RV living is definitely an adventure. You never know what you’re going to encounter anywhere you go. It’s unpredictable, which has helped us both to become more flexible.
Every year on the road, we find ourselves in situations we would have rather avoided. But we learn from them, and they make us stronger. Here, we count down our six scariest moments from our 2021 travels:
6. Low DEF
Gulliver has a diesel engine, and modern diesel engines require diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to reduce the amount of pollution they release into the air. You may have seen a truck blow black smoke before. DEF prevents that.
Because this pollution preventer is so important, diesel engine manufacturers install restrictions on modern vehicles that lack it. So, if Gulliver’s DEF level gets too low, he’s subject to a speed throttle, reducing our peak speed to as little as 5 mph.
About 40 miles from our planned fuel stop in Michigan, where we could also get DEF, we pulled into a rest area to assess the situation. Our DEF tank had never been this low, leaving us uncertain as to how far we could go before Gulliver slowed to a crawl.
Bob asked a trucker at the rest area if he had any spare DEF. Sure enough, he offered us a jug of the smelly stuff. Bob poured some in our tank and checked the level on the dash. It barely registered. We ended up using the whole jug — and the trucker wouldn’t accept anything in return.
5. Low-Flying Chopper
Our friends in Terre Haute, Indiana, have an airplane hangar in close proximity to an air ambulance operation. While in town to visit these friends, they let us moochdock at their hangar.
During the day, we barely saw any activity from the air rescue company. But at night, on more than one occasion, we heard the helicopter engine rev up and run for quite a long time before taking off. But once the chopper took off, it was gone, and we forgot about it.
Later, it had to return to the airport. As it descended to land at the next hangar, it flew about 50 feet over our roof. Tagalong shook in fear. The chuff-chuff-chuff of the chopper blades and the vibration in the trailer made it sound and feel like the helicopter would land right on top of us. Thankfully, it didn’t, and Tagalong escaped unscathed.
4. Flat Tire on the Freeway
You don’t realize how fast things are moving until you stop. I found this to be true when I got stuck while tubing down the Salt River in Arizona one year. We found this again when one of Tagalong’s tires sprung a leak on the freeway en route between Alabama and Tennessee. This was no slow leak. It was a fast one, with rushing air sound effects and all.
We pulled over and considered trying to put the spare tire on, but the flat tire faced the freeway. We didn’t want to risk getting hit by a vehicle whizzing by. Plus, we were already unlevel on the shoulder. Jacking up the trailer in that position could have resulted in its loss.
Realizing we were about 1 mile away from a truck stop, we decided to nurse the trailer along, putting all the weight of the driver’s side on one tire to reach a safer area to address the issue. We made it, and Bob succeeded in changing the flat. We replaced all four trailer tires at our next destination, grateful for a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that saved the day.
3. Tornado Warning
When a 42-foot fifth wheel and a nearly 22-foot truck are all you own, the threat of a tornado can be incredibly more daunting than when you have a bricks-and-sticks house. A high-wind storm of that nature can also do a lot more damage to a smaller, portable home.
So, when we were awakened by a tornado warning in southwestern Michigan, we knew we better seek shelter. We were moochdocking at my cousin’s farm at the time and thankfully had a place to go, complete with a basement. Had we been somewhere on our own, the situation could have been even scarier.
2. Precarious Parking Spot
Being able to park at the homes of friends and family allows us opportunities to catch up with loved ones. But not all friends’ and family’s properties are Tagalong-friendly.
Our daughter, Megan, who lives in Tennessee, offered to let us moochdock. She has two nice long driveways, which meant our trailer wouldn’t be in her or Sydney’s way. But because they live in a hilly area, neither of their driveways is level.
We succeeded in getting our rig parked and set up, thanks to Megan helping to lift some low-hanging branches and electrical wires out of the way. Because the driveway is perched on a hill, Tagalong’s auto-level function couldn’t reach true level, leaving us in a precarious predicament and giving us some anxiety.
We chocked the wheels better than ever before and gave the coach as many points of contact with the ground as we could — up to 13. We certainly didn’t want our rig to fall down or lurch forward. We survived and lived to tell about it, grateful to Megan and Sydney for letting us stay with them.
1. Narrow Bridge
Encountering narrow bridges is a normal part of traveling across this beautiful country. Bridges are often narrower than the road before and after them. And that’s usually not an issue.
