Working Amazon

Getting mail on the road is rather straightforward. I pay a yearly fee for the Escapees mail forwarding service. That gets me a permanent address in Livingston, Texas, which is also my legal domicile. Whenever I want them to forward my mail I go online and let them know where to send it, and they bundle up whatever mail has accumulated and send it off to me.

But packages are a whole other thing. I could have them sent to Livingston, but then I’d have to pay the postage to have them forwarded to me wherever I am. That would get expensive fast. And there would also be the time delay to deal with.

I buy a lot of things from Amazon. It’s pretty amazing the wide variety of specialized things you can get at Amazon that you just can’t get in your average small town. The Nitrile gloves I wear when dumping the holding tanks, size XL, are just a bit over $10 for a box of 100 at Amazon. The closest I’ve found when I’ve run out in a small town hardware store is a package of one-size-fits-all painters disposable gloves that tore like tissue and cost 4 times as much per glove. LED light bulbs. Replacement propane detector. Low-flow shower faucet. Refill kit for 16 oz. propane canisters. Replacement valves for my RV-specific shower controls. Boeshield T-9, which I use on pretty much everything, including the cylinders for the automatic leveling jacks. I’ve bought all of these and dozens more things from Amazon.

But it’s not always easy actually receiving packages from Amazon. You do not get to choose the carrier when you order from Amazon. If that were possible, I could simply choose USPS, the good old postal service, and have my packages sent to the closest post office that accepts General Delivery.

There are a few things I’ve learned through trial and error. Amazon’s system does understand what a PO Box is, and if you specify a PO Box as your shipping address, the system will automatically recalculate your shipping times knowing it must be delivered to a post office. Basically, your order will either be shipped via USPS (rarely) or via UPS SurePost, where UPS handles the bulk of the transportation but hands the package over to USPS for final delivery.

But even here there is a catch. Some items simply aren’t eligible to be delivered to a PO Box and if you enter one as your delivery address the system will tell you that you must choose a different address.

How did I learn all this? I had a PO Box in Meeker, Colorado for the four months I was working at North Fork Campground last summer.

As sophisticated as Amazon’s system is, it does not understand that a General Delivery address must also be delivered to a post office. The first time I ordered something with a General Delivery address I was surprised to see that it shipped via UPS Ground. Eventually I saw in the tracking that it had a Delivery Exception error and it was held at the local UPS office, so I went there and collected it. That strategy works okay, mostly. I tried that when I was in Anza Borrego in February of 2018, and Amazon shipped it via one of their contracted delivery services that they are using more and more. They simply said they couldn’t deliver it and sent it back to Amazon.

I’ve tried various things, and I’ve discovered that I can address a package to PO Box GENERAL DELIVERY, and the “PO Box” will trigger Amazon’s system to understand it is going to a post office and it will assign the carrier appropriately, while the humans that handle the package at the post office will understand “GENERAL DELIVERY.”

But still, things don’t always work. When I was in Glacier National Park I placed an order with Amazon to be delivered to me at:
Allen Freeman
PO Box GENERAL DELIVERY
West Glacier, MT 59936-9999

Amazon split this order into three shipments, and all three were sent via UPS SurePost. Only one of them ever made it to the post office in West Glacier. The other two were held up at the UPS facility in Kalispell and eventually sent back to Amazon. Neither Amazon nor UPS could explain why that happened, but it did.

And then sometimes I run into that issue where the thing I’ve ordered is one of the things Amazon won’t ship to a post office. That happened this last week, so the shipping address I used was GENERAL DELIVERY to the post office here in Glenns Ferry. I had 4 packages coming to GENERAL DELIVERY; 1 non-Amazon package was sent via USPS, another non-Amazon package was sent via FedEx, and the two Amazon packages were sent via UPS Ground.

I expected the UPS packages to end up at the UPS facility in Mountain Home, about a half hour drive from here, and I’d go get them. But when I went to the post office to collect the package sent via USPS. to my surprise the clerk told me I in fact had 4 packages waiting. UPS had delivered the packages to the post office, and the post office had accepted them!

Finally, I should point out that if I used commercial campgrounds more frequently I could avoid a lot of this hassle, as many campgrounds will accept packages for their guests. But I rarely stay in private campgrounds so that solution isn’t available to me.

