WheRVe we been? Our travels, 3rd quarter 2017

Here’s a summary of our third quarter travels for 2017, mapped with a little help from Google. (Want to review the others? Here’s the first quarter, and here’s the second.)

The map’s a bit misleading, because we did some doubling back on parts of I-81, from northern Virginia to just northwest of Nashville, TN, then to southwestern Virginia, followed by the southeast side of Nashville.

RV miles traveled this quarter: about 2565. RV miles traveled this year: about 7665.

Fond du Lac, WI, June 30 – July 5: What an all-American 4th of July experience we had in Fond du Lac! Not only were there fireworks over Lake Winnebago on a perfect summer night, but the local symphonic band played patriotic tunes in the lakeside bandstand, which has been home to these concerts since 1901. It was like going back in time to a much simpler era, when entire communities showed up to make the most of holiday celebrations. We also took in the weekly farmer’s market, and I got to visit with an old friend in her new life on a small farm. She’s got chickens, horses, acreage, and hay bales, and I got to meet Olive, the turkey. He’s a very patriotic looking fellow himself!St. Ignace, MI, July 5-9: Ohhhhh. The upper peninsula. Now we get it. Summertime in northern Michigan is indeed worth singing about (see Kid Rock video) and although we crammed a lot of sight-seeing into our 4-day stay, it didn’t feel long enough. We took the ferry from St. Ignace to Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island — home to the Grand Hotel (remember the movie “Somewhere in Time“?), famous fudge, fantastic bike riding, and no motorized vehicles.

That’s the famous Mackinac Bridge on the lower left, which we crossed under on the ferry, and over in the RV. Luckily, we had a wind-free day for that!
On the lower right is our reward for hiking 9.2 miles at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

Erie, PA, July 10-24: The youngest cousin at our kids’ level on Tim’s side of the family tree graduated from high school this year, so we rolled to Pennsylvania to help celebrate, with more family members than we could count. Let’s hear it for reunions! We also took advantage of our first “mooch docking” opportunity, and parked for free in a cousin’s driveway for a week. Other celebrations included Tim’s birthday, and a milestone wedding anniversary for us. Can ya guess which one?

Upper right: a map of Presque Isle State Park.
We biked the 14-mile perimeter, and checked off our third Great Lake for the summer. In June and July, we hit points on Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie!

Haymarket, VA, July 24 – Aug 8: Here’s the deal. Tim’s parents wanted to take him on a birthday trip to the Netherlands. And since we could pick any airport for his embarkation point, we chose one in a part of the country where I had lots of friends to play with. And play I did — with Army, Navy and Air Force friends from several of our prior duty stations, as well as with a fair number of high school friends. Some live in the MD/DC/VA area, and others showed up at my 30th high school reunion in Frostburg, MD. I didn’t ask any of them for permission to share their photos here on the blog, so you get two of my photos from my day exploring part of Manassas National Battlefield Park, and one that Tim’s dad took in the Netherlands.

That’s General Stonewall Jackson up there on the right, rendered in, ummmm…, stone.

Ashland City, TN, August 9-22: One of us was very, very excited about the total solar eclipse on August 21, and insisted on booking a campground as close to the path of totality as possible. The other was just along for the ride. But an old shipmate of Tim’s drove down from Boston to view the spectacle with us, so I had the pleasure of watching those two 50+ men act like little boys on Christmas morning, as we stood in the middle of a cornfield in Springfield, TN, waiting for it to go from light, to dark, and back to light again. All they lacked were feetie pajamas.

Is it time yet? Is it time yet?

Damascus, VA, August 23 – Sept 18: We spent almost a month in Trail Town USA, so that Tim and a friend from Norfolk could tackle a 7-day hike together on the Appalachian Trail. I used the first week to fly to San Antonio for my regular round of 6-month cancer appointments, and plenty of check-in time with family. This also happened to be when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, and we watched, horrified, as my brother’s hometown of Port Aransas was nearly wiped off the map. His family, their pets, and their house made it through, and their town will too, but it’s going to take a years-long, arduous effort of cleaning, restoring, and rebuilding.

