Sunday, July 23, 2017

Exploring Michigan's Upper Peninsula

We hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July or more appropriately, Independence Day.  On the flagpole, you might notice a boxy antenna.  That is a WeBoost cellular antenna.  I was planning to add a booster of some kind and found myself with almost no signal while camping deep in a National Forest.  Lucky for me the local ACE hardware had the WeBoost Home edition on the shelf and I bought it.  I believe the WeBoost Mobile comes with a different antenna that I can add later.  For now, it worked and I received 20-40% better signal strength allowing me to maintain connectivity.
We departed Kentucky and stopped at an abandoned Air Force Base in Illinois for a night where someone bought the old mobile home park and converted it to RV spots.  From there we headed north, but had mechanical problems that caused us to camp at a roadside shop (see separate post on Mechanical Issues).  Then we settled into Wisconsin for a week where I could catch up on work. 
We took an afternoon and visited Wisconsin Dells, which is a small town that has drawn tourists for more than a century.  We walked the main street and browsed the t-shirt, cheese, and fudge shops.  Pattie booked us a dinner cruise up the river that was quite nice. Half way into the trip the boat docked and they let us hike though the rocky gorge.  We sat with a lovely couple and enjoyed a very pleasant evening with good company. 

Finally we made it into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where we intended to explore last summer, but were called away for disaster relief operations.  We stopped for four nights at Pioneer Trail Campground in Escanaba, MI and took time to explore the area and look for a place to stay over the Fourth of July weekend.  Holidays are always a challenge for us, as we do not make reservations very far in advance because we don’t know where we are going to be.  Naturally, all the campgrounds with full hook-ups were reserved.  So, we took the Jeep and explored into the Hiawatha National Forest and found some first come first serve spots where we could boondock.   We met the nice camp hosts at Colwell Lake Campground who suggested we go ahead and pay for 10 days to get us through the holiday weekend.  The rules say you must occupy the site and not leave for more than 24 hours to hold your spot.  Here is where carrying a couple old folding chairs in the Jeep to leave until we can get back with The Bus is a good idea. 
We set up right on the lake for 10 days of Boondocking with our fresh water tank full and gray/black tanks empty.  We explored a few small communities nearby and Pattie tried the UP favorite dish called a Pasty (rhymes with nasty, but it is quite good), which is a meat and veggie pastry similar to an empanada. Our stay went well except for a clogged generator fuel filter (see mechanical issues article) that took us away for a few days to Gladstone Bay Campground in Gladstone, MI on the Little Bay de Noc of Lake Michigan. The WeBoost kept me on-line so I could work. We took a day trip on the 4th to Munising, MI to see the beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with majestic views and pretty waterfalls.

We departed on 5 July and went to Ojibwa Casino in Baraga, MI.  Online reviews said they had full hook-ups and a great buffet.  It was awful.  A water pipe had broken and I failed to check if it worked before we got level and set-up (the lady in the casino didn’t mention it when we checked in either!).  We were able to drag their 200 feet of hose across the parking lot and fill our fresh water tank, so it was just an inconvenience.  We explored up the Keweenaw Peninsula to visit Copper Harbor.   On the way, we passed through Chassell, MI just as their annual strawberry festival kicked-off.  We stopped and bought some strawberries, homemade jams and maple syrup. We explored the historic towns of Houghton and Hancock (separated by the Portage Lake canal). On the way back we stopped along the road to watch a beautiful sunset near Mclain State Park.

The next day we explored around the east side of KeweenawBay to the ghost town of Pequaming.  (Just north of the pretty town of L'Anse.) This was once a thriving timber harvesting and wood mill community established by Henry Ford to provide wood for his early automobiles.  When the post WWII metal cars came on the market, the town could not survive. Now it is seeing a resurgence as a summer vacation place with many beautiful homes.
On Friday and Saturday nights the casino was real busy and the smoke filters pumped the cigarette smoke out where the wind carried it across the parking lot to our campsite.  That was enough.  We departed early and headed east stopping at Muskallonge Lake State Park near…well, nothing.  It was a nice park with electric hook-up and on Saturday we were able to explore further east to White Fish Point.  We plugged the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum into the Jeep GPS and head out.  Shortly the GPS turned us onto a graded gravel road.  I assured Pattie that this was normal to have unpaved roads up here in snow country and I am sure it was a short cut to the highway.  Soon the road was soft sand requiring four-wheel drive, but I again assured dear wife that everyone up here as four-wheel drive and the highway would be just ahead.  The next turn things got narrow and muddy, then deep water, and finally the road was completely flooded.  We doubled back to find the graded road and met a couple on an ATV.  He said “What are you doing back here?”  I said, “Apparently, I am lowering the resale value of this Grand Cherokee.”  He laughed and pulled out some maps to show me how to get back to the graded road and the highway.  He asked of we had an “ORV permit.”  I said, “This ain’t no ORV, it is a Grand Cherokee.”  He said, “Well, if you are going to drive on snowmobile trails you need a permit.”  I started to say it was July and there was no snow, but figured we were just having a hard time communicating with his accent and all.  The directions took us back to the graded road that did take us right to the highway.  I don’t know why the GPS thought those trails were a better route.  Use caution if using a GPS for navigation in the UP.
We finally arrived at White Fish Point and enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.  They told the story of many shipwrecks and had relics from many including the Edmund Fitzgerald.  We appreciated the history and courage and ruggedness of the mariners and shore men in that area. 
We departed and traveled to Cedarville, MI to spend a week at a resort right on lake Huron.  It was a nice campground with full Hook-ups.  

