not for the life of me remember anything about the place, and having failed to take any pictures I resorted to looking it up on U.S. Military Campgrounds and RV Parks, where the reviews and photos sparked my memory.

Using the perhaps tiresome “Good, Bad, and Ugly” framework, the park is conveniently located less than five miles off I-40, safe in the way that all parks actually on a military base are, and dirt cheap at $20 for a full hook up site near a major city. “The Bad” would be the crap shoot as far as which section of the park you end up in, with the back section an extended loop in a partially wooded area, while the front is an ugly parking lot. “The Ugly” is the surprisingly poor maintenance of the area, particularly the front section with muddy, fire ant infested sites. At $20 we weren’t concerned about such things, but if we were staying in Little Rock for more than a one nighter it would be worthwhile to do a bit more planning and aim for the back, nicer section.

Day three we put in another nearly six hour drive, logging another 329 miles west to Tinker Air Force Base FamCamp in Oklahoma City. With nearly 1,000 miles under our belt since Asheville we rewarded ourselves with a two night stay. There we learned that the Air Force’s Frequent Camper Program, an excellent in concept but shakily managed program designed to encourage greater use and exploration of the many AFB parks, has been cancelled. This is a real shame, and the cynic in me assumes that the reason for the cancellation is that it was so poorly managed that someone decided to just chuck it rather than fix it.

A quick primer on the now defunct program: for $40 bucks you bought the initial package, which gave you a passport type booklet, five free night certificates, and some swag (patches, pins, stickers, etc.) One free night cert could be used on a stay of two nights or longer. Once you stayed at ten different FamCamps you sent in copies of the appropriately stamped passport, for which you would receive five more free night certificates. The two main problems with the program management were the lack of available initial packages (it took us four bases to find one back in 2016, and we hear it has gotten worse) and the lengthy delays in getting follow on certifications after sending in your stamped passport pages (it took us months and several follow up emails to get ours.)

Ah well, RIP that program. If you have the passport booklet you can still get it stamped at most places, and at least some FamCamps are still honoring existing free night certificates if you have them. We used one of ours for our second night at Tinker, though it feels a bit wasteful on a site that only costs $20 for full hook ups. The campground itself is decent, though a bit tighter than we are used to at FamCamps, and with a couple of sites roped off due to flooding.

While there a Facebook update resulted in multiple inquiries from Sigsbee friends and acquaintances, and after some coordination we were able to meet up with Terri and John for dinner. We wanted steak, because when in Oklahoma what else should you eat? They picked Bandana Red’s Steakhouse, a local, low key joint with well priced sirloins, for an excellent meal. The only downside was the place had apparently lost their liquor license, so there were no adult libations to accompany the meal. Thanks for a great time, Terri and John, until next time.

Time and distance precluded us meeting up with Sigsbee stalwarts Eddie and Tina, and after our two day recovery stay at Tinker we continued west, putting in another long day. We exited Arkansas, passed through the top of Texas, and after nearly 400 miles made it to New Mexico. Having run out of Air Force Bases and COE parks, we turned to Passport America, our sole remaining discount program, for another one night stop. We ended up at Blaze-In-Saddles RV Park, a well maintained place in Tucumcari. For $20 we had a spacious full hook up site just a couple of miles off the interstate.

So that’s that: a 1,356 mile, six state run that gets us to “The West” only a few days after leaving Asheville. Next post we decide between three, significantly different route options for the remainder of our journey to California.

The Final Weeks of Our Glamping Host Gig at Lake Powhatan

Between last summer/fall and this spring we have worked at Lake Powhatan as glamping hosts for five months, significantly longer than we ever anticipated work camping before COVID, but as we have mentioned multiple times, the cancellation of markets (and later our own unwillingness to participate until we were vaccinated) pushed us into finding alternative income to bolster our existing retirement. By the first week of May, however, we had received our second Pfizer shot, and were eager to return to our regularly scheduled program of travelling the country and selling at craft fairs and related venues.

One of our Blue Ridge Parkway drives.