RVing the National Parks

As I write this I am sitting in the AdventureMobile parked in Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park. Over the last month or so I’ve spent 8 days in Grand Teton National Park, 3 weeks exploring Yellowstone, and now Glacier.

I know there are people who plan their trips a year in advance and make reservations for every stop. I don’t do that. My plans change frequently. At one point I was planning to work this summer and had a job lined up, then changed my mind and decided to spend the summer traveling with the WINs. Then that plan got delayed when I was stuck in Livingston dealing with some medical stuff. Once I finally caught up with the WINs in Missouri, I was with them for less than a week when I left to head up to Forest City, Iowa to get some things fixed at the Winnebago Factory Service Center.

Gros Vetre Campground, Grand Teton National Park

I finally got back with the WINs in South Dakota and stayed with them until Grand Teton. It wasn’t until Grand Teton that I realized Yellowstone is just up the road and decided to go there.

So, how do you get a site in one of the most iconic and heavily visited National Parks, in the summer, without a reservation?

The first thing to know is that most National Park campgrounds do not take reservations, they are first come, first served. For example, there are 13 campgrounds in Glacier National Park. Two of those campgrounds are 100% reservable, and in one other, half of the sites can be reserved. And those reservable sites are solidly booked right through the summer season. You could go online and get a night here or there, but that’s about it.

It is also important to know that NPS campgrounds are not RV parks! The typical National Park campground was designed for tenters. Sites are small, and typically there are no hookups. There may or may not be a dump station. Some do not allow RVs at all. Others only allow RVs up to a certain length; say 25 feet. Still others allow RVs but have only a limited number of sites which can accommodate larger rigs. So you have to do your research. Check the NPS website for information about the campgrounds in the park you want to visit. I also check campgroundreviews.com, as people often list specific sites and the size of their rig.

Mammoth Campground, Yellowstone National Park

The campground I am in now, Apgar Campground, has 194 sites but only 25 that can accommodate RVs “up to 40 feet.” And on some of those 25 sites, it will be next to impossible to get level.

With all those imitations, you might wonder why one would even bother with NPS campgrounds. The most important reason to me is that they put you living inside the park. You don’t have to go through the hassle of driving to the park each day and waiting in line at the entrance gate. You also get to enjoy the evening ranger programs, which are a really wonderful tradition in the National Parks. And finally, NPS campgrounds are not RV parks! I’m not a big fan of RV parks. I don’t enjoy being packed in like sardines, or sitting outside looking at my neighbors sewer hose. Oh, and one more: NPS campgrounds are a bargain! Apgar Campground costs $20 per night. I think I can remember paying fees ranging from $14 to about $23 per night.

So how do you get a site in one of these perpetually full National Park campgrounds? There are 2 cardinal rules: 1) Don’t arrive on a Friday or Saturday, and 2) Arrive early!

I left Yellowstone on Monday and drove north towards Glacier, arriving in the town of Columbia Falls mid-afternoon. I parked in the parking lot at the Super 1 Foods store, which allows RVs to park overnight. While there I restocked the pantry and settled in for the night.

Apgar Campground, Glacier National Park

I was up at 5:30 Tuesday morning, and by 6:30 I had unhooked the car and, leaving the motorhome parked there, was driving to Glacier. By 7:15 I was in Apgar Campground, cruising the loops looking for an empty site that I could maneuver the AdventureMobile into. It took a few laps of each of the loops, but by 8 o’clock I had found a site someone had just pulled out of that would work. I set up a couple of folding chairs I had brought with me to mark the site as taken, and filled out the self-registration form, paid the nightly fee, and clipped the receipt to the campsite post. It was a lot easier driving around and around the campground with just the car rather than my personal little road train of motorhome plus car.

Site secured, I drove back into town and hooked the car to the motorhome. While at the campground I had noticed that the dump station was quite tight, and also very busy. So I paid $5 to dump my tanks at the Conoco station in town, then drove back into the park to the campground. There was a long traffic delay due to chip sealing work going on, but since I had a site secured I could relax and not worry. Well before noon I was all set up in my site and sitting outside relaxing.

