The state of Vermont is known for the Green Mountains, beautiful scenery, plentiful hiking, snow skiing, maple syrup, and cheddar cheese.
When we lived in Massachusetts in our early years of marriage, we relished visiting Vermont in the fall to take in the beauty of the orange, red, and yellow leaves on the many maple trees. We also returned in the winter to ski the powdery mountains.
Touring the state in the summer offers a completely different experience, still with abundant opportunities. Here are five activities we enjoyed while visiting our friends Jim and Kelly near Burlington in August:
1. Explore Lake Champlain
A natural freshwater body of water, Lake Champlain spans the Vermont-New York state lines and even crosses into Quebec, covering 490 square miles. Named after French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who arrived in the region in 1609, the lake is rumored to be home to “Champ,” a monster similar to “Nessie” in Scotland.
Bob and his friends used to vacation on the lake in his teen years, with no sightings of the creature. Seeing the lake up close and personal in some fashion or another is a must if you visit the area. We appreciated driving along the water and taking in its expanse, as well as taking Tagalong on his first cruise.
2. See Dinosaurs and Birdhouse Forest
The earliest British Vermont settlement dates back to 1724, but the French actually settled in the area as early as 1666, according to educational website Ducksters. That may not be when the dinosaurs roamed, but that didn’t stop someone from erecting dinosaurs in South Hero, Vermont, right along Lake Champlain. The swampy area has a somewhat prehistoric feel, so why not?
Dinosaurs aren’t the only things you’ll find in this area. It’s also home to what’s become known as Birdhouse Forest. Hundreds of colorful bird boxes dot the trees in the area. Hank and Jay, neighbors in the vicinity, originally constructed 20 of these houses as a way to invite swallows to the area to help fight the mosquito population.
The swallows seem to like their digs, and the collection has expanded from 20 to 800, each painted a bright color and featuring a red roof.
3. Stroll Church Street Marketplace
Another unique thing to do in Vermont is to roam the Church Street Marketplace. Akin to the Branson Landing outdoor shopping area in Missouri, Church Street offers a wide, brick-covered, four-block walkway in downtown Burlington, featuring shops, restaurants, statues, and live music. Touring the marketplace gives a nice feel of the city life.
Although tempted to savor some ice cream or chocolates on the strip, we opted to forgo it in search of another Vermont specialty (see Number 4).
4. Taste a Maple Creemee
If you’ve never heard of a maple creemee, you don’t know what you’re missing. Although we’d visited Vermont before, we were unfamiliar with the treat. It takes two of the state’s specialties — dairy and maple — and blends them together into a soft-serve ice cream delight.
You can find various flavors at mom-and-pop ice cream stands around the state. Bob opted for a pure maple creemee. I had a twist of maple and black raspberry. Both were delicious.
5. Sample Some Cheese
We knew Wisconsin was known for cheese. We didn’t realize Vermont also produces a significant amount of the dairy staple. We should have. After all, we’ve been known to buy and eat Vermont Sharp Cheddar before.
My work schedule didn’t allow time for us to tour a cheese factory in the area. Wanting to ensure we had an authentic Vermont experience, Jim and Kelly took us to a store similar to Trader Joe’s that showcased a wide variety of cheeses.
Each of us selected a different flavor to sample as a group. We would have enjoyed a nice picnic outdoors, but the humidity prevented that. Instead, we partook in the comfort of Tagalong, tasting maple cheddar, English, herbed, and another variety we don’t remember. They were all good.
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You may think the RV life is the same from day to day: you drive somewhere, set up camp, explore the area, and move on to another location to do it again. In some ways, you’d be right. But in others, you’d be wrong. Quite often, things don’t go as planned. Or they do, but you encounter unusual experiences in the mix.
We’re not always on the lookout for those unique occurrences; they just happen. Here are our most unusual in our third year on the road.
1. Windmill Blades
You know those wind turbines that dot the landscape as you cross the country? They don’t look all that big or fast from a distance. Believe it or not, each blade actually spans more than 170 feet, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And they can reach speeds of 100 mph or faster, Energy Follower reports.
We camped near windmills in Groom, Texas, which gave us a better feel for their size and power. But what really opened our eyes was seeing individual blades on semi-trucks while parked at a casino near Albuquerque.
Because the expansive Indian reservation included a truck stop with plenty of parking space for oversize trucks, it made for a common stop for drivers transporting these important parts. On three different occasions, we saw trios of extra-long trucks holding windmill blades maneuver their rigs for an overnight stop.