So with just over two weeks remaining on our glamping gig, May gave us the opportunity to prepare for our travels while doing as many of the things in the area we could, especially seeing friends and family. For Mothers Day my mom and stepdad drove over from Wilmington and stayed for a couple of days, allowing us to have a few get togethers. Last fall they stayed in the glamping tents, and let’s just say having checked that box they opted for a traditional hotel for both of this year’s visits. Crazy right? I mean who wouldn’t want to pay $150 a night for a tent in the woods? (No seriously, it sounds expensive to me, but people love it. Aside from the lack of bath facilities in your tent, it’s pretty close to having a hotel room right in the woods.)

Hunting a geocache along the Blue Ridge.

When they came back in March, Rosemarie was laid up following her dental surgery, so it was great that they were able to make another trip to Western North Carolina. We were able to give them a more thorough tour of the campground this time, and enjoyed a Mothers Day brunch at our site complete with mimosas and local cured country ham biscuits. We met up again at brother Jason and Emmie’s home in nearby Black Mountain, allowing us to spend a little more time with Olivia Jane.

We managed to get together one more time with our RV friends Jen and Dees, who gave up their full time RV life for a home in Asheville last year, though they still plan on being on the road part time for the foreseeable future. They picked our spot for Cinco de Mayo: Zia Taqueria, which sports a large covered outdoor seating area, credible tacos, and a nice assortment of local craft beer.

In our last week in town we met up with Judith, one of Rosemarie’s friends from Miami Beach going way back. Judith recently moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and we all agreed to meet roughly half way between us. Judith picked The Purple Onion in the cute town of Saluda, which turned out to be an excellent choice all around. It was great listening to them catch up on each other as well as many mutual friends from their Miami Beach era.

Aside from friends and family, we aimed for more outdoor activity away from the city proper, and for much of that we allowed geocaching to define some some of our days. Thus we took the Blue Ridge Parkway both north and south of town in search of a few older or rarer caches. Other than some fantastic views, these outings gave us several short hikes to either interesting locations or amusing caches. 6

We’ve been busy with the caches these last two months. (The yellow circles are all of the ones we found.)

Likewise, we explored areas of the North Carolina Arboretum that we had skipped during our visits last year. Lake Powhatan Recreation Area has several trails that lead to the Arboretum property, and hikers and bicyclists are allowed in free of charge (cars typically pay $16 for the day.) It wasn’t just geocaching that we enjoyed along the way, Rosemarie added to her survivalist cred by finding wild onions as well. They are quite small but rather intense in flavor, and the stems taste quite like scallions. She has now found three edible species of mushrooms and these, though she really was hoping to find ramps, a particular type of wild onion with a very strong garlic.

Having covered all of our favorite Asheville food and drink spots last post, I want to mention one final place: Los Tienda Los Nenos, a bodega/bakery/take out taco joint/butcher shop in a West Asheville strip mall behind an Aldi’s. It felt like true and authentic piece of Central America dropped into Appalachia. We can highly recommend the fresh made chicharrons (pork rinds) and only wish we had not discovered them so late in our Asheville stay. Word is their tacos are fantastic, and the carnitas (pulled pork) even better.

We started this season at Lake Powhatan with dramas, so perhaps it is appropriate, or rather, inevitable, that we ended with a bit more. You may recall that back in March management instituted policies that resulted in multiple employees quitting or not showing up for the season. Things appeared on the road to a new normal as they hired replacements, and back tracked a bit on one policy by hiring a new on site manager couple. The day before we left they fired them, asked them to leave the property within days, and promoted the most recently hired (and arguably least “camp host” experienced) couple. They’ll be fine; they are young, computer literate, and work motivated.

So yeah, the place is still a bit in transition, and while we are curious in the gossipy sense to know how things progressed after our departure, we realize that we are not likely to work their again, so it’s really none of our concern. But if your are looking for a camp host position in the Western North Carolina region, we know a place with openings.

Next up: we begin our westward run as we develop plans for the summer along the way.

76 Months Full Time RVing: April 2021 Report

The Distance: 0 miles, of course, as we entered the middle stretch of our two month work camping gig in Asheville. Our total for the year remains 1,352 miles. Next month that mileage shoots up.

We were here the whole month, so no route map this time.

The Places:  The entire month of April we stayed at Lake Powhatan National Recreation Area. That’s 30 days at a public (federal) park with 50 amp full hook up services.

Our new niece, Olivia Jane Chalupa Batman. That’s right, a totally real, not at all half made up name.

