New truck? Didn’t make my butt look big, but definitely caused a weight problem, plus much crying and swearing.

Warning: I don’t come off well in this story.

I was petulant. I whined. I yelled at my husband (even though it wasn’t his fault). I stomped, swore, shook my fist at the heavens, hyperventilated, and lost sleep.

I considered all kinds of unspeakable acts to try to get out of what I considered a horrifying situation: having to take a written test and an actual driving test in order to get the license I needed to legally tow our 5th wheel.

“Wait. What?” you say. “Emily. Haven’t you been driving that get-up for more than three years already?”

Yes. Yes, I have. I even wrote about what it was like to learn how.

But… our May 2017 upgrade to the new BFT (B is for Big, T is for Truck, and you can figure out the F), a 2017 Dodge Ram 3500, caused us to gain enough combined vehicle weight rating that it bumped us up into a new level of driver’s licensing requirements in our home state of Texas.

Oh hello, Hell. How very unpleasant to encounter you. I am not gonna like this.

If we’d stayed under a 26,000-lb Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR) with the truck/5th wheel combo, as we had with the prior BFT, a 2012 Chevy Silverado 3500, we could have kept our regular old Class C licenses, and motored on as usual.

But the Ram put us over the limit of 26,000 pounds GCVWR. Thus, Class A non-commercial licenses would be required to keep us legal on the roads. And that meant:

  • Written test
  • Driving test
  • Dammit and FML

Top: under 26,000 lbs GCVWR with the Silverado
(Orrrrr… maybe not. See embarrassing update at bottom of page.)
Bottom: over 26,000 lbs GCVWR with the Ram

We bought the new truck in Kentucky in May, and registered it in Texas, but then continued to travel out of state until after Christmas. When we returned to the Lone Star State, we started working through the license upgrade process.

In January, we studied the appropriate material from the Texas Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers Handbook.

Don’t panic.
If you’re doing this for an exempt/ non-commercial license like we did, there’s a lot of material in here you can skip.
(Screen cap of handbook cover from

In February, we took our 20-question multiple choice tests, and both of us passed on the first try.

We then scheduled our driving skills tests for March, and here’s where things go sideways for me.

Since The Toad was all set up and hooked up for our latest work camping gig as the home sweet home it is, we borrowed a friend’s trailer for practicing and testing purposes. Because his trailer is rated in the same weight class as our 5th wheel, we were able to use it legitimately on test day.

The trailer’s class is 14,000 lbs, which put our GCVWR at about 26,000, which is what was required for the test.

But practice didn’t go well for me.

It probably went even worse for my patient, long-suffering husband, who coached me through it, but he never let on. Yes, nominations for his sainthood will be accepted. Maybe not by the folks at the Vatican, but definitely by me.

I hit curbs. I backed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t get the feel of the damn thing. And worst of all? I knew it was my fault.

I know I should have been making myself practice these skills all along — it’s been 3.5 years since we bought the RV — but I haven’t.

On the outside, I swore. A lot.

On the inside, I cried.

But I knew I needed to do this. I could see the benefit of the training. And I drew inspiration from the knowledge that I’m far from the first woman to drive a big-ass contraption like this. I know women who RV solo. Hell, I’ve interviewed three of them.

As stated above, yes, I have been towing our 38′ RV all this time.

And in the limited situations in which I’d take the wheel, I was very good at it. So good that Tim would usually nap or work on his laptop while it was my turn to drive.

I was safe, skilled, and conscientious — at going forward. On highways. And into parking spots in gigantic lots where I had zero likelihood of having to put our 10 tires, 13+ tons, and 60 feet of vehicular insanity in reverse.

In other words, I was a wimp about it, and relied on Tim as a safety net for doing the tricky stuff.

(Go ahead. Close your eyes and shake your head from side to side with an audible sigh of incredulity. I deserve it, and I’ll wait.)

In order to pass the road test for this license upgrade, I’d have to be able to show proficiency in situations that I have almost always effectively avoided: in-town driving, backing up, and parallel parking.

And after our second practice session, I felt so demoralized and incompetent that I rescheduled my test for a later date, because to be quite honest, I would not have passed me. I knew I was unqualified, and I did not want to go through the trauma of failing the test and having to repeat it.

So with Tim’s help, I dug back in, because I know I need to be able to do these things on my own, without coaching, even though I hate all of it, and I don’t want to do it.

