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.

In Which We Encounter Drama Upon Our Return to Lake Powhatan Camp Hosting

Upon completion of our three month job as “glamping” camp hosts at Lake Powhatan National Recreation Area outside of Ashville last November, we departed on what we thought were excellent terms with both on site and regional management at Pisgah Adventure (the contractor concessionaire managing the property.) So much so that we believed we were not only shoe ins for a return engagement at Lake Powhatan in the spring, but also we were likely to be invited for part time camp host work at one of their sister properties in Ocala, Florida. We were… overly optimistic on both accounts.

One night stop at Lake Hartwell, a great Passport America park a few miles off of I-70.

Granted, we did not immediately contact Adventure Ocala to lock in positions. Honestly, we were waiting to see how the pandemic and eventual vaccine roll out went, with an eye towards returning to arts and crafts markets should we deem things safe. After all we have not been, traditionally, traditional work campers, having done but one short stint as lighthouse tour guides at Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park back in 2015. This lack of work camp experience has not been because of a lack of financial need; oh no, we definitely live an RV lifestyle that benefits from an income boost to our military pension. It’s just that the markets have been a better proposition.

PKM barely tolerating her pig outfit.

Ever since participating in a few very small Key West yard sale type events back in 2016, and then a few months later in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula stumbling across a local event in Grand Marais, which in turn lead to the much larger Marquette market, we have expanded Rosemarie’s jewelry sales business such that, pre-pandemic, we were selling at venues all over the country as a regular part of our travels. Our success was such that we had even transitioned away from weekly markets into significantly more profitable special seasonal events. Because of all that we never felt the need for regular work camping, and doing both would be impractical because the obligations associated with such jobs, i.e., a multi-month commitment at one location with significant weekend hours, would likely interfere with our ability to participate in the more desirable market events.

An excellent gift from Dad and Marcia.

But the pandemic cancelled all of our planned events, which is what lead to us working at Lake Powhatan in the first place back in 2020, and while the vaccine roll out was fitfully underway, we were likely months away from a jab ourselves, and thus decided to wait until summer before returning to markets. Having made that decision we attempted to contact anyone with Adventure Ocala in the hope of working a few months, late winter into the spring, but never even received a return call or email. We got hold of the Adventure Pisgah people back in Asheville, who interceded such that we eventually received a perfunctory brush off from one of the Ocala properties.

Rosemarie’s split pea soup with ham hock, sautéed farmers market chestnut mushrooms, and fresh made bread. We eatin’ right!

At a dead end there, we pursued two additional lines of inquiry: other camp host jobs in Florida, or an early return to Lake Powhatan. A lot of phone calls and emails produced but a couple of marginally promising leads for Florida, though nothing really jumped out at us, unless you count the very secretive campground owner (he would not even tell me the name of his place when he returned my call) who was looking for a like minded couple to bunker down and maintain his park/compound during the coming government collapse. That one did indeed jump out at us, but more in the horror movie manner rather than the promising offer sense.

Our site when we first get in…

As for Lake Powhatan, the problem was that they did not even open back up for the season until late March, and we were unwilling to commit to working there beyond late May. Management was frank about this limitation: though they would love to have us back, they were holding out for camp hosts willing to commit for much longer. We kept up the inquiries in Florida, but had mostly resigned ourselves to not having an additional source of income prior to our 2021 travel cycle, and sought to embrace that “freedom” while recognizing we might need to scale back a few things as a result.

…vs when we settle in.

But then, with a final inquiry, everything changed at Lake Powhatan. Having received no solid long term “Glamping Host” applications, Adventure Pisgah agreed to have us return for a two month stint, and wanted us there as soon as possible, ideally weeks before the official opening of Lake Powhatan in order to get everything ready for guests. Though we had made commitments that precluded their preferred arrival date for us, we did accelerate things and made the run north as detailed in our last posts. After a one night stop in South Carolina, we arrived at Lake Powhatan on March 15, whereupon we were informed that new senior management would be making a slew of significant employment related changes beginning within the week.

