Here's our stats: 5,209 miles driven in 12 states. Fuel cost – $941; Campground cost – $650
Now, three days after returning from a three-week trip out west – we're both ready for our next adventure.
So…people ask… how was it?
What they really want to know is how can two people live for three weeks in a 22-foot motorhome.
The answer is… very well. We were surprisingly comfortable, in fact.
It's a given that traveling west is always awesome. I don't think I've every been more amazed at the wonder of God's creation than after experiencing Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, the Badlands, the Black Hills, the sandhills of Nebraska. Stunning all. You can scroll around and see the stories and photos we posted each day during the trip.
Our RV travel is aimed at seeing this great land. But it's also a chance for me as a longtime journalist now in my retirement years to go back, at my own pace, and discover the people and places and stories that you seldom hear in mainstream media. To that end, the trip was also exactly what I hoped it would be. I have a slew on video stories that I'm now editing and you'll see them here on the blog in the weeks ahead.
In no particular order, here are 12 lessons learned on this trip, lessons that have confirmed to us we're on the right plan for this stage in our life, in the right RV.
1) You are never alone – You are also never, or very seldom, out of Internet range. Whether by smartphone or through something like the Verizon Jetpack that creates a hotspot, it's pretty easy now to find high speed access. And that means you have access to help from hundreds of other who have gone before. In the Back Hills of South Dakota, I messed up, downshifting too much and redlining my turbo, sending the motor into “limp home” mode, which limits speeds to 45 mph or so. I pulled into the parking lot of the Crazy Horse monument and fired off an email to the CyberRally, a service of the Roadtrek International Chapter of the Family Motor Coach Association. I described my problem and, in less than five minutes, I had several people correctly diagnose the situation, direct me to the nearest service center and explain the error of my driving. In North Platte, Nebraska, I posted another CyberRally SOS when I couldn't get my house battery to charge while driving. Instead of an email, a chapter member actually phoned me, walked me through opening my hood, removing a cover near the battery and discovering that a fuse had blown.
2) You will make mistakes – I have written before how I am about the most unhandy handyman you will ever encounter. The only mechanical difficulties I experienced were self caused, or, as one CyberRally friend joked, the result of “the nut that sits behind the steering wheel.” That would be me. Hopefully, I've learned from those mistakes. I've kept a list of things I need to understand better about my RV and I'm going back and re-reading the instruction manuals. I've learned that while it's important to know stuff, what's more important is to know where to go to find out the stuff you don't know. I return from this trip absolutely convinced that the best investment I have made in my RVing life was joining the FMCA and the Roadtrek International chapter. No matter what motorhome type you have – A, B, C – no matter what brand, there is a chapter devoted to that model and you will find a whole community of people willing to help.
3) Campgrounds vary greatly – I don't want to be negative. I did enough of bad news reporting as a journalist. But I will say that it is scandalous how bad some campgrounds really are. Twice, I consulted guide books to find places to stay. Both had high rankings. Both were dumps. One, in Wyoming, appeared to be a work camp. I learned later tat many of the occupants were living there while working in the nearby fracking fields. We woke up in the morning to see a bulldog chained outside a neighbor's fifth wheel. The poor creature has no more than five feet of rope. There was a doghouse it could barely get into, some dirty looking water, surrounded by the poor dog's excrement. I complained to the manager of the campground. “He looks happy to me,” she shrugged. I wanted to chain her up. In Missouri, another highly rated park had a pile of uncollected burnt garbage in the firepit next to us. The restrooms were loaded with spiders. I showered with six of them. The window was busted out. Bugs were everywhere. A rusty shower dripped constantly. The only commercial campgrounds we found that were consistently clean, quiet, well-maintained and neat were KOA campgrounds. They set the standard for commercial excellence. I will choose them every time from now on.
4) Stay where you play – We did find a great commercial campground in the Yellowstone National Park entry town of West Yellowstone. We used it as a base to explore the park, returning each night, heading out each morning. Then, towards the end of our stay, we stayed in one of 12 Yellowstone campgrounds. Wish we had done that all the time we were there. Being in the park, rather than outside, was by gar the best experience. We boondocked in the Indian Creek Campground. No generator, no power, no flush toilets. No problem. We had battery power for lights, our own bathroom in our RV and we realized that, once darkness comes, a campfire and a lantern are all the light you need. Our LP refrigerator uses very little battery power. We could boondock for a week, easily.
