Cost-saving tips for RV campers

This is, for now, a page with a short discussion of some money-saving tips for RVers. Some are obvious and well-known, others are ones that I’ve stumbled across either while traveling or on the web.

Penny-wise And Pound-foolish

One of the most important aspects to controlling costs and saving money for RVers is to look at where the biggest expenses are and focus on those, rather than spending a lot of time, effort, and hassle trying to save a few extra pennies. Since the big expenses are somewhat interrelated, I’ve listed them in no particular order:

  • The purchase cost of the RV itself.
  • Diesel or gasoline costs.
  • Repair and upkeep costs of the rig and coach.
  • RV park or campground costs.
  • Storage costs for the RV when it’s not in use

We’ll look at these one by one.

Purchase Cost Of The RV

When looking at the initial purchase price of an RV, the first question to consider is: What type of RV do I want? The following table lists all of the most popular types, plus a few that most people might not consider at first.

The difference in the initial price of various types of RVs is tremendous. A serviceable used economy car and a small tent trailer combined won’t cost much more than a single fill-up of diesel oil for a big Class A motorhome with 150 gallon fuel tanks. The Class A owner might argue that a tent trailer doesn’t really count as an RV, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Any RV, at a minimum, provides these features:

  • A comfy place out of the weather to sleep at night.
  • A place to safely store clothing, food, and other goods.
  • Some sort of bathroom, be it a porta-potty and a washbucket, or a commode and full-sized shower.
  • Some sort of kitchen, be it a propane stove and some camp utensils, or a chef’s dream complete with convection oven, dishwasher, and griddle.
  • The ability to transform from a vehicle to a temporary home and back again in just a few minutes.

To a certain extent, you get what you pay for. A nice Class A is safe, reliable, more spacious than a small apartment, and as luxurious as any hotel room. But the $35,000 you’d pay for a heavy-duty pickup that’s a few years old and a gently-used 5th wheel is still a lot less than the $50,000 for a comparable Class A. And maybe you could convince yourself to live with the smaller space of a $15,000 Class C and spend the difference on longer trips, nicer meals, and better seats at the shows you’ll go to when you reach your destinations.

Also, you might decide that it’s really more important that you can take your RV anywhere than it is that you can store a ton of stuff in it and wiggle around in it. A good Class B, conversion van, or a car with a teardrop trailer might fit your travel preferences better, and save you a bundle as well. Or perhaps you’re planning to live in your RV long-term, and only the space and durability of a top-end Class A will really do. It’s important to make sure that your wants and needs take precedence, and that your budgeting is used as a tool to serve them, not the other way around.

RV Type Cost Range (Fair Used - Good New) Description Pros Cons
Class A $15,000 - $250,000+ Big RV on a semi-truck or bus chassis. Usually diesel engine. Walk-in cab. Literal home away from home. Huge "basement" lets you take it all with you. Can tow a car. Slide-outs add significant living space. Jaw-dropping price, repair costs, fuel usage. Can't take it everywhere. Pretty much like driving a bus. RV storage can be costly.
Class B $7,000 - $125,000+ Compact but high-quality RV created from commercial van. Walk-in cab. Easy to drive. Decent fuel economy. Goes anywhere a van can go. Often limited headroom and storage room. No elbow room. Often uses special tires and other components. Low cargo weight limits. Limited or no commode, shower.
Class C $3,000 - $150,000+ Medium RV on a van, light truck, or medium truck chassis. Cab is separate but integrated. Moderate fuel economy, drivability, repair costs. Can tow a small car. See pros. Low cargo weight limits.
Pickup truck + 5th-wheel trailer $7,000 - $100,000+ Heavy-duty pickup truck pulling 5th-wheel trailer. Separate cab from coach. Separate truck adds travel flexibility. Trailer can have Class-A features at 1/10 price. Driving time spent in a truck. Backing up and parking can be tricky. Can't take it everywhere. Limited or no towing besides trailer.
Custom van $1,000 - $75,000+ Regular full-sized van with highly customized interior. Walk-in cab. Often DIY. See Class B. See Class B. Stigma of living in a van.
Car + travel trailer $2,000 - $75,000+ Regular car with tow package, medium-sized trailer. Separate cab. Lower cost than 5th-wheel trailer with many of the same benefits. Regular car, minivan, or SUV rather than pickup truck. Good fuel economy. Handling, reliability issues due to car chassis and large trailer. Limited trailer weight. No towing besides trailer.
Car + tent trailer $1,000 - $50,000+ Regular car with tow package, pop-up or fold-out tent trailer. Separate cab. Lower cost than travel trailer with many of the same benefits. Car can be compact. Very good fuel economy. Easy to drive. Longer set-up time. Some RV campgrounds limit or prohibit soft-sided RVs. Limited or no commode, shower. Limited storage room, no elbow room. It's a nice tent, but it's still a tent.
Car + teardrop trailer $5,000 - $50,000+ Regular car with tow package, small teardrop trailer. Separate cab. Similar drivability, storage to tent trailer, with hard sides and roof. Car can be compact. Very good fuel economy. Easy to drive. Limited or no commode, shower. Very limited storage room, no headroom or elbow room.
Motorcycle + micro trailer $5,000 - $50,000+ Motorcycle with tow package, tiny tent or cargo trailer. No cab. Fun and economy of motorcycling, with a place to sleep and store a few things. Long drives, bad weather, breakdowns can be challenging. Very limited storage space, no amenities.

Notes:

  • Cost range. The low end price listed is for an RV that’s in good mechanical condition (safe, functional drivetrain,  suspension, and brakes; no water leaks) but that’s otherwise in fair condition; expect to do some bargain hunting. The high end is for a brand-new RV (and truck / car for trailer RVs) that’s from a reputable builder and has all the typical amenities and features.
  • “Can’t take it everywhere”. Larger RVs are, well, large. They can exceed the weight or height limits for some roads, bridges,  and ferries. They may not be allowed into some parks, including popular national parks.
  • “Slideouts”. Many Class A and 5th-wheel RVs offer slide-out sections, which can add significant living space, at the cost of additional complexity and weight. Slideouts also take away some storage space.
  • “Separate cab”. Some types of RVs (notably Class A and Class B) are built with the cab of the vehicle directly connected to the living area; you can literally walk from one into the other. For all trailer RVs, the vehicle cab and living area are separate; you must stop the vehicle and get out in order to reach the living area.
  • Cargo weight limits. No RV can carry an infinite amount of your stuff. But a good Class A, sitting on a commercial truck or bus chassis, will usually be able to safely and efficiently carry far more cargo than a Class C sitting on a medium or light-duty truck chassis. The same is generally true for 5th-wheel versus travel trailers as well. In fact, many RVs (including some Class A’s and 5th-wheels) are close to their legal (and/or safe) load-carrying limits when they’re completely empty. Even filling the fresh water tank can be enough to push some RVs over their weight limits. Be sure you know the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, Gross Axle Weight Ratings, Curb Weight, and Net Carrying Capacity of the RV you’re looking at before you buy it. An overloaded axle can fail spectacularly and lead to a horrific crash. Don’t put the lives of yourself, your loved ones, and other motorists at risk just so you can save a little money on a “bargain” but dangerously-made RV.
  • “RV storage costs”. If you don’t have room (and spousal approval) at home to park your RV, you’ll need to pay to store it when you’re not using it. Class A’s can be particularly costly to store (see below).