Holidays

Independence Day.

The Fabulous Fourth.

4th of July.

Whatever you call it, it’s coming next week. It’s a summer holiday, and it’s going to seem like the whole world decided to go camping.

My boondocking site in Island Park, ID
My boondocking site in Island Park, ID

I just finished 8 days boondocking in Island Park, Idaho, about 15 minutes from the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This morning I got up at 4 AM and was outside hooking up the car as dawn broke so I could go dump and fill and make the drive up to Mammoth Campground just inside the North Entrance and get here early enough to get a site.

My site at Mammoth Campground

Mammoth is a first come/first serve campground so there are no reservations. When I got here I paid for two nights, as I still haven’t figured out how long I want to stay here.

Whenever I leave Yellowstone my plan is to head north toward Glacier National Park. With the holiday next week, I figure my options are:

  • Leave here on Thursday and find some place before the weekend.
  • Stay here through the weekend and leave on Monday and hopefully I’ll be able to find some place to stay through next week.
  • Stay here for the next couple of weeks and get through the 4th and the weekend following.

I’ve still not decided what I’m going to do, but I’m leaning towards the last option. The weather is finally warming up and there is certainly plenty to see and do in Yellowstone. But just in case I change my mind and decide to go with the second option, I think I’ll extend my stay here just until Monday for now.

Well, at least I remembered that there is a holiday coming up. Sometimes they catch me totally unawares. I know there are people that plan a year in advance and make their reservations, but I didn’t even know I was going to come to Yellowstone until I was at Grand Teton National Park with the WINs the week before last, and I didn’t figure out that I wanted to go to Glacier next until a few days ago.

Home

Where is home? Where do you live?

This is a recurring topic in my thoughts. Not that I think about it a lot or that it bothers me, just that I find it interesting to sort of watch how my thinking and feeling about it is evolving.

For me, for the most part, the AdventureMobile is home. Even in casual conversation I’ll say “when I get home” and I mean when I get back to the RV. So wherever the RV is parked is home. Whether I’m parked in one of the western deserts or the forests of New England or along the Carolina shore or beside a Louisiana bayou, when I step inside the motorhome I’m home. All my stuff is there. I sit in my favorite spot on the couch. I sleep in my bed with my head on my pillow. It is totally familiar and I can walk around in the dark and never stub a toe. It’s all comfortable and familiar and mine. Though sometimes when I wake up in the morning and open the shade I get momentarily disoriented. Wasn’t there a tree outside my window yesterday? Why is it a lake today? It’s always the same house but the view changes frequently.

But in another sense I do have a geographic home. My mailing address is in Livingston, Texas. True, it’s just a Private Mail Box (PMB) number in a building where they accept and sort and forward thousands of pieces of mail every day. The USPS actually sends a tractor trailer there every day to drop off and pick up mail. When I first joined Escapees and signed up for their Mail Forwarding Service, that’s all it was to me.

I buy my health insurance via the ACA exchange. On the exchange the choice of insurance you get depends on where you live. I believe it’s organized by county. And the only plans available in Polk County, Texas are HMO’s, so I only have access to doctors (other than emergencies) in that area. I also, of course, have my vehicles registered in Texas.

I left Texas mid-January in 2018 and wasn’t back in the state until November. Both of my registrations expire in November. I hadn’t had a physical in 2018 as that got lost in the shuffle when Jodi and I split up and I lost my home and my job and my Dad died and life was just a bit turbulent for a while. So I figured I better see my doctor in Livingston and get that physical, and at the same time I’d get both vehicles inspected and renew the registrations.

All this is just a rather long way of saying that I now have certain ties to Livingston. It’s the place I go back to when I need to take care of certain things. I’ve been there 4 times now, for a total of probably 8 or 9 weeks. Three of those times I stayed at Rainbow’s End RV Park, which is where the headquarters for the Escapees RV Club is located. The other time I couldn’t get a reservation there and stayed at Lake Livingston State Park instead.

I’ve been in Livingston enough now that I’ve started to learn my way around the town. I have a favorite barber there. I even know the layout of the grocery store reasonably well! These things help make it feel like home.