2. Long-Distance Water Fill
That same Albuquerque stop had campsites with electric but no freshwater — although it did have a dump station with potable water. When we arrived at the destination, we had only planned to stay about three nights and then move on to Arizona. After Tom and Molly met us there, we quickly changed our plans and extended our stay.
Using our water for cooking, dishes, and showers filled our gray wastewater tanks and emptied our freshwater tank. Rather than closing up the trailer, connecting it to Gulliver, and moving it to the dump station to empty the gray and black tanks, we opted to borrow Tom’s portable black tank and macerator to transport our wastewater. But we still needed to refill the fresh tank.
Tom offered to let us use his two hoses, which we connected to our 10-foot and two 25-foot hoses. It still wasn’t long enough to reach the water spigot. Another RVer offered to let us use his two hoses to complete the distance. We gladly accepted. A seven-hose connection got the job done, but it took a full two hours to fill the 75-gallon tank at that distance.
3. Regional Grocery Stores
One of our favorite things to do as we travel is to shop at local grocery stories to get a taste for the region’s cuisine. We find all kinds of unusual-to-us items this way. In Louisiana, for example, the stores sell a common Cajun staple called tasso. It’s a spicy smoked meat taken from a hog’s shoulder and used in gumbos and stews.
The most unique grocery items we encountered in our third year of RV travel were frog legs, rabbit, gator, and turtle, which we found in the refrigerated section of stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.
4. Bat Houses
When looking for unique things to do in the areas we visit, we never know what we’ll find. We may have some idea ahead of time, but not always. Nothing could have prepared us for the unusual experience we had visiting the bat houses at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Reading about the houses piqued our interest, and reviews assured us the drive to see this occurrence would be worth it. They were right. As dusk neared, we gathered in front of three houses on stilts, a smelly guano odor letting us know we were in the right place.
As the sun dipped beneath the horizon, hundreds to thousands of bats descended from the houses and flew in formation, coming toward us and then heading higher into the night sky to fetch their mosquito dinner — a truly unique experience indeed.
5. Balloon Fiesta
Our list of unusual experiences wouldn’t be complete without including the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. We’ve never been that close to so many hot air balloons that we could smell the propane used to fill them and hear the rush of the gas.
Nor have we ever experienced such a unique phenomenon as the Albuquerque Box. It refers to wind patterns that carry balloons one direction at a lower altitude and back in the opposite direction at a higher altitude.
We’re grateful we were able to participate in all of these unusual activities.
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As we reflect on the nearly 8,000 miles we traveled in our third year on the road, we’re reminded of the great memories we made, the adventures we had, and the friends and family we visited and caught up with. We had a great year.
Our ambitious itinerary took us through 27 states, with stays in 19 of them — adding 10 to our state map. We covered 596 miles in our longest drive, from the Melbourne, Florida, area to Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit friends. In our shortest drive, 29 miles, we navigated from an overnight casino stop to visit a friend we hadn’t seen in 30 years.
We stayed in four state campgrounds, visited four Boondockers Welcome hosts, and overnighted in three Walmart parking lots, two Bass Pro/Cabela’s parking lots, two truck stops, and one rest area. We moochdocked at the homes of nine friends and family members. Moochdocking and Boondockers Welcome stops saved us a lot of money to offset high fuel costs.
Narrowing down our favorite stops wasn’t easy, as each offered different experiences, from an armadillo haven in Texas to lake living in Florida and the beauty of Acadia National Park in Maine. Although we enjoyed each stop, despite the challenges along the way, these are our favorites of our 2022 travels.
We visited state campgrounds in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia. Other campgrounds included a beach park near Corpus Christi, Texas; non-reservation, non-credit card Bar Harbor Campground in Maine; an RV resort in Vermont; a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground in Missouri; and an RV park in Oklahoma.
The Mississippi campground offered close proximity to the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, making for nice relaxing times in the sun at the end of my workday. But the tight turns in the campground loops and the cramped campsites kept that from being our favorite.
We found the beach park near Corpus Christi nice. But we visited at the wrong time of the year to really enjoy it. In early March, the temperatures can be cold, with wind and rain.
Our favorite would have to be what we dubbed “Armadillo Haven”: South Llano River State Campground in Junction, Texas. Although we didn’t see the river from the campground, we did see a lot of armadillos and had fun watching them. The park also offers bird blinds, where visitors can sit in shelters and watch a variety of birds in their natural habitat.