5) Don't over-schedule or drive too much – I did. Largely because we were on a tour sponsored by FMCA and had to be in certain towns for media interviews, we had a schedule to keep to. We learned that unexpected delights crop up everyday, things to see, places to visit off the beaten path that you never expected. Several times, especially on the return when we had to drive 1,000 miles in two days to get to a live TV interview, we found ourselves disappointed and cranky at missing things we would have liked to have lingered over. Like pretty much the entire state of Wyoming. We will build in margin on future trips. I once thought 400 miles a day should be the maximum. After this trip, I think 250-300 miles a day should be tops.
6) Get to your destination at least two hours before dark – I would have avoided some of those dreadful campgrounds if I had done this. You need some downtime after driving. Chill out. Explore your location on foot or bike before you settle in for the night. Plan the next day together.
7) Don't book campgrounds in advance, unless absolutely necessary – Because our travel was delayed, we lost deposits and had to pay a penalty because our plans changed en route. One was $45 and the other was $22. I called, more than 24 hours ahead of time, but their policy was, you cancel, you pay. I understand during peak times, reservations are necessary. But the nature of RV travel is that things come up. Plans change. We will only selectively make reservations from now on. Wasting money is never a good experience.
8) Avoid discount travel clubs – I joined one of those clubs that purports to give you a 50% reduction in overnight fees. Read the fine print. It's always at the discretion of the campground. On this trip, even though the campground was a member of the discount program, they said they never gave that discount in the summer, when business is good. Ah, excuse me, but summer is when we do most of our RVing. This happened once before, on another trip. Several experienced RVers told me the same story. That's another $79 I wasted.
9) Home is where your RV is – No matter the scenery, we were always home. All our stuff was with us. Everything we needed was at hand. Our favorite foods, a change of clothes, raincoats, cameras, computer, whatever we needed. I said above how surprised we were at being so comfortable. While neither of us thinks a 22-foot motorhome is big enough to be fulltime RVers, we both agreed that we could have stayed out there on the road longer. Every day, we organized better, found different places to put things. I think we now have our routines established and our RV truly feels like home, not a van. It's so much more convenient than even a hotel room.
10) Sometimes, it's easier to eat out than in – We expected to do more cooking in our RV. We didn't. We ate out most meals. It was just more convenient. We picnicked a few times, once along the Mississippi, a couple of times in Yellowstone, once in a Rest Area in Minnesota. But most meals, we stopped and found a local restaurant. We ate in Mom and Pop places, mostly, cowboy bars, Tex-Mex places, a couple of truck stops and the surprisingly good grills in the Yellowstone service centers in Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Village. This was also a vacation. Jennifer does enough cooking at home. I made my own coffee every morning in the RV. Sometimes we'd have oatmeal or yogurt and granola for breakfast there, sometimes we'd be on the road an hour or so before we stopped and had breakfast. Once we rode bikes into town for eggs and sausage. Because our days were so jam packed with sightseeing, neither of us felt like cooking at the end of the day. We avoided fast food places, always choosing local color over the chains. None of the meals were fancy and, overall, our monthly food expense last month – with three weeks of traveling – was only around $200 more than what we usually spend at home.
11) Turn off the TV – The idea was to get away from it all. We turned our TV on just once, to find news about a wildfire we has seen burning in Montana. I was amazed at how many people sit inside their RVs watching TV when, outside, around them, there are a gazillion stars in jet black skies that they're never see back home, or mountain vistas and sparkling waters and clean, clear non city air. Craziest thing I ever saw. People choosing to watch TV rather than experience nature and quiet. Thank God most campgrounds have silent hours after 10 PM. One night in Yellowstone, I heard wolves howling. Coolest sound I have ever heard. In the campground all around me were people locked up inside their RVs watching DVDs on their television. They hadn't a clue. To each their own, I guess. But please tell me I'm not crazy when I think they are.
12) Make new friends – That we did. To that end, we are glad to have met a lot of people. They include: Kirk, the Colorado guy enjoying his 7th year of sobriety and getting his life on track who was our neighbor at the Indian Creek campground at Yellowstone offered delightful company as he shared his discoveries in solo wilderness camping there for a month each year. The Ann Arbor, Michigan couple we met at the Old Faithful picnic area who had rented a Class C to experience RV life who now are so excited they plan to purchase a Type B motorhome like ours. The owner of the Badlands, SD, KOA campground, who sat around our site at sundown one night and talked about what it's like living in such a beautiful, but desolate spot. To many others, we thank you for your company and kindness – especially Chuck Woodbury, Jim and Chris Guld, David Bott, and fellow Roadtrekers Frances Griffin, Dick McGarrity, Stephen Kroman, Stu Kratz, and John and Sally Hearne. Thanks also to the many readers of this blog who passed along encouragement and suggestions via email.
Look for videos of this tour to be edited and start appearing in the next week.
Our next trip will be next week, to Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Then, in mid October, out to New England for the fall colors.