As you can imagine, full-time RVing offers a lot of opportunities for out-of-the-ordinary experiences. After all, you can wake up in a different city or state any day of the week, depending on your travel. And no two locations or RV setups are exactly alike.
Bundling up to make morning coffee because it’s 42 degrees in the trailer is certainly unusual. But among our travels in 2020 — from the beautiful Pacific Northwest to the windy plains and farmland of the Midwest, to the small towns and prominent history of the East, to the slower pace of the South — three experiences stand out as the most unique:
1. Vacuuming Out Our Holding Tanks
You know the saying: “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” The same applies to emptying RV holding tanks: “When they’re full, you gotta dump them.” Well, when you’re set up in a location for an extended period of time and don’t have sewer hookups, you might have to get creative with how you deal with that emptying imperative.
As with most things, there are multiple ways to address this endeavor. The most obvious would be to close down our trailer, hook it up to the truck, and tow it to a dump station. But we had another option: have a company that regularly empties and cleans porta-potties come to our trailer (for a fee, of course) and suck the contents out of our tanks into a holding tank on a truck for transport to a sanitary dumping facility. We went for option No. 2.
A young guy met us at our rig and proceeded to hook up the hoses on his truck to our holding tanks, flip a switch, and vacuum out the contents. We looked on while the guy took care of our mess — and we didn’t even have to close anything up in the trailer. It cost more than a dumping station would, but the convenience was well worth the extra price.
2. Corn Palace
In the small town of Mitchell, South Dakota, stands the world’s only Corn Palace, which got its start in 1892 as a gathering place for locals to enjoy a fall festival in celebration of a successful crop-growing season and harvest.
Every year, the outside of the palace showcases a new theme designed completely out of corn — 12 different shades of corn. The theme for 2020: South Dakota Home Grown. Murals inside the facility also reflect the year’s theme. And the upper level of the interior displays pictures of the previous themes all the way back to the beginning, so you can see the progress throughout the palace’s history.
You’ll find corn-made items inside as well. We saw a “corny” pair of sneakers emblazoned with the grain, as well as some tools and other things. A corn-themed gift shop culminates the unique experience, where you’ll find all kinds of corn-related souvenirs to commemorate your visit.
3. Sight & Sound Theatre
Having met as light technicians, we have an affinity for live productions. We enjoy going to the local theater and watching a play come to life right before our eyes. Our kids were involved in plays and musicals in high school, and we took pleasure in attending those performances as well.
But nothing compares to the phenomenal live performance we experienced at the Sight & Sound Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
I started snapping pictures before we even parked, finding the outside beauty of the building mesmerizing. When we walked in, the scent of roasting almonds filled our nostrils, beckoning us to sample the novelty. So, of course, we obliged.
After navigating to our seats in the third row, stage right, we settled in to take in our surroundings, confident we were in for a special treat. Once the production started and the curtain opened, the stellar acting and sets captivated our attention. But then, the side walls disappeared to reveal an extended set and more actors on each side.
You’ve likely heard of theaters in the round, where the stage is surrounded by seats so every person has a good view of the action, regardless of where they sit. This had that same feel, but on a much larger scale. We look forward to visiting again the next time we’re in Pennsylvania or Branson, Missouri (their other location).
You know you have a good thing going when you’re away from your RV for two weeks and miss being home. That’s a nice surprise of our new lifestyle. Dorothy said it best in “The Wizard of Oz”: “There’s no place like home.” In addition to that revelation, here are the top surprises from our first six months of RV living:
1. 400 square feet is more than enough space.
The living area of our fifth wheel doesn’t sound like much, but it’s just enough for the two of us. We have everything we need: a living room, kitchen and table, bedroom, bathroom, and a dedicated office — even enough space to entertain. It’s easy to take care of and keep clean, and it feels homey. We really enjoy it.
2. We have more than we need or use.
When you set out on a major adventure, you likely have an idea of what equipment you’ll need. We did. And it’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared, right?
But thinking about inventorying the things in our trailer we haven’t touched since we left the Phoenix area in May sounds like work. We have more unnecessary things than I’d like to tally. There are the fishing poles, DVDs, certain clothes, some dishes, and plenty more. And we didn’t even fill up all the space our rig has to offer.
3. Solid friendships traverse time and distance.
It truly is a small world — and country. Traveling across it and reconnecting with friends and family we hadn’t seen in months and years reminded us of the depth of those relationships. The time apart didn’t matter. We made new connections and rekindled longtime friendships, picking right up where we left off.
4. Truckers are our friends.
Semi-trucks (tractor-trailers in the East, where Bob grew up) were one of the best sights for us to see on any road. If truckers who travel regularly drove the roads we were on, it gave us confidence we could make it on those same avenues — because our rig is only 3 inches shorter than a semi.
Seeing trucks at rest areas and travel stops gave us that same level of confidence for the same reason.