Fuel Costs

One of the big issues that RV dealers try their best to avoid, and RV owners tend to stretch the truth a bit about is fuel economy. Simply put, bigger RVs are large rolling boxes. They have the  aerodynamics of a box, and weigh somewhere between several and tens of thousands of pounds. Physics dictates that a large, box-shaped RV weighing many tons, and with a heavy-duty engine and transmission to handle the weight and wind drag will get fuel economy a lot closer to 8 miles per gallon than 20 MPG, no matter what the sales people promise or the RV owner has convinced him or herself of.

A trip from the American heartland to Florida or California will be somewhere around 2,000 miles each way, or 4,000 miles round trip. At $4.00 per gallon for fuel, that means that a big RV getting 8 MPG will require $2,000 in fuel costs alone to make the trip. That’s two thousand dollars, just for fuel. A smaller RV at 20 MPG will only need $800 in fuel to make the trip. A compact car pulling a small tent trailer might not need much more than half that.

Of course, a sleekly-designed Class A with a modern diesel engine can still get better fuel economy than a badly-maintained heavy-duty pickup pulling a boxy 5th-wheel trailer.

There are other factors that can have a major impact on fuel costs besides the fundamental type of RV:

  • Speed. Driving at 70 MPH can add 10 – 25% fuel usage over driving at 55 MPH. It puts more strain on the engine, transmission, and drivetrain, not to mention the driver. Ultimately, for an RVer, the journey is supposed to be part of the fun. Why rush through it? What’s the hurry?
  • Tires. Under-inflated tires can add significantly to the drag on an RV, and can rob 5 – 10% from fuel economy. They’re also  potentially very unsafe, when you consider that you have many tons of weight balanced on 4 or 6 chunks of bouncing, juddering rubber. It’s worth the few minutes to check the air pressure in the tires. Here’s an interesting thing to figure out while you’re driving: how many hours would you need to spend at your job to pay for the money lost due to under-inflated tires over a long trip? Hmmm.
  • Cruise control. A modern cruise control does a good job at keeping an RV’s engine humming along at a consistent, efficient speed, and thereby maximizing fuel economy. It also is immune to boredom, and the temptation to go a smidge faster, and a smidge faster than that, and a smidge faster still. (I’ve also been told that cruise control is extremely good for creeping along at exactly 23 MPH when the highway passes through a small town with a 25 MPH speed limit and a bored cop who’s looking for an excuse to pull over another scofflaw. Not that I recommend using cruise control while driving in town or have ever done it myself, of course.)
  • Fuel shopping. One of the advantages to a larger RV is that it will have a larger fuel tank, and likely can go a very long ways between fill-ups. This gives you the ability to plan further ahead, and use on-line tools to shop around for the best place to buy your fuel, so you can avoid buying fuel in a city or state with high prices, and instead head for the truck stop with the best prices and the discount card.

Repair and Maintenance Costs

This is an area where trailer RVs can cost significantly less than motorhomes. Even a smaller Class B or Class C motorhome is still a large, heavy vehicle, when compared to a typical car or pickup truck. All but the smallest and lightest Class B’s and Class C’s will need to be taken to a specialized RV or commercial mechanic for repairs or maintenance. Most “regular” mechanics won’t touch a big RV, oftentimes because their insurance prohibits them from working on larger vehicles. You can bet that those RV and commercial mechanics will see you coming, and their prices are considerably higher than the discount quickie-lube places, or even dealerships. Plus, some RVs are just harder to work on; their engines and suspension components are harder to access and require special tools to work on. So maintenance and repair jobs take longer. On the other hand, most 5th-wheel and travel trailers are mechanically simple. They usually have one or two solid axles and low-tech suspensions. Maintenance is straightforward and relatively cheap. If something goes wrong with the truck or car being used to pull the trailer, a regular service station can usually handle the job.

Then there are the tow costs after a breakdown. Many larger RVs will require a commercial-duty tow truck, which likely will be dispatched from farther away, and will charge considerably more per hour and/or per mile than a standard tow.

RV Park or Campground Costs

Aside from the costs of the RV itself and fuel, the biggest expense of an RV trip is often the cost of staying somewhere. Most RV parks charge from $15 – $30 a night, often more for a larger spot or for full hookups.

There are many ways to reduce or completely avoid the costs of staying in an RV park or campground. These include:

  • Hit the internet. Sadly, many websites that list free places to camp or park an RV overnight are so popular that they now charge access or membership fees. Free listings that are still free:
  • Boondocking, or camping somewhere that has either a very low fee or no fee at all. The Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers have many areas that don’t require a fee, or that have seasonal fees that work out to a dollar or two a day. These areas usually don’t have any improvements, facilities, or hookups (though some do). So you need to plan ahead: empty your gray and black water tanks, and fill your propane and fresh water tanks shortly before reaching your boondocking site. Most of the BLM and Corps “free” sites are in the western half of the lower 48 states or are in Alaska (think sprawling deserts or tundra). East of the Mississippi, the pickings are pretty slim. Some of these areas are listed on Recreation.gov, but many are not.
  • To really save money, you may choose to boondock in a single spot for several days or weeks. It’s a good idea to make sure that all of your travel companions are ready and willing to camp out in that one place for an extended period of time. A few days of camping in a tent trailer, or cramped Class B or C can get old in a hurry, particularly if there isn’t much to do or see around the campsite.
  • “Blacktop boondocking”, “dry camping”, or parking in a lot that allows overnight stays. Many truckstops and “big box” stores allow overnight parking. The amenities may not extend much beyond “clean” bathrooms, but some truck stops and megastores do cater to RVers, and provide hookups and dump stations. “Camping” overnight in the well-lit and patrolled lot of a 24-hour superstore can be a very safe and stress-free way to save money. There’s nothing quite like shuffling into the store at 3 AM and picking out your breakfast items, then wandering around the pet food and clothing aisles. Just be sure to ask permission first, and don’t really set up camp–keep the leveling jacks up and the slide-outs in. Make sure that the blinds on your RV’s windows really block light before staying in a store’s parking lot, and check that none of your traveling companions mind the sound and smell of endlessly idling diesel engines before overnighting at a truck stop.
  • Many visitor and information centers also allow free overnight parking, as do many city parks and recreation centers. Be sure to ask permission first, and consider making a small donation as a token of your gratitude. Being frugal doesn’t mean acting like a cheapskate.
  • “Casino camping.” Most casinos outside of Vegas love RVers (because anyone who can afford an RV can afford a few rounds of blackjack, right?), and encourage overnight stays with free parking and hookups that are either cheap or comp’ed if you spend some time at the tables or slots.
  • America The Beautiful annual pass, or federal Interagency Pass, which allows you, up to 3 adult passengers, and your vehicle to enter thousands of national parks and other recreation areas for free. Camping fees are separate. The ATB pass just gets you into the park, though the senior and disabled-access versions of the pass also give camping discounts.
  • Elks, Moose, and VFW facilities often allow free overnight camping for members.
  • RV park memberships. These sound great at first, but can end up being a lot like gym memberships and vacation time-shares: The great deals expire after a short time and then the monthly dues and fees increase dramatically; you have to use the participating campgrounds often for the discounts to make up for the membership fees; there are often early termination fees if you want to quit; the discounts are seasonal, and usually don’t apply during popular times of year; etc. Proceed with caution, and don’t sign anything without reading the terms and conditions carefully.
  • There is the option of simply pulling over to the side of the road, or taking an extended break in a rest area. Look for the big semi-trucks parked on offramps and onramps, and do as they do. This is not the safest option, and may not be strictly legal, though in some states, like Alaska, it is allowed on most highways. I’ve done it a few times, but I don’t recommend it. I never felt completely safe doing it, and invariably had the highway patrol check in on me just as I was falling asleep.