And then there are the Escapees. Not so much the club organization, but the people who belong to the club. RVers in general tend to be a friendly and helpful lot, and Escapees seem to take that to the next level. For a painfully introverted person it’s a really good thing to have people strike up random conversations with me, though I’ll admit that it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

Last week I had a minor out-patient surgery. One of those procedures you have done in the doctor’s office. But when I first saw the doctor for the initial consultation a few weeks ago he was adamant that I had to have someone to drive me home after the procedure. Now this was a dilemma. The doctor doing the surgery is located an hour+ from Livingston. An Uber would be something like $80 each way, assuming I could even get one. There are only a few in the area and they won’t always go out of town like that. And getting one back afterwards was not a sure thing. So what to do?

That night I posted on the Escapees Facebook group explaining my dilemma and within a few hours I had an offer from someone to drive me to my appointment (thanks Steve!) and back, and a backup offer from someone else not even staying at Rainbow’s End who said they’d come and drive me if for any reason the first offer fell through. Phew! That solved that logistical problem.

So Livingston. It’s where I go when I have to take care of stuff. It’s where my mail gets forwarded from. It’s where I vote. It’s where I find people to help me out when I need it. It’s where I know my way around and don’t have to use GPS every time I drive anywhere.

I still consider home to be wherever the motorhome is parked. But Livingston is also starting to feel like home to me. It’s interesting how this is all evolving. I am not a person that feels a need for roots. That’s not what it’s all about. But it’s home in the sense that I think things like “I’ll have to get back to Livingston to take care of that.”

I’ve Got The Power, And Now I know How To Use It

Last year I wrote about having the solar panels and solar charge controller installed on the AdventureMobile, as well as expanding the battery storage. (Go ahead and click that link if you like. I’ll wait…)

At the time I said that this was the first half of the project as I still needed to have some modifications made to the electrical system so that I could take advantage of all that power I was producing.

Well, after a stop-off in Yuma so I could cross the border to Los Algodones to see the dentist, I was back in Quartzsite the week before last just so I could have that done.

I’m going to talk about how the motorhome was equipped from the factory, and then the modifications I made to it. But first a bit of background on the components involved.

There are two electrical systems in an RV. There is the 12-volt DC system which runs directly off the house batteries, This includes the lighting, the water pump, the propane leak detector, and the control boards for the furnace, water heater and the refrigerator. Then there is the 120-volt AC system. This includes the microwave/convection oven, the electric heating element in the refrigerator, the electric heating element in the water heater, the two AC/heat pump units, the three TVs, and all of the electrical outlets throughout the RV. The AC system uses a breaker box with circuit breakers just like the panel in a home, fed by the “shore power” plug when plugged in at an RV park or campground, or by the generator.

From the factory, my motorhome had a 1200 watt Modified Sine Wave inverter from Xantrex installed. This inverter could take DC input from the batteries and invert it to AC to power the one 15 amp circuit that powered all of the TVs, the TV antenna booster, the outlet where one would plug in a satellite TV receiver, and one outlet at the front of the motorhome next to the passenger seat. A common feature of inverters, including the one in the AdventureMobile, is that they have an input for the AC circuit and when that circuit is live they switch off the inverter function and simply pass through the AC power. So my coach was wired such that the 15 amp circuit from the AC panel goes to the inverter’s AC input. There is also a DC input from the batteries. When the inverter is turned off, it simply allows the AC power to pass through it. When the inverter is on, it “looks” at the AC circuit to check if there is power coming in. If so, it keeps the inverter function switched off and allows the AC to pass through. If the AC circuit is not live then it will use the DC power coming from the batteries, invert it to AC, and feed that AC down the AC circuit to power the TVs. This function of switching between the AC or DC input is called auto-switching.

The motorhome also has a converter. The converter takes AC power when plugged into shore power or plugged into the 5500 watt generator, and converts it to DC power to run the DC power system and to charge the batteries.

So, an inverter takes DC power and changes it to AC power, and a converter takes AC power and changes it to DC power.

After having the solar power system installed last year and expanding the battery storage, I could produce and store a decent amount of power but all I could do with it on the AC side was watch TV. If I wanted to use the toaster in the morning or heat something up in the microwave or use my little portable clothes washer, I had to run the generator.