The Money: 47% under budget, which is a big deal given how badly the year started (with both January and February way over budget.) Having worked at Lake Powhatan since mid March our paychecks kicked in, giving us a big boost, while our daily campsite fee of $15 was well below our $30 target. Though we did not implement a true austerity plan, we were reasonably frugal; I know the focus on restaurants and breweries from last post makes it seem like we live high on the hog, but we went to a brewery only once a week and dined out all of seven times this month, and some of those were just pizza or a split entrée. The real budget saver, however, was not having any major unplanned expenses: no major appliance broke, the car received only minor work, and neither of us needed medical or dental care.

PKM helping out with prepping a tent for guests.

The Drama & Improvements: Having broken my phone last month, it was Rosemarie’s turn to damage something technical and thus continue our unofficial electronic upgrade plan. Her relatively new iPad fell off the bed while charging, and broke off the charging connector inside the port. Luckily I had purchased the extended insurance from Best Buy, so it only cost us the $49 fee to get an entirely new one, though it took nearly a week for them to get it to us. Other than that, we started the basic maintenance stuff associated with a major road trip, in this case oil changes for both Loki and Serenity and other related things.

April in Asheville

Yes, there was a bit of drama surrounding this season’s opening at Lake Powhatan in the wake of recently hired senior management’s implementation of fresh and exciting new policies, which resulted in a nearly immediate employee exodus. As local management struggled to keep everything running with the remaining crew while urgently seeking camp host replacements, we calmly adapted; the limited impact of the changes on our specific responsibilities and compensation affording us a sanguine attitude. In short, the money was the same, and they mostly left us alone to run things as we saw fit up in the glamping area.

Three tents from the glamping loop.

And so we observed with casual interest the at times chaotic adjustment at the front gate and other camping loops, with a couple of new couples hired on as hosts or new on site managers, while we lived out a routine largely similar to our previous three month gig here. We did our work, stayed ahead of the glamping tent turnover, and settled into a pattern that saw us doing most of our prep work in the late morning, then taking off for a couple of hours for errands and enjoyment of the local area, before returning in time for our afternoon and evening check ins.

Inside one of the tents.

One of the reasons we were excited to get back to Asheville was to meet the newest member of the family, my brother Jason and Emmie’s newborn, Olivia Jane Chalupa Batman, which we were able to do just a few weeks after her birth. She is a beautiful study in contrasts: gave her mother hell during a 40 hour labor, but seems to be an incredibly well behaved infant, sleeping even more than our cat.

The Chalupa.

During our first couple of weeks in the area we of course visited our favorite pizza place in all the land, Pizza Mind, for the roasted beet and cauliflower pizza with balsamic. In April we were able to return to a few other Asheville faves while discovering a couple of new places. In the former category, we made several appearances at our go-to brewery, Archetype (conveniently located next door to Pizza Mind) especially once we learned of their Tuesday $4 pour specials. Also high on our list: Asheville Sushi & Hibachi, an unassuming storefront place half way to Hendersonville, that surprised us last season with their freshness, service, and cute presentation, all at a very competitive price.

Angrily, uncooperatively, posing with the headband Rosemarie made for her.

All three of these places figure high on our list of free wifi locations, which are critical to our digital happiness while working in the nearly off the grid Lake Powhatan. If we returned to a restaurant or brewery in Asheville, chances are it was not simply for the food and drink on offer, but for the fast guest internet access as well.

A nice bridge during one of our geocache outings.

As for new places, we enjoyed half a dozen or so this month. We can’t always splurge on Pizza Mind, so we were happy to stumble across Galactic Pizza so close to the campground. They offer surprisingly low priced New Yorkish style pizza. After having had one or two just so-so local BBQ experiences, we followed the recommendation of fellow camp hosts and drove out to Brevard for lunch at Hawg Wild. We enjoyed a very moist but not over done brisket sandwich. I would have liked to explore both the menu and the town a bit more.

One of the things I liked about this place was how it teased out yet another regional BBQ battle. In this case, North Carolina style BBQ has an Eastern variant, characterized by use of the entire hog and a minimalist, vinegar based sauce, and a Western version, using mainly pork shoulder and with a sweeter, tomato based sauce. Hawg Wild offers both types.

