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.
You might also enjoy A Historical Stop.
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.
In our first five months living full time on the road, we traveled nearly 8,000 miles, averaging 294 miles per trip and staying in 27 different locations — not including the two weeks we spent in Montana on tour with the Commemorative Air Force B-25 from Airbase Arizona. That 8,000 miles doesn’t include all the running around we did in Gulliver while set up in a location.
In our longest trek, we covered 667 miles in about 13.5 hours, including stops, as we rushed back to Arizona early to be with family. Our shortest distance: 28 miles in Massachusetts. We stayed at a truck stop the night before because we didn’t want to be rushed when setting up at Bob’s brother Bill’s. It made for an easy drive the next day and plenty of daylight to get our setup just right.
Our 27 stays included:
We liked the various stays for different reasons. For example, rest areas make a nice overnight stop when traveling a long distance. The same with casinos, Cabela’s, and Walmart. Here we outline our favorites among the first four types of stops listed above:
Favorite Moochdocking Stay
We greatly appreciate all the people who generously hosted us and allowed us to hook up to water and electric as needed. We enjoyed spending time with friends and family at each of those destinations.
But if we had to pick a favorite moochdocking stop from this past summer, it would be my cousin’s farm in southwestern Michigan, where we stayed for a full month. Getting a little taste of farm life — literally — edged out the other stops. The farm is also where we picked up the little electric bikes we ordered, which were super fun to ride around there.
Favorite Rest Area
We overnighted at rest areas in Tonopah, Nevada; Orovada, Nevada; Rock Springs, Wyoming; Lexington, Virginia; and Jasper, Tennessee. Of those five stops, the Tennessee Welcome Center in Jasper was definitely our favorite.
This rest area sits on an island in the Tennessee River and features beautiful sunrises over the water. Plus, it boasts a building with a Keurig and a vending machine of K-cups, as well as other vending machines. This coffee option may be commonplace at rest areas today, but it was the first one we saw.
I really liked the Great River Campground at the edge of Minnesota, near the Wisconsin border. Unfortunately, the low-hanging branches on the way into the campground ripped our roof (because I didn’t have our TV antenna facing the right direction), so we didn’t get to give the site a good try. We left after one night to avoid storms.
Instead, Four-Mile Creek State Campground on Lake Ontario in northern New York proved to be our favorite of the summer. Although our campsite didn’t overlook the water, we enjoyed riding our bikes around the campground loops to areas with lake views. We also had a campfire there for the first time on our trip. And, it served as an excellent jumping-off point to visit Niagara Falls.
Favorite Boondockers Welcome Stay
We’re still learning the benefits of this option after only staying at two of more than 2,600 Boondockers Welcome hosts. Our favorite stop of this sort would have to be our first, at Lynnwoods Rest Stop in Fremont, Ohio. The host provided full hookups (for a small fee), visited with us for a bit, and made us feel right at home. Situated in a farm area, the stop provided an excellent opportunity for us to take our bikes out and go exploring down a cornfield-lined street.
That’s not to say our other Boondockers Welcome stay was subpar. Quite the contrary. We were so relaxed at that one that we didn’t even leave our trailer for two days. Just enjoyed some much-needed downtime.
Although we drove through 24 states, we could only add 19 to our map because we didn’t spend a night in five of them. Of those we did stay in, our favorite would have to be Pennsylvania.
We moochdocked at the grandparents’ of a girl we met in Guatemala last fall on our Panama Canal cruise. We appreciated visiting with our welcoming and delightful hosts every evening.
We probably explored Pennsylvania more than any other state we toured over the summer, venturing into Gettysburg, Lancaster, and Philadelphia — and glimpsing autumn leaves in the process.
Although we had owned a popup trailer and a hybrid travel trailer (hard-sided with fold-out, canvas-covered beds) in the past, living full time in our fifth wheel presented new challenges.
For one thing, the fifth wheel is the longest rig we’ve ever towed, stretching about 42 feet. It’s also the tallest — just 3 inches shy of the height of a standard semi-truck. Our size on the road certainly played a part in some of our scariest moments in our first five months on the road. Here, we count down the top five:
5. Windy Night in Oklahoma
After four calm, relaxing days at a friend’s farm near Oklahoma City, the wind picked up. Having lived through some incredibly windy days in South Dakota just fine, we didn’t think a whole lot of it. But the theme song from the “Oklahoma” musical kept playing through my head: “Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.”
Settled in for the night, we were shaken awake at 1 a.m. by the howling wind moving the trailer. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep with that sound playing right outside my bedroom, so I got up to explore how the rest of the trailer was faring. It seemed quieter in the living room, so I thought maybe I’d just go down there and sleep on the couch.
I also checked the weather app on my phone, which predicted the wind would increase in intensity over the next hour. We weren’t afraid the trailer would blow over, but we decided it would be best to pull in all four slides to get through the night. So, that’s exactly what we did.
We had to move some things to make room for the slides to come into the trailer, but then we were able to get back to sleep. Although the wind kept howling, we didn’t hear or feel it.
4. Cattle Guard Collision
We expected to make mistakes as we started our new life on the road. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Despite that, we didn’t expect to make a huge error on our very first stop. As we pulled off the main road onto a forest road north of Flagstaff, Arizona, we had to cross a cattle guard. Unlike most cattle guards that have outer supports angled away from the road, this one had 90-degree supports.
We didn’t take the turn wide enough to clear those supports. As a result, the side of the trailer hit the cattle guard while I watched in my rearview mirror. I jumped out to survey the damage and try to determine the best way to get us out of the jam. We had two choices: go forward or reverse. Bob thought we had the best chance if we moved backward and tried to take the turn wider.