So when I was back in Quartzsite I had Discount Solar (who did the solar install last March) install a Xantrex XC 2080, 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter with a built-in multi-stage charger, and I had them rewire the AC in the coach so I could power the TVs, the microwave, and all of the AC outlets in the coach from the inverter.

Typically when doing this you install an AC sub-panel, move the circuits you want to be able to power with the inverter from the main panel to the sub-panel, then run a 30 amp circuit from the main panel to the AC input of the inverter and the 30 amp AC output of the inverter would feed the sub-panel and thus power all of the circuits on the sub-panel.

In my case the installation was simplified a bit because I have a split panel. The motorhome I have could be ordered as either a 30 amp or a 50 amp coach. mine is 30 amp, so my shore power cord has three prongs: positive, neutral, and ground. If it had been ordered as a 50 amp coach the plug would have 4 prongs: 2 separate positives, neutral, and ground. A 50 amp RV has two 50 amp circuits feeding the main panel, and the panel is split into two main circuits with each of the circuits off of the panel connected to either Circuit A or Circuit B.

Since my coach could be ordered as a 50 amp coach I do have this split panel, but in my case both sides were fed by the single 30 amp input. So, the installers changed the wiring so that only Circuit A was fed by the 30 amp shore power cord. Then a 30 amp output was added to this side of the panel to feed the AC input of the new inverter. The AC output of the inverter then feeds the input of Circuit B on the split panel. In this way one side of the AC panel is live only when I am plugged in to power and the other side is live when plugged into power or when I switch the inverter on. From here the only thing necessary was the move the breakers around so each circuit was on the correct side of the split panel. So the two AC units, the electric element in the fridge, and the electric element in the water heater are on the side of the panel that is only powered when plugged into shore power or the generator. All of the other circuits are on the other side of the panel so can be fed from the inverter as well.

Since the inverter also has a smart multi-stage battery charger built-in, they disconnected the relatively “dumb” converter that used to charge the batteries when plugged into shore power or the generator. This multi-stage charger is much more efficient and will charge the batteries faster, which is a definite plus when I’m off-grid and I’m not getting enough solar to keep the batteries charged. Since it charges the batteries more efficiently, I don’t need to run the generator as long to get them charged up.

I’m loving the convenience of it all. Now in the morning I can switch the inverter on and make toast. At lunch time I can run the microwave to heat up some leftovers. I can even use my instant pot to cook dinner. I’ve also been able to run my little clothes washer.

Now if I could just solve the problem of running out of fresh water…

In one of my storage bays are two of the four batteries, the Blue Sky solar charge controller, and up on the shelf the new Xantrex 2000 watt PSW inverter.
That big fat red cable is the positive DC feed to the inverter, with a fuse block inline just in case something goes awry.
The Blue Sky remote for the solar charge controller, and the Xantrex remote for the inverter
Here’s a closer look at the inverter remote. Currently the inverter is running, creating AC power from the DC batteries. The batteries are at 14.5 volts, and the AC load is 49 watts.

Am I Still An Easterner?

When people ask me where I’m from I have several answers I might give depending on the context, and sometimes just my mood. I might say “Wherever I am, that’s where I’m from,” which is my I’m-a-full-time-vagabond-free-from-the-confines-of-everyday-life answer. Or I might say “I spent most of my life in New England,” which is my I’m-a-proud-New-Englander answer. Or sometimes if I just want to end this conversation I’ll say “Texas,” as Livingston, Texas is now my official residence.

For the most part I do still think of myself as an Easterner, and more specifically as a New Englander. I remember telling someone last year that while I loved being in the desert it was not my native habitat and to feel really at home I needed mountains and trees. I enjoyed my time in the Rockies of Colorado last summer, but of course those are different mountains and trees than those I grew up with in New England. In the West, everything is on a much grander scale.

When I left Colorado bound for Connecticut last September, I was quite excited about heading “home.” And I do remember the excitement I felt when I hit Pennsylvania and things started to feel like home. Even the heavy northeast traffic, and tolls, and constantly watching for low clearances, felt like home. For a while.