Top left: Yet another visit to the mammography clinic’s changing room. All clear!
Top center: My parents taking our younger son grocery shopping the day before fall semester classes started at UT-Austin.
Top right: Tim & Greg starting their hike.
Bottom: just a tiny part of the scenic Virginia Creeper Trail. It took us two visits, two years apart, but we’ve now biked the entire 34 miles — some of them twice. I wrote about the first half here and the second half here.

Manchester, TN, Sept. 18 – Christmastime: I’d say “here we sit” in Tennessee again, but we’re really not doing all that much sitting. We’ve taken on seasonal jobs as pickers at the Amazon fulfillment center in nearby Murfreesboro, and after two weeks of work, I’ve walked 65 miles! I blogged two weeks ago about why we did it and what we expect from this adventure with the CamperForce program, and I’ll post an update on how it’s going when we reach the halfway point.

My typical “work hair” style channels my inner Rosie the Riveter.
That’s the official t-shirt on the upper right, and our back yard for pretty much the rest of the year on the bottom.

For now, here we don’t sit, and the current plan is to make our way back to San Antonio after we’re done working. Not sure we’ll make it before Santa Claus arrives, but we’ll definitely have done our job as elves this year!

Work camping for Amazon: What’s a minimalist like you doing in a place like this?

Believe me, I get the irony.

We wanted less stuff. We got rid of almost everything we owned in order to gain more freedom and more mobility.

So what the ever loving hell are we doing taking seasonal jobs with Amazon’s Camperforce, working for the planet’s largest consumerism enabler, during the months of the year when people are losing their minds in their eagerness to Buy All The Things?

Hmmmm.
Let’s think about that.

Well, it’s not like we’re buying it.

We’re just gonna be moving it around. A lot. For pay!

And everybody likes to earn money, right?

I’ve made no secret that we live solely on Tim’s military retirement pension, and have done so by keeping our spending and our debt under control for the past four years. For us, the taking of these jobs is more about our need for new experiences than our need for income, and we know we’re very lucky to be able to work because we want to.

Plus, it’s Amazon — a business and cultural icon that we can’t imagine living without, even though we managed to find and buy things we needed (and… didn’t) without it for more than half our lives.

The company was born in 1994. Our sons? 1995 and 1997. It’s grown up with our family, with an order history stretching from toddler shoes to Legos to iPods to college text books. We want to be a part of it.

So… why the ever loving hell not?

Mmmmm, maybe because we’re not gonna know what hit us?

Although I’ve had many part-time volunteer and paid positions over the years, I haven’t worked a 40-hour week or had to clock in and clock out since 1994.

And Tim? Tim was a naval officer for 25 years, so he was used to being in charge of people, and now he’ll be in charge of precisely nobody. He will not be invited to morning staff meetings. He will be but a cog in the wheel for the first time since a stint flipping burgers in college back in 1980-something.

In other words: this will be a big BIG BIG change for both of us.

Here’s what we know:

  • Our schedule will include 4 10-hour work days/week to start, increasing to a mandatory 5 days during peak season, with an option for a voluntary 6th day. The two of us will work the same shifts, although we might not see much of each other throughout the day.
  • We will be paid an hourly wage, with time and a half for overtime.
  • Our campsite is paid for by the company during the time we are on their clock, plus a 2-night cushion on each end. For us, that’s September 20 to December 25.
  • If we finish our tours (sorry — old military terminology dies hard), we receive a completion bonus.
  • We are also eligible for referral bonuses, so hey, if you apply for Camperforce next season because of this article, and they hire you? Tell them we sent you!
  • We will be working in the warehouse as pickers, the position that was our first choice due to the amount of walking involved — like 10 miles/day! To state it simply, we’re on the outbound side of the operation, picking ordered items off the shelves and placing them in bins bound for the packing and shipping departments.
  • We are not allowed to carry our cell phones with us. We bought simple pedometers to keep track of our steps and calories burned while we work. The facility, which is only 5 years old, is a little more than a million square feet, so our feet are going to be tired. But I guarantee that lack of cell phone access will cause me to lose my shit and burst into tears long before my aching tootsies will. Just wait for it. You’ll hear me.
  • The fulfillment center where we’ll be working is in Murfreesboro, TN, and was one of four Camperforce sites that were available when we applied early in 2017. Two sites were in Texas. We’d lived there for 5 years, and have had family there since 1987, so we ruled out the familiar. That left Campbellsville, KY, and Murfreesboro. The latter came out on top because the pay was higher by $1.00/hour, and there’s no state income tax.