I decided to approach the parking and backing skills like I did yoga.


Hear me out.

When I started doing yoga, there were poses I couldn’t access (yoga-speak for “pretzel myself into”). After regularly practicing the same maneuvers over and over again, I could then perform them correctly, and with ease, almost every time — which is exactly what needed to happen with the trailer.

And on those occasions when I messed up a yoga position? I knew how to make a series of tiny corrections to get myself back on track without damaging anything  — which is exactly what needed to happen with the trailer.

And power to the namaste, y’all. That’s what worked! I’m still not what anyone would call great at parking and backing up, but I’ve progressed enough to know how and when to pull forward and fix it — which is what I had to do during the parallel parking portion of my test, and it’s the only “bad” mark I got. I passed!

Tim’s report card is on the left, with perfect marks.
Mine’s on the right, with that one ding for parallel parking control, but I am thrilled beyond coherent speech that it took me only two tries.

So now we’ve completed the whole process, we’re legally licensed just in time to roll out of Texas again, and wow, I hope we never have to repeat that. Our next home state may be determined in part by whether or not we’d have to!

Practice makes perfect-ish.
It also occasionally crushes safety cones.
Sorry, safety cones. I never meant to hurt you.

Important note: I intentionally did not try to tell you whether or not you might be required to upgrade your license or how to go about doing it, because this story is about me. But someone I am lucky to know, an ever reliable source of information and recommendations, has already done those first two things. If you are a Texas RV’er, you’ll find all the information you need in this very thorough FAQ by my friend, David, of Landmark Adventures.

Embarrassing update: Tim read this post, and said, “Um… I guess maybe I didn’t make it clear, or didn’t even tell you, but… we were over the weight limit with the Silverado too.”

Ack! Just not as much??? Meaning we went from somewhat illegal to even more illegal, which is all really just plain illegal? Oy. Back to hyperventilating…

Work camping, Take II: This time, everybody wins

We’re doing more work camping!

No, no. Not for Amazon again. That was… memorable… but not worthy of a repeat. Here’s why.

This time, some friends who live and work in Kerrville, TX, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and to make a long story short, we’re spending 2 months helping with spring maintenance at one of our favorite parks in Texas.

It’s a city park now, but until 2004 it was a state park, with the acreage, trails, riverfront and wildlife to show for it.
We think it’s a perfect camping destination for those who want the feel of a state park while exploring the Texas Hill Country. Yes, longer RVs can fit here (I’ve seen several with 3 AC units on top, which is a big clue), but spots that big are limited, as are spots with full hook-ups. Call the park to check availability.

Our camping fees are waived, in exchange for volunteering our time for various maintenance and upkeep tasks. The park did do background checks on each one of us, but there’s been no strict accounting of our hours. Rather, we’ve proven by example that we are willing to do what needs to be done, and to complete jobs as assigned.

Those jobs have been very reasonable in the level of effort and skill required, and we find it exceptionally rewarding that our work has offered immediately visible results. Plus, it’s a great feeling to know that everything we do improves visitors’ experiences at the park.

We usually work together, but there have been a few blocks of time that Tim has gone out on his own. Both of us have battled upper respiratory crud over the past month, and the weather has often been wet and uncooperative, so unfortunately, there have been stretches of several days when we were unable to work at all.

We hope that the tasks we have completed make up in quality and value for those missed days, if not in actual accrued hours. Here’s a quick photo essay of some of the jobs we’ve done.

We spent our first couple of weeks replacing picnic table tops and benches.
See what I mean about immediately visible results?
What a difference!

And hey, look at the view we had from our “office.”
Hello, Guadalupe River.

We have access to the park’s maintenance compound for tools, supplies, and equipment, including golf carts, so that we don’t have to use our truck.
No cats were harmed in the use of this golf cart. That’s one of the park’s many feral kitties under there.

We’ve swept out cabins, to make sure they’re free of bugs, grit, and cobwebs for incoming guests.

We’ve helped clean out fire rings, which are used depressingly often as trash receptacles, and in the process of doing that one day, we encountered a mysterious ring of raw broccoli.
I have no explanation.

The scourge of Texas: fire ants.
For those unfamiliar, this is a fire ant hill, and if you’ve ever experienced fire ant bites, you know to steer clear.
Which is why…

… one of Tim’s jobs was to sprinkle killer crystals on as many fire ant hills as he could find. And there were lots.
See all those little pests running for their lives?
We are not sad.

