Yosemite Revisited: More Tips, Less Snark

You may recall that I had less than charitable things to say about our visit to Yosemite last July. The park is spectacular; it’s our timing that was all wrong.

Emily “You Can Embroider That Shit on a Toss Pillow” Rohrer

But with summer travel planning season upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to offer up some information that campers might find a little more helpful than my pissy rant of 2016. So here ya go:

If you’ve got your RV pointed toward California this summer for a swing through Yosemite National Park, be aware of three things:

  1. You’ll never forget the scenery,
  2. Unless you’re a photography genius, you won’t be able to capture all that majesty in pixels, and
  3. It’s gonna be crowded — really, really distressingly and disproportionately crowded, to DisneyWorld-esque levels. 1200 square miles is not big enough for all the people, because every single one of them spent significant time, effort, and money to spend part of their summer vacation there, and they are going to have their Experience of a Lifetime, visiting the same top 5 park attractions as you are.

For information on RV camping at Yosemite, click on Visiting Yosemite With an RV, but be aware that even the folks in charge recommend staying outside the park, and shuttling in using public transportation.

From the NPS web site, “Since parking for RVs and trailers is limited in Yosemite, we strongly encourage you to park your RV outside Yosemite and use YARTS to travel into the park if you’re not staying the night in Yosemite.”

If you do want to try to stay in the park, first make sure your RV will fit, and that you can survive without hookups for the duration of your visit. There aren’t any. However, dump stations with fresh water are available at 3 of the 10 RV-accessible campgrounds, and generator use is allowed, but only at posted hours.

Yosemite campground map
(Source: NPS.gov)

It probably goes without saying that you’ll want to make your reservation as far in advance as possible, or, if you’re feeling lucky and adventurous, you can try for a first-come/first-served spot.

When we visited Yosemite last year, we set up The Toad in a private RV park in Lee Vining, CA, which is about 12 miles east of the westernmost entrance at Tioga Pass, and a nearly 2-hour drive to the main visitor’s center in Yosemite Valley. (Be aware that Tioga Pass/Hwy 120 closes from October-May due to snow, so using Lee Vining as your home base is not always a good option.)

Source: Google Maps

We had to visit in the summer because my husband and our younger son were hiking the John Muir Trail, and that’s something you want to accomplish when there’s little or no snow. And if you’re hiking the whole 211-mile thing, like my husband did, you have to go through Yosemite.

But now that we know what the Yosemite crowds are like in the summertime, we will never do that again. Our schedule is no longer bound by school calendars, and we will use that to our advantage by visiting the more popular national parks at off-peak times in the spring and fall.

How bad was it? Imagine crowds of tourists from all over the planet, hollering to each other in umpteen different languages, trying to enjoy the exact same spot you are, stopping to consult their maps right in your path, posing for selfies in front of everything, dealing with children who have obviously just had it, and/or driving slowly with one arm out the window to shoot video that nobody will ever want to view.

Lower Yosemite Falls, and a very small portion of the day’s tourists

By about 2:00 p.m., I was eyeballing the bear lockers in the parking lot. You’re supposed to put your food items in there, rather than leaving them in your car for bears to tear apart while you’re off exploring. But by mid-afternoon, I was ready to take all the food out, and put half the tourists in.

These are bear lockers. Big enough for tourists, yes?

That said, I found the park to be most enjoyable in the early morning hours. If you can get in and get some sight-seeing and hiking done before what seems to be the Witching Hour of 10:00 a.m., you’ll have a lot more space and breathing room to take in and truly appreciate some of the most eye-popping scenery in the country.

And hey, if you’ve only got one day to spend in the park, try this itinerary from Oh, Ranger!, one of my favorite resources. Be warned: everyone with one day to spend is going to be trying to see the same list of attractions as you are.

There will be crowds.

You will need patience.

Good luck!


Author’s note: Portions of this article appeared previously at OwnLessDoMore, and a version of this post is published at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission.

True Tales of Wasted Money: 4 RV Accessories That Just Weren’t Worth It, and 1 Happy Turn-Around

Raise your hand if you’ve never bought an RV or camping product that didn’t work out.

No hands up?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s happened to us too.