RV Storage Costs

This is an area where cars, vans, and Class B RVs can help cut costs, as you can store them in a regular parking spot for no more than it would cost to park any other car there. On the other hand, many places (condo and apartment buildings, planned and gated neighborhoods with HOAs and CCRs, etc.) have very strict parking rules that are zealously enforced, and most of those places restrict or outright prohibit parking motor homes or trailers, even overnight. Before assuming that it’ll be “fine” to park that Class C fixer-upper in the back yard, check  with all the other stakeholders in this plan: spouses / significant others, homeowners association, and neighbors. They may not all have a say in the decision, but any of them can make your life miserable if they’re unhappy about you storing your RV in your yard. You may not be able to store your RV at home for free, or possibly not at all.

The cost of storing your RV at a commercial lot can vary considerably, from  $100 or so per year up to over $1000 per year. Most storage yards charge by the length of the vehicle to store, and will typically charge somewhere between $30 – $100 per month for a Class A, Class C, or trailer RV, depending on several factors, including: if their location is in conveniently in town or not; how much security they provide and if the site manager lives on-site; if the RV storage area is dirt, gravel, paved, or indoor; and how snug or roomy their spots are.

Check with neighbors or friends who live on large properties, particularly those who have limited or fixed incomes. They might be willing to let you store your RV on their land for much less than a storage lot would charge. Make sure that they see this as a transaction that they benefit from, rather than them doing you a favor, and don’t overstay your welcome.

If there’s a vacant house for sale near you, it might be worth calling the real estate agent and asking if you can store your RV there, with the understanding that you’ll keep the rig presentable and out of the way, you won’t live in the RV, you’ll get the RV off the property immediately as soon as the house sells, and that you will make regular inspections of the outside of the house for break-ins or damage. Essentially, offer the agent that you’ll trade free parking for regular inspections of the house, plus the curb appeal that comes from making the house look a little less abandoned. Needless to say, this is a short-term solution, but with the housing market the way it is, short-term might mean several months or over a year. The agent or property owner might say no to your trade, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, and the agent might know of other opportunities.

Other Ways To Save

Entertainment

Amazon.com is the frugal RVer’s friend:

  • You can buy a used, previous generation Amazon Kindle with lifetime unlimited 3G cellular data service for well under $100 on eBay. These Kindles have several compelling features:
    • Amazon’s lending library. If you have a real Kindle (not the app for smartphones or computers, but an actual physical Kindle), and have Amazon Prime, you can check out one book per month from Amazon for free. Many of the titles available in Amazon’s lending library are bestsellers. You can pay for the price of the Kindle in under a year from the savings on book purchases.
    • The list of Kindle eBooks that are under $1 (or even free) continues to grow. It’s a great way to discover new authors, many of whom are just as good as the “name brand” pros. Plus, many of those well-known pros are discovering that they can make more money by selling their books directly on the Kindle market than they would by working with a traditional publisher.
    • Older Kindles have a built-in “experimental” web browser, which is annoyingly slow, frustratingly limited, but completely free to use anywhere you can get a 3G cell signal in the U.S. It’s intended to be used to shop for Kindle eBooks, but it works on most websites.
      • Because some Kindle users have taken advantage of this wonderful service, Amazon has been forced to blacklist some 3G Kindles, so they are no longer allowed to connect to the 3G service. Be sure to ask the seller if a used Kindle has been blacklisted before buying it, and test it yourself if possible.
    • Most larger public library systems now offer eBooks in Kindle format, and audiobooks in electronic format that Kindles can play. Since many librarians are still learning how to navigate in this new online world and aren’t yet experts on it, it may take some time and effort to get your library account (and computer) set up so that you can check out eBooks. Some of the online checkout systems detect where your internet connection is physically coming from, and won’t let you check out books unless you appear to be in the physical region served by the library system. You might want to stock up on library eBooks before you start your trip.
  • Amazon Prime also includes unlimited free viewing of some of their online movies, which you can watch on a laptop computer or Kindle Fire tablet. You’ll need a solid WiFi or 4G cellular connection for this. The selection is surprisingly good for a “free” service (Prime isn’t free, but you might already have it just to save on shipping costs).

Netflix.com and Redbox.com are great ways to rent newer movies without spending a lot:

  • You can rent unlimited online movies from Netflix for under $10 a month, and watch them on a laptop computer, iPad, or other tablet or smartphone. You’ll need a solid WiFi or 4G cellular connection for this.
  • With Redbox, renting a DVD is cheap and RVer-friendly. You can search their website for kiosks along your travel path or at your day’s destination, then reserve a DVD for under $2 that will be waiting for you at the kiosk when you get there. After you watch the DVD on your laptop computer or equivalent DVD player, you can either return it at the kiosk you rented it from or drop it off at any other Redbox kiosk–just check their website for a more convenient one, and drop your DVD off there.
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We’re back!

I’ve spent some serious time updating the Alaska RV trip blog posts. I didn’t change the text, but added a lot of links to pictures and maps. I decided to finally add all the links because I was looking through the pictures yesterday and realized that I couldn’t remember where (or why) I took some of them. Time to connect the dots, then write down the path I followed.

(Plus, I’ve found that I don’t mind working in WordPress nearly as much as I did in Google Blogger. Blogger was easy to use for simple things, but as soon as I wanted to tweak the position or size of an image, or add tricky links, it became very frustrating. WordPress is just as easy to use for the simple stuff, but gives a lot more control overall.)

Yeah, in retrospect, I think I went a little insane by the time I reached Alaska. I think the combination of those long, boring grinds of thousands of flat miles–combined with the extra hours of daylight once I headed north–really messed up my brain a bit. Plus, I think I was expecting something, or hoping to find something that I didn’t find in Alaska. Whatever it was, it was more tangible in the Yukon, but even there, I never really discovered what it was I needed to find.