5. Rest areas are quieter at night than we thought.
At the onset of our RV journey, the thought of sleeping in our rig in the parking lot of a rest area didn’t sound very attractive. Vehicles going in and out of the stop every so often would surely keep us awake. And, knowing we’d have to park where truckers park because of the length of Gulliver pulling Tagalong just added to the certainty of the din.
While traveling across the country to stay ahead of some storms, however, we quickly learned otherwise. Wanting to cover a lot of ground in a few days’ time necessitated overnight stays close to the highway. As you probably guessed, rest areas made the perfect stops. And we slept just fine, unbothered by the drone of the diesel truck engines.
6. Even though our rig is made for full-time living, things break.
Not all RVs are created equal. Some are made to be taken out for a short weekend trip, or even for up to two weeks or a month at a time. Others are more robust, designed for full-time living. But no matter the durability behind the construction, all of them are susceptible to things breaking.
Someone summarized it well: Our home experiences a mini earthquake every time we take it on the road. Highways aren’t designed for transporting your home every day, or even occasionally. Just as things break in earthquakes, they break in our rig and require fixing.
Our downtime from traveling during these winter months gives us the perfect opportunity to address those issues (some have to be dealt with right away) — and dwindle down our belongings.
In our first five months living full time on the road, we traveled nearly 8,000 miles, averaging 294 miles per trip and staying in 27 different locations — not including the two weeks we spent in Montana on tour with the Commemorative Air Force B-25 from Airbase Arizona. That 8,000 miles doesn’t include all the running around we did in Gulliver while set up in a location.
In our longest trek, we covered 667 miles in about 13.5 hours, including stops, as we rushed back to Arizona early to be with family. Our shortest distance: 28 miles in Massachusetts. We stayed at a truck stop the night before because we didn’t want to be rushed when setting up at Bob’s brother Bill’s. It made for an easy drive the next day and plenty of daylight to get our setup just right.
Our 27 stays included:
We liked the various stays for different reasons. For example, rest areas make a nice overnight stop when traveling a long distance. The same with casinos, Cabela’s, and Walmart. Here we outline our favorites among the first four types of stops listed above:
Favorite Moochdocking Stay
We greatly appreciate all the people who generously hosted us and allowed us to hook up to water and electric as needed. We enjoyed spending time with friends and family at each of those destinations.
But if we had to pick a favorite moochdocking stop from this past summer, it would be my cousin’s farm in southwestern Michigan, where we stayed for a full month. Getting a little taste of farm life — literally — edged out the other stops. The farm is also where we picked up the little electric bikes we ordered, which were super fun to ride around there.
Favorite Rest Area
We overnighted at rest areas in Tonopah, Nevada; Orovada, Nevada; Rock Springs, Wyoming; Lexington, Virginia; and Jasper, Tennessee. Of those five stops, the Tennessee Welcome Center in Jasper was definitely our favorite.
This rest area sits on an island in the Tennessee River and features beautiful sunrises over the water. Plus, it boasts a building with a Keurig and a vending machine of K-cups, as well as other vending machines. This coffee option may be commonplace at rest areas today, but it was the first one we saw.
I really liked the Great River Campground at the edge of Minnesota, near the Wisconsin border. Unfortunately, the low-hanging branches on the way into the campground ripped our roof (because I didn’t have our TV antenna facing the right direction), so we didn’t get to give the site a good try. We left after one night to avoid storms.
Instead, Four-Mile Creek State Campground on Lake Ontario in northern New York proved to be our favorite of the summer. Although our campsite didn’t overlook the water, we enjoyed riding our bikes around the campground loops to areas with lake views. We also had a campfire there for the first time on our trip. And, it served as an excellent jumping-off point to visit Niagara Falls.
Favorite Boondockers Welcome Stay
We’re still learning the benefits of this option after only staying at two of more than 2,600 Boondockers Welcome hosts. Our favorite stop of this sort would have to be our first, at Lynnwoods Rest Stop in Fremont, Ohio. The host provided full hookups (for a small fee), visited with us for a bit, and made us feel right at home. Situated in a farm area, the stop provided an excellent opportunity for us to take our bikes out and go exploring down a cornfield-lined street.
That’s not to say our other Boondockers Welcome stay was subpar. Quite the contrary. We were so relaxed at that one that we didn’t even leave our trailer for two days. Just enjoyed some much-needed downtime.
Although we drove through 24 states, we could only add 19 to our map because we didn’t spend a night in five of them. Of those we did stay in, our favorite would have to be Pennsylvania.
We moochdocked at the grandparents’ of a girl we met in Guatemala last fall on our Panama Canal cruise. We appreciated visiting with our welcoming and delightful hosts every evening.
We probably explored Pennsylvania more than any other state we toured over the summer, venturing into Gettysburg, Lancaster, and Philadelphia — and glimpsing autumn leaves in the process.
This is the travel blog of Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong. We live on the road full time, enjoying all the adventures that come our way.