We’ve also swept and mopped the rec hall between rentals.

Swept off the porch too…

… and wiped down the kitchen and serving areas.

And yes, we’ve done this too.
Cleaning public bath houses is not my top choice of tasks, but it needed to be done, and we were available, so we pulled on rubber gloves, and we did it.

Oh, and did I mention that our work is often closely monitored?
Our supervisors tend to show up for a drink at happy hour, and they never tell us we’re doing a poor job, so I guess it ain’t so bad.

And now that spring has arrived in the Hill Country, we are starting to make plans for our next move. We’ve been in Texas for nearly 3 months, which was about 2 months longer than planned. No regrets, but we’re feeling a little twitchy…

So where to next?

Nothing’s firm yet, but after spending so much time here in Texas, near our younger son and my side of the family, we’re thinking it’s time to make our way toward Washington, to hang out with our older son and Tim’s side of the family. So convenient of all of them to confine themselves to only two states, yes?

We expect to be rolling again by the end of this month.

He ain’t heavy, but his new shed is: helping my brother with a build, after Hurricane Harvey

Let me start by telling you what we didn’t do.

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea: We did not go rolling into Port Aransas like white knights on horseback to help rebuild the town — although that was kind of my original intent in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. See?

What's next for us? This screen cap of a text I sent back in August helps tell the story. In short: More hard work, but it'll be more personally meaningful. In long: It's now been just over four months since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast. My brother's family lives in one of those coastal towns. Their house sustained minor damage. Their business, quite a bit. Their hometown of Port Aransas was devastated and faces many more months of recovery. So in lieu of a traditional Christmas celebration, we're gathering the family — including our two sons who are both skilled in construction — for a New Year's working party in Port Aransas. Our caravan of 7 departs San Antonio tomorrow, and we'll spend a week building a replacement fence and shed at my brother's house, and might be able to help some other folks out if time allows. We did not exchange traditional wrapped-in-a-box gifts this year. We chose to spend our money on this experience. And that's how we like to roll. #thebestgiftscantbewrapped #familyworkparty #bestchristmasgiftever #hurricaneharvey #harveyrelief #portaransas #portastrong #ownlessdomore

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We didn’t even rebuild anything at my brother’s house, which survived comparatively unscathed after the Category 4 hurricane came through on August 25, 2017, leaving 75-85% of the town’s homes damaged or destroyed. (Source: Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan, in this article from

Although we thought we were going to be rebuilding his fence, which had been damaged by the hurricane, needs dictated a storage shed as top priority. While he and my sister-in-law continue to search for a new location for their shop, some of the shop’s contents are taking up a significant chunk of their garage space — space they need for supplies to rebuild the fence and fix other damage. Make sense now?

So here’s what we did do.

We cleaned and repainted some siding on the house, which looked pretty dinged up after having who-knows-what-all hurled at it during Harvey’s 110-132 mph winds.

And with the help of several construction/renovation experts in the family — including our 20-year-old son who drove down from Austin, and our 22-year-old son who flew in from Washington — we built a shed over four days, to the point that my brother and sister-in-law can handle the finishing touches themselves.

It was our family Christmas Vacation, just delayed to January because of our jobs at Amazon.

It was the first time all of us had been together in more than two years.

(And by “all” I mean the two of us, our older son and his girlfriend, our younger son, my parents, my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, my sister-in-law’s mom and her husband, and the 9 cats, 2 Great Danes, 1 bearded dragon, and handful of exotic fish that rule my brother’s house.)

And it was exactly what we wanted.

For those who’ve never heard of Port Aransas, Texas, it’s a quirky little beach town just east of Corpus Christi, on a barrier island along the Gulf coast.

Population of Port Aransas: about 3400 (before the hurricane, anyway)

RV parks in town have reopened, and seemed to be doing booming business, with what we surmised to be a combination of regular Winter Texans, temporarily displaced Port A residents, and workers who have been hired or are volunteering for rebuilding efforts.

And what do I mean by quirky?

Well, scenes like this weren’t unusual even before the hurricane.

Yes, you can drive on the beach, and also camp overnight in an RV or a tent.
But don’t just show up. An inexpensive permit is required, and there are restrictions on location and length of stay.
You can find all that information right here.