We’ve all made regrettable impulse buys online or in camping and sporting goods stores. Sometimes even items we’ve carefully researched and budgeted for before purchasing just don’t perform as expected, or live up to the hype, or simply don’t come in handy after all.

I asked a few Heartland RV owners for true tales about “accessory fails” that they couldn’t wait to warn others about, and also included one of my own.

Vent covers

John Daniels, really liked the MaxxAir II vent covers he’d installed on his Trail Runner, but when he bought a new Prowler and tried to move the vent covers to it, he found that they didn’t fit.

“MaxxAir doesn’t intend to make brackets to fit the new E-Z Lift vent covers — the ones with the handle instead of the twist knob,” he said.

“I wound up buying three of their plain-Jane bottom line vent covers (author’s clarification: MaxxAir Standard covers), as they bolted right up. However, they don’t create the same air flow as the MaxxAir II’s.”

Close-up of standard MaxxAir vent
(photo courtesy J. Daniels)

Standard MaxxAir vents installed on a Prowler
(photo courtesy J. Daniels)

Head sets

Kelly and Michael Barnett, of RV There Yet Chronicles, and owners of a 2011 Landmark Key Largo, revealed that when they picked up their coach from the dealer, they also purchased two headsets for the purpose of communicating easily while hitching up and unhitching.

“The idea was that we wouldn’t be yelling back and forth, and would be able to speak calmly to each other while performing this task,” Kelly said.

“It’s a great idea, and we used them maybe half a dozen times, but they just weren’t us. I guess we prefer the old tried and true method of yelling at each other to get the job done.”

Sewer Flushing Attachment

Lisa and Dan Brown, of Always on Liberty, and owners of a 2016 Landmark Ashland, bought a Hydro Flush 45 by Valterra, and wish they hadn’t.

“There’s this clear elbow fitting that attaches to the sewer hose and the sewage line, that has a place to hook up a water hose for flushing,” Lisa explained.

“What a waste of money. After 5 minutes of initial use, leaking water and crap, Dan threw that thang….Oh wait, he ‘donated’ it to Mr. Dumpster, with words from a sailor.”

(source: Camping World)

Solar Powered Garden Lights

This one’s mine. We made an impulse buy at a big box store, thinking a cheerfully lit pathway would add some pizazz and safety to nighttime walks back to The Toad.

The fact that the things were on clearance should have been a big clue. Outdoor light fixtures that retail for less than $2.00 each were undoubtedly not built to last, and these didn’t. One never even lit up properly, and the other three gradually fell apart after only about 6 months of use.

(source: Harbor Freight)

Propane Tank Monitoring System

Finally, to leave things on a more cheerful note, here’s the story of an item that was at first thought to be a waste of money, but thanks to intervention from the manufacturer, turned out to be worth it after all.

Erika and Tony Dorsey, of Our Mammoth Travels, and owners of a 2016 Big Country, saw a magazine advertisement for a product that uses ultrasound to measure the level of fuel left in a propane tank, and sends a signal via Bluetooth to a smart phone to let users see that amount.

“Once it was available to the public, in February of 2016, I immediately bought it,” said Erika, about the Mopeka TankCheck monitoring system.

After a few struggles getting the sensors in place and syncing phones to the device, things went even more wrong. “The reading seemed good at first, but within a few hours, it stopped receiving the Bluetooth signal and read 0%. We tried multiple times to re-sync the sensors, and it would work for about a day, and then not,” Erika said.

“Propane season” ended, and the Dorseys forgot about the system, until fall rolled around and they were again wanting to know their tank levels. “We replaced the batteries in the sensors thinking maybe that was an issue, but nope, same result. Even with different tanks, repositioning the sensors, new phones, etc.,” Erika said.

She saw another advertisement touting the product’s 3-year warranty, so she contacted the company. “Surprisingly, it didn’t take much to convince them I needed two new sensors. They shipped them and did not require the old ones back.”

And now? “The new sensors work perfectly as intended, and we love the product! So much so that I asked if they would send us a couple to raffle off at the West Texas Chapter Rally. The company is based in TX, and the owner was happy to oblige!” Erika reported.