One evening we  traveled to Tahquamenon River Falls to hike the area and see the second largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.  The water gets its reddish color from the decaying cedar and spruce trees.  It is not harmful to fish or wildlife.

On the weekend, we traveled to Drummond Island and rented an ATV for a few hours to explore the trails and have a picnic.  

Afterward, we drove up to Sault Ste. Marie (American side) to see the locks and have dinner.  We were able to view a large ship departing up river through the lock. We took time to go through the museum at the Visitor Center which we found very interesting. We found a nice restaurant where Pattie had grilled lemon pepper whitefish and I had it Cajun fried. Whitefish is a native freshwater fish that almost all the eating establishments serve.
On Sunday, we took the bikes down to Mackinac Island and did the 8.2 mile trail around the island to see the sites.  We had a nice lunch and bought some fudge before heading home.

With our exploring the Upper Peninsula complete, we began heading south.  We had never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and wondered what it was like. The geography was much different than expected.  It is very flat, lush with trees, lots of water, and a mix of soft sand and rocks.  We learned about whitefish, Youppers, Pastys, timber harvesting for early cars, mining for Dolomite, snowmobile trails marked like roads, ATV operations, biting flies, rivers of red water, Great Lakes history, and canal lock operations.  Best of all, the high temperatures were in the mid-70s most of the time.

Thanks for keepingupwiththejonesrv!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dealing with Mechanical Issues on the Road

Ever since we visited Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory and sampled their new Milk and Cookies flavor, Pattie and I have kept a pint of it in the freezer for “In Case of Emergency” situations.  In June, we went through two pints!

 The Bus is a big complex beast that we subject to vibration, weather and constant use.  Stuff is going to break or require additional maintenance.  We have learned to deal with these issues and are blessed with a flexible schedule to address them.
Pint #1
I am not sure what political party is running Illinois; but if they received any of that trillion dollars of stimulus President Obama allocated to “shovel ready jobs,” it was not used on their roads.  On I-39N in El Paso, IL there is a bridge overpass across Highway 24.  In the right lane the expansion joint has a 2-inch lip with a pothole just prior to it.  Now The Bus isn’t a Corvette.  I cannot dodge potholes.  We hit it direct sending the passenger side tire upwards with enough force to crack the front right air bag housing.  The air bags are the springs and carry the weight of The Bus.  Shock absorbers control rebound; but they do not carry the load.  With a loss of air pressure to the front right side it caused the left side to also deflate resulting in a severe up and down ride (think teeter totter at 60 mph).  I never felt like I was losing control, just knew that I needed to put the flashers on and drop speed to below 30 mph.  
We limped off the Interstate to examine the damage.  Well, I was like a pig looking at a wristwatch at that point.  I knew something was wrong, but nothing was apparent like seeing parts of an air bag blown apart.  I called Good Sam Roadside Assistance that I pay for each year and they suggested I drive to a nearby truck stop and they would have a mobile technician meet me there.  I reviewed the coverage they offer and discovered that it really does not cover much.  They will make the calls and send someone, but you end up paying for most services.  I can do that without their help and will rethink continuing this program. 
Bill's Truck Repair

We limped along at farm tractor speed along a small highway paralleling the interstate to the next exit that had a truck stop.  We had lunch at the diner and the nice lady there told us about a local guy that works on trucks.  We called him and he said his shop was the next exit north and he would look at it first thing Monday morning since it was Father’s Day afternoon.  The little highway continued to parallel the interstate so we used it to make it to his shop. We figured we would need to boondock at his shop, but a small gas station next door had a Burger King and five full hook-up RV sites.  What a blessing! We grabbed one, ate some ice cream, and settled in for the night.  
Cracked housing where fitting enters top