How bad was the damage from Harvey?

Here are some numbers from the Island Moon, in an issue published just over a month after the hurricane hit.

Further statistics, including a staggering amount of debris removed from the island, are in Mayor Bujan’s Facebook post dated October 2, 2017.

What’s Port A like now?

It is a town with an already strong identity, in the process of repairing itself. The sights and sounds of renovation, regrowth, and rebuilding were unmistakeable, unavoidable — and encouraging. Some of our old favorite places like the San Juan Restaurant, Gratitude, Irie’s, Stingray’s, and Winton’s Island Candy have reopened, and more businesses will reopen as repairs are completed.

But as mentioned in the graphic above, some will not return at all. We have no doubt that new friends — and just about everyone in Port A is your friend — will bring fresh ideas and establishments to take their place, and we look forward to our next visit!

Scenes like this are still common on sidewalks, although my brother assures me that this is nothing compared to the debris piles that lined the streets in September.

And if the town didn’t have an official flag before, it does now, at least temporarily: the blue tarp.
They’re festooning buildings all over town, because as you might imagine, roofers are in high demand and hard to find at the moment.

But you’ll also be greeted by scenes like this in Port A…

… and this …

… and this.

What can you do to help?

Visit, and spend money. Many hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and shops have reopened, and Port Aransas needs your business!

Or use your internet search skills to find ways to donate your time, skills, money, and/or supplies. As ever, research any charitable entity before you commit your dough, although I will help get you started by pointing you toward the Rebuild Port Aransas Facebook Page, which seems to be a locally run clearinghouse for relief efforts.

And finally, watch this 3-minute video. It shows the extent of Harvey’s destruction, and says a lot about the strength of the people who call Port Aransas home.

Author’s note: This post was unsolicited, and I was not compensated in any way by any entities mentioned above. I do not represent Rebuild Port Aransas or (appears at end of video in link above), nor should my mention of them be considered endorsements. All opinions are my own.

RV Travels: 13 Ways You Know You’re in a Small Texas Town

I have spent almost ten years of my life living in Texas: a four-year stint in college, and nearly six years in my 40’s, due to a military move. My parents, my brother, and his family have lived there for more than two decades, so we’ve visited a lot too.

Plus, although we spend most of the year traveling, San Antonio is still our home base, and our younger son is a second-year physics and math major right up the highway at UT-Austin.

That’s my way of telling you that when it comes to small towns in Texas, I’ve got some familiarity. And after a truck breakdown left us stranded in one of them for two weeks earlier this year, I became an expert on observing the endearing quirks that make these places special.

1. The local tow truck driver doubles back after spotting you on the side of the highway with your hazard lights blinking, figuring you’re going to be his next call anyway. And he is correct.

If you’re gonna travel in an RV, get the best roadside assistance plan you can afford.
You will not regret it.

2. The RV park your 5th wheel is towed to is so new that nobody at the service shop knows the name of it, but they know exactly where it is and that it’s open for business.

The Wagon Yard RV park was nothing fancy, but wow, were we ever glad to have it!

3. You are very thankful that the RV park is new and unheard of because that means it has space available during spring break week in Texas. Every public grade school and university in the state gets the same week off for spring break, which makes last-minute lodging arrangements nearly impossible to obtain.

4. You become celebrities in the grocery store because you got there on bicycles instead of in a pickup truck. The clerk, upon hearing that our truck was in the shop, felt so sorry for us that she even helped load the groceries into our backpacks.

Of course we were all ready to go when we discovered the tires were flat.
Why wouldn’t they be?

5. All heads turn when someone walks through the door of the dinette.

6. And when that someone is a big ol’ farmer wearing denim overalls and work boots, the waitress greets him with a smile and a 2-syllable “Hey,” to which the farmer replies simply, “Sweet tea.” And the waitress sets it on the table by the time his fanny hits the chair.

7. Every store on Main Street, whether it’s open for business or appears to have been vacant for 20 years, bears a sign supporting the local high school team, with the obligatory incorrect apostrophe. “Go Zebra’s!”

8. Other than the dinette mentioned above, socializing occurs in one of two places: under the Friday night lights or in the Sunday morning pews.

9. You’re never allowed to forget which state you’re in here. Never. Not even in the bathroom.

Jesus ‘n’ Texas, y’all.

