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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The state of Virginia has a lot to offer visitors. From history to beaches to natural attractions (think caverns and a bridge) and more, you’ll find something for everyone. What we enjoyed most was exploring the state’s vast history, thanks to our friends, Jim and Jenny, treating us to an amazing tour. Here are seven highlights, in no particular order:
1. George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Spanning 500 acres today, Mount Vernon pales in comparison to its expansive 8,000 acres when the first U.S. president lived on the 18th-century plantation. The estate maintains a colonial feel, with workers dressed in period costumes to tell visitors about life in the 18th century.
A walking tour will take you through stables, a blacksmith shop, gardens, the mansion, the distillery and gristmill, and even down to the wharf on the Potomac River. You can sit on a rocking chair on the mansion’s back porch and enjoy the view. Two museums on the property provide more details about the colonial days and estate.
Ever heard of Virginia ham? What designates a ham with the Virginia label is the curing process: cured with salt, then smoked and hung to age in a smokehouse. The town of Smithfield, established in 1752, started its own Virginia ham business early on, thanks to the vision of Mallory Todd.
Today, Smithfield houses the headquarters of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork, with locations in 29 states, as well as Europe and Mexico. Pork may be the staple of the town of Smithfield, but that’s not what draws visitors there today.
Fifteen 18th-century houses and boutique shops line its main streets, offering a walking tour through history. You can even eat at a soda fountain and go inside a replica of the 1752 courthouse. And, for the small fee of $2 per person, you can see the world’s oldest ham and oldest peanut at the Isle of Wight County Museum.
3. First Landing State Park
The first English settlers arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1607 at Cape Henry, right around the corner from First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. The park spans 2,888 acres, offering 20 miles of trails, more than 200 campsites, 20 rustic cabins, four yurts, and 1.5 miles of Chesapeake Bay beach.
The campground pays homage to the first landing with a historical exhibit in the office. Camping here served as a jumping-off point for us to investigate other historical attractions in the area. It also provided ample opportunities to walk to the beach on a whim and take in sunsets.
4. Jamestown Island
After exploring the coastal areas of Virginia, the 104 English men and boys who landed at Cape Henry decided to make Jamestown their permanent home. The Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum, lures visitors to relive life in the first English colony.
If you want a more authentic experience, don’t stop at the Jamestown Settlement. Keep driving to Jamestown Island and visit Jamestown Rediscovery, where archaeologists are at work unearthing the historical Jamestown Fort. You can see the foundations for yourself and a replica of the Memorial Church, built to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the settlement.
A tour through the Archaearium Museum gets you up close to artifacts the settlers used and provides insights into what life was like during the “Starving Time,” when two of every three Jamestown colonists died.
5. Colonial Parkway/Yorktown Battlefield
After exploring Jamestown Island, you can enjoy a scenic, relaxing drive on the Colonial Parkway, which will take you from Jamestown to Yorktown. The 23-mile drive navigates through tree-covered roads, with historical stops along the way, including colonial Williamsburg. We didn’t stop there, opting to keep going to Yorktown.
There, a driving tour meanders through the Yorktown Battlefield and the allied encampment, with placards detailing historical facts along the way.
6. USS Wisconsin Battleship
With its location on the water, Norfolk has a long military history, dating back to 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI. The Naval Operating Base of yesteryear is now Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval station, supporting 75 ships and 134 aircraft.
As a government employee, our host, Jim, was able to get us onto the naval base for a closer view of the amazing watercraft and aircraft our military uses. We saw carriers, supply ships, helicopters, airplanes, and much more.
If you’re not able to get onto the base — and even if you are — visit the static display of USS Wisconsin, one of the Navy’s largest and last battleships built. You can take a self-guided tour to explore its decks. For a guided tour, $20 per person will get you either the engine room tour or the command and control tour.
7. Military Aviation Museum
Because of our affiliation with the Commemorative Air Force, we’re drawn to aviation museums. The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach did not disappoint. It offers a hangar dedicated to WWI planes and another two to showcase WWII planes, separated by Army and Navy.
The extensive collection of airplanes that still fly, landing on a grass strip, includes a B-25, “Wild Cargo,” named for her civil duty of transporting snakes and alligators after the war. Another notable warbird is the PBY Catalina, a mammoth flying boat. The collection spans fighters, bombers, trainers, liaisons, and more.
And, you can take a guided tour of the Goxhill Tower, the authentic British “Watch Office” transferred from Europe to Virginia brick by brick and put back together.
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The RV life is full of surprises. We never know what we’re going to come across from place to place. Some things are unpleasant and even scary. Others are fun and enjoyable. And some are just different. Here are our four most unique experiences of 2021, in no particular order:
Pillars of Smoke?
While heading east along Lake Michigan in the state’s Upper Peninsula to the Mackinac Bridge and the Lower Peninsula, we saw pillars of what appeared to be black smoke in the distance. As we neared them, the smoke dissipated, and a rapid-fire flicking sound emanated from Gulliver. It turns out the “pillars” were actually swarms of midge flies.
As the water of Lake Michigan warms, midges emerge from the lake to reproduce after hibernating for up to six months. The flies are harmless as they don’t bite, but they can be quite annoying–and quite messy. Both Gulliver and Tagalong needed a good wash after those encounters.
We’ve had some pretty unique camping setups from place to place. But our most unique would have to be parked next to our friends’ airplane hangar in Terre Haute, Indiana — inside the airport fence. Flyable airplanes filled our windows, and the humming of propellers made us feel right at home, beckoning us back to the Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona, where we both volunteer.