Favorite Boondocking Stay
All four of the Boondockers Welcome hosts we visited made us feel welcome and appreciated. One gave us two dozen fresh eggs from their chickens when we left. Another invited us inside their home when a tornado warning threatened the area and our safety. One gave us a tour of his workshop and shared with us about the projects he was working on.
Our favorite boondocking stay, though, was on a farm about 35 miles northwest of Gainesville, Florida. The expansive property featured a manmade pond, and the host allowed multiple guests to park around it. We met a couple of really nice Airstreamers there. The secluded property also included a walking trail. We found it to be a pleasant oasis, despite the creepy entrance through Spanish moss-draped cedar trees.
Favorite Overnight Stop
We discovered we prefer Cabela’s/Bass Pro over Walmart parking lots. We find shopping at Bass Pro more enjoyable, and the parking lots tend to be quieter at night. When we stay at a parking lot for either store, we try to find one with restaurants nearby to give us supper and breakfast options to avoid opening our slides.
Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut, has nice RV spots set aside. That made for a convenient overnight, and I was able to work in the business center inside the casino during the day since it was too hot in the RV without hookups.
Our favorite overnight stop would have to be a Walmart parking lot in Gorham, New Hampshire. The spacious lot allowed us to park far from the store entrances. And, because of its location in New Hampshire, it offered beautiful views of the White Mountains.
With 19 states to choose from in our third year of RV travel, we had difficulty selecting a favorite. Virginia ranked high on the list as we had a wonderful time exploring that state with our host friends Jim and Jenny. We spent another wonderful five weeks in Michigan with family, which always brings us joy.
After much thought and reflection, we awarded Louisiana our favorite in 2022. We relished our time with cruise friends Dwaine and Belinda, who made sure we had an authentic experience, including Cajun delicacies of turtle, gumbo, red beans and rice, and a crawfish boil.
We also spent time in New Orleans, exploring the National WWII Museum, taking a Mississippi River cruise, and watching another armadillo.
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RV life, like anything else, has its ups and downs. The ups include freedom, flexibility, and exploration. But those perks can come at the expense of difficult, stressful drives trying to maneuver a vehicle the size of a semi-truck through unfamiliar neighborhoods when Google Maps steers us wrong.
Although a white-knuckled drive through New York City with fear of low-clearance bridges proved treacherous, it didn’t make our list of top challenges in our third year of RV travel. Neither did rising fuel costs, which we were able to offset with a lot of moochdocking and boondocking stays.
Here’s what did make the list, in no particular order:
1. Flat Tires
After two years on the road, we experienced only one flat tire. In our third year, however, we encountered four — all on our trailer. Two of the flats, about a week apart, were caused by leaks in the stem, related to the tire pressure monitors there. We quickly learned how to gingerly attach the monitors to avoid weakening the stems.
The other two flats resulted from our tires disintegrating from the inside out. Thankfully, in each circumstance, we were able to safely navigate to the side of the road to replace the faulty tire with our spare. And we got really good at changing tires. Since we had purchased our trailer tires, and a warranty, at Discount Tire, we were able to replace them inexpensively.
2. Tornado Warnings
When you live in a home made of lightweight materials such as plywood and aluminum, you know its likelihood of standing up to a powerful tornado is extremely low. Because of that, we take any tornado warning seriously.
In our second year of travel, we endured our first tornado warning, a sobering experience. In 2022, we encountered three such situations.
Our first occurred while we were in New Orleans. The state campground had bathroom buildings we could have sheltered in, but we would have had to separate in the men’s and women’s rooms. Wanting to weather the storm, literally, together, we opted to ride it out in our truck in an empty parking lot, away from potential debris.
The second warning hit while we were at a state campground in Mississippi. Because the campground was on the Gulf Coast, buildings in the area were on stilts. Again, not wanting to separate in the men’s and women’s restrooms, we headed to the second story of a building on stilts and hung out with other campers in the laundry room.
The third warning occurred while we were staying at a Boondockers Welcome host in South Carolina. It spurred us to visit our hosts’ home. They graciously invited us in to ride out the storm.
In each instance, a tornado did not touch down near us, and we stayed safe.
Leveling woes continued to plague us, to the point that Bob called a Lippert (the maker of our leveling system) tech while trying to set up the trailer near San Antonio. That worked to get the trailer level, and we picked up some other tricks along the way.