As a result, I somehow managed to drive to Tok, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, then back to Tok, then Chicken, then Dawson City, all in a handful of days. Plus I still had lots of time in each place to wander around (or take a tour bus) for hours; I never felt like I was rushed or just driving. I was taking it easy, or so it seemed to me. I don’t remember for sure, but I must not have been sleeping much. As soon as I left Alaska, though, things settled down a bit. I poked around the Yukon, and British Columbia a bit, eventually decided that I was done seeing majestic sights and wandering around frontier towns, and headed for home.

I am starting to get the itch to head back. I regret that I drove up the Dalton Highway (aka the “Haul Road”) only as far as the Yukon river. Even though it’s a days drive each way, I’d like to go to the end, drive to the Arctic Ocean. But, actually, I’d rather go up a different road, and take the 5 to Inuvik. Or go explore the Slavey area around Yellowknife.

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We’re moving!

Not physically moving, just shuffling around things online.

Been a long time since the last post. And a new blogsite. And Nora-dog has joined the party.

I can’t say exactly why I stopped blogging. Mostly, I suppose, because it took a while to write up my thoughts and add pictures that fit the mood. Plus, for a long while, I didn’t feel like I had anything new to say. I’m not sure I do now.

But I’m growing ever more leery of Google and their increasing harvesting and exploitation of any and all data that they can collect. Which, for me, is a lot of data. I’ve pretty much had my entire on-line life on their servers for several years. But I never trusted Google as much as I would have liked to, and definitely don’t trust them at all nowadays. I realized how much my attitude had changed when I recently purchased an Android phone (a Virgin Mobile Optimus V; I like the contract-free $25/month data plan, and Android is pretty OK, but I plan to get an iPhone if and when one is available on a similar plan).

As soon as I activated the phone, it merrily connected to the Google mothership, and sync-ed up with my GMail account. And with every other Google account I have: pictures, blogs, maps, RSS feeds, you name it. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. It was a bit shocking to see it all collected in one place, so effortlessly and so rapidly. And to realize that all that stuff is on the servers of a company that makes most of their money off of analyzing the data on their servers, and using it to sell targeted ads (and possibly some of the info itself) to their clients–large corporations, plus other large entities. OK, time to get off that bandwagon.

So, I’m going cold turkey from GMail, which I love, but no longer like. Giving up Google search, and trying DuckDuckGo, which seems to get the job done. Moving my blogs from Google Blogger to my own website, like I should have done years ago. And figuring out something to do about Google Calendar and Reader, both of which I also love, and really don’t have alternatives for…yet.

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Travels With Mayo

I know it’s been a while since the end of the trip, so we’ll try to make up for the delay and wind things up with a few goodies.

Can you guess where the picture was taken? Just outside Madison? Maybe nearer to Mount Horeb? Nope. A rest stop that’s a little east of Smithers, BC. Right after Mayo had her dip in the pond and pestered the cows, several other RVs pulled up and a mound of doggily happiness piled out. It was Sniffbutt Junction, right there by the road. Everyone ended up staying for over an hour, just letting the pups have some fun and talking about destinations, highways, and RVs. Of course there was the obligatory couple from Wisconsin (Janesville), and a dude with the exact same camera as me (Kodak V570). Ended up that we both thought it was the Best Vacation Camera Evar, and neither of us ever took it out of wide-angle mode.

One thing I forgot to mention was the reading material for the trip. I took a ton of books, and ended up reading only a few. Most days I preferred to just sit outside with Mayo for a while, then hit the hay. But when I did feel like reading, I dug into the delightful and very very funny Charlie Mortdecai series by Kyril Bonfiglioli. Think of Lovejoy being intermingled with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and you’ve got the idea. (Since Mortdecai made his appearance several years before Lovejoy and there are some striking similarities, I’d presume that the former inspired the latter. Much more pleasant to think of it that way than to drag in nasty terms like intellectual property and blatant theft. Well. To be fair, they were different types of roguish antiques dealers. And Lovejoy needed the money much more than the well-to-do Mortdecai.) Bonfiglioli only managed to write three novels in the series (plus the oddly piratical precursor, All The Tea In China), which makes them all the more special.

Since returning, I’ve read the first four of the Lovejoy series (of which there are many, and more yet to be stamped out), just to compare and contrast. The mysteries are more mysterious and the plots are more thoughtfully plotted than Mortdecai’s, but other than that, I vote for Charlie. Gash’s Lovejoy books are very similar to one another, both in structure and dialogue. Once you’ve read one, you’ve pretty well read them all. Anyway. I’ve also started “Travels With Charley“, in which I’ve found more resonance than I expected.

The word for the day, which is simply amazing: Filibuster. It can be used to describe all of the following:

  1. Pointless and potentially endless delays in the Senate. But that’s not the original meaning.
  2. The loyalty and patriotism of most Congresspeople.
  3. Our Commander Guy.
  4. The level of competence displayed in His Military Adventures.
  5. Aawon Buh
  6. Pirates!

Great word. I really like it. I especially like that it’s an English mispronounciation of Spanish mispronounciation of a Dutch word. And El Filibustero really seems to fit the Deciderer. Head mercenary for pointless, potentially endless military adventures.

And the site of the day: LOLBOTS. OK, admittedly, some of the latest posts are a bit lame, even for lolcats. But a few good ones might show up soon.

Well, that’s it, kids. TTFN!

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Mayo Spreads Mayo Around Mayo

Dateline: Telkwa

 

Goodness. Where to begin? It’s been an intense few days. Ah, of course, with the critter count (just for today, since I’ve kind of lost track):

 

  • 14!!! black bears. Including one momma and cub (awwww). And Black Bear #7 proved his luck by making a deer-dart straight across the road directly in front of us. Which taught me two things: black bears really can move like lightning when they have a mind to; the Winnii has excellent brakes.
  • 4 grizzlies. One momma and 3 cubs. Right beside the road. The cubs were bigger than full-grown black bears by quite a bit. Momma was, well, frigging huge, and started moving towards the Winnii with clear purpose and remarkable speed as soon as we slowed down to look. So, no picture, sorry. I was too busy being frightened out of my wits. Mayo wisely took this opportunity to make a strategic redeployment and shortened her lines of communication to the rear of the RV, where she established headquarters for quite some time.
  • Some other critters, but hey, were they bears? No. Oh, wait, there were two moose literally jogging straight down the highway. Matching brown outfits, to boot. I slowed down to match their pace, and we cantered along together for several hundred yards. Once I got done giggling and reached for the camera, they of course bolted for the brush.

So, yeah, the Cassiar Highway is Bear Central. But more about that later.

We stopped by Mayo. Very small town, pretty much standard for the Yukon as far as I can tell: a handful of weatherbeaten houses; one Mountie post (the nicest and most modern place in town, including the churches); a couple of churches; an elementary school; a small hospital-flavored place; a gas station plus general store; and a museum / information centre telling about how some gold miners had something to do with the founding of the town. It’s on the Mayo River, which Mayo splashed about in a bit (thus the title, which of course I couldn’t resist).