Bill of Bill’s Truck Repair met us the next morning at his shop and quickly discovered the cracked passenger side air bag housing.  After a few calls, we found a replacement at a Freightliner dealer 50 miles away.  Pattie and I took the Jeep to get the part, grabbed lunch, and headed back.  Bill and his assistant had never worked on an Allegro Bus before; but they were true mechanics with years of experience working on semi trucks.  Replacing this air bag was not big deal to them and in a total of three hours of their time; we were back on the road. 
New air bag with fitting

Fast forward to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula about 10 days later. 
Pint #2
Colwell Lake, Michigan
Pattie and I were searching for a campground that we could use through the Fourth of July holiday and not having much luck.  We took the Jeep on reconnaissance and found a National Park campground that was first come first served.  We grabbed a lovely spot right on a small lake and planned to boondock for 10 days.  This is not a problem for us as long as we conserve water and run the generator for a couple hours in the morning and a couple in the evening to keep the batteries charged.  On day two, the generator stopped working.  We told the camp host that we had to leave but would return. They suggested we leave a couple lawn chairs at the campsite to hold it since we paid for it.  (Note: always keep a couple sacrificial lawn chairs in your reconnaissance vehicle to hold your spot until you return with your RV.)  We broke camp and drove to Escanaba, MI where Hilltop RV is listed as a Cummins service center.  I met with them, explained what was happening and ordered fuel filters and a fuel pump for our diesel generator.  They made us an appointment in two days to make the repairs and we found a campground with electric hook-up, made camp, and ate some ice cream.  On Friday, we arrived at Hilltop RV for our appointment and they asked, “Is this generator diesel?”  I said of course it is the parts you sold me are for a diesel.  They said, “We don’t work on diesels.” 
Small in-line filter Tiffin adds

They were nice enough to call a diesel mechanic a couple blocks away that could see me right away.  The guys at A&E Truck and Auto Repair discussed the situation with me and they agreed that it sounded like a clogged fuel filter.  They replaced both the Cummins Onan fuel filter and the cheap in-line filter Tiffin put near the fuel tank.  The generator ran smooth and we headed back to our secluded boondocking spot on the lake to enjoy the Fourth of July weekend.

Stuff happens on the road.  You must deal with it.  These large RVs are complex, but nothing a good competent truck mechanic cannot figure out.  One note, I do not have an extended maintenance warranty.  In this case, it would have been more hassle than it was worth trying to find someone to make the repairs and accept the warranty companies polices for payment.  Cash speaks and repairs were made quickly.  I also watched the mechanics replace the fuel filters and will carry spares to do it myself in the future. 

Thanks for keepingupwiththejonesrv!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Questions and Answers

It is hard to believe that we have been living full-time in The Bus for two years.  In June 2015, we sold our home in Maryland and hit the road expecting that we might be full-timers for 2-3 years.  Now at the two-year point, we feel like we have seen and explored only a small portion of what we set out to do.  One of our relatives asked, “How long do you expect to do this?”  We don’t have a good answer for it other than "until we get tired of it".
The numbers are the number of times we have live there.

This is one of several questions we are often asked when people find out we are full-time RV’ers.  Another question that we have probably always been asked but never gave it much thought is, “Where are you from?”  For a quick reply, we often say Auburn, AL since that is our current legal residence.  There are certain Federal and State legalities that require residents to have established residency.  However, it is more difficult for us to answer since we lived in several different locations during my military career.  As times moves on, we may or may not retain a residence in Auburn, AL and it may become harder to answer what is typically a simple question.

Speaking of states and maps, it has been about 10 months since we added a new sticker to our RV map.  Many RV owners add these maps to their rig to show where they have been.  Some people ask, "Are those all the states you have been too?"  There are no hard and fast rules on what qualifies as sticker worthy.  Some people add stickers if they drive through a state while others add them if they stay overnight in the state.  We decided that we would only add a state sticker if we actually spent a night in The Bus there.  Just because we visited a place in the past and may have even camped there in a previous RV, we felt The Bus needs to qualify its own experiences. 

We left Alabama after having new Koni shocks installed on The Bus at Red Bay Diesel and made a short stop at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky.  I appreciate all types of cars, and even though Corvettes are not my thing; I enjoyed seeing the beautiful examples on display.  It was sad to see the ones on display that were crushed by the sinkhole under the museum a few years ago.

We selected a campground near Frankfurt, KY and paid for a week.  This would give us enough time for me to get my work hours in and also see a few of the distilleries along the Bourbon Trail.  The official Bourbon Trail passport is more of a marketing gimmick where several of the large producers award a t-shirt for visiting all the ones listed in the passport.  There are many other distilleries in the area that you can also visit and all of them offer tours to the public.  We picked out a few to tour and called it good.  Hey, they are all making booze and its pretty much the same process.  It was surprising how much Bourbon and Whiskey is made in this area.  There are literally more barrels of whiskey in Kentucky than residents.