We learned to get the nose of the trailer higher than level before hitting the autolevel button on our Lippert system. We also learned to stack blocks under each leveling jack/stabilizer before trying to autolevel. This prevents the system from getting an out-of-stroke error, which had been a common occurrence for us.
As a result, instead of it taking two hours to reach equilibrium at a mobile home/RV park like last year, we were able to do so in about 30 minutes, our normal time.
The challenges we encounter help us better appreciate the good aspects of RV living. Despite the struggles, we’re happy with our lifestyle and are enjoying the journey. Thank you for following along.
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Every year in early October, thousands of people and RVs congregate in central New Mexico for a chance to see the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. I’ve wanted to attend the event since I learned about it from a friend during college, but the timing never worked out. Fifty years after the event launched (pun intended), my wish came true, thanks to a perfect storm.
Attending the fiesta can be costly and requires advance reservations to park your RV within walking distance of the launch field. Having planned to be in Arizona during the event, we hadn’t done that. But fellow full-time RVer family members Tom and Molly had. They met us prior to the fiesta to camp at a casino 20 minutes north of Albuquerque and offered for us to join them at the balloon event.
Bob had flexibility as to when he needed to be in Arizona to help with annual aircraft maintenance at the Commemorative Air Force, so that meant we only had to move some doctor appointments. We did have one appointment we couldn’t move: the last show of “Lucky Stiff,” a live musical in which our daughter-in-law had a leading role. So, we booked a round-trip flight to Phoenix to ensure we didn’t miss it. And we’re glad we did.
Up Close and Personal
Back in Albuquerque, we loaded up our belongings and headed to Balloon Fiesta Park to spend a night in Tom and Molly’s class A motorhome. After waking at 4:30 a.m., dressing in layers, and grabbing some coffee and breakfast, we headed to a shuttle to take us to the launch field.
The smell of fried food assaulted our senses as we approached, taking us back to state and county fairs. Trucks and vans pulling trailers got into position to unload their precious balloon cargo in anticipation of the chance to ascend.
Two unique characteristics draw visitors to Albuquerque every year:
The Albuquerque Box refers to the wind patterns that flow from the south at low elevations and from the north at higher elevations. Because of this phenomenon, balloons are able to launch and float north. Then, by ascending to a higher elevation, they can be carried back to the south, making it easier to predict landings. In fact, we saw a few balloons land in about the same area they left from.
Our first morning on the field, we set up our chairs in the middle of parked balloon-hauling vehicles in the dark and waited for the launch. Windy weather prevented that, but as the sun peered over Sandia Peak, rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level, balloons were given the green light to fill with air for static displays and photo opportunities.
We found ourselves in the middle of the excitement. Flames lit the sky, making a roaring noise as balloons came to life and the scent of propane wafted through the air. People milled, snapping photos and asking balloon crews for cards.
As it turns out, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta has the title of the world’s most photographed event. We certainly did our part in keeping that title alive.
Fortunately for us, the balloon fiesta spans nine days, not one, as I originally thought. Hot air balloons launch every morning, weather permitting. After seeing the static display, we returned a few days later with hopes of viewing the special shape rodeo, an event within the fiesta that began in 1989. Today, it’s the most popular event there and includes 120 balloons in various shapes, in addition to hundreds of regular balloons.
We arrived on the field in time for the balloon glow. A dozen or so balloons filled at the same time and coordinated firing into their envelopes to create a glowing effect against the dark sky. Then they lifted off, before dawn, to test the winds.
After those Dawn Patrol balloons launched and confirmed the working Albuquerque Box, balloon pilots were given a green flag, indicating clearance for liftoff. Balloons inflated all around us, but they couldn’t officially launch until receiving a go-ahead from a zebra. People dressed in black and white stripes like referees, aka zebras, wander the field and direct balloon launches.
Balloons inflated everywhere we looked. Rainbow Ryder balloons with baskets that could hold up to 14 people launched with paying passengers for the thrill of a lifetime. Balloons in various shapes followed: a pig, cat, jack-o-lantern, witch, UFO, bear, monster, beaver, sloth, frog, Humpty Dumpty, Yoda, and more. Other balloons inflated but stayed tethered, including the kissing bees, a cow, a snowman, and a sun with shades.
We tried to take in all we could, amazed at how close we could get to balloons — and even touch them. We were asked to move out of the way a couple of times so other balloon crews could inflate their envelopes.
