Reflections on Two Months Gone

Unbelievably, two months have now passed since we set out with Gertie packed to the gills for the beginning of our trip. As we wrote about earlier, the excess weight in gear packed into Gertie was solved by renting and hauling a UHaul for the first couple of weeks, storing the items in Florida in a small storage unit and solved again when we returned to Deerfield Beach to retrieve the stowed belongings after we acquired our new camper, Wolfie.  On one hand, it feels like forever since we were working in our jobs and preparing to leave; on the other hand, it feels new as can be – like an extended vacation. Still, in the back of our brains, we feel that we kind of know that it’s not a vacation and it’s our new life and with every day, this realization brings a contented smile.

We set out with a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see and a timeline with only a few fixed dates: New Orleans for Mardi Gras and summer to travel through the Canadian Rockies into Alaska.  Otherwise, we purposely eschewed making advance reservations anywhere, which we found to be somewhat challenging while in Florida for the 6 weeks or so preceding our scheduled arrival in New Orleans due to the abundance of RVers and other campers taking advantage of wintering in Florida.  While making reservations for campsites – tent or trailer – in Florida proved time-consuming and while we could not always stay in a particular location or stay at a campground as long as we may have wanted under ideal circumstances, making arrangements on the fly has its blessings. We ended up seeing parts of the country that we may not have otherwise selected and some of those have been among the most beautiful and surprisingly enjoyable and have met people we might have missed.

Life with Wolfie

Life with Wolfie, our trailer home for the past month, is good.  In him, we have all that we need and love the convenience of cooking without digging through the “bear box” housing pantry items, or without hunting for the spices within the camp kitchen as it is now all neatly housed within organized (mostly) cabinets in the trailer. With Wolfie, packing up camp and moving onward is a snap and we have that routine pretty much down pat.  Having an indoor bathroom is dreamy and being able to sit at the dinette to eat or work at the computer is easy and comfy.  We have places for our clothes, and our “office” equipment as well as our toiletries and sundry items that are accessible and don’t require digging through boxes to retrieve.

Technology needs remain a work in progress as cell signals and campground wifi (when it exists) can be quite spotty but we have learned new tricks to overcome these deficiencies when they arise (at least, thus far). We previously added a $30 digital antenna to our gear which often will allow for watching local network TV. We added an Apple AV cable that allows for our iPhones or iPads to connect to the TV if we have downloaded Netflix shows or movies in advance or if we have service strong enough to stream from an app.  The Apple TV, which we believed we would be able to use by connecting it to the T-Mobile data on Roque’s iPad, has proven to be largely useless.  The data signal on the iPad, which is sufficient often to permit internet browsing, does not appear to be strong enough to support streaming on the Apple TV.  And when our cell phone signals are strong enough to support streaming, if the Apple TV is using TMobile data, we cannot stream to the Apple through AirPlay since both devices (Apple TV and phone or iPad) need to be using the same data stream.  The AV cable solved the problem by taking the Apple TV out of the equation.  Now, it mostly collects dust and awaits its final home in Panama.

There are many ongoing adaptations still, though.  We wrote briefly of the limit of our gray and black water tanks in Wolfie and found it essential to add a portable waste storage tank to our gear, which allows us to empty the tanks on an as-needed basis to bring to the dump station, freeing up the tanks while we are stationary for more than a couple of days. The alternative, for those of you not familiar with the more unsavory aspects of life in a camper, would require hooking up Wolfie every couple of days just to tow him to the dump station.  The portable tank can be towed (I kid you not) behind the truck for emptying at the dump station, leaving Wolfie happily in his cradle of wheel chocks and stabilizers.  It’s not the most pleasant of household chores to bring the portable tank to the dump station but it is a small price to pay for staying put for a longer period and for the convenience of indoor plumbing.

And while we adore having a queen size bed without the obstacle of cot frames separating us while we sleep, we have realized that our trailer mattress is a piece of crap- hard as a rock and shorter than the conventional queen size mattress.  Its short stature is not much of a problem for me but Roque isn’t as vertically challenged as I am and while not an extremely tall man, finds that his feet stick off the end of the mattress at night.

