Monday, September 10, 2012

Summary - Our First extended RV trip

How do I summarize the last three months of our lives? They have been a complete deviation from our normal routine. For me, living in southwest Florida, retired, writing, and completely happy, and my wife, who still teaches popular yoga classes, life couldn't get much better. We'd like to see our family up in Georgia more than every three months or so, but all in all, life ain't bad. We've spent the last three months, however, living in a box eight feet wide and about twenty feet long. The box has wheels and we tow it behind our car. It's called a travel trailer.

My wife and I decided to test an idea we toyed with for the future. That idea was to sell the house and all the accouterments, and just travel. That's it, just travel. We'd stay in a recreational vehicle of some sort at campgrounds around the country, possibly even volunteering as campground hosts at parks we like. Our longest RV trip prior to this was a modest three week excursion through the mountains of northern Georgia. We really enjoyed that trip and were ready to happily repeat it.

Did we really want to change our lives? We're very happy with the ones we have. Great neighbors, good restaurants and stores just a few miles away, the only part we don't like are the southwest Florida summers. Hot and humid, with constant thunderstorms and the threat of hurricanes, sometimes we think there has to be a better way to spend summer than constantly watching the Weather Channel. The thought of no responsibilities to a piece of real estate that dictates how often I have to mow it or change its filters, was beginning to grow on me.

We have tested that theory for the last three months, traveling from Florida to the finger lakes of New York, staying in campgrounds along the eastern U.S., developing ideas and conclusions about what we would like to do in our future. If we liked the idea of permanent RVing, we would put our home of fifteen years on the market and buy the perfect RV and tow vehicle and strike out for distant horizons. For our experiment, however, our choice of RV was to simply use what we already owned, a small, twenty-one foot travel trailer. We decided to use our current trailer and be as realistic as possible in our assessment of what we experienced.

We traveled over five thousand miles, had fun, saw wonderful parts of our country that we didn't even know existed. Who knew Pennsylvania had a grand canyon? We met many, many great people, got lost, got frustrated, got mad, even got ready to come home early, but wrapped up a marvelous summer doing something we had only dreamed of.

We encountered practically every brand of RV made in America. From marvelous self-contained class “A” diesel pushers that cost well upwards of two-hundred thousand dollars, to beautiful forty-two foot long fifth wheel trailers on three axles that, while as big and often almost as well out-fitted as the Class “A's,” cost half as much. Not counting the $45,000 diesel pickup truck and the special hitch you need to haul the 12,000 pound trailers, of course. Still, both types of units are incredibly popular and are often better outfitted than many houses. Without a doubt, they dominate the RV market with older, retired crowd, the ones who make sure they have room for the grandchildren. For younger families, especially those with small children, the smaller pop-ups and tents seemed to be the most popular.

We also saw beautiful, top of the line, self-contained class “B” and “C” units, but considerably smaller and easier to drive than the Class “A” units. The top-of-the-line units are absolutely the state of the art in technology, but we are not interested in them for several reasons. All self-contained units have to be unhooked and all the camping features put away before they can be used as simple transportation. There is a plethora of really nice, lower priced Class “B's” and “C's” available, but we learned we like the freedom of using a tow vehicle any time we want, from simply sight seeing to making a run to a local grocery store. There are pros and cons of both types of units, especially for those who want to forgo the hassle of hooking and unhooking the trailer and its connections. Having only a self-contained unit is far easier for many folks.

One factor we found that applied to any style of recreational vehicle, whether towed or self contained, was the type of camping facility, the hook-up, that is available. From full hook-up sites with water, electric service, and full sewer, to sites that had electric service only, or water supply only, we developed a set of wants and desires for future camping trips.