Although the weather canceled the special shape glowdeo that evening, we did see some celebratory fireworks, bringing a welcome culmination to an amazing, worthwhile experience.
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Be careful what you wish for. We had planned to head to Albuquerque from Branson, Missouri, for two reasons: to shorten the remaining distance to our planned stops in Arizona and to get to higher elevation for cooler weather.
Wanting to make the 868-mile drive in two days, we hit the road. Near the Oklahoma-Texas border, we started searching for an overnight stop near Amarillo and made a reservation. The warm weather prevented us from our original aim of spending the night at a rest area. We needed an electric hookup to run our air conditioner.
A few minutes later, our invaluable tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) started beeping, alerting us to a fast leak on one of the trailer tires — our fourth such instance this year. Not near any freeway exits, Bob safely pulled us to the side of Interstate 40. Fortunately, the leak was on the passenger side, and we had gotten really good at changing tires.
Vehicles whizzed by, shaking the trailer side to side. The faulty tire gave no clear evidence of the leak source. It didn’t appear to be the stem, and no obvious screw or nail caught our eyes. We secured the flat under the trailer where the spare normally goes and continued on our way.
This happened on a Saturday after 5 p.m. A quick Google search revealed the nearest Discount Tire shop — still hours away in Amarillo — closed at 6 and wouldn’t reopen until Monday morning. Bob called some truck stops to see if any of them could patch a tire. A gal at one said we could get in line, and they might get to it at midnight.
We kept driving and saw a billboard announcing another truck stop with a tire shop. Taking our chances, we found the shop open. A worker checked the tire to determine the location of the leak. As with the flat a month and a half earlier, this tire had started to come apart. Little wires from the steel belts protruded next to a small hole, too close to the edge of the tire for a patch job.
Because we had bought the tire at Discount Tire and paid for a warranty, we knew waiting until Monday would be our best and least expensive option for replacing it. But we had to find somewhere to stay until then. More research led us to an oasis in the prairie: Bobcat Creek RV Park in Sayre, Oklahoma.
After a peaceful, relaxing night there, we considered staying until we got the tire fixed, but that would mean a three-hour round trip for Bob to get to Amarillo and back. And the website for the closest Discount Tire store showed the tire we needed out of stock and unavailable until Thursday. We decided to move closer to Amarillo and found a private lot in Groom, Texas, with one of its four campsites available.
Camping with the Windmills
Having spent most of the summer in the East, we had forgotten about wind. Camping in Oklahoma included wind, and Bob’s allergies started acting up. Texas didn’t offer any relief. Navigating to the campsite felt like we were in the “Castaway” movie when Tom Hanks finds himself at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The only difference was windmills surrounded us in all directions.
We settled into our spot in the shadow of a windmill. The next day, Bob drove about 50 miles to Amarillo to get the tire taken care of. The shop said it could get a replacement by late the next day. We wouldn’t have to wait until Thursday after all. We paid the campsite owner for another couple of nights and hunkered down.
The time in Groom gave us an opportunity to visit a homey little cafe on old Route 66 for breakfast one morning. It also made it possible for us to explore the Groom Cross — a 19-story steel structure you can see for miles in either direction on I-40. The land surrounding it features stations of the cross that tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a gift shop showcases related souvenirs and decorations. It was worth the stop.
Bob drove back to Amarillo to pick up the new tire, and we replaced it successfully. Because of my work schedule, we decided to wait until later the next day to move on to Albuquerque. On the way, we watched our TPMS like hawks as the heat of the day and the friction of the road made the tires’ temperatures rise. Thankfully, we made it without incident.
This whole experience reminded us of Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” Although our plans didn’t work out the way we had hoped, the flat turned out to be a blessing. It helped us realize that, rather than driving on these tires for another year of travel, we should upgrade them to ensure our safety. We’ll see if that new plan pans out.
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You may not realize it, but the city of Branson, Missouri, population 13,000, is a destination for live entertainment. It all started with the release of “The Shepherd of the Hills” novel by Harold Bell Wright in 1907, a portrayal of life in the Ozark Mountains.
The story became an outdoor drama in 1960 that, along with other variety shows, drew visitors to the area. The influx of people led to the development of amusement parks and other attractions, restaurants, and hotels. And the tourist destination was born.