I spent three weeks in Connecticut. It rained. A lot. I enjoyed seeing family. I enjoyed showing Aoife around the places I grew up. And then I headed south. Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Four states in one day! The next day; Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia. Holy crap, it takes me four days to drive across Texas.

I spent a few days in Shenandoah National Park, and a few more at Carolina Beach down in North Carolina, then I headed west to Livingston, Texas. After a week or so there, I headed back east to Louisiana where I spent nearly three months at Black Bayou Lake NWR. It was all nice, but it started to feel so small and cramped.

I left Louisiana a couple of weeks ago. After stopping back in Livingston for a few days to take care of some medical appointments, I finally struck out for the West again. It took four full days of driving to cross Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and get just across the border into southern California. Big, wide open spaces. Desert sunsets. It feels good. It feels like home!

When I first chose Texas as my domicile and “moved” there, it felt pretty far west to me. But now Livingston, which is in the Piney Woods Region of eastern Texas, feels like the East to me. I want to be farther west. Maybe I should move my home base to Arizona. Well, that’s something to think about for a while.

I don’t think I feel like an Easterner anymore.

Happy Birthday To Me

Image of UPS tracking info showing "Out For Delivery" status
Waiting for my new toy to arrive…

There’s nothing quite like the anticipation, waiting for the big brown truck to arrive with a new toy!

I know. I know. My birthday isn’t for a couple more weeks, but I ordered my present to myself a bit early while I was in a place where it could be delivered.

One of the volunteer tasks I took on here at Black Bayou Lake NWR was to help with the guided canoe/kayak tours out to the eagles’ nest at the far end of the lake.

I’m too tall for the kayaks they have available here so on my first trip I was going to use the one solo canoe. Luckily for me one of the locals that came on the trip with his own kayak also brought an extra kayak that was big enough for me and he was kind enough to let me use it. This was the first time I had ever been in a kayak. And at the end of the trip Dean was kind enough to offer to leave his kayak with me for the three months I’ve been here, so I had several chances to get out on the water and I really enjoyed kayaking.

My Sea Eagle 393rl

So I ordered a Sea Eagle 393rl for myself. This is an inflatable kayak, so it folds up and goes into a backpack/storage bag that I can store in one of the basement storage compartments of the AdventureMobile.

Unfortunately it’s turned quite cold for the rest of the week so I may not get a chance to actually get it out on the water before I leave here on Saturday. Isn’t that just how life goes?

HodgePodge

Here are a few random thoughts/observations:

Over New Years Aoife and I spent three nights in New Orleans. These were nights two, three, and four that I’ve spent away from the AdventureMobile since I started full-timing about 16 months ago. Our room had a nice shower, as nice hotel rooms often do.

Now I’m not going to tell tales from the shower, so get your mind out of the gutter! What I do want to mention is Holy Flood Batman! that shower used a lot of water!

It’s not that our shower used an inordinate amount of water, as showers go. It was just a standard residential shower head. But compared to my RV it does.

According to the USGS the average American uses 80 – 100 gallons of water per day. 3 gallons every time you flush the toilet. 2 – 5 gallons per minute you are in the shower.

I spend a fair bit of time dry camping where I have to rely on the water in my fresh water tank. Winnebago says my fresh water capacity is 80 gallons, but that includes the 6 gallons in the water heater, which isn’t really usable once the 74 gallon fresh water tank is empty. So 74 is my number. I’ve gone 10 days and still had a bit of water in the fresh tank, so I can get by on something less than 7.4 gallons per day. That’s all my water for cooking, drinking, bathing, washing dishes, and flushing the toilets. And I’m no extraordinary boondocker. I know folks with much smaller fresh water tanks that go longer than me.

So when I find myself in an environment where water is used so profligately, it really makes an impression. Firstly, it’s luxurious as heck! I can stand in that shower as long as I want. And secondly, it seems so wasteful!

Okay, on to random observation number two. I’m leaving Louisiana in a couple of weeks and heading back to Livingston, TX. Livingston is my “home” and that’s where my doctors are. First I’ve got to revisit my PCP so he can give me the results of the lab work he ordered when I had my physical back at the beginning of November. Of course this is the digital age so I’ve already seen my lab results online, but it won’t hurt to talk with him. And a couple days later I’ll see my ophthalmologist.