We discovered, quite by accident, that the crappy mattress dilemma is universal.  While camping on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, where we took Wolfie to stay while we headed into Mardi Gras, we were included by our neighboring campers in a day /night of beach going and campfire relaxing.  With these 3 families the subject of the mattress arose and much to our surprise, we learned that they ALL hated their mattresses.  So, it seems that camper manufacturers install the most basic of mattresses in campers and slowly but surely, owners learn that they need to replace their mattresses with other ones IF they want to get a good night’s sleep.

Armed with this information and the new-found knowledge of not being alone in this island of misfit mattresses, we started to research replacement RV mattresses and happily learned (from website comments) that RVers – from high-end Class A motor homes to pop up tent campers – often need to commit to replacing their mattresses.  Through the internet, we also learned that the mattress we have is a “queen short,” explaining the feet-off-the-end problem that Roque is experiencing.  (It is interesting to note that RV dealers proudly boast of queen size beds in RVs without disclosing that while they are queen size in width, they are Sharon-sized in terms of length!).

We were also happy to learn that replacing the mattress with a gel foam mattress for Wolfie will not cost and arm and a leg and NOTHING like a conventional mattress for a conventional home.  The obstacle that looms ahead in this purchase, however, is being somewhere where the new mattress can be shipped to us or shipped to a store for pick up. When one lives on the road with a snail mail address in another state (Florida in our case), one cannot simply do the simple Amazon-thing since acceptance of  delivery of something as large as a mattress – even one that is shipped vacuum sealed for later “inflating” when the package is opened — is not something we want to impose on a relative or friend in an upcoming state (as we have with smaller items).  This means postponing the purchase and timing it so that it can be delivered when we are WITH the friends or relatives.  Until then, the sleep will just have to suffer and we will just have to remind ourselves that hard as it is, the mattress is an improvement over the two cots pushed together.

So, lest you think that we are sitting fat and happy in the comfort of our new home on wheels, we are still modifying and adjusting and I suspect that our future posts will have subjects similar to this one.  Yes, there are moments when we wish that the purchasing of stuff would end but mostly the moments are filled with appreciation for the quiet and peace of our life on the road. There is always a new path to walk and new animals to see.  There are bike routes to try and local foods to explore.  There are people to meet and internet radio stations to stream through the Bluetooth to the outside sitting area beneath our retractable awning while we enjoy our books, newspapers, Scrabble, Backgammon and Chess games or as background music to our conversations about where to explore today.  There are beaches where we sun and nap and new grocery stores to explore when we shop for the days’ meals. We have found that we can be as solitary or as social as we please and that suits us beautifully, as does each other’s company, which never fails to complete us (still).  Life is good.

Finding Our Stride

One of the greatest discoveries so far has been that we CAN slow down, so much, in fact, that we cut our time in New Orleans short and decided to return to Wolfie a day earlier than planned following Mardi Gras. Entering New Orleans on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday), turned out to be perfect timing as we were able to watch Monday’s Proteus and Orpheus Krewe parades as well as participating in Zulu’s Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront near the French Quarter.  The parades were spectacular affairs and each Krewe brings a different spectacle to the streets. On Mardi Gras, the parades began at 8 am and we saw the “follows” floats from smaller Krewes still rolling down St. Charles Avenue onto Canal Street as late as 5 pm!  Many stay at their spots for all of these hours; we spent time wandering different streets, observing the differences in the crowds from one location to another.  Having amassed huge quantities of Mardi Gras beads at a parade in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Friday before Mardi Gras, we made little effort to collect new ones in New Orleans and were fascinated by the BAGS of beads and other “throws” collected by parade attendees (what do they DO with all that stuff after the parades???).  Still, we were thrilled when Roque caught beads thrown by hometown boy Harry Connick, Jr. from his float in the Krewe of Orpheus parade and when Roque caught a prized hand painted coconut from the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras, which coconut now graces our dining room table in a plastic Proteus cup also one-handed by Roque.