He proceeded to do that while I stayed outside watching and listening to the sound of aluminum grating against steel — and pulling my hair out. This was our house, everything we owned. I didn’t want it destroyed on our very first stop, not that I wanted it destroyed at all. I screamed and kicked rocks, but there was really nothing I could do. The damage had been done.
Once clear of the cattle guard, Bob got out to assess the damage. It appeared to be cosmetic only. Thankfully, his assessment turned out to be right. Everything was still functional.
3. Bob’s Head Injury
You never want something bad to happen to your loved ones. That’s doubly true when there are only two of you, and you rely on each other for your livelihood.
While in Georgia, Bob somehow managed to scrape his head while crossing under the bedroom of the fifth wheel. He hit the corner of the hard steel that holds the fifth wheel kingpin that connects to the hitch in the bed of our truck. I hadn’t seen that much blood from a single wound before.
Lots of thoughts funnel through your mind at a time of unknowns like that — at least they do mine. I didn’t know if the hospital would need to keep him (although I didn’t think so), how sore he’d be, if he’d be on pain meds, etc.
Although we had intended to leave for our next destination the following day, I quickly made backup plans in my head. I could drive if needed, or we could stay longer and make up the time somewhere else along the way.
Thankfully, Bob only needed three staples and a tetanus shot, and we left the hospital emergency room less than an hour after arriving there, with a prescription for an antibiotic but no pains meds other than Tylenol. We left Georgia the next day, as planned.
2. A Steep Grade in NV with No Guardrail
Early in our summer adventure, we took Highway 140 from Medford, Oregon, to a rest area near Winnemucca, Nevada. We enjoyed the quiet, largely uninhabited, two-lane road that led us through beautiful scenery. And then we didn’t.
We could see for miles and, in the distance, the road clearly made a sharp turn and dramatic climb. We chuckled as we anticipated approaching the ascent, clueless about what awaited us. As we followed the road into the turn, the 3-mile climb began. Gulliver’s mpg gauge dropped to 2 — and so did the guardrail. There wasn’t one. One wrong move, and we could fall off the cliff. Talk about scary — and I was driving!
In no hurry, we took our time on this treacherous road and breathed a sigh of relief once we made it to the top. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
1. Narrow Switchback Road in TN
The Oregon road definitely had us shaking in our boots, but we found a different road even scarier. Traveling from Virginia to visit some friends just south of the Tennessee border in Georgia, our Co-Pilot app routed us through a narrow, curvy road (Route 30). Because we had grown to trust our Co-Pilot app, we followed its guidance.
Had we taken the time to look at the route the app suggested, we definitely would have found an alternative.
My head pounded as Bob’s white-knuckled hands gripped the steering wheel turning us this way and that. Low-hanging branches didn’t seem to be an issue — the app got that part right. But, the tight two-lane road lacked a shoulder on either side. We couldn’t pull over if we had to. And the length of our rig made some of the turns impossible without going into the oncoming lane.
Thankfully, we didn’t encounter much traffic that day and made it through the scary episode. We agreed we’d rather go an hour out of our way than to travel down that road again. It took us a good full day to recover from the stress of that journey.
Acquiring the recreational vehicle you want is only one step of owning it. After that comes the best part: taking it out and using it. For that, it’s important to know your options. Here are three major types of RV camping:
1. Full Hookups
When you think about camping in an RV, an established campground may be the destination that comes to mind. And there are plenty of good campgrounds from which to choose. But they’re not all created equal.
Some include full hookups, which means you can plug into an electrical box, connect fresh water to your rig, and hook up your sewer hose. This “all-inclusive” option is sometimes referred to as “glamping,” or glamourous camping, because it provides all the normal luxuries you’re likely accustomed to.
This is the type of “camping” we did when we first moved into our fifth wheel. We parked it at a mobile home/RV park with all the bells and whistles, which provided the perfect setting for us to move our belongings into our new home, get used to it, and fix up a few things.
It’s also the type of camping we did in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which freed us to spend more time with my parents, who were about a 10-minute drive away.
Also referred to as “dry camping,” boondocking is the opposite of glamping. This is a much more rustic option with no hookups whatsoever. That means you have to run your rig off batteries, solar panels, generators, or a combination of these sources of energy.
For us, it means our microwave doesn’t work, among a few other things. And it’s definitely not glamping without a microwave.
You can find boondocking options in some campgrounds, but you have many more (free) opportunities on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, national forests, and places like that. Some websites, such as Campendium and freecampsites.net, are dedicated to helping campers find these options.
We boondocked in northern Arizona and really enjoyed being in nature, despite dust. Our site was private, remote, and refreshing — and close enough to the city when we needed supplies. We also boondocked one night at a Minnesota campground with no hookups on the Mississippi River and relished the beautiful view.
This is a bit of a hybrid of full hookups and boondocking. Essentially, moochdocking is camping on the property of family or friends for free. As Bob likes to explain, “It’s where we ask, ‘How big is your driveway?’”
Moochdocking is what we’re doing at my cousin’s farm in Michigan. We have a sweet setup on the property with an electric hookup, access to water when we need it, and even a place to dump our black and gray water holding tanks.
Not wanting to take advantage of family or wear out our welcome, however, we’re helping around the farm and keeping track of the amount of electricity we use so we can pay for it. After all, it’s hot and humid in southwestern Michigan in July, which means we’re running our air conditioner.
What’s Our Favorite RV Camping?
These three types of RV camping are not the only options. Many others combine different pieces of each. For example, you can find campgrounds that offer partial hookups, such as electricity and water but not sewer. In those cases, the campground usually has a dump station where you can empty your holding tanks before moving on to your next destination.
If we had to pick a favorite type of RV camping, we’d probably say moochdocking. But we like any option that allows us to spend time with family and friends. And in some areas, boondocking or a full-hookup campground might facilitate that best.
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.