The day after that I leave for West Texas. First I’m heading to Seminole Canyon State Park to check out the rock art there, then on to Big Bend National Park, assuming it’s open. But I just realized I didn’t leave any time in my schedule to get new glasses if the ophthalmologist changes my prescription. I’ll have to figure that out if necessary. After Big Bend I’m heading to Quartzsite to get some electrical upgrades done to the motorhome then down to Yuma so I can cross the border to Los Algodones to see the dentist. So maybe I could get glasses in Mexico as well.

I’ve been a resident volunteer here at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge since the middle of November, but the USFWS is part of the Department of Interior, and as such it is affected by the partial government shutdown. So the refuge staff has been furloughed, with the exception of the one law enforcement officer who has to cover 5 refuges. The Visitor Center is closed and all of our public programs have been cancelled. Fortunately we’ve been allowed to stay here so I’ve still got my free site and utilities. Thank you US taxpayers! And if the shutdown ends I’ll be able to do some more work in exchange for these benefits. But if the shutdown drags on for a couple of more weeks then I’ll be leaving before things get rolling again.

I’ve got some chores to do before I leave here. I’ve got to change the oil in the motorhome and grease the front end. I’ve also got to fiddle around some with the valve extenders they installed when I had the new tires put on in September. And the car is in the shop right now getting the suspension checked and having the motor tuned up and the transmission serviced. I expect to be traveling right through the summer so wanted to get this all done while I’m in one place long enough to be able to ask around and find a good place.

Ch Ch Ch Changes

I thought I had the general outline of 2019 all figured out; or at least the summer. I was going to spend the season working as a campground host again. The only question in my mind was whether I wanted to stay east this summer or head west again. Well, I had also applied for a volunteer position in Yosemite, and if I had gotten that I would have foregone earning money this summer for the chance to spend the season in Yosemite. But I’m sure they get lots and lots of applicants so I didn’t expect that to happen, and it didn’t.

Eventually I decided I wanted to go to Oregon, so I applied to the company I worked for in Colorado last summer and told them I wanted to work one of their campgrounds in Oregon. After a phone conversation it basically came down to me picking which campground I wanted and letting them know.

And then I woke up the next morning and saw an email from WINs talking about the circuits they’re running in 2019 and one of them caught my eye. I’m going to spend my summer traveling the country with the WINs and cycling on a bunch of the best cycling paths we have.

So the adventure continues. Sometimes on 10 wheels. Sometimes on 4. Sometimes on 2.

 

Navigation

It’s been a good while since my last blog post. I left Colorado the middle of September and since then I’ve traveled nearly 5,000 miles. Since leaving New England on November 14 of last year, I’ve driven the motorhome with the car in tow almost 15,000 miles. And all of that driving has been solo.

The motorhome is 35′ 2″ long, 8′ 6″ wide, and 12′ 3″ +/- 3″ tall. With the car on behind the total length is just about 55′.  The GVWR of the motorhome is 22,000 lbs, or 11 tons. The GCWR — the maximum weight of motorhome plus anything towed — is 26,000 lbs.

The two specific things I need to be aware of when driving are low clearances under bridges or in tunnels, and weight ratings on bridges.

I long ago trained myself to always see and read clearance signs, and anything less than 13′ sets off mental alarm bells in my head. I never want to be featured on YouTube smashing into the 11′ 8″ bridge!

In practice the weight limits only come into play on the most minor roads, and have only been an issue once. I’ll get to that later.

So what does all this have to do with navigation? Well, with the motorhome navigation is more than just finding the quickest way or the shortest way or the most scenic way from Point A to Point B. It’s also finding the route where the roads are comfortable driving a large vehicle and where I won’t be stopped by any low clearances or weight restrictions.

Then there are special situations like tunnels I am not allowed through because I have propane on board. There’s the Baltimore Harbor tunnel on I-95, all of the Boston tunnels, and the lower level of the George Washington Bridge in New York. And on the east coast there are parkways that are open to passenger cars only and from which I am excluded. In Connecticut there’s the Merritt Parkway. In New York I am allowed on thruways but not on parkways.  Then there’s the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, where there are weight restrictions on vehicles north of Exit 105.