The area offers something for everyone. If people-created venues aren’t your thing, you’ll find plenty of natural beauty as well: the White River, Table Rock Lake, the Ozarks, and caves. Known as the “Cave State,” Missouri is home to more than 6,000 caves. You can explore the region on boat, via zip line, or even by railway.
If you’re into theme parks, you have a number to choose from, including Silver Dollar City and Bigfoot Fun Park. Or, you can save your time and money for other entertainment options in the area and get the feel of a rollercoaster just by driving the hilly roads, like we did. Here are some other highlights from our stopover.
1. Live Theater
The Sight and Sound Theatre is what drew us to Branson. We had learned about it when we visited the original location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2020. Impressed at the phenomenal way the theater and its hundreds of actors and crew bring Bible stories to life in epic proportion, we wanted to check out the second locale.
In Branson, we saw the life of Jesus on stage. The cast, the sets, the music, and the special effects all came together to present an extraordinary, immersive performance that helped us see more of the human side of Jesus. We walked away hungry to dig deeper into our Bibles and live more simply and lovingly, like Jesus did.
Since Branson is home to more than 45 theaters, it didn’t seem right to attend only one in our week there. So, we took in another, this one a murder mystery dinner show. After a buffet meal of baked chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and mac and cheese, we sat and watched a whodunnit where audience members got to participate in the show.
Starring a zany crew led by a husband and wife team, the Branson Murder Mystery kept us engaged and laughing all the way through — and trying to identify the murderer.
Along with theatrical shows, Branson offers more than 20 museums, from the alluring Titanic Museum and the World’s Largest Toy Museum to a tractor museum, dinosaur museum, and military museum.
Having visited Missouri last year with limited time, we opted to drive an hour to Springfield to explore Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium at the Bass Pro Shops national headquarters. What an experience!
After navigating through a maze of taxidermied game animals and birds, some of which we’d never heard of, we entered the aquarium, where live fish greeted us. The full route through both areas brought us to live penguins, tree frogs, turtles, snakes, sharks, and even an albino alligator. And, we got to pet stingrays.
3. Branson Landing
For a cheaper excursion, we toured Branson Landing. Stretching 1.5 miles along the White River, the alluring boardwalk features a collection of eclectic shops, kiosks, and restaurants. We dined at an Irish pub and then went on a treasure hunt to find the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, which had moved.
With ice cream in hand, we watched a water fountain show. It goes off every hour in front of a grassy amphitheater overlooking the river, imploring passersby to sit and enjoy.
No trip to Missouri would be complete without barbecue. We dropped into Smokin’ Bob’s BBQ to sample some. After explaining our nomadic living situation to the clerks, we asked what they would recommend for a couple who may never revisit their establishment and took them up on their suggestions.
Our mouths watered over smoked pork, brisket, sausage, ribs, and burnt ends nachos. Exclamations of “Yum!” and “So good” escaped in between bites. Delicious!
We’re glad we made the trek to Branson.
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Rows of red-dotted trees stand at attention, branches drooping under the weight of their fruit. Fields of corn sprout their cobs, only one or two per stalk (who knew?). A rooster crows, announcing its location as it roams the farmyard, protecting the hens under its watch.
A tractor pulls a double trailer showcasing stacks of 5-gallon buckets overflowing with freshly picked yellow squash. Workers stand in windowless buses tossing watermelons onto a conveyor belt for cleaning and packing. A forklift carries 23-bushel apple bins to fields to collect the day’s picks.
The greasy smell of fresh-baked donuts wafts through the air, beckoning passersby to the farm market and bakery. Retired farmers reminisce over coffee about their early days of farming.
These are some of the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve experienced while spending time on my brother’s 6-acre farm near Lansing, Michigan, and my cousin’s 300-acre farm in southwestern Michigan.
Small Town Life
Something about the small towns, friendly people, active workers, expansive greenery, and fresh produce feels familiar and alluring. Perhaps it’s because Michigan is my birthplace. Or maybe it’s a welcome respite after 24 years in the bustling Phoenix area with 6-foot block walls separating our yard from our neighbors’.
Being able to pick fresh fruit right off the tree and squash and zucchini straight from the plant is a treat. We find it appealing to be surrounded by fresh, healthy food.
Small farm towns feature their best at annual county fairs, something else we got to experience while in southwestern Michigan. Building upon building featured livestock of all sorts, from rabbits and sheep to goats, pigs, cows, and horses. Another building displayed hand-crafted items. Tiny stands sold fried food creations. Screams from spinny rides mixed with live country music.