While in New Orleans, we dined at Mother’s for breakfast (The Katz’s — of sorts – of New Orleans), returned to Cochon for dinner (as memorable as our visit there nearly 4 years ago) and visited Compère Lapin which may have been the highlight of our trip, as the cuisine, a fusion of West Indian/Cajun/Italian prepared by a classically trained (French tradition) female chef from St. Lucia, was fresh, beautiful and so flavorful that had we had larger appetites, we would have tried everything on the menu.  Her menu expresses the following philosophy, which I found perfectly matched our meal : ” Meals aren’t about trends, shock value, or opulence. Meals are about moments, memories and those who surround you at your table. We believe in the complexity of simplicity, and the power of pure flavors. Our histories, vast and varied, deserve to be memorialized and romanticized by dishes that at once remind us of home and transport us to somewhere new.” These restaurants were wonderful treats and a lovely departure from cooking and we were thrilled with these choices although in New Orleans, we likely could have tried others with the same results as few cities honor food (or do it as well) as does New Orleans.

The two days and nights in New Orleans, through this season of revelry, were enough for us and we both decided – independent of one another – that we wanted to leave the city to return to the campground. We have nested in Wolfie completely and have added touches that make it feel like home. Our Zulu coconut. Our Cynthia-made, Strip Club endorsed quilt. Our yoga mat as floor runner. Our zero gravity outdoor lounge chairs.  These and more make Wolfie our home and we are loving it.

We now know that moving along the road with Wolfie should be done in smaller spurts, and unlike our last cross-country trip where we drove upwards of 8-10 hours at times, we are now trying to travel no more than 4 hours on a travel day.  While slower in pace, we are in no hurry to exhaust ourselves or to push onward when being here — wherever here is – is bound to bring more beauty, fresh discoveries, and new friends.  Our next stops — Lake Charles, LA, Galveston Island, TX, Houston and then Dallas – lie ahead with boudin, cracklin’ and crawfish and who knows what else to be sampled.  Whatever lies ahead, we look forward to it and will share it later with you.

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Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras
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New Orleans, here we come!
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Gallier Hall (former City Hall), St. Charles Avenue along parade route

Be Safe Y’All

We were told by our camping neighbors here at Fontainbleau State Park to “be safe” when we left to go to Mardi Gras.  We swiftly learned that the “be safe” admonishment was not to be taken literally as I was able to confirm with our hotel desk clerk that folk from Louisiana ALL say “be safe” in the way that we might say “see you later.”  So this blog will close with well wishes to you and hopes that y’all will be safe.

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How We Will Roll

Why We Love to Camp

Throughout our years of planning for this road trip, we had considered many ways to camp including whether to buy some sort of camper. Most of the folks traveling the Pan American highway have some sort of self contained camper, whether factory or homemade. We opted for the truck and tent for many different reasons. We love tent camping and one night, when at the Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, at the far southwest tip of Florida (and 38 miles from the visitor center), we slept with the tent rain flap open, allowing for an amazing view of the stars from our cots.  Since we were so far away from light pollution, the sky was spectacular and combined with the night sounds of insects and frogs, I was filled with a sense of peace and well being that made it clear why I love to camp in a tent — other than a thin piece of nylon separating us from the outdoors, we were as close to being a PART of the outdoors as we could be without sleeping outside (not a viable prospect given the mosquitos there!).

It was kind of a source of pride, at least for me, to think that we could tent camp throughout this trip, at least in the US and Canada, but we met some people from Alaska and Oregon while in the Everglades, who forewarned of the possibility of being prevented from accessing some national park campgrounds without a hardsided camper due to wildlife concerns.  Despite our efforts to research this online, we had been unable to find out much about tent camping limitations. It was a really horrifying thought to consider arriving somewhere – such as Yellowstone or Glacier or Denali- only to be told that they would not allow us to tent camp there. Combining that with many other considerations such as basic creature comforts like having an inside toilet and real bed, we again started to research camper trailers.

Kismet struck when we arrived in the Ft Myers area.  We thought that if we decided to buy one, it made sense for us to do it in Florida so we could ensure having it registered in our new home state. In the middle of our research into various small trailer campers, we learned there was an RV show in Ft Myers which we thought would give us a chance to look at many makes and models and to see many of the ones we had already researched online, saving us the hassle of going from dealer to dealer to see a variety of models.