While I am mostly satisfied with the typical fast food burger joints, I do enjoy truly fresh made burgers at something slightly more upscale, i.e., a diner or fast casual mom & pop type place. We quite liked Juicy Lucy’s, which features their namesake burger, with the cheese embedded within layers of the patty before cooking, which I am learning only now as I research (google) things for this post is a well established style of burger that appears to have made a comeback in the last decade.

We also finally managed to get to Oyster House Brewing Company, yet another West Asheville restaurant that had been on our radar since last summer. It seemed like the timing was always wrong for us; they were closed when we were in the area, open when we weren’t hungry, outdoor seating was full during peak COVID, or something. After such near misses we were glad to hit them this April, enjoying an assortment of three different raw oyster variants, and something from their interesting in house beer menu.

Its 2021 and we aren’t on the Apalachicola Coast, so the days of 50 cent oysters are long gone for us, but it was nice to splurge a bit on an old favorite.

Our most significant experience of the month, however, must be our initial COVID vaccination. It was a welcome surprise to find North Carolina well ahead of Florida in making it so readily available. We made an appointment through Ingles Grocery as soon as our state designated age/employment category came open, and had the first of our Pfizer doses shortly there after. Quite a relief.

We also expanded our farmers market options beyond the weekly West Asheville Tailgate Market and the permanent barn-style Western North Carolina Farmers Market, venturing to the River Arts District Wednesday afternoon event a few times. While the vendors there are not drastically different than those at the West Asheville market, River Arts has the advantage of several on site dining and drinking establishments. Wedge Brewing has one of their two locations there. As we keep on the lookout for a future, possibly seasonal home, at least one thriving local farmers market is a priority.

Outdoors at Wedge.

Next up: another monthly report and then our final weeks in Asheville before beginning our westward run.

75 Months Full Time RVing: March 2021 Report

The Distance: 701 miles from Central Florida to Asheville., which brings us to 1,352 for the year. We will be stationary in April, but by late May we expect the mileage to ramp up dramatically. Foreshadowing!

The Places: We started the month with ten days at Wekiva Springs State Park, then headed north to Lake Powhatan in Asheville. We stopped at cousin Robb’s in Gainesville, cousin Marissa’s in Atlanta, and one night in South Carolina along the way. These were all places we have stayed before, unlike last month when we explored several new campgrounds.

PKM in her standard travel position on Rosemarie’s lap. She is clearly pretty stressed by the whole “leaving Florida” thing.

We were in public campgrounds for 26 days (10 state, 16 national,) in families’ driveways for 4, and at a private RV park for 1. We had full hook ups for 19 days, partial for 11, and dry camped 1 night.

Rey & Marissa’s newest creation, baby Elishia.

The Money: 26% under budget, which, given how bad January and February were for our finances, was a welcome relief. The down side is that without the final COVID stimulus checks we would have been significantly over budget. We had an extremely low average daily camping fee (because of the free camp hosting site at Lake Powhatan, free street parking with relatives, and a cheap Passport America night) but other expenses pushed the budget. Stocking up for travel and gas for the big rig were part of it, but most of our unexpected costs came from a couple of urgent “repairs” discussed below.

PKM loves Lake Powhatan. So many lizards and moles and other tasty things! She loves spending time outside, blending in with the natural surrounding.

The Drama & Improvements: Rosemarie had been nursing a tooth ache for some time, and once we were settled in Asheville it was time to deal with it. She had a bad abscess under a tooth she had root canaled in Mexico a few years back, and had to have the whole thing extracted. She experienced immediate relief, but because the removed tooth was a big molar, she really needs to have something other than a gap there. So as part of the process the dentist also did the prep work (bone grafting) for a future implant, which can’t be done until months later.

But also, its nice to have humans that prepare your sleeping accommodations properly.

Additionally, I managed to drop my phone out of the golf cart during a high speed turn and then run over it, which completely shattered the screen, rendering the entire device unusable. It is 2021, we can’t easily live without our phones, so an immediate replacement was needed. Fortunately I don’t need a top of the line, latest generation phone (such tech would be wasted on me) so I went with last year’s mid tier (A series) Samsung Galaxy, which is working quite well, thank you very much. While this was not an expense we needed or expected, I had been nursing the previous, six year old phone along for some time. The charging port was broken, the speed was heavily degraded, and the battery life was abysmal, but I had hoped to make it last through 2021. C’est la vie.