After leaving Traverse City, Michigan, to head to my cousin’s in the southwestern part of the state, we started seeing construction signs. Then we saw a sign that said “9-FT BRIDGE.” Our rig is 8.5 feet wide, which gave us cause for concern. Did we really see that sign correctly? we wondered. Could a bridge really be that narrow? We reasoned there must be a little more wiggle room than that.
As we got closer to the bridge, we saw a semi-truck headed our direction. That made us feel better because it had to have come across.
The bridge came into view, and it didn’t look like there was any wiggle room. That meant we had only 3 inches to spare on either side of us. Thankfully, Bob was driving at the time. We went slow, and he kept Gulliver and Tagalong right in the middle while I watched in the rearview mirror.
We thank God for bringing us through all of these scary moments.
In our second year on the road, we covered nearly 7,000 miles in 30 stops. That’s 1,000 miles less than in 2020 with three extra stays. We added six more states to our map and decreased our average trip distance from 294 miles to 227 miles. That’s largely because of some short trips in the Midwest, where we spent the bulk of our time.
Out of 33 weeks on the road, we boondocked with fellow full-time RV family members Tom and Molly for seven — five weeks at the beginning of our trip and two more toward the end. That was a welcome blessing.
We continue to enjoy moochdocking and the opportunity it affords to spend quality time with family and friends. We moochdocked at my parents’, our daughter Megan’s, my brother’s, my cousin’s, the home of a friend from high school, and some good friends’ from the Commemorative Air Force.
The country is home to some beautiful campgrounds — some better than others — and we frequented a lot more of them this year. We didn’t have much trouble finding places to stay and didn’t plan all that far in advance. Here are some of our favorite places we visited in 2021:
Narrowing down the most appealing of the 10 campgrounds we patronized is no easy task, but we can easily eliminate two: Traverse City State Park in Traverse City, Michigan (not big rig-friendly) and Rustic Barn Campground and RV Park in Keiler, Wisconsin. Although the latter offered picturesque views of the sunsets, sites for full hookups were on top of each other, making it not worth the price.
The spacious Texas state campgrounds welcomed big rigs, and a state park in Louisiana had the same allure — and made for our easiest parking job of all (no, it was not a pull-through). We relished our time at Gladstone Bay Campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where we had beautiful views of Lake Michigan right outside our windows.
But our favorite campground for 2021 goes to Thomson Causeway Recreation Area on the Mississippi River in Thomson, Illinois. The tranquil park features four camping loops, most of which include views of the mighty Mississippi. Offering walking trails, historical landmarks, and turtle crossings, the campground is also close to a bike trail that stretches for miles.
Favorite Boondocking Stay
Equipped with solar panels and generators, our rig is boondock-ready. We expanded our boondocking repertoire this year to four locations, near:
Due to the wide open nature of the first three areas, our stays there included a lot of wind. But that didn’t deter us.
We liked all of the spots for different reasons: desert landscape, rock formations, wildlife, and wooded forests. Our favorite goes to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where we were situated atop a butte overlooking the city. The expansive views and beautiful scenery far outweighed the wind and cold.
Favorite Overnight Rest Area
When heading more than 300 to 400 miles to a destination, we tend to cover the distance in two days rather than one. In between, we stay at rest areas and Walmart parking lots. In 2021, we overnighted at rest areas in New Mexico, Alabama, Kentucky, and Utah.
Of those stops, our favorite would have to be a rest area near Deming, New Mexico. At most rest stops, we park with the semi-trucks. That was not the case at this one. Set up for overnight camping, it features nicely distanced pull-off spots with lighted pavilions encompassing picnic tables and access to water spigots.
Our stay there made for a peaceful night on a lengthy journey, and we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset too.
We made the Upper Peninsula of Michigan our ultimate destination for the year and spent three weeks basking in its beauty, history, and uniqueness. After an additional eight weeks in the Lower Peninsula, the state of Michigan wins the award of our favorite, hands-down.
We immersed ourselves in history at the Yankee Air Museum, helped corral cows while visiting my brother and his wife, swam in Lake Michigan in the southwestern part of the state, and reclined on a farm for a fireworks show to celebrate Independence Day, among other things.
Our three weeks in the Upper Peninsula are some of our favorite memories. We took a ferry ride to Mackinac Island and explored an old fort and took in picturesque views. We dipped our fingers in Lake Huron and walked and rode our bikes along Lake Michigan. And, we bundled up in 50-ish degree weather and ventured out on frigid Lake Superior for a pontoon boat ride.
We intentionally headed to the U.P. in early May to avoid bugs. That also helped us avoid tourists. Sure, we had to brave cold weather, but we had a super enjoyable time nonetheless.
This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.