Introducing Wolfie

We were only interested in a smallish trailer but felt that it made no sense to get anything unless it had a real bed and “full” bath including toilet and shower. I was intrigued by the little “pod” trailers as well as “teardrop” ones but they were just too small and impractical as most have just inside beds (and outside kitchens which are clever but we already have a full outside kitchen set up) so we had to go larger than a pod. We jointly liked one model much better than all the others because it had an”walk around” queen bed (meaning that one person doesn’t have to climb over the other to get in or out of bed) and a full bath. In the one we selected – the Forest River Cherokee Wolf Pup 16 FQ (photos of similar models and floor plan of our model here: http://www.forestriverinc.com/brochures/2017/2017wolfpupbrochure.pdf),  we have tiny tub (big enough for a grandchild) with a shower, toilet and even a sink with vanity. So within the whopping 16′ of trailer, we have a walkaround  queen bed, full bath, tiny dinette and kitchen (stove, fridge, sink and microwave). We also have ac and heat. The ac requires being at a campsite with electricity but the heat runs on propane.

All of this means than we now have a tiny camper that not only allows for a comfortable lifestyle when at a campsite but will also allow us to boondock (camping without electricity or water at a site) if we find ourselves in remote areas where we cannot find a “real” campground or hotel room, which I anticipate will be the case in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska.

Additionally, the storage space and cargo capacity of the trailer permitted us to return to Deerfield Beach for the stuff we had to put in a storage facility because it was too heavy to carry in the truck, which would save us the storage fees as well as have the gear we wanted for starting our life in Panama. And we also considered that once we get to Panama, having the trailer means that we won’t feel quite so pressured to find a rental home since we will have a place to sleep and we may ultimately be able to rent out the trailer as an AirBnB option like a casita on the property.

The downside is that towing a trailer is more difficult than just driving a truck and reduces our fuel economy. But it’s a fairly simple process to set up and break down the trailer when we are in a campsite and we unhook the truck for the duration of our stay and then hop into the truck or onto our bikes while the trailer stays put. We have reduced the camp set up and break down time to a third of what it took to set up our tent and screen tent with kitchen, cots, clothes and other necessaries.

Another downside of having a small trailer is the small holding tanks (to say nothing of learning the “art” of emptying out the holding tanks).  We have learned that we are likely to exceed our tanks’ holding capacity when we stay at one campsite longer than a couple of nights and that means that we have to find a way to get to a dump station in the park midway through our stay.  If this requires hooking up and moving the trailer, it’s rather self defeating when the beauty of staying put for longer than a couple of days requires moving just to dump the tanks.  Luckily, there are solutions for this dilemma: portable tanks that allow for us to empty excess gray and black water and haul it in this wheelie-device to the dump station.  So, it’s likely that we will be making a purchase of one of these today.

Researching Campgrounds

For any of you who are experienced RVrs, you already know that locating campgrounds with “full” hookups is the optimal choice; we have chosen to avoid RV parks for several reasons and thus, “full” hookups (water, electric and sewer at the site) are less frequently available and snatched up quickly when they exist.  Unlike my experience camping in Maryland, albeit in tents, we were delighted to learn that all Florida state park campsites provide electric and water hook ups, which were convenient as heck when in a tent and fairly essential – even if not critical – in a trailer.  The same appears to be true in many other state parks and the ones we reserved in Mississippi and Louisiana for the end of this month, will provide electricity and water (and in Mississippi, sewer as well).  Within federal lands, electric sites are harder to come by and few, if any, have full hookups.  Luckily, we located a resource on the internet that provides really comprehensive information about state campgrounds and their facilities within their state park system.