(source: Mopeka)

Buyers Beware

Here’s hoping that maybe — just maybe — these stories will help you keep some money in your wallet, or at least put it toward a product that adds value to your RV lifestyle.

Feel free to tell your own “True Tale of Fail” in the comments below, but do avoid manufacturer vendettas, please. Let’s keep things light, yet informative, as a way to save other RV owners a little money, time and frustration.

(Author’s note: a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and other contributors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Heartland RVs.)

9 Things We Learned When We Painted Our RV Interior

Wait. You did what? Why?

Well… we were tired of the gold wallpaper in our 2008 5th wheel, and we were stuck in a small Texas town waiting for a major repair to be completed on our truck, so we had plenty of time on our hands.

Also, we’d recently admired the interior paint job completed by new friends and fellow Heartland owners David & Cheryl of Landmark Adventures, so we knew it could be done by regular ol’ people like us.

Yes, yes, I remember that I once wrote this, all but swearing we’d never become those RV people. But then we decided we’d keep The Toad rather than upgrading to a newer model, and well, things started looking dated in here. Fast.

Dated, dated, dated.
Gold-tone wallpaper, decorative border halfway between floor and ceiling, and upholstered cornice boxes around the windows

So, like our two favorite major DIY projects of all time, this one also began in the bedroom. (Ahem. Sorry, sons!) But hey, we figured it was the best place to use our early painting mistakes as learning experiences, because not so many people see that part of the RV. By the time we worked our way out to the main living/visiting area, we’d be pros.

Or so we thought.

Here’s what we learned:

Lesson 1: Spending money on samples was worth it

We ended up buying eight color sample cups at about $4 each, which seems costly, but by the time we were ready to spend money on our full gallons of high end paint/primer combo at $44 each, we knew which colors and finishes looked best.

For that comparatively small investment, we were able to rule out three shades of green we thought we’d love, and we could also see that a satin finish looked rather flat in here, so we bumped up to a semi-gloss.

These two samples were no-go’s.
We ended up trying half a dozen more before getting things right.

Lesson 2: Prep time is, like, forever

We washed all the walls with a 50/50 vinegar-water mix, removed every fixture we possibly could, and rearranged items multiple times as we shifted operations from one area to another.

We pulled off the wallpaper border and unscrewed the window cornice boxes and said buh-bye to them for good.

We taped, and taped, and taped, using 3 full 60-yard rolls of 1” blue tape and several yards of a fourth.

Buh-bye border.
Peeled that shit right off!

#chaos #letspaintthervshesaid #ownlessdomore

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Lesson 3: We should have checked the color of that first gallon against our sample

It would have saved us a full day’s work.

We put the entire gallon on our walls, then went back to the store for more to finish up the second coat (the label boasts one-coat coverage — don’t fall for it). We painted two walls before noticing the difference: they’d given us the wrong color in the first gallon. Argh!

It was Parchment Paper, not Parchment, and the difference in tone and warmth was important enough to us that we spent a full day repainting all the walls with our preferred color.

We feel like British royalty, as we are now riding around in Parchment and Royal Orchard Green

Lesson 4: It didn’t cost a lot of money

We made 6 20-mile round trips to Home Depot for a total of about $220 in paint and supplies, after deducting our 10% military discount.

Specific items we purchased:

  • 3 gallons of Behr Marquee Paint/Primer — 2 in our main wall color, 1 in our accent color
  • 1.5” and 2” high quality cutting brushes
  • 6-pack of 6” rough surface rollers
  • Roller handle
  • 4 rolls painter’s tape
  • 1 rolling pan
  • 2 paint cups with handles
  • Spackling compound
  • Plastic sheeting to protect furniture
  • 8 color samples as mentioned in Lesson 1

Other supplies we used included a drill, putty knife, sandpaper, utility blade, stepstool and ladder, all of which we already had on hand.

Lesson 5: It did cost a lot of time

Seven days scrolled by, from “let’s buy samples” to “let’s take the ‘after’ photos,” with four of them qualifying as intense, all-day efforts. Without the color mess-up, it would have been closer to three days.

Now 3-4 days doesn’t sound like a lot of time to spend on a complete interior paint job, but there were two of us working. And our total square footage is 355 feet, not much of which is actual wall. So yeah, it’s a complicated endeavor.