Got the t-shirts.
“Been there, done that” comes later.

Here’s what I predict:

  • We will be using our time off for little other than subsistence chores and recuperation: cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, eating and rest.
  • Social media and overall computer use will decline. Markedly.
  • We will complete this deployment. By comparison to the ones Tim made during his military career, this is a short one!

And that’s all I’m willing pull out of my Magic 8 Ball of Expectations. Why? Well, because I remember that when we were awaiting the arrival of our first baby, we read all the books, we did all the research, and yet people kept telling us, “You have no clue. None.”

We thought those people were wrong.

They were not.

So for these jobs, we’ve again done a lot of research. The big difference is that this time, we know we have no clue what it’s really going to be like. Hence, I’m keeping my predictions to a minimum. And I’ll evaluate the three above a bit later in the game.

For now, we’ve got one more sleep until show time, which is tomorrow morning at 0730.

My alarm is set — with Rocky’s Theme.


Notes:

This is the “Before” installment in what I plan as a trilogy chronicling our 3-month gig with Amazon’s Camperforce. Other chapters will quite logically include a “During” and an “After.” I’ll link them all to each other when complete.

For more information, feel free to dig around on the Camperforce web site, and to check out this exposé that appeared on Wired. And if you search Google for “Camperforce,” you’ll also find a lot of personal blogs written by other RV’ers about their experiences.

3 True Trail Tales from Our Trip to Trail Town USA

1st Tale: Tim & Greg Spend 7 Days Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Tim and Greg: Day 1, Minute 1

Tim and Greg: Day 1, Minute 2
Things got colder, wetter, dirtier, more strenuous, and a whole lot stinkier after that.

This tale gets top billing because it’s the reason we returned to this area (I’ve linked to posts from our 2015 visit below). We wanted a location with easy trail access, that was also within a day’s drive from our next stop, which is just south of Nashville, TN, and from Greg’s hometown, which is Norfolk, VA.

Hello, Damascus, VA, halfway point and trail town extraordinaire!

From VisitDamascus.org: Damascus is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail, and lies within a short distance of hundreds of miles of other hiking, horse, and biking trails.

That red line is the Appalachian Trail. The boys hiked sections in this area, between Roan Mountain, TN, near the lower left, and Troutdale, VA, near the upper right.
(map source)

Since I didn’t go (other than accompanying them on a quick 2.5 miles in, then back out to the car after a gear replacement delivery on Day 2), I’ll let Tim finish up the tale with his stats and photos.

  • We hiked 76.7 miles, tracked using Greg’s GPS watch.
  • Our highest point was Mount Rogers at 5,728’.
  • Experienced grassy highlands and dense humid forests.
  • Our longest day was 16.9 miles; our shortest was 6.6 miles.
  • Night-time temps were in the 40’s; day-time probably 60’s.
  • We saw four thru-hikers. All were working hikes known as flip-flops or MOBOs, where they started somewhere in the middle and hiked north to the Maine end, then reset to where they started and hiked to the southern end in Georgia. They had roughly 400 miles of their 2,180+ mile journey remaining.
  • Met a father/son team (both named Tim!) at the summit of Mount Rogers. They’d just completed their 21st “Highest point in a state” hike, and were planning to do all 50.
  • One deer
  • Many wild ponies
  • Several longhorns (not the UT kind, like our younger son)
  • Zero actual bears, but we saw some pretty fresh scat and heard/saw a tree being worked over nearby, in addition to the honey-grabbing evidence below
  • No raccoons (remember this for later)

Random summit view 1

Random summit view 2

Laurel Fork Falls
A couple of thru-hikers said it was in the top two of the best things they’d seen on the entire Appalachian Trail.

What can I say? I have a thing for log cabins.

A freshly dug hole, probably by a bear going after honey in the hive.
Unfortunately the bees don’t show up in the picture, and we did not see Winnie-the-Pooh.