Then down the Klondike Highway. Lovely drive. Gorgeous lakes, great views of the Yukon River valley, no gravel, no dirt. Camped in Tatchun Creek Campground, one of the prettiest campgrounds I’ve ever stayed in. Spot #8, right next to the creek, which gambols out happily from under the snowpack and through the trees. I had the Winnii backed up right to the edge and could see and hear the water splashing almost right below me. It was like staying in Fallingwater. Yeah, even I’m jealous! Funny thing is, Tatchun isn’t mentioned in my AAA camping guidebook or the Trailer Life or Woodalls ones, or on any of my maps; maybe it’s in the Milepost (I have yet to buy or need this “essential”). In fact, the Klondike Highway has dozens of really neat campsites along it [PDF map].

We had the campsite almost to ourselves, except for a couple of tenters and, oh yes, how can I not mention them: Die Deutschlanders. I’m laughing right now because you can spot them coming a mile away. Somebody in Canada must advertise heavily in Germany and Austria, because I’ve been running into people from there for the entire trip. They all rent supersize Class-C motorhomes, and they travel in what I’ve come to think of as Wolf Packs. That’s 2 to 4 RVs, all completely identical. They silently glide into a campsite, one right after another, then precision-park in sites next to each other. After that, they’re eerily quiet: what are they up to over there? The people are very friendly if I go talk to them, but keep within their own wagon circle otherwise. Generally, they don’t speak English well (dispelling my own myth that all Europeans speak better English than I do). Perhaps that’s why they keep to themselves. On the road, their Wolf Packs make little high-speed caravans, bobbing and weaving down the highways. The drivers are no doubt marvelling and cursing at these American behemoths they’re wrestling with, and missing their well-mannered BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Guten tag, wulfpackers! Auf wiedersehen!

Anyway, if you get the chance, take the Klondike Highway. It’s a real treat. At the southern end of the highway, we stopped in Whitehorse to resupply, then headed for Watson Lake (again) for regrouping, laundry, and roughing out the plan for the rest of the trip.

Then we charged down the Cassiar Highway (37). Wow, it was the worst road besides Top Of The World. The views were great, but I really had to concentrate on driving. We stopped at a campground just south of Dease Lake, Tanzilla, run by the local Lion’s Club. Had the place to ourselves. Completely. Which was odd, given the number of tourists on the road. Really neat campground, in a woodsy area right on the river. Finally, when it started getting dusk-ish (aka “night” up there), an old guy rolls in in a pickup. Says that there have been a few bear incidents around there, and they’re advising folks not to stay in that campground. Oh. Well. Good to know. So, off we go to another campground down the road a bit, this one full of RVs. Not as pretty, but no “incidents” (which I didn’t want to know the local definition of).

Today was a completely different story. We hit good pavement, and the views were spectacular. Easily the most beautiful stretch of the entire trip. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Took the 37A spur off to Stewart BC / Hyder Alaska (the self-titled bear viewing capitals of the world). The drive was glorious, the glaciers were stunning, and the towns were cute. Well, Stewart was. Hyder was kind of an ugly little sprawl in comparison, but it did have a very nice welcoming committee of two road dogs who ran up and said hi to Mayo. There weren’t any bears anywhere around either town or the visitor section of the big national park–today’s entire critter count was made along the 37 proper.

Next, we’re off to do a lot more camping, so it might be a while until the next post. We’re aiming towards Jasper and Banff.

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There are strange things done in the midnight sun

Dateline: Dawson City

 

Before I forget, here’s the critter count for the last few days:

 

 

  • 6 moose. That’s #6 pictured. “I’m not a number! I’m a free moose!” Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  • A quajillion BFRs (snowshoe hares). Those things are everywhere, mostly racing across the road, often in pairs that split, quantum entanglement-like, off from each other at crazed angles.
  • That’s about it. Critter count really tanked in Alaska. No grizzlies, thankfully.

We just finished driving the Top Of The World Highway. “Mostly paved.” I’d say about 1/4 paved. On the US side, paved from the turnoff near Tok until a few miles before Chicken, then dirt the rest of the way to the border. On the Canadian side, alternating gravel and short sections of blacktop until the ferry into Dawson. Not motorhome friendly, but we went very slowly and made it across OK. The views are amazing. And you could almost see the top of Denali–just a few clouds today! If it wasn’t for the dirt and gravel, I’d call that road a moto Mecca. Lots of swoops and twists and fun bits. But the slogs are too long for the road to be worth the pain.

Before that, we camped (RV style) at Tok River SRA. Small but sweet, right on the river. The famed dogsled trail runs right through the campground (no dogs in our party were interested in mushing it).

Dawson is a very cool town. I hesitate to call it a city. In a lot of ways, it is kind of what I hoped Fairbanks would be. Tiny, tough, and with nothing but dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. Yeah, it’s a tourist trap, but a well-done one. Either that, or they just haven’t bothered to modernize in a century or so. That might actually be close to the truth; the touristy glitz feels recent and thrown-on. Fittingly, the gold panner’s convention is in town tonight. I’m starting to understand the call of the Yukon. There’s something here that’s missing in Alaska. I don’t know what it is yet, but I can feel the difference, very strongly. I might have to come back here someday.

It’s getting late, but here are few rants and thoughts about the Frontier State that have been banging around in my noggin. We’re done with Alaska, and will be spending more time in YT/BC rather than muddling around with the newly-arrived tourist throngs over the border.

In general:

  • Deja vu all over again. Honest to Pete, Alaska looks one heck of a lot like northern Wisconsin. It really really does. I kept feeling like “I’ve been here before…” and “I drove 3500 miles just to go to Hayward?!?” Big differences: Huge mountains looming to the west; moose; grizzlies; only one green and gold house (that I noticed). Other than that, it’s Up Nort, only stretched out. Wisconsinites heading up shouldn’t expect to see much that they haven’t already seen at home.
  • OK, there’s a whole other Alaska, the part that isn’t on the highway system, and is north and west and is only serviced by planes and ships. That part may be quite different. And may be the “real” Alaska. I hope so.

Roads:

  • Alaska’s highways form a big loop (or ring road or really huge traffic circle). The loop goes straight through some places (Fairbanks, Denali State and National Parks), and has spurs leading to other places (Anchorage, Valdez, Tok/Canada).
  • Contrary to popular belief, Alaska has real roads. The major highways are all paved, two or four lane, and generally in pretty good shape. The only exceptions are Top Of The World, and the spur leading to Tok and Canada (which is paved but needs some work).
  • There are probably thousands of “moose crossing” signs. There are only a handful of highway intersection directional signs. OK, I get it. There are moose in Alaska and they cross the road. I’d prefer if there was some indication that the road teeing to the right is Highway 1. Perhaps this is some confused attempt by Alaska DOT to make the state feel more frontier-ish? (That would match the habit of referring to the highways by name instead of by number or destination. Cute and olde-tyme, but mostly just distracting.)
  • Important Safety Tip: (This applies more to the Yukon than Alaska.) There are these little orange flags on sticks by the side of the road. They indicate spots with severe road damage, and should be taken quite seriously, like slowing to 30 MPH or less RIGHT NOW. There are many many many spots on the Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and the border that have these flags. There are at least as many that should but don’t.