Lesson 6: Things were a hot mess until they weren’t

We chose to paint over our vinyl wallpaper rather than strip it, hence the high-end paint/primer combo. Vinyl wallpaper does not like being painted, so we needed a product that would grip, not drip.

We read a lot of tips, we consulted with others, and yet… it just didn’t go well in some spots, and we had to smooth out a lot of drippy-globby areas as we went along — with a brush or roller if we found them quickly enough, or by sanding and touching up later if we didn’t.

It was a lot like trying to become “experts” by reading about parenting before we had our own children: first thing we learned was that the babies don’t read the books! Well, the wallpaper didn’t read the tips, and it fought us at every turn.

In fact, when it came time to remove all the painter’s tape, we had to use a blade to help the process along, otherwise the paint pulled right off with it. Talk about time consuming!

Scoring with a blade helped the paint stick to the walls and ceilings, not the tape.
Damn vinyl wallpaper.

Lesson 7: It’s possible, and rewarding, to correct mistakes with kindness

After we’d finished painting, we decided to go back to Home Depot with our empty paint cans and our story of Parchment Paper vs. Parchment.

We were polite, we showed a before & after photo, and we asked for nothing in return but a listening ear. Yet to our surprise, the paint department manager made up for our troubles by giving us a $30 voucher toward that day’s purchases. Turns out we were the first folks (fools?) he’d met who’d tried to paint the inside of an RV!

This is the photo that helped win the day.

Lesson 8: It’s not for everyone

We were conscientious and careful, and we used high-end materials, but we can see flaws and oopsies everywhere — and some of them were caused by issues we couldn’t control, like buckled wallpaper in difficult-to-reach areas. If you can’t handle tons of work for results that might not leave you overjoyed, don’t do this yourself.

Overall, we’re happy with the transformation we’ve pulled off in here, but if a professional painter had left things like this? We would have withheld pay and filed a formal licensing complaint.

Here’s the deal: You think you know how many tight spaces your RV has, but you don’t — not until you try to paint them all. If you can’t handle spending hours in contorted positions, painting with your non-dominant hand around blind corners, and then living with the less-than-perfect results of that? Don’t do this yourself.

You have to hate the wall coverings you’ve got hard enough to commit fully to changing them. Otherwise? Don’t do this yourself.

Lesson 9: It will lead to more projects

Now that we’ve removed the window cornice boxes, we’ve got naked blinds, so we need curtains.

And our walls look really bare without the textured wallpaper and decorative border to break up the space, so we need artwork. (Good news: we know where to find tips for hanging it!)

And our furniture, in addition to already looking shabby, also no longer coordinates with our wall colors, so we need a new sofa, recliner, and set of dining chairs.

Carpet’s pretty worn out too…

Project creep: the struggle is as real in an RV as it is in a house!

For now, enjoy our befores & afters. I know we are.

(Author’s note:  a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission.)

From My RV Kitchen: Sinful Chocolate Fudge Pie

We encountered a bump in the road two weeks ago, with a catastrophic fuel pump failure in the BFT, stranding us just south of Dallas. Luckily, we were able to have The Toad towed to a park with hookups, so we could live somewhat normally for the duration.

But after five days of trying to keep my spirits up by making lemonade out of our proverbial lemons, I decided I needed something stronger to soothe my soul.

Chocolate.

There are times when only chocolate will do, and this was one of them.

Beware:  This pie is so sinfully rich and intense that you may want to draw the blinds and turn up the volume on the TV to disguise any embarrassing noises or facial expressions you might make while eating it.

Yes, it’s that good. Remember the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally? That.

Sinful Chocolate Fudge Pie

8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate morsels, melted

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, softened

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

3 eggs

2 tsp. instant coffee

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup flour

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Microwave chocolate in microwaveable bowl on HIGH 2 min. or until almost melted, stirring after 1 min. Stir until chocolate is completely melted; set aside. (Alternate: melt over very low heat on stovetop in heavy saucepan, stirring frequently.)

I prefer melting chocolate on my gas stovetop to the microwave method, as I’m less likely to scorch it that way.
You use the method you’re good at.

Beat butter and sugar in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy.