2nd Tale: Emily Does 6 Miles, and Gives Her Boots the Boot

While they were out, I went out too. Gathered my gear, packed water and snacks, and hoped my old boots would see me through one more hike. They did, but it wasn’t comfortable. My next “hike” was into town for a new pair!

My hike on the trail started here, up these steps.
My hike to the trail started on the steps of our RV, which was parked only half a mile away.
Location, location, location!

It ain’t much, but it’s mine.
But then, I’m a day hiker, so I don’t carry a tent, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, or multiple days worth of food.

When I reached this sign at the top, I turned around and hiked the 3 miles back down into Damascus.
Took me about 3 hours, including my 20-minute lunch break.

New boots!
This is my second pair of KEEN hikers; the first pair lasted a good 3-4 years. I like them because they are comfortable from Day 1, and they are nice and wide at the toe, just like my feet. I’ve managed to purchase both pairs during end-of-season clearance sales, taking their cost down to less than $100.00!

3rd Tale: The Half of the Virginia Creeper Trail We Didn’t Do in 2015, but Twice This Time, Because we Foolishly Skipped Booking a Shuttle

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sure, we can ride 17 miles from Damascus to Abingdon for lunch, I thought.

I know we’re not serious cyclists, and that our longest ride together has been only 15 miles, but this is on an old rail bed with only a 5% grade, I thought.

Riding 34 miles can’t be that hard, I thought.

I was wrong.

And 24 hours later, I am still in pain.

In 2015, we took a bike shuttle to White Top Station (1), and rode the trail downhill 17 miles to Damascus (5).
Yesterday, we rode 17 miles from Damascus (5) to Abingdon (8), ate lunch, and then rode all 17 miles back.
I thought it would be maybe a 4-hour outing, but it took 7.
Yeah, ouch.
(Map source)

Don’t let that subtle bowl shape between Abingdon and Damascus fool you. Up is up, and I was one hangry chick by the time we got to Abingdon.
(Map source)

Our reward: scenic wooden trestles, rustic farmland, majestic rivers, lots of cows, and one final, magical, adorable sighting.

There were cows in the woods…

… and cows by the river…

… and cows in my selfie …

… and wow, that cow is reallyreally close! Wait. Close enCOWnter. HAAAAHAHAHAHA!

This part of the Virginia Creeper Trail cuts through quite a bit of private land, so there are several gates along the way.
Tim rode ahead to hold them open for me.
What a prince!

And then, just as I was thinking there was no way I could pedal the last 6 or 7 miles home, because everything hurt, and I’d run out of swear words to describe it, a bit of rustling on my right caught my attention.
It was not one…

… not two…

… but THREE BABY RACCOONS that were tumbling all over each other in the leaves, and making the most adorable pippity-purring noises I’ve ever heard.
I wanted to snuggle them. Bad.
But we didn’t get too close (I zoomed in for these photos), because nature.
Mama raccoon was probably nearby, and we definitely did not want to deal with the likes of her.

Those fuzzy little bandits were my good omen, my powerful talisman, the image that sustained me for the rest of the ride home.

Best. Wildlife sighting. Ever.


Posts from our 2015 visit

 

WheRVe we been? Our travels, 2nd quarter 2017

Here’s a summary of our second quarter travels for 2017, mapped with a little help from Google. (Want to review the first quarter first? Click.)

The map’s a bit misleading, because we started in West Virginia, rolled east to the Virginia coast, then backtracked right through WV again on our way to Kentucky.

RV miles traveled this quarter: about 1500. RV miles traveled this year: about 4700.

Little Beaver State Park, WV, Apr. 10-19: What a beautiful campground this is! I reviewed it here, and we really enjoyed the peace and quiet of early springtime in “almost heaven.” Best part of this visit: we were within a 2-hour drive of some family on my daddy’s side, so we were able to share home-cooked Easter dinner with aunties and cousins galore, including the newest little leaf on our family tree. Genealogically speaking, Asher is my first cousin twice removed, but I’m just gonna call him a kissin’ cousin, because that’s what I did to his precious face.