As it turned out, Airbase Arizona’s B-25 had a tour stop there the same week. Our little electric bikes got a good workout as we zipped from our trailer along taxiways to the airport to hang out with the B-25 crew and back again.
Bob’s gone on many hunts. I joined him on a few, but I never caught anything — not until this spring in Texas, that is. While camping at a state park and sitting by the fire, I heard a rustling noise coming from the bushes nearby. The volume of the sound convinced me the source of the noise was pretty good-sized, so I stayed in my seat enjoying the fire, not wanting to encounter a large animal in the dark.
Bob and his brother, Tom, decided to investigate the noise to see what caused it. But the elusive creature evaded them. At another Texas state campground, however, our investigations paid off, and we got to see an armadillo with our very own eyes. I’ve always liked treasure hunts, and this one did not disappoint.
Having camped for many years, we know birds and wildlife are part of the experience. What we didn’t know was that some birds don’t want to coexist with campers. We quickly found that out in our week at a campground near Dallas. It seems we had invaded a cardinal’s territory, and it made sure we knew how it felt about the situation. How? By continually flying toward our back window and pecking at it with her beak.
When that didn’t work, she’d go around to our side windows and do the same thing. This happened day after day until we left, two weeks later. We hope Polly finally found what she was looking for.
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.
Equipping a rig to be a permanent or even part-time home takes some doing. You want to get the things you’ll need and use while avoiding luxury items that will just take up space and not get used. We’ve made our fair share of both types of purchases. And, in the process, we’ve learned some key items make life on the road that much better.
In addition to these six must-have RV gadgets, here’s a countdown of our top 12 RV-related purchases. Please note: As an Amazon associate, we may earn from qualifying purchases.
12. Long-Handled Cleaning Brush
Since our trailer stands 13 feet, 3 inches tall, cleaning bugs off the front can be a challenging endeavor. But the DocaPole 5-12 Foot Scrub Brush Extension Pole simplifies the job. Just as the title describes, the pole can span any distance between 5 and 12 feet to make it easy to reach the lower and higher portions of the trailer.
We also bought the pruning saw attachment, for those instances when we need to move low-hanging branches out of our way, and the squeegee attachment to help us clean the windows.
11. Kitchen Sink Strainers
We didn’t know we needed these, but we quickly learned to appreciate their importance. The Fengbao 2-piece Kitchen Sink Strainer saves our gray tank from filling with food particles that cause odors. The tight stainless steel mesh even keeps coffee grounds from going down the drain.
10. Dish Organizer
The Camco Stack-a-Plate has come in quite handy. The two sizes keep our dinner and dessert plates safe and secure during travel. And, our bowls fit right on top of the dessert plates and stay just as safe. We never have to worry about our dishes breaking between destinations.
9. Fridge Fan
The battery-powered Camco Fridge Airator keeps air circulating in our RV fridge to keep food cool. This is especially helpful when we find ourselves in warm weather. As long as we remember to check the battery power, we’re in good shape.
8. Cabinet Shelves
Our pantry cabinet includes three levels of 23-inch deep storage area. Rather than wasting a lot of space, we purchased some mDesign metal storage shelves that allow us to better organize our canned and dry goods. We put one shelf in the back of each level and two shelves on the bottom level. Then we added mDesign plastic storage bins on the lowest level to store our spices.
7. Cellphone Booster
Since we need reliable internet everywhere we go in order for me to work, we purchased a weBoost Drive X RV Cell Phone Signal Booster and have been very pleased with it. When we find internet service is a bit spotty, Bob climbs the ladder at the rear of our trailer and attaches the directional antenna to it, and that usually fixes the issue.
6. Cast Iron Skillet
We use our Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet with a heat-resistant holder every day and love it. And, because we employ the Alton Brown cast iron cleaning method with oil and salt, we save water in the process.
5. Electric Bikes
Our Ancheer Folding Electric Bikes are one of our favorite purchases. We got them with the intent of having a vehicle to explore tough-to-get-into spots before getting our rig stuck in a precarious situation. They’re great for zipping around a campground or RV park, and they fold up nice and compact to fit in the back of the cab of our truck for transport.
4. Solar Panels
For those times when we don’t have electric hookups, our four Renogy 160-watt solar panels come in quite handy to charge our batteries and provide the electricity we need for everyday living. This includes running our TV, computers, lights, chargers, etc. — but not our microwave.
3. Portable, Rechargeable Fan
This little OPOLAR 8-inch, four-speed fan is a powerhouse and has made a huge difference in the trailer, especially on warm nights with no hookups. Its compact size makes it extremely portable, and its clamp makes it adaptable to almost any situation. When it runs out of power, we just plug it in to charge it. Depending on the speed used, a full charge can last all night.
2. RV Backup Camera
We’ve come to rely on our Furrion Vision Wireless RV Backup Camera maybe more than we should. Because our truck/trailer combo stretches roughly 65 feet, we mainly use this camera to tell when it’s safe to move in front of another vehicle when changing lanes. It’s helpful for backing up the trailer too. We also purchased two side cameras, but we hardly use those at all.
1. Lithium Iron Batteries
Our two Renogy 12-volt lithium iron batteries were by far our best buy. Most RVs come with lead acid batteries, which need to be charged after expending 50% of the stored energy. Lithium iron batteries, on the other hand, can be run down empty before needing to be recharged, giving you much more energy at half the size and weight of lead acid batteries.
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.
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.