Now, pause for a minute and consider the wisdom of instituting major changes on a compressed timeline such that employees only learn of them upon arrival or, in the case of a couple of other camp hosts, during transit. With that skeptical perspective firmly in mind:

  1. All work campers would be shifted from a barter system, i.e., part time work in exchange for a free site, to an hourly pay scale, which would be at North Carolina minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for most of them. (As glamping hosts already receiving a combination of a free site and a pay check, under the new system we would earn a noticeably higher hourly wage.)
  2. Work campers would then pay for their actual camp sites at a discounted rate of $15 a night.
  3. There would be no onsite management at all, rather, Pisgah Adventure’s regional manager would assume all local responsibility for both Lake Powhatan and another nearby property.
  4. The existing on site managers and assistant managers were effectively demoted to regular camp hosts.

Finally received our center front marker light. Installing it here, along with other repairs.

Chaos ensued. Within a week the aforementioned assistant managers (who also did a lot of maintenance for the property) quit and took positions at a nearby private resort. Another couple turned around during transit and never showed up. A third couple already present put in their two week notice. The existing on site managers, who, let me tell you, did a lot for that place, handed off the reigns to the local regional manager, who also quit within two weeks, taking a position at a nearby forestry non-profit.

Kind of a farewell party for some of the people leaving after the changes at Lake Powhatan.

We did the math and calculated that the monetary effect would be a wash for us, i.e., we would be compensated about the same as under the old system based on our anticipated work hours. Plus, our glamping host job was somewhat insulated from the daily affairs of the rest of the park. The replacement for the replacement manager let us run our loop as if it were a private fiefdom, largely because she had enough on her plate running the campground and day use areas with fill in employees while urgently trying to hire new camp hosts. At one point senior management apparently realized they had gone too far, too fast, and attempted to reverse the demotion of the onsite managers, who refused the offer.

Back in Asheville, one of our first stops: Pizza Mind for their fantastic roasted cauliflower and golden beet pizza with balsamic. Fantastic.

Like the post title says: drama! We made do, adopting a Heraclitan “the only constant in life is change” attitude, though that was only possible due to our relative independence and the previously mentioned financially neutral effect of all the changes on us, personally. There would, however, be more drama during our stay. More in later posts.

Us, looking fabulous, mostly unperturbed by the changes and associated drama.

Final Winter 2021 stays: Wekiva, Gainesville, and Snellville

Down to our last eleven days in Florida, we again benefitted from Dad and Marcia’s official retirement from full time RVing by inheriting their back to back reservations at one of our favorite Central Florida campgrounds, Wekiva Springs State Park. As late in the game as we began looking for openings, we would have been incredibly lucky to find such availability, and only if someone made a late cancellation and we happened to be the first to discover it online. Folks, that’s three separate italicized words for emphasis, so I can’t be any more emphatic.

Bundled up for the notorious Florida winter.

Don’t get me wrong, cancellation hunting has been our go to strategy throughout most of Florida since we started this RV adventure. It generally works as long as you are persistent, i.e., query online at least daily, and a bit flexible on the specific park and dates, e.g. checking three or four properties within your target region and accepting that you might have to move sites or even campgrounds to string together a week or more stay. For the CFL area we generally check Wekiva, Blue Springs, Trimble, and (last resort) Lake Monroe. Regardless, a ten day opening would have been quite unlikely, so Dad and Marcia really hooked us up.

Many of us embraced new hobbies during the pandemic. I hope to keep the bread making going. The machine: free, the ingredients: cheap, the effort: minimal, and the results: superb.

We had a full hook up site for three days, and then switched to an electric and water only site for the remaining seven. For those considering a Wekiva Springs State Park stay (which should not be confused with the private Wekiva Fall RV Resort a little further north) there are 60 sites in two loops within the main campground area (there is a separate group camping section). The 30 lower numbered sites are all 50 amp full hook ups, whereas only about half of the spots in the higher numbered loop have full services; the rest are 30 amp power and water only. For a short stay we tend to prefer the higher numbered loop because it has significantly better tree canopy than the lower loop. For those hoping for satellite TV coverage, the lower numbers will give you a better chance.

Our second site at Wekiva Springs: we saw deer, snakes, gopher turtles, and wild turkeys.

For our last week and a half in Florida, we made sure to visit with more relatives, particularly since Florida was haphazardly rolling out the COVID vaccination campaign, and some of our people had already managed to get at least their first shot. Son Jackson and DIL Andrea visited with us in the park, bringing with them their latest toy, a camera equipped, compact, quad copter drone. Man, these things have become so capable. Operated in conjunction with any smart phone, the thing is largely self flying and has a number of automatic modes for ease of use. It is exactly the sort of toy I could see myself doing hours of research on, agonizing about which specific model to purchase, and then wrecking it within the first hour of use. Regardless, it’s on our short list of wanted items.