And on the east coast I also think about tolls. If I were to cross the George Washington Bridge without an EZ-Pass, the toll would be $84. With my EZ-Pass, at off-peak hours it’s only $68.

And finally, one more thing to think about: where am I going to get gas along the way? My motorhome is a “gasser,” as it has a gas engine. So I need to pull up to the gas pumps, not the diesel pumps designed for large trucks. And I can’t use just any gas station I see along the way. There needs to be enough room for me to maneuver, which involves the orientation of the pumps as well as the approach to and exit from them. One of my rules for driving this thing is never to pull into any place where I can’t see how I am going to exit out.

Fortunately, we live in a high tech world. Google Maps and in particular satellite view makes it possible for me to locate a gas station and look at the approach to and exit from the pumps. And sometimes if I can’t figure out the pump orientation because they are under a canopy, Street View will give me a look. So I will note exactly how I will enter the station and which pump lane I need to use, all while still hundreds of miles away.

My default while traveling the interstates is to look for a Flying J or Pilot with RV lanes. They are easy to find using the MyPilot app on my phone, and I get a 3 cent discount on the gas price using my loyalty card. I can also usually get my propane tank refilled if needed, and they often have free fresh water so I can refill my fresh tank.

Whew! All of this and we haven’t really got to navigating yet! So you might have realized by now that there’s more to getting my rolling house from here to there than searching for the destination on Google Maps and clicking START. Google doesn’t know what I’m driving and will happily route me on roads where I can’t go. So I have an RV specific GPS made by Garmin. This GPS allows me to make a profile that includes the height, width, length and weight of the RV, and attempts to route me in a way that avoids any clearance or weight rating issues. It’s not perfect by any means. Not every bridge and overpass is in its database, and if it doesn’t know about something, it can’t route me around it. And as you might imagine, it has a very strong preference for the interstate highways. So much so that it sometimes comes up with some really crazy routing. I remember being 7 miles from a state park campground I was heading to just off the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Garmin was giving me a route that was 35 miles long. And last month when I was heading for Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park, it simply refused to route me onto Skyline Drive, even though that is the only way to get to the campground.

As you can see, I can’t rely on just Google Maps. And I can’t rely just on my Garmin. So I use both. And neither of them tell me about things like propane restrictions or which gas stations I can get in and out of, so there’s always a bit of research I need to do before hitting the road.

Here’s what the cockpit of the AdventureMobile looks like going down the road. To the left are the two GPS’s, and to the right is the backup camera and the tablet that monitors the brake system in the towed car — AKA “the toad” — as well as monitoring the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).

The Garmin RV-760 GPS on the top with my phone running Google Maps below

The Garmin says it’s 300 miles to my destination

Google Maps says 279 miles

Google Maps usually comes up with a shorter route, and often I’ll follow it. Usually it pays off, but not always. When I was heading to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park in Louisiana the Google Maps route was 30 miles shorter than the Garmin route. Just after crossing the Atchafalaya River it took me off the highway and onto a parish route following the levee south. As soon as I got on this road I had a bad feeling. The road was really narrow with no shoulder. But there was no place to turn around. Some of the side roads were nothing more than tire tracks through the grass. So I pushed on. I continued on for a number of miles until the road made a 90 degree turn and there was a sign warning of a bridge ahead with a 5 ton weight limit and 9′ 6″ clearance. Well I’m more than twice the weight limit and 3 feet taller than the clearance. Crap! Fortunately there was a gravel lot right on this corner and I managed to get turned around in there and retraced those miles back to the interstate where I followed the longer Garmin route the rest of the way to the park.

On the right is the backup camera and the RVi tablet

The backup camera shows what’s behind me. Usually I see the towed car here, but I took this photo while parked so there’s my electrical hookup and the satellite dish!

And here’s the RVi tablet. This is the TPMS screen, showing the pressure in all of the tires, both on the RV and the car. There is another screen that shows what’s going on with the braking system in the car while it’s being towed. No matter which screen is up, it will sound an alarm if it loses communication with the brake controller, or if the pressure in any of the tires goes below or above parameters set for them.