Cousin Asher with a boo-boo that was not caused by my kisses, and the views of and from our campsite at Little Beaver State Park

Norfolk, VA, Apr. 19 – May 1: Friends we love, food we’d missed, and our boy! We got to spend a week with our older son and his girl, who flew in from WA to celebrate his former Boy Scout troop’s 100th anniversary. It was his first trip back since we moved away from the City of Mermaids in 2010, and we crammed in as many visits to old favorite places as we could. The kids stayed with friends, and Tim & I parked at the Little Creek military campground, where that “No wake zone” sign became less funny as the rain continued and the roads failed to drain. Ah, sea-level living by the sea. We don’t miss it.

One thing we do miss about living by the sea is access to good, fresh sea food.
We took advantage.
Often.

Williamsburg, VA, May 1-22: We were having such a good time in our former hometown — without a house to work on this year — that we decided to extend our stay in the area for a few more weeks. While enjoying daily bunny visits to our campsite at Cheatham Annex, we also made a side trip via air to visit friends in Boston, added some insulation to The Toad’s basement, and celebrated Mother’s Day by borrowing a friend and her two boys since ours were absent. And we didn’t leave until we got a Very Important Phone Call.

What could possibly have pulled us away from all this, you ask?

Taylorsville, KY, May 23-30: The new BFT is ready! But first, in a twist of fate that I could not possibly make up: minor RV disaster. When we packed up in VA and I pulled in the slides, I heard a pop-hiss from the front of The Toad. A hose had ruptured, spewing hydraulic fluid everywhere under our bed. It looked like a murder scene. Thankfully, we were pulling in once more beside our friends Always on Liberty, and Captain Dan’s quick and able assistance made it so that we could still get to the dealership and pick up our new truck in time. (The full story about what happened to the old BFT and why we bought a new one is right. frickin’ here.)

Out with the old truck, in with the new!
Oh, and we’ll be getting new flooring soon too. Thanks, hydraulic leak.

Goshen, IN, May 30 – June 18: We finally made it to our first RV owners’ club rally, a national one with 500+ attendees, and we jumped in feet first by taking on jobs that required months of advance planning. While there, we made new friends, learned a lot about RVing from them, and survived more potluck suppers than we ever thought possible. Met up with some old friends too (I’m looking at you, RV Love and Always on Liberty), danced, ate like the Amish, and replaced our sofa, recliner and mattress.

Kelly, of RV There Yet Chronicles, snapped the photo of us at the rally, auditioning for the never-coming-to-a-theater-near-you movie “Derpy Dancing.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Ozaukee County, WI, June 18-30: We needed a place to go between scheduled events in Indiana and Pennsylvania, so we headed to visit friends just north of Milwaukee. Summertime in Wisconsin is brief, and everyone likes to get out and enjoy it, so RV park and campground spaces can be hard to find at the last minute. Although we thought several times that we’d end up overnighting in a driveway or parking lot, we managed to cobble together reservations at three different spots, allowing us to experience classic WI activities and treats, like local brews, a baseball game within sight of Lake Michigan, a fish fry, and cheese curds (both fresh and fried).

Three reasons we can’t live here:
Winter
Fried walleye
Cheese curds
I’d be too cold, and I’m pretty sure my body weight would double.

Coming up next: We’ll spend a few more days in WI to get us through Independence Day Weekend, and then we’ll roll to PA for a family reunion/graduation celebration with some of Tim’s cousins. We’ll also be spending a couple of nights in a NY B&B to mark our own wedding anniversary. 25 this year!

An epic fail, advice from a stoner, and how we ended up with a new truck

A funny thing happened in March, on our way from San Antonio, TX, to Elkhart, IN, for a service appointment to take care of some welding issues on The Toad: the BFT is the one that failed us.

Irony: the dependably cooperative BFT dies on the way to having the notoriously lemony RV repaired.
WHO THOUGHT IT WOULD BE THE TRUCK???

Not what we were expecting.

Our incredibly reliable, tough-as-nails, much adored 2012 Chevy Silverado 3500 dually sputtered and quickly died while we were driving on I-35 just south of Dallas — a mere 225 miles into our 1300-mile trip.

We are very thankful that despite the scariness of the incident, the travel gods were indeed watching over us.