Drone demo about to commence.

We also visited Aunt Judy and Bill and cousin Brian for an excellent dinner, and somehow managed not to take any pictures, which, I suppose, counterbalances the agonizing hours of holiday photo sessions that mom and Judy orchestrated throughout my youth.

Still reeling from our Geo Tracker engine rebuild costs, we kept things quite cheap during this period. Aside from the necessary supply restocking in preparation for our spring travel and work plans, we occupied ourselves with the critical (and mostly free!) activities of relaxing, restowing the RV for travel, watching shows and movies downloaded from public wifi sources, and, of course, geocaching. Because we have been coming to this area for years, we have a good number of caches logged here, and added to those via multiple outings this visit.

This is a typical geocaching display map. Green circles are caches we have not found, yellow smiley faces we found, and blue frowny faces we looked for but could not locate.

Despite repeated stays at Wekiva Springs, we had never managed to get up to Sand Lake and the handful of caches available on the hiking trails there. We partially remedied that with this time with a couple of strolls along the heavily wooded paths that parallel streams leading to the lake or main river. Mosquitos drove us out before we could get the last two, but we enjoyed the hikes, and the deer, turtles, and other wildlife, we saw during our successful hunt for four of the Sand Lake hides.

After ten days at Wekiva we broke camp and headed north for our final Florida stop: Cousin Robb’s and family in Gainesville. We have been visiting them during our entries and exits from the state for years, though we usually try to arrange a weekend stay at Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park so they can camp with us. There were no openings this time, but Robb and Colleen always welcome us to driveway camp at their place, so that’s what we did, and enjoyed a great spaghetti and garlic bread feast in their home. With the Gilchrist Blue Spring campground scheduled for major renovations, we look forward to a joint camping experience there down the road.

From Gainesville we made the run up to Snellville, on the outskirts of Atlanta, for what has become another traditional “visit cousins when leaving or entering Florida” routine. While there we see four generations of Rose’s relatives: (grand aunt) Titi Clarivel, her daughter (first cousin once removed) Betsy, her children (second cousins) Marissa, Daniella, and Gammi, and Marissa and Rey’s kids Annalise, Sarah, and Elisha. We stay in Rey and Marissa’s driveway, hooked up to one of their exterior 20 amp electrical sockets.

Since our first visit three years ago, we have watched their family grow: Annalise is now five, Sarah is two, and the newest baby, Elisha, a few months old now. During that time both Rey and Marissa have earned their college bachelor degrees, and upgraded to a larger house in a quite suburb which, it should be noted, has much better RV street parking arrangements than their last home.

Rey has switched jobs to a tech company, and has the flexibility to work from home, at least during the COVID pandemic year. Marissa has expanded her part time, Cricut-based, party decoration business into a full time money maker. Balloons figure prominently.

Next up: Asheville and our spring plans.

Having subdued Pennywise, Kitty Meow Meow emerges from the storm drain.

74 Months Full Time RVing: February 2021 Report

The Distance: 552 Miles as we meandered from South West Florida to Central West Florida, with extra mileage along the way due to moving the tow vehicle from one mechanic to another to finish the engine rebuild installation process. Total for 2021 is up to 651 miles.

Route would have been 200 miles shorter if not for moving Loki around for repairs.

The Places: Despite late developing plans we were able to find several excellent and even reasonably affordable places to stay during February. We started the month at South Bay Campground on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, stayed at our first Corps of Engineers campground (W.P Franklin North,) and then hit one new (Lake Manatee) and one old (Oscar Scherer) state park. As we finalized our Geo Tracker repairs, we stayed one night at MacDill Air Force Base, two nights in a Cracker Barrel, and close out the month with stays at Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks.

WP Franklin North has boat slips to rent as well as RV site.

We stayed 1 night at a military campground, 2 at a Cracker Barrel, and 25 in public parks (5 county, 6 COE, 14 state.) We had full hook services for 7 days, partial (electric/water) for 18, and dry camped for 3.

Hillsborough River

The Money: Making the final payments on the Tracker engine rebuild along with having to fill up the big rigs gas tank for the first time in a few months put us 39% over budget. Without any offsetting income options, we have started off 2021 in the hole. Fortunately, we have some plans to get back on track.

When you are over budget, its good to have a mostly free hobby (and despite the ripped jeans look, the hobby in question is “geocaching” not “looking homeless.”