It’s gonna look like this.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating until well blended after each addition.

Add chocolate, coffee, and vanilla extract; mix well.

Chocolate going in.

I used my very precious pure Mexican vanilla, purchased in Mexico on a recent vacation.
You can find it in the states too, but read the ingredient list: if it has anything other than water, vanilla bean and alcohol in it, don’t waste your money. You’d basically be buying vanilla-flavored corn syrup.

Stir in flour and chopped walnuts.

I used walnuts.
You use whatever nuts you like, or leave them out.

Pour into pastry shell.

That nice glossy uncooked batter yields a nice glossy top crust after baking. Underneath it?
Gooey fudgy moan-inducing filling.

Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until pie appears set. (I used my gas oven for this pie. I have not tested it in my convection oven.) Toothpick test is unreliable. It will come out coated with filling, which is exactly what you want. Don’t be fooled into over-baking!

Cool pie on rack, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Top with whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

My version is adapted from this original recipe.

(Author’s note:  a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission.)

From Hell on Wheels to competence — but still kind of working on that whole backing up thing

Driving an RV is not for the faint-hearted. Driving next to someone who is driving an RV really isn’t either.

Just over two years ago, I survived my very first turn in the driver’s seat — and to my great relief, so did everybody with me, including my husband, our younger son, and our dog.

I’m doing it! I’m doing it!
And OMG get out of my waaaaaaayyyyy!

Severe white-knuckling and breath-holding were involved, but nobody lost their life, lunch, or side-view mirror. Not even that one guy who probably had to change his pants after I merged in front of his teensy little car at a regrettably close distance.

He may have required several sessions with a therapist.

If that guy is reading this: I extend my sincerest apologies to you, sir. I had never towed so much as a utility trailer before, and was made doubly nervous by a heavy traffic back-up we’d unexpectedly encountered at that complicated highway interchange in Dallas. I’m so thankful I didn’t actually hit you! Bet you are too.

I had been hesitant and fearful of taking the wheel of even just our truck, a 2012 Chevy Silverado 3500 we call the BFT (B is for Big, T is for truck, and you know the F), as it was the largest vehicle, and only second truck, I’d ever had reason to drive. It had six tires for cryin’ out loud! The first time I finally drove it solo was more than a month after we’d bought it, but I’d already done some practicing with my very patient husband in the passenger seat.

I knew I could do it, but I really didn’t want to do it, and then we sold our other two vehicles, so I absolutely had to do it. The good news? All went well on that first solo journey, but we got a lot of laughs out of the fact that my destination that day just happened to be… a hospital.

When it came to the idea of driving the truck with The Toad, our 38-foot 5th wheel, attached to it, I was even more apprehensive. That’s ten tires, nearly 13 tons, and about 55 feet of potential mayhem.

But Tim and I were in this for a long-term, full-time adventure, and I knew it was unfair of me to rely on him to do all the driving for us. Plus, I’d been a military wife for more than 20 years, and knew a thing or two about the importance of putting fears aside to learn how to do “scary” things for myself. So…

  • Tim, who had towing experience, explained to me verbally how to pull the fifth wheel.
  • I read instructions and tips on how to do it.
  • I practiced, but only briefly, from the safety of a camping loop in a state park.
  • I even dug out some of our sons’ old toy trucks, taped an intersection on the guest room floor, and pushed those things around corners over and over again, so that I could understand from a bird’s eye view how a trailer takes a turn.

Good ol’ Legos and Hot Wheels provided valuable visual learning.

And all those things came together in November 2014, on our return to Texas from a camping trip in Oklahoma. I climbed into the driver’s seat, adjusted the mirrors, and took a 2-hour shift behind the wheel, ending just south of Dallas.

I definitely learned my lesson during that drive: I should have practiced maneuvering our tow vehicle/RV combo a lot more, in uncrowded areas, before I hit the road for real.

But hey. When I was done? I pulled smoothly off I-35, and parked us right. next. to a starship.

Ta-daaaaaaa!

Starship Pegasus was once a restaurant in Italy, TX, just south of Dallas. Based on this report at Roadside America, it was open from 2004-2006. Obviously, you can still park there!

(Author’s note: a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission.)