We were on flat ground instead of a hill.

There were no vehicles riding too closely behind us.

We were not in a construction zone.

We had a wide shoulder to pull onto.

And I was smart enough to start veering toward that shoulder at the same time I was saying, “That didn’t sound right.”

Why did that turn out to be a smart move? Because we had mere seconds before the truck shut down. All power: gone. On an interstate.

The tow truck driver took Tim and the Silverado to a service shop, leaving me on the roadside with the RV until they returned.
Why?
Because Tim can talk truck to the garage gurus, and I shouldn’t ever do that.
We both know I’d say, “You know what? Just burn it. We’ll walk.”

From my personal Facebook account that day: So I sat all alone in the grass next to I-35 for more than 2 hours, waiting for the tow truck to come back for the RV, and this is the only person who stopped to make sure I was OK: stoner on a fucking bicycle.
Said his name is Mondo.
He was riding to Austin for his birthday.
I don’t know where or when he started (and I rather suspect he didn’t either), but he had about 145 miles to go.
Mondo offered me use of his cell phone to make an emergency call, in the event I didn’t have one.
Clearly he’d never met me.
And then, in the way only the perpetually stoned can properly pull off, he told me I should just relax, and not stress out about it.
He then literally rode off into the sunset.

To make a very long story a lot shorter, the problem turned out to be what is rather evocatively known as “grenading” of the fuel pump. Upon its death, it sent shards of metal through the entire fuel system, leaving us dead in the proverbial water.

As Tim described it “The critical part seemed to be the Bosch-built CP4.2 HPFP, the exact same pump used in the Ford F-series Light Duty diesel trucks. If you google ‘F350 CP4 failure,’ you’ll find plenty of discussion on the issue. Same if you google ‘Duramax LML CP4 failure.’”

Tim, who is not an industry expert by any means, but merely a consumer who’s always trying hard to get smarter, further surmised, “A major culprit appears to be the quality of diesel fuel in the U.S. (i.e., the mandated ultra-low sulfur blend plus other things), combined with what might be less than acceptable engineering by Ford and GM. Reportedly, Bosch has been saying for some time that the lubricity of the fuel needs to be higher for these pumps to last, and U.S. diesel fuel doesn’t meet these standards.”

Within ten minutes of meeting our new BFT, Tim was underneath it, checking all the things.

What that meant for us was a $10,000 fuel system replacement (GM paid for part of it) that left us stranded for two weeks outside a really small Texas town. Middle of Nowhere was still a good 10 miles away. We were there so long we painted our RV’s interior!

And then, after the truck repair was complete, and we were finally sitting in Elkhart waiting for the work to be finished on The Toad, we realized that we needed to make a big decision: test our luck by keeping the BFT and its fresh new fuel system with the exact same type of pump that had gone spectacularly belly up, or upgrade to a truck that wouldn’t have that issue.

To make the second part of the story shorter as well, we knew we couldn’t live with the uncertainty of driving a truck that might croak again, any more than we could change the U.S. diesel fuel composition standards that were probably part of the cause.

The Silverado was our only vehicle, and it pulls the Bighorn, which is our only home. We couldn’t stomach the idea of going through a second catastrophic failure, or having it happen under far more hazardous circumstances than the first one.

We opted to upgrade.

Y’all say hello to our 2017 Dodge RAM 3500 dually, which we picked up at the end of May, just shy of 3 months after the Great Fuel Pump Grenading Incident of 2017.

For those who are wondering why we didn’t go with the 2017 Chevy Silverado, which does not have that same iffy fuel pump as the 2011-2016 diesel models, there were three factors that put the RAM on top.

  1. Shorter turning radius for easier maneuvering
  2. Larger payload and axle weight ratings for higher towing capacity
  3. More competitive pricing for better value

We look forward to thousands and thousands of miles together.

My birth announcement.
I figured our sons should know.

12 miles on the odometer, and it definitely does not make my butt look big.
What a great purchase!
Also, we had a terrific experience working with Jeff Taylor, Commercial/Fleet Manager, at Glenn’s Freedom Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in Lexington, KY. Holler if you’d like a personal referral!


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