Fairbanks (one of my many reasons for the trip, to check this place out):

That’s all for now. Tomorrow, we head for Mayo, then points south! Or get lazy and stay in Dawson for another day.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
— from “The Spell Of The Yukon” by Robert Service

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Mayo Meets A Moose

Dateline: Trapper Creek

Wow, what a couple of super-intense days! We’re here, in Alaska. Seen Denali, seen a moose pee-in-my-pants close. Would have stayed at Santaland, North Pole, but Santa ain’t got no WiFi, so Santa don’t get no WI guy.

Ended up staying at Rosehip Campground, Chena River State Recreation Area. That’s where we ran into the moose. But I’m getting ahead of the story here.

A few days ago, we ran into another (yes, yet another–Wisconsinites are everywhere!) nice couple from Wisconsin, actually from Green Bay (yes, I kowtowed). Let’s call them Jay and Nan since I didn’t think to ask if I could use their real names. Anyway, I helped Nan get WiFi working on her laptop (the older generation are seriously wireless-impaired). Nan gave me a shot of “apple pie” (home distilled, and it really does taste just like apple pie–you can even taste the crust!). After that, we kept running into each other, and they mentioned that they’re headed to Fairbanks in order to camp-host a nifty place just outside of town. I wasn’t planning on driving that far, but after turning down Santa and the other RV park untouchables, I figured, well, why not? So off we bombed, down 30 miles of rough road, to Rosehip.

Rosehip is a very cool place, kind of a state-run version of an RV park, except that it doesn’t have hookups or WiFi. Most tourists that know about Chena River SRA at all skip right past Rosehip for the hot springs or trailheads at mile 50. So, it’s mostly a locals-only semi-secret. Anyway, Jay and Nan were busy with their dinner, and Mayo and I had already chowed at Micky Dee’s (as a kind of “back in the States” moment), so off we go for a walk around the RV park loop. All very nice and orderly, wide back-ins, all clean and level, some of the nicest pit toilets I’ve seen, and a cool hand-driven water pump that actually works. I love playing with those things. They’re like magic. Pump pump pump, out comes water, no electricity, no motor, no problem working even when the ground’s pretty frozen. (The “modern” places nearby are having their water trucked in, since the ground froze 10 feet deep this year.)

I get done monkeying with the pump and trying to splash Mayo with the water and on we go. Weird mutt starts acting even weirder than usual, but I’m tired and happy to be parked for a while and pay her no mind. She’s been pretty stressed the last few days, with little time for dog fun. A couple more RV spaces, and Mayo does an abrupt 180 and gives me a very clear “what the #$^&#$%& are you waiting for?” look. That’s when I decide to pay attention to where I’m going and think:

“That’s the oddest looking tree I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s no tree.”

“Holy %#$#$%$%!””

Just like that, only much faster, and kind of mushed together and overlapping. A couple more steps, and I would have walked straight into it. I look at it, at the yes-indeedy moose. And up, and into those big brown eyes. And it looks back at me, then looks at Mayo. Mayo looks back at it, and then does a strange scuttle-leap about 3 feet further away. Brave doggie, a moocher not a fighter. Thankfully.

I don’t know if it was the dappled light through the birch trees or the low angle of the sun, but the moose had a very pretty golden-brown color to it, not at all like the usual dirty-chocolate. Kind of like it had gone to the Chena beauty salon and had highlights done. But I didn’t think that at the time. My thoughts were going in a panicky circle of:

“What are you supposed to do if you meet a moose?”

“I think maybe stand your ground and make lots of noise if it’s a bear.”

“Unless it’s a grizzly. Then you just die or something. But a moose?”

“Maybe moose aren’t dangerous unless they’re mamas or rutting?”

“But more people die from moose attacks than bear attacks. I heard that from someone at an RV park.”

Oh, wait. I’m getting way ahead of the story. So, while at Beaver Creek the night before (and just short of crossing over the Canada-Alaska border), all the old gassers and gammers were talking about the nasty things that the US Customs people were doing. The most agreed-upon horror was that Customs was searching every vehicle and confiscating all beef, and anything that contained beef. Including dog food. What would all the poor puppies do?!? Especially the ones on special diets? So, we ended up having a beef-o-rama for supper, and an all you can eat cow-buffet for breakfast. Mayo and I dined on beef-n-bean burritos, beef jerky, and swedish meatballs. Then we had Mac and Cheese with shredded steak topping for breakfast.

Then we drove through Customs. I dreaded another seach of the Winnii, and entertained dark fantasies of being stuck in Customs Hell between Canada and ersatz home. I noticed that the RV in front of us was one from the Beaver Creek RV Park. They had left at least half an hour before us. And were still at Customs. Definitely not a good sign. We pulled up to the gate.

“Let me see your ID, your passport. Anything to declare? Purchase any goods in Canada besides food and clothing?”

I should note at this point that I added the punctuation for clarity. The above was droned out in one continuous sentence.

“Uh, no? Oh, wait, I bought some Scotch.”

“How much? What size?”

“Uhhhhhhh. You know, smaller than a normal bottle, but bigger than those little ones at the counter?”

“A fifth? Half liter? What?”

“Oh. Well. Definitely not a half liter. A fifth?”

I should explain at this point that the Customs agent was a rather tall man, and he had to bend down to see under the Winnii’s low-slung cabover. He stood back up after each question, then bent back down again. No, he wasn’t amused by any of this.

“A fifth. OK.”

“Oh, wait, I bought two.”

“Two fifths. Fine. Here’s your passport. You’re free to–”

“Wait! What about the beef?”

“Beef?”

“I don’t have any!”

Yes, I really said this. I was still a little freaked by the whole Canadian SWAT-team approach to border security when we crossed into Manitoba, and was sure that the Americans would one-up the Canucks.

“Wha?”

“I bought some in Canada, but I ate it all!”

“??? Oh. That. Where the–? Where do you people get this stuff?!?”

“So you don’t…oh. OK.”

My brain finally clicked into gear and told my mouth to shut up. Plus it realized that gassers and gammers spend an awful lot of their time worrying about weird crap. Borrowing trouble, as the saying goes. And I had happily worried and borrowed (and gorged) right along with them.

“You. Are. Free. To. Go. Good. Day. Sir.”

And that was the Great Beef Scare. Anyway, back to the moose. So, those thoughts about what to do when one meets a moose were swirling around and around in my head, and there was this undercurrent of Serious Doubt since most of my moose- (OK, bear-)related information was from old gassers and gammers.

While I was thinking all this, over and over, my body took command, turned me around, and walked me away, slowly but with purpose. I still have no idea if that was the right thing to do, or would have signed my death warrant under the wrong circumstances, but it worked this time. And my body marched itself right back to the host camp, Mayo in clingy and evasive tow.

“Wow! Well! We saw a moose.”

“Yup. Probably the same one we saw last night. Big critters, ain’t they?”

Yes. Big. So’s Denali. Saw that too. Cloudy at the top. Makes its own weather. At least that’s what the old gassers and gammers say.