There is something of an art to researching campgrounds.  No two are alike, even within a statewide system.  (Further, no two sites are alike and many Florida state park sites vary tremendously in terms of size.)  Since we are trying to stay on public lands, we have located city, county, state and various federal campgrounds and in our 12 campgrounds so far, have stayed on county, state and federal lands  Alas, there is not one reservation system for all.  Some states use reserveamerica.com; most federal lands allow for reservations on recreation.gov.  Both of these omit county campgrounds (at least so far in our travels). Finding county campgrounds requires knowing the county where you are headed (oy! yet ANOTHER open tab in my browser!).  Some parks allow reservations online as well as “first-come-first-served” walk ins.  Sometimes, the online reservation systems shows no available sites but a phone call to the park results in victory!

Another drawback to the online reservation systems is locating a “good” site.  When we were in a tent, proximity to the bathhouse was a priority.  And while that is no longer as critical while in a trailer, other pieces of information rise to the top of the list:  Size. Drive in versus back in.  Width (helpful when backing in). Length.  Location within the campground (i.e., not next to dump sites, electrical transformers, trees/hedges for privacy, etc.).  It’s helpful to look at the campground map to try to determine better spots but it’s not always easy to locate where the dumpsters are, for example, to avoid living next to them.  Perhaps this explains why experienced RVrs often return to the same campgrounds year after year, armed with information on their preferred campsite location.  If this sounds a bit daunting, you are right – at times, it makes me feel like my head is about to explode with all of the mental checklists about what park and site to choose.  So far, however, we have been delighted with pretty much every campground we have selected and often have benefitted from having to move from site to site when reservations do not allow for consecutive night stays on the same site.

We have also learned that there are websites for boondocking locations (!) that include the somewhat famous “camping in a Walmart parking lot,” (sometimes allowed but not always), truck stops, rest areas and even on people’s private land!  There are also little known campgrounds located in Florida’s Water Management Districts and US National Forests that are managed by the USDA and not the Park Service.  I’m fairly sure that there are books on this subject and perhaps compendia on the internet but I’ve not located them (yet).  And before I forget, never assume that ALL US National Parks are reservable on recreation.gov: I learned a couple of weeks ago that Denali (and perhaps others) use a completely separate reservation system run by a concessionaire!  reservedenali.com. Bottom line: look, read, study, research and do it all over again to cover all bases.

Despite the mind bending work of researching and reserving a good campsite, the rewards are many, especially when you arrive at a park and learn that YOUR campsite is waterfront with its own private beach, as is the one we write from today.  Hard to beat and well worth the work!

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St Andrews State Park, Site 112

 

It’s been a little more than a week since we picked up our trailer, now dubbed “Wolfie,” and we have no regrets. Earlier this week, we awoke to 38 degree weather and we were able to put on the heat to get the chill out of the trailer even though we slept without it and with the windows open. We now have 2 fridges (one in the trailer which runs on propane while in the road and one in the back of the truck which runs off our solar panel and solar generator) and were able to empty out the backseat of the truck so we can now truly have passengers should people take us up in our offers to join us for a portion of the trip. If and when this happens, Roque and I will sleep in the tent and leave the trailer for any guests. (THIS MEANS YOU). We have an inside kitchen and one that we can set up outside. We have all of our clothes now in the storage holds of the trailer which may help when we get invited to some black tie event (unlikely) or wedding (possible?). We have a stereo system inside complete with DVD player connected to a wall mounted TV and while cable or satellite TV stations are unavailable, we have, on more than one occasion, had data or wifi connections decent enough to allow for streaming on our iPads or computers, and  sometimes through the TV!  We still wake to the sounds of the birds and often early enough to see the sun rise, always from the comfort of our own campsite.  And waking in the middle of the night to use the restroom no longer involves dressing, locating a flashlight and heading off to a bathhouse.

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“Wolfie”
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Our Yard
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Our dinette (for 2) or convertible bed (for 1 or 2 little ones)
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Walk-around queen bed with beautiful handmade quilt by Cynthia, gift from my friends, the “Strip Club”
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Our kitchen: microwave, sink, fridge and stove

 

The adjustments continue, as do the purchases for stuff.  But we have no complaints as life is so good (as the photos demonstrate):

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Sunrise from our campsite, St Andrews State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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St Andrews State Park Marina and Pier
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Another beautiful sky