No Michigan county fair is complete without a display of tractors and/or riding lawnmowers. The one we visited included both. Mowing is such a big deal in the area that my cousin, Debbie, greeted us on her riding mower when we arrived at her place, eager to cut the grass so we could park our home with ease.
Farm life with family also offers abundant opportunities to pitch in and help, something we cherish. While at my brother’s, I got to scout for eggs. I’ve always enjoyed a good Easter egg hunt and have relished hiding the plastic treasures for my kids to find. I still get a thrill out of it.
When Steve asked me to help find where one of his hens was laying its eggs, I jumped at the chance. I searched high and low, but the chickens didn’t lay the eggs where I would have if I were a hen. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.
After watching them, I realized they wouldn’t go far from their coop where predators could swoop in and take their precious goods. Sure enough, I found some eggs in a shrouded nest perched in an old tree right behind their coop.
Bob helped Steve with a tree-trimming project and a driveway expansion, as well as installing a dryer vent.
At Debbie’s, we got to assist with replacing carpet and tile with Lifeproof flooring. Since we don’t own a house anymore, it’s wonderful to be able to participate in these types of activities.
Bob also cooked a lot of super delicious meals and helped with computer projects.
Another plus of farm living for us full-time RVers is being able to do maintenance on our vehicles, such as the fuel tank upgrade for Gulliver while at Steve and Ginger’s.
Our duration in southwestern Michigan gave us ample time to install shocks on Tagalong to help soften the effects of bumpy roads on our belongings.
Bob did prep work for the project, which involved closing the trailer’s four slides and moving it from a grass field to a dirt parking lot so he could jack up Tagalong. With my office out of commission, I had to work at Debbie’s and watch my home from across the street.
With the prep work done, we were able to move the trailer back to the grass field and set up our home again. A mechanic friend, Ethan, pitched in to weld brackets in place under the trailer to hold the shocks, which should smooth our anticipated drive to Alaska.
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Working remotely from anywhere in the country requires good internet access. As we shared early in our RV journey, we use a variety of technologies to ensure strong Wi-Fi signal. In May 2022, Elon Musk’s Starlink high-speed internet service became available for RVs. After considering it for a month or so, we decided to purchase it. And we’re super glad we did.
What Is Starlink for RVs?
Starlink is an array of more than 3,000 small satellites in low orbit around Earth. By orbiting only 340 miles from the planet, the satellites can deliver low-latency broadband internet with speeds high enough to support video calls, streaming, and even online gaming.
Traditional Starlink required a stationary satellite receiving dish that limited Starlink use to immobile locations. Starlink for RVs extended the high-speed, low-latency functionality to changing locations. Although the service is not designed to be accessible while in motion, it is available if you move from point to point.
Setting up Starlink for RVs
After getting dropped from video calls in Maine and Vermont due to poor Verizon cell service and no T-Mobile service, I was eager to try Starlink. Although tempted to ask our camping neighbors in Maine if I could use their Starlink service, I refrained. I hobbled through the work week, knowing our Starlink equipment was waiting for us at my brother’s house near Lansing, Michigan.
We arrived at my brother’s in great anticipation of the internet speeds we could get. Our $599 equipment fee provided everything we needed to set up the service: the satellite receiving dish, a router, and a 75-foot cable.
For an additional $150, we purchased a FlagPole Buddy* from Amazon to mount to our RV ladder for easy setup and teardown of Dishy, as the satellite dish is called, when we need it to be high. Other times, we can put the dish on the ground. It requires a clear view of the northern sky.
Bob had to download the Starlink app on his smartphone to complete the setup. The app has features that show how the service is working, where Dishy’s view to the satellites is obstructed, and things like that.
Starlink comes with a 30-day guarantee. If you’re not happy with the service in that time period, you can return it and get a full refund on the cost of the hardware, the initial $599. On top of that, the service costs $135 per month. You might still be out the $135 for the first month even if you’re unhappy with it.
Assessing Starlink Internet Service
The Starlink service didn’t deliver exceptional internet quality at my brother’s house. But it did provide enough for us to stream movies and TV shows. Our Verizon signal came in strong, so I used it for work there. And we canceled our T-Mobile service.
At our next location in southwestern Michigan, I hoped Starlink would enable me to work from my office without having to cross the street to my cousin’s house every time I needed to join a video call. Verizon service at Debbie’s farm is not very good.