Our first major surprise of our trip was the campground where none of the sites had water to the pad, rather a communal water supply that no one could hook up to on a permanent basis. Some water supplies limit access to five minutes per camper, We had never encountered waterless hook-ups in our trips through Florida and Georgia state parks, but we found that waterless hook-up is common in some northern campgrounds, whether state or Corp of Engineer operated. When the brochure or description only mentions drinking water, be assured there is no water spigot at the campsite

Once forewarned, we learned to fill our freshwater holding tank prior to setting up camp, but the first time left us without water until we made a special effort to fill the tank. Water weighs over eight pounds a gallon, so filling our 26 gallon fresh water tank added over 200 pounds to the weight of the trailer. The popular Seven Points campground at Raystown Lake, the most popular Corps of Engineers campground in their entire system, is also a non-water to the site campground. By the time we stayed there, we had mastered the inconvenience of a prolonged stay at a waterless campsite.

In anticipation of campsites without electric service, we purchased a portable generator that supplied 2600 watts service, but found out it wouldn't start our trailer's air conditioner. I even installed the “hard-start” capacitor on the A/C, but it made no difference. We left the generator behind as we simply decided to stay at campgrounds that had electric service and not be without air-conditioning. When we stayed at my cousin's farm just outside Pleasant Garden, North Carolina, we hooked up to the house water with a garden hose, but we used a borrowed 7500 watt portable generator to run the A/C at night. We quickly found out how far five gallons of gas goes and how long we have to wear ear plugs.

The second thing we learned is we don't like to be dependent on a campgrounds' toilet and shower facilities. Whether in the state of the art class “A” or in a basic trailer, holding tanks have to be emptied. The gray water holding tank will fill up in a hurry when two people shower daily, especially if you add doing the dishes. The best solution is called a full-hookup site, with a minimum of 30 amp service, potable water, and a sewer hook-up that lets you empty your holding tanks whenever you want. Most full-service sites have 50 amp electrical service, but check to make sure which power level is actually available. With water and sewer, showering can be done at your leisure and convenience right in the privacy of your own RV. We walked out of more than a few shower facilities that suffered the maelstrom of weekend crowds.

We stayed at commercial campgrounds that touted "Free WiFi," although they neglected to mention the Internet connection was free only for the first 60 minutes!  Many commercial campgrounds also brag about free cable, but one we stayed at in Winchester, Virginia, had such lousy analog cable reception we used our trusty little antennae instead!  Free HDTV beats free, fuzzy, indistinguishable colors, and bad sound any day.

The majority of the class “A” units and many of the class “B” and “C” units tow a second, smaller vehicle behind the RV, which is unhooked and used as a runabout once they are settled at a campsite. Towing another vehicle involves a completely different set of problems. From being unable to backup your RV without first unhooking the towed vehicle, to special braking and lighting systems and tow bars, insurance, and simply being harder to maneuver through traffic and gas stations, towing a second vehicle requires more time and attention than we are ready to devote. I haven't been there, though, so I'll leave that chapter to someone else. Having the expense, the extra responsibilities and tasks of a second vehicle just isn't something we want to do.

As far as self-contained units are concerned, I have no intention of living in a motel while a mechanic in Slipstitch tries to find a replacement fender or even a simple belt for the engine. If the RV we buy is to become our domicile, it can't be at the mercy of a drunk or a distracted, texting teenage driver. We saw an RV on the Interstate just outside Tifton, Georgia, with its side torn completely off, its contents strewn all along I-75. That would be in the same category as losing your house to a hurricane or tornado.

We found how to pay bills, check mail, both the stamped and the ethereal kind, and to keep up with the news, especially the weather on the Internet. We visited libraries to use their free WiFi, and even used one as a shipping address when we had an emergency part shipped to us. We stopped at McDonald's restaurants when we absolutely had to have access to the Internet. We know now we will have a smart phone and a mobile hot-spot when we take our next RV trip, even if it is only another summer jaunt.

A Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania had never heard of humus, and another one had never heard of 3-in-1 oil. We also learned in Pennsylvania you buy six-packs of beer from bars or restaurants, and you pay whatever price they stick you with. No beer or wine in grocery stores in PA, and the beer stores only sell buy the case! There are no Camping Worlds in Pennsylvania, either, even though the state must be the RV capitol of the United States. Pennsylvania also has some of the prettiest mountain ranges and forests in the United States, and oddly, no sales tax on clothes.