The Drama & Improvements: As we wrote up in the post before last, Loki continued to be a source of drama this month, but with the rebuild complete, hopefully better and reliable automotive days are ahead of us. After all, we now have a 24 year old truck with 183K odometer miles sporting a zero miles engine.

Nearing the end of our Florida Winter: Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks

With the fully operational Geo Tracker back in our possession after more than eight weeks for the engine rebuild, you might think we would immediately head out for our 2021 adventure plans, but even this late in the winter we still had time to kill before our early spring commitments began. The Tracker fiasco did not really delay our Florida exit so much as destroy our intended late winter Florida exploration: given more time we would have bounced around the state hitting a few favorite and a couple of new spots. As it was, we contented ourselves with two weeks in three Florida State Parks for our final Florida 2021 hurrahs.

The uncertainty of the Tracker repair completion date had not only forced us to cancel some reservations, but also precluded us from making anything more than tenuous new ones. Once Xtreme Zukes Offroad had the truck in their shop for final repairs, we were comfortable making a few reservations, but this late in the game, in Florida, during the peak snowbird season, options were limited, despite the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Regarding that: I only have anecdotes and subjective personal observations, but it really seems like whatever loss in business Florida RV parks experienced due to state/local restrictions, the Canadian border closure and other snowbird travel reticence has been largely made up for by the otherwise booming RV industry, with families of all types itching for some form of vacation but without pandemic risks and limitations. It will be interesting to see what happens to the RV industry as vaccination rates climb, restrictions disappear, and all of those people who bought RVs during the pandemic start back to traditional travel and vacation patterns. I’m predicting a used market glut and an associated drop in prices for both new and used.

Anyway, we expanded our search area and loosened our criteria, which finally exposed a five day opening at Hillsborough River State Park, a new place for us. While we would have preferred one of the fantastic campgrounds located at a major spring or right on the water, Hillsborough River was still quite nice. It was another typical Central/South Florida State Park with swaths of scrub oak and pine forest surrounding widely spaced campsites under a moderate canopy. At $29 a night for an electric and water only back in site is not the best deal going in Florida State Pak campgrounds, but its solid compared to the private short stay options, and it’s hard to complain about a last minute winter reservation anywhere in Florida.

Having spent an unexpected five grand on vehicle repairs on top of completing a multi month stay at one of our most expensive RV parks, we kept things pretty tight: other than groceries and topping off our big propane tank we satisfied ourselves with mostly free activities during our stay. That meant evening walks to the nearby lake and several geocaching outings.

In significant family and related RV news: Dad and Stepmom Marcia have hung up their full time RV lifestyle. After nearly six years on the road, the last couple of which involved increasingly focused house hunting, they bought a place in Central Florida and promptly sold their fifth wheel. Though we will miss family joint camping events, especially the accidental ones, they spent a lot of time travelling and were quite ready to have a permanent home, especially one that ticked so many of their lifestyle requirements.

Once they finalized their move in date they offered us their two remaining and unneeded RV park reservations, beginning with the nearly next door Lake Louisa State Park. Given the Central Florida location, size of the campground, and somewhat more available reservations compared to other nearby public parks, it is surprising that we have never stayed there before. Having now experienced it, and with its close proximity to Dad and Marcia, we are certain to use it again down the road.

The park contains the region typical scrub oak, pine, and palm forests, but adds atypical rolling hills and meadows throughout the extensive, lake dotted acreage. Dad and Marcia had snagged one of the full hook up, pull through sites, making our stop that much more convenient. $28 a night for a site with these amenities is a good deal particularly considering the beauty of the surroundings and the price you would pay at a comparable private RV resort in the region.

Digressing a bit: Rosemarie and I do not make pull through sites a priority, though we know plenty of RVers who do. We generally chose the greater site availability afforded by back in sites over the ease of parking provided by a pull through spot. If I were pulling a big travel trailer or fifth wheel, I would be looking for pull throughs as well, especially for short stays. But with our quick disconnect Blue Ox flat tow system, I can have Loki parked out of the way in under two minutes, and Rosemarie is quite the expert at guiding me back into even tight sites.

Having said that, there really is something nice about just pulling right in and being able to get right to setting up camp, and we are grateful for those times we get to experience this minor luxury. So thanks to Dad and Marcia for this campsite and the next, and for the great-though-too-short visit.

Next: A monthly report and then our last eleven days in Florida for some time.