10. Your camera roll boasts photos of a BBQ plate, wildflowers, a road runner, and a spray-painted sign for a tractor pull — all from the same day.

11. And the tractor pull causes a significant uptick in traffic.

12. Being located right between two airports means nothing, as the options lack anything resembling a terminal or even planes. They are grass strips suitable for landing crop dusters, and there are cows grazing on them.

Someone out there in the country has a good sense of humor.
(source: Apple Maps)

13. Related: more of your neighbors have four legs than two.

The RV park where we stayed for that little “detour” was in fact 8 miles from one small town we visited (Grandview), and 10 miles from the other (Cleburne).

Of all the places for the truck to break down? That was the middle-of-nowheriest.

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

In the battle of RV Show vs RV Expo, our kid wins!

Sometimes, life has a way of helping us make an easy decision.

While we were parked in San Antonio for our biannual visit last month, there were two popular RV shows going on in Texas, but unlike last year when we were able to attend each one, both the Houston RV Show and the Austin RV Expo were scheduled for the same weekend in 2017.

The former: 200-mile drive, heavy traffic, overnight stay required. Houston? We have a problem.

The latter: 90-mile drive, heavy traffic, day-trip distance. But… our younger son, a second-year University of Texas Longhorn, lives there and as you might expect, he happily allows us to take him out for shopping and dinner. Austin? We have a winner!

For those who might need a different set of parameters before making a decision in time for the February 2018 shows:

The Houston RV Show is big. As in, TEXAS BIG. In fact, according to the event’s web site, this is the largest RV expo in Texas, with 9 dealerships offering more than 600 recreational vehicles, plus RV-industry related vendors and campground representatives, and daily educational seminars.

In 2017, the show ran from Wednesday through Sunday, with admission prices of $12.00 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 6-12, and free for those under age 6. It is held in the NRG Center, which is adjacent to NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. I’m telling you: big.

When we attended this RV show in 2016, we ended up spreading our visit out over two days in order to take looks and second looks at everything we wanted to see, and by the end of Day 2, I literally resorted to drastic measures (grabbed another man, then faked death) to get out of there.

By contrast, the Austin RV Expo is petite. There were only 6 dealerships and a single row of RV-industry related vendors in the Austin Convention Center, which stretches over six city blocks in a highly congested downtown area. I was unable to find an estimate on the number of recreational vehicles offered, but this preview of “just some” shows 95.

Now there’s a familiar name.
Just look how clean and shiny it is!

In 2017, the show ran from Thursday through Sunday, with admission prices of $8.00 for adults, $6.00 for seniors and children ages 7-12, and free for those under age 7. In 2016, we spent several hours there, as we were intentionally shopping for a new RV at the time. Since then, we’ve decided to keep and upgrade our 2008 Bighorn, so this year we made it in and out in a record 90 minutes!

Know before you go to Austin

Tip 1: City traffic is notoriously heavy, and the convention center is surrounded by narrow, crowded, one-way streets, half of which always seem to be under construction. If you want to score a surface lot or street parking, arrive early. We ended up getting a late start, arriving after noon, and had no choice but to park in the garage at 2nd and Brazos, two blocks away. Although we made it in and out safely with our 1-ton dually, it was a white-knuckle experience watching the top of our cab just barely clear the concrete ceiling beams, and we will not repeat it.


Tip 2: Visit the event web site for $2/off general admission coupons, or try what worked for us in 2016. On our way to Austin, we stopped at an RV dealership to take a look inside a few models on the lot. When we mentioned to the salesman that we were heading to the expo next, he handed us a pair of complimentary tickets from a stash in his desk drawer, as thanks for visiting his business!

Tip 3: The convention center concessions are overpriced and unpalatable. Pack a lunch, or leave the building to dine in one of many nearby downtown restaurants. Just remember to get your hand stamped if you plan to return!

Tip 4: That said, there’s a bar. Inside the expo. You can walk around the exhibit hall with beer in hand, if that’s what it takes to get you through.

No lines, no waiting.
I can fix that.

Tip 5: Austin is full of places to have An Experience, whether you’re into food, microbrews, indie book stores, live music, athletic/outdoor endeavors, museums, people watching, shopping, or any number of interests and activities. Open your favorite internet travel resource, search “Austin,” and then take or make time to explore more than just the RV Expo while you’re there. You won’t regret it. After all, friends do let friends get weird in Austin.

Go with it.
Let it happen.

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