Another question we get asked is “Do you cook in your RV?”  Certainly, we do. We have a full kitchen including a dishwasher.  The convection/microwave oven took a bit of getting use to as it cooks differently that a typical oven.  Pattie was given some sourdough starter by my mother recently and decided to try and bake fresh bread.  She followed my mother’s recipe and the results were fantastic.  

This was our first overnight stay in Kentucky so we were able to add the Kentucky sticker to our map.  From here, we plan to head north to cooler weather.

Thanks for keepingupwiththejonesrv!

RV Tip:  Knowing the tire pressures and temperatures on your RV and anything it tows can alert you to trouble before it becomes a crisis.  We added the EzTire monitoring system to The Bus and the Jeep this month.  It is easy to install and wirelessly receives data that is presented to the driver on a small screen.  Now if the Jeep develops a flat tire, I should know before a motorist pulls along side blowing their horn and waving frantically.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Flexible RV Life

One of the reasons Pattie and I chose the RV lifestyle was to have flexibility to go where we wanted when we wanted.  Sometime the “when we want” part of that is influenced by events.  This does not cause us to question our choice; but rather reaffirms it.  The past six weeks provide a couple good examples.
As I mentioned before, I returned to the workforce for a company that allows me the flexibility to work remote.  Some travel to remote work locations is required and in my last blog entry I wrote about the trials of air travel.  Another trip was required to Titusville, FL to meet with a customer this month.  I submitted a cost comparison of flying vs. driving to my boss that showed driving from the Ft Benning area to Titusville and staying in the RV was cheaper than flying/hotels/rental cars.  So, Pattie plotted a course for us and we set sail. 
Horse Creek Winery Georgia
Some people are curious on how we plan a route.  I may write a dedicated blog entry on that subject one day as it is worthy on its own.  Here I will just say that when several days of travel in a row are required, we look for easy in/out and low cost/free camping sites along the route.  We recently joined Harvest Hosts that allow us to stay a single night at participating farms, wineries, and breweries.  We look there first, then look for Passport America campgrounds where we can get 50% off normally on Mon-Thur nights.  After those, we look for military campgrounds or even Wal-Marts that allow you to stay overnight.
Camp Blanding Florida
For this trip, Pattie found Horse Creek Winery on the Harvest Host app and called for permission to stay.  It was a beautiful setting right off the Interstate that made nice wines and even had a cafĂ©.  We met the owners, sampled some wine and ate dinner there.  OK, the “parking spot” was free, but we did spend some money on a few bottles of wine and dinner.  
The next leg of the trip took us to Camp Blanding in Florida.  It is a military campground on a near perfectly round lake.  
Willow Lakes RV Resort Florida
Our final leg got us to Titusville where we stayed at Willow Lakes RV Resort under the Passport America program.  We have read about these RV resorts, but never stayed at one.  There are several in Florida for snowbirds and they become easy to rent as soon as the weather warms up and the owners go back north.  We enjoyed seeing how they have built port homes on their lot to protect their RV and expand their living space.

Mom and me
So getting back to the flexibility topic, the RV lifestyle allowed us to spend time together, sleep in our own bed, and still meet work obligations.  We had just finished my work in Florida when we received a call that my mother was ill and being admitted to a hospital in Tuscaloosa, AL.  We had already planned to visit her on Mother’s Day, so we just expedited our trip and arrived in time to care for her the day she was released to go home.  

She is entering that time in her life when it is best she does not live alone and my sister and brother-in-law added on a suite to their house for her to live with them.  With the construction just finished it was time to move her in.  Pattie and I stayed a little over three weeks helping with work around my sister’s house, taking care of mom, and moving her in to her new home. 

Extreme Yard Makeover - I love hydraulics!
Time to Move
The flexibility of the RV lifestyle was a true blessing for us during this time.  Had we followed the normal paradigm of buying a bricks and sticks home it would not have been in Tuscaloosa, AL.  We would have been traveling to and from our residence to help as we could on weekends.  The RV lifestyle allowed us to be on location, in our own home, and able to support our loved ones. 
Mom's new place
Getting settled

Where to next?  Well, we will head north to escape the heat stopping in Red Bay, AL to replace our shock absorbers along the way. 

Thanks for keepingupwiththejonesrv.

Other Notes:  Before we left Ft Benning, I adjusted the new headlights on The Bus and replaced the factory fog lights with these PIAA driving lights.  PIAA is known for high quality off-road lights and these new LED versions live up to the reputation. Let me describe it this way, I can have the new projector beam headlights on at night and when I turn the PIAA driving lights on, they wipe out the low beam illumination.  If you want performance, replacing the factory fog lights is a easy do-it-yourself upgrade.