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Hockey Night In Canada

This is just an excuse to post another picture or two. Apparently it was Hockey Night In Canada night last night. Half of Whitehorse showed up at the RV Park‘s office/restaurant to hang out and watch some good old fashioned Canuck violence cum sports on the big-screen telly. And who was matched up for this evening, ready to give their blood to keep Canada’s flag flowing red? Hmm, Anaheim. And, er, Detroit. Well, it’s the spirit that counts. Go Ducks!

I visited the infamous Whitehorse WalMart last night. It’s the center of a serious controversy: the local RV parks have risen up and compelled the city council to do something about all the RV’ers boondocking at WalMart instead of being sensible and paying $25 to park where they belong. The result has been that the WalMart lot is now bisected, with large signs explaining clearly that RV’ers cannot park close to the store after 10 PM, but may feel free to park in the outer lot at any time. Oh, and there are some lovely RV parks they could drive to if they want to pay to park.

Much more effective than the signs, in my opinion, are the WalMart’s overpicked and sloppy aisles, and their truckstop-inspired bathroom. Those, plus a lack of WiFi and electric hookups made me desert my adopted caravan and head for the pricey decadence of a local rabblerouser.

I think that Wally World made a serious mistake: they located directly next to a large Canadian Tire store. I’ve never been in a Canadian Tire before, but I’ve heard Our Man Tim raving about them, so I walked next door to see what all the fuss was about (plus, I managed to blow up my inverter by microwaving a container with a bit of aluminum hidden in it, but the Rules Of Blogging state clearly that we never dwell on dumb things that we ourselves have done, so enough about that). Wow, what a difference. And what a similarity. There is a high degree of overlap between what the two stores sell. Wally sells more food. CT sells more car stuff (as you might well expect from a place with the word Tire in its name). Wally is scruffy, disorganized, and in need of a good scrubbing. CT is bright, clean, and friendly. And has better prices. And a better selection of dog food. And perhaps CT is less evil than Wally; I don’t know. But I do know that I have seen the future, and it ain’t from Arkansas.

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Litter Barrel Ahead

Dateline: Whitehorse

[Editor’s note: This picture expressed our writer’s attitude to a tee, so our hard-working staff have slipped it in for him.] No picture today. I’m pooped and slacking. The drive today was a little shorter and jaw-dropping gorgeous, so there are probably some pretty good pictures on the camera. One or two might show up tomorrow if I’m feeling more ambitious.

I’ve finally realized that “Litter Barrel Ahead” is Canadian for “Really interesting spot ahead; we’ve taken the liberty of creating a pullout near it and placing a bear-proof dumpster there so you can easily find it, if you’d like to stop and take a look–or not if you don’t want to.” They don’t overload it with words like “scenic overlook” or “vista” or “wildlife viewpoint“. They leave the superlatives up to you, and just give you the opportunity to look and judge for yourself. Thanks, Canadians! I like your style!

And Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. Yes, I called mine, and we had a very nice talk.

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And One To Rule Them All

Dateline: Watson Lake

If you look in the guidebooks, there are 2 or 3 RV parks in Watson Lake. Which is true. What is also true is that Watson Lake is home to one enterprising Scot from Columbia. He owns the only RV park that is actually open. He also owns the competition down the road; it closed last year and he has no immediate plans of opening it. He also owns the one that is “opening soon”. It’ll open this year, or perhaps next. Depends on if he can convince his bank to build a motel on the choice lot where his main park currently stands, right down town and directly across the street from a charming lake.

Oh, and he also owns the liquor store. That’s not exactly true. It’s a government-run store. But he owns the land it sits on and leases the building to the government.

And lest you think he’s some sort of modern Boss Hogg, he’s the nicest and funniest guy you’re likely to run into in the Yukon. And perhaps the hardest working as well. He used to be an oil rigger and then a miner before getting into, well, whatever it is that he’s into nowadays.

We’re staying in his RV park–the one that is open. And, to honor the memory of Hugh Roy’s dad, who, like many Scots, went into the Yukon and lost his soul to it, I bought some scotch from our host’s store and drank a few rounds.

Critter Count:

  • 9 deer. The deer made a strong opening, but faded in later rounds. They just didn’t seem to really show up today.
  • 14 caribou. The ‘bou played a solid hand through the entire day. In early going, they were neck and neck with the deer, and it was anyone’s game.
  • 12 Stone sheep. A surprise entry that came out of nowhere and looked ready to close the books.
  • 19 bison. Last but far from least, the Buffs simply overwhelmed their opponents. Plus they pulled out the unbeatable hole card, the cute baby cuddling up to its mama. They really put this one in the bag; a textbook example of how to win big.
  • 0 bears, wolves, or other hunters. But Mayo points out that this game is for simps, and meat eaters are above it. All it takes is one carnivore to wipe the board–as well as all of the competition. And any judges who disagree will be eaten.
  • 1 rabbit. Biggest frigging rabbit I’ve ever seen.
  • 1 porcupine (omitted yesterday; sorry)

It may well be that the decision on which way to go has been made. There’s a ferry that crosses the Yukon River at Dawson City. They were scheduled to launch it today, but the river is still too frozen, from what I’ve heard. That’s not surprising; most of the lakes and streams in this area are still frozen as well. And we got some pretty serious snow going past Summit Lake. I’m considering heading to Anchorage first, then Fairbanks, then over the Top Of The World and down the Yukon. Still got a little time to decide.

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Dr. Bellows, I Can Explain…

Dateline: Fort Nelson

No, no Majors Nelson and Healey here, and, sigh, no Barbara Eden in a harem outfit. But we’ve seen lots of mountains, serious ones with snow on them and everything.

Critter count for today:

  • 2 baby somethings. They were bigger than a grown deer, sort of gray-tan in color, and all knobby knees and long legs. They didn’t have moose-y faces, so I’m guessing elk or caribou, but I don’t know. They were still fuzzy like they were recently born, and pretty cute for something so big.
  • 1 very preggo doe.
  • 1 lazy black bear who of course suddenly came awake and darted for the brush as soon as I grabbed for the camera.
  • 1 thing (young caribou?), pictured. He was quite cooperative and waited patiently while I backed up the rig (dumb, I know, but that road is empty).
  • 3 generic deer, meandering aimlessly along the roadside.

The drive started off as “Wisconsin with hills”. It could have easily been the 51 in the Nort Woods, except that it was a lot more slope-y. I met up with a couple from Mequon (I recognized them by the fact that they were the only other people in shorts while everyone else was in down vests–the must-have fashion accessories for teens in the 70’s Valley, don’t ask why). They agreed–just like Wisconsin! Then it transitioned to more Cali Sierras-ish, then Colorado-ish.

BTW, seen a lot of motos on the drive. Mostly Harleys, but a few sport bikes. Except for the potholes (which are horrendous but mostly right around the towns and especially in the gas station parking lots) these are roads that are made for bikes. Oh, the gigantic logging trucks going 80 zillion miles an hour aren’t so great for two-wheelers either, but they’re just like in Wisconsin.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Watson Lake, and soon the first big decision: up the middle of the Yukon via the “somewhat paved” Klondike Highway (and a side trip to Mayo), or straight for the border. Yeah, it’s a tough one.