We know we will make changes to what clothes we pack to wear and what we food we bring to eat. We learned we can live without satellite television, but not local stations and weather reports. We learned a lot, and most importantly of all, learned that we still have much to learn! Anyone who prides themselves on being an expert at this will someday be left scratching their head wondering why the wheels fell off.

Also on our list of experiences was a not-so-gentle reminder to reread the instruction manuals that come with every RV. They are really written so the average owner will understand them, but we found rereading them a second time around can be enlightening. When I reread the water heater manual included with my new travel trailer, I realized it was for a different water heater than what was installed in our trailer. I downloaded the correct manual from the Internet while visiting a local library. A blog entry on the Internet that suggests filling your black-water, or sewage, holding tank with ice-cubes and then driving around town to clean out undissolved toilet paper to solve erroneous water level readings would be far more difficult than following the manufacturers recommendation of using a commercial drain cleaner such as Draino or Mr. Plumber to do the same thing.

We met a campground host who roared with laughter as he recalled RVers who hooked up to the full-service sewer hookups for the first time and then left their black-water drain valves open as if they were at home. Toilets in RVs and toilets at home operate quite differently! The expensive trips to camper service locations that were needed to rectify the solidified, blocked waste holding tanks could have been prevented if the owners had read their manuals. Don't open your black-water drain if the tank has no water in it, or, basically, never use the toilet without substantial water in the holding tank. Most manufacturers recommend at least one-third full before opening the black-water drain valve. In this case, not reading the manual is not only expensive, it can be embarrassing.

We saw a fellow towing a large, plastic blue-boy, a portable sewage container, behind an electric wheel chair on his way to the dump station. We saw the smallest fifth-wheel we've ever seen, a short, twenty footer, towed by a diesel pickup almost as big as the trailer itself, and more types of tents and canvas shelters than we could possibly count. We've seen large fifth-wheel units being driven on the Interstate with their slides-outs in the open position! Twice, once at Raystown Lake and again at Tompkins, my wife had strange dogs stick their heads under her toilet door. We've seen bicycles, chairs, and dog leashes inadvertently left behind by campers, and we've seen campsite scavengers who ride around campgrounds in pickup trucks after the mass of campers leave on Sundays, picking up anything left behind. Firewood, usually, but they always check over the sites for any loose goodies.

We met dear friends, both near the beginning of our trip, and at the extreme culmination, the endpoint destination, of our three month experiment. If it hadn't been for meeting our good friends near Watkins Glen, New York, in early September, we might have cut our trip short and returned home early, especially after Hurricane Isaac grazed the west coast of Florida, but we held to our schedule and saw the trip through to its end. It has been worth it, and we are glad we did it.

It actually hasn't come to an end yet as I write this. We still have several days to go at Tompkins Campground in northern Pennsylvania, the tenth location we have set up our temporary residence on this trip. After Tompkins, we are scheduled at Watkins Glen State Park in New York, Bolar Mountain in Virginia, then finally at our daughter's place near Athens, Georgia. After catching up on our snail mail, seeing our granddaughter and her parents, we will head toward Port Charlotte and slowly but surely return to normal.

We have decided to do a similar trip next year as well, still using our reliable Toyota Sequoia and the twenty-one foot KZ Sportsmen, and we'll take the dogs again as well. Oh, did I forget to write about the dogs? We had Daisy, our thirteen year old Samoyed mix and Taz, a Golden Retriever mix we believe to be seven or eight years old. Who knows how old they really are, they are both rescues that have become part of our family. We doubt Daisy will make another long trip, but then again, we may be surprised, she is a tough old girl. Taz is showing signs of cabin fever, but then he hasn't been off-leash for almost three months. He is a free spirit tethered on a leash, and we are thrilled with his patience and demeanor.

We will plan a different itinerary as we want to see more of this beautiful country of ours while still taking advantage of the cooler weather we came to love during this trip. We will probably shorten the trip as three months was just a little too long to be away from home. That also means we won't be trading the house for an RV.

The summation of the last three months? Home may be where the heart is, but our hearts are still at home.

NEXT: North to New York and Watkins Glen, at:

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