I’m happy to report Starlink has exceeded my expectations for internet quality. Although encountering a few hiccups when our Dishy lost sight of a satellite, I haven’t been dropped from any video calls while using it. I’ve been able to do my work successfully from my office inside our RV.
Is Starlink for RVs Worth It?
As I mentioned, we can’t use Starlink while traveling from point to point. On those rare occasions when we need reliable internet while in motion, we use our Verizon MiFi.
Depending on the location, and the number of other Starlink users there, internet speeds may slow, especially during peak times. For example, if numerous people in the area rely on Starlink for their full-time work, that can affect our internet speed. Similarly, if lots of people use Starlink to stream TV shows and movies in the evening, we might run into some issues while watching our own.
Another drawback of Starlink for RVs is that it’s not yet available everywhere. That’s why we’ve kept our Verizon service. We pay $135 a month for Starlink and $70 a month for Verizon to ensure we have dependable internet so that I can work and support our RV living habit.
We’ve achieved download speeds as high as 92 Mbps when Dishy had a completely unobstructed view of the entire northern sky. The highest we got with Verizon were in the 40s range when in close proximity to a Verizon cell tower. For us, Starlink for RVs is well worth the cost. We’re glad we made the investment.
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The high fuel prices and a planned trip to Alaska got us seriously thinking about an additional fuel tank for Gulliver. After all, 32 gallons can only take us so far, especially when we average 8 miles per gallon while towing.
An additional fuel tank offers a couple of perks. First, it would give us more flexibility in where we stop, enabling us to go longer distances with fewer fillups. That would mean we could take advantage of rest areas, which could save us 20 minutes a pop over a truck stop. Second, it would enable us to stock up on fuel when we find it at a good price.
Weighing the Options
Most people who add fuel capacity to a truck do so through an additional tank that sits in the truck’s bed. Various makes and models of those exist. Some stick up higher than the sides of the bed and include a gas pump handle for manually filling the in-market tank that came with the truck. Others sit just below the sides of the bed and connect to the onboard tank for more seamless switchover.
We wanted one shorter than the sides of our truck as we have a tonneau BAKFlip cover over the bed to protect our fifth wheel hitch when we’re not towing. During travel, we flip the cover open and secure it in place.
To accommodate Bob’s handyman skills, we carry a lot of tools in the bed of our truck, too, distributed in four stacks of modular containers secured against the cab — where most after-market fuel tanks are designed to sit.
Not wanting to part with or relocate the tools to the trailer, Bob looked into other fuel tank options. He found we could replace our 32-gallon onboard fuel tank with a 55-gallon tank. That’s the route we decided to pursue.
The Doctors Are In
Bob ordered the tank and had it sent to my brother Steve’s house in Michigan. Bob and Steve are both mechanically minded and felt confident they could perform the operation and save money over having a dealer do it.
Preparing Gulliver for surgery meant draining his onboard fuel tank. Since we arrived at Steve and Ginger’s with about a half tank of diesel, we had a bit of driving to do to empty his bowels. Two round trips to the Detroit airport, about 70 miles each way, to drop me off and pick me up for a work trip to San Francisco did the job.
The day of surgery arrived. Steve offered the use of his garage for the operation.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Bob crawled under Gulliver and loosened the bolts holding the original fuel tank in place. As he neared time for the old tank to come out, fumes overpowered him, making him dizzy and lightheaded. I got dizzy too. Did we hallucinate seeing a duck that thought it was a chicken? No, that actually happened.
The guys succeeded in removing Gulliver’s old tank. Then they had to reattach hoses from the original tank to the new tank before they could install it. Bob painstakingly cleaned around the openings of the old vessel before doing so to help ensure no debris got in the new tank.
Because the new tank stood taller than the original, installing it required jacking up Gulliver’s tail. That enabled enough wiggle room to get the new tank into position. The guys got it secured and returned Gulliver’s tail to the ground.
Road to Recovery
Before the transplant could be considered successful, the new tank had to be tested for leaks. The guys poured 5 gallons of diesel into the tank. That amount barely covered the bottom. But it held and provided enough fuel to get to a local station to fill the tank in full. As Bob pumped diesel, I peered under the truck to watch for leaks. Thankfully, I saw none.
Now, we have a longer driving range. The tank sticks out about 2 inches below the truck, which is no big deal. The only drawback is that the range to empty notification on our dashboard is based on a 32-gallon tank, not its 55-gallon replacement.
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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.