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Alaska or bust!

Dateline: Dawson Creek

Ah, mountains! Finally! Altitudes, views, and spirits have all lifted. Never mind all the whinging about the endless grind across the northern prairies, now we’re really arrived at the true start of the adventure. No pic today, as this connection is a bit slow and iffy. But the critter count has begun: 1 wolf. Very cool. It just sauntered across the road. A bit bigger than Mayo and considerably leaner (ahem). And gray, of course. And very self-assured. Top of the food chain, and all that. As I scrambled for the Kodak, the wolf’s pict-o-detector went off and it shot into the brush. After shooting through “Moose Row” (which was without moose und sqvirrel), we’re now at the Northern Lights RV Park, a very rustic but oddly charming place on the real true Alaska Highway just outside Dawson Creek. Guarded over by the enormous akita Bear, who Mayo gives a paws-up to.

The biggest surprise so far is the abrupt jump in the quality and quantity of road services. I am not making this up: We passed more rest areas in the first hour today than in the entire trip along the Yellowhead Trail. And more gas stations per kilometer. I was quite puzzled by the dearth along Yellowhead. I kind of figured that the Alaska Highway is an adventure for AARPies in huge RVs, so it’s probably not too challenging a deal for younger folk. Yet on Yellowhead, I really had to watch for places to stop, had to gas up at every opportunity, and had to not just blast down the road. If the Alaska Highway takes even more care, wow, it would be a nightmare for older folks. Well, early signs indicate that it’s probably easier, at least in terms of roadside support. We’ll see how it goes as the first true leg is taken on tomorrow: Fort Nelson, Mile 300 of 1200 or so to the border. I’m stoked.

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Duck Duck Goose

Dateline: Edmonton

The last few nights have really covered the gamut of RV parks. We stayed in:

  1. A WalMart parking lot in Yorkton. (After driving 30 miles to Riding Mountain National Park only to discover that it is open for the season but not ready–locked bathrooms, water and electricity still off–not a big deal in an RV if prepped for that but we weren’t. Plus no one at the entrance gate mentioned this, so the Winnii was paid for and parked before the startling discoveries were made. Finally, there were zero other people in the park aside from the prep crews. And the bear tracks and fresh poop everywhere, which Mayo found very interesting and I found quite disturbing.) WalMart boondocking was surprisingly nice. The only hitch was that the WalMart was a smaller one, so it wasn’t open 24 hours a day, which meant that the bathrooms closed from 9 PM to 7 AM. In a very strange sort of way, it was kind of fun to go shopping three different times and just dawdle. Mayo reports that the open field next to the store was quite interesting, but that shopping time seriously cut into sniffing time. Overall, with the border experience and lots of unplanned extra miles, the day was long and quite demoralizing. I began to think that this whole trip was a dumb idea, but decided to give it another day. A short driving day with a lot of recovery time.
  2. A lovely little RV park just outside Saskatoon. Very nice place, very friendly people running it. Home-made berry pies in the store. Just what the doctor ordered. Until I parked the Winnii and walked Mayo. You know, Prairie Potholes are very cool and very important. We saw endless numbers of them on the way across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Each one was sized somewhere between a large puddle and a small lake, and each one had at least one pair of ducks, geese, or other waterbirds calling it home. I can understand why the farmers have a love-hate relationship with them since they take up a lot of otherwise usable farmland. And they’re not just home to birds, but mosquitos. Billions and billions of mosquitos. So thick that you have to cover your nose and mouth to avoid inhaling them. There was a good-sized pothole not far from the back of the RV park. I didn’t realize what would happen when we went walking near it until it was too late. And then it was Fight On, a war that lasted all night and into today–I’m still killing and clearing skeeters from the Winnii. Eventually, I called an uneasy truce, doused Mayo and my head and bed in bug spray, and fell asleep. Woke up demoralized and thinking that the trip was a stupid idea, and, oh no, I still needed to get out of the RV and walk Mayo again. Decided to give it one more more day. Headed for Edmonton, me, Mayo, and the few hundred toughest fastest skeeters that survived the morning skirmish following the walk.
  3. Now we’re at a very large RV park, with hundreds of spaces. And, surprisingly, it is full. Mostly with permanent residents. This isn’t a mobile home park–there are no mobile homes here–but it is kind of like one. I almost decided to give it a pass and find another one, but figured that it might make for an enriching experience. The Winnii is tucked between two huge 5th-wheels, and I feel like a stranger in a small town. I took a long nap this afternoon after walking Mayo in the leash- and skeeter-free field next door. And I’m feeling better about the trip. Maybe I just needed the rest. Maybe it’s the change in terrain. We’re still on the prairie, but things have the feeling that they’re starting to change. Maybe it’s that we’re now more than halfway to Fairbanks. Maybe it’s that we’re about to switch highway contexts from the Yellowhead Trail to the Alaska Highway. “Good night, Mayo, good job sniffing today. Most likely head for home in the morning.” We’ll give it one more day. Tomorrow is a shorter day again, just over the BC border to Dawson’s Creek and Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway.
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I Can’t Complain But Sometimes I Still Do

Dateline: Saskatoon

Well, kiddies, we’re not even halfway to Alaska yet and I’m a zombie. Partly because it is simply a long, long way from Madison to Fairbanks. And partly because playing tourist in northern Canada outside of the holiday season is much more dicey than in the lower Colonies.

We did the diagonal from the KOA across Minnesota, and then crossed the border on I-29 above St. Cloud, ND. Before saying Hi to Canada’s version of Homeland Security, we stayed in the Icelandic State Park the night before, very nice and pretty park on a small lake with full RV amenities. Nothing particularly special by Wisconsin standards, but then that’s a pretty high bar to meet. Very pleasant trip

And then we went to Canada.

And everything changed.

Wow, seriously, the Canadians have become Quite Concerned about people entering their country. It used to be that you’d barely slow down at the border, just pull up to the gates, answer a couple of questions, and off you go. This is what happened to us yesterday:

  1. We pulled up to the gate. The not-unfriendly lady at the booth asked for my passport. Asked why I was going to Canada. Didn’t seem at all satisfied with “Going to Alaska” as an answer. Asked for the license plate number of the RV (which she could see on her monitor). Asked who I know in Canada. Asked my job title.
  2. A couple of important notes at this point: Since Icelandic State Park is very close to the border, we got an early start and were at the border before 9 AM. In the rural part of North Dakota. (I am surprised to say that there is a part of North Dakota that is even more rural than the rest. This is the place.) Yeah, there wasn’t much of a line. In fact, the entire line consisted of the Winnii plus one semi in the other lane.
  3. The not-unfriendly lady then asked if I had any guns in the RV. Any pistols, rifles, revolvers? Was I sure? Because, you know, guns are illegal in Canada. They could hold onto any guns that I had until I returned, free of charge, no problem. So, any guns in the RV? How many guns at home and what types? OK, last chance: Any guns in the RV? Sure? OK then.
  4. Then the somewhat-more-unfriendly lady finally asked me to pull over to the shaded area to the left, park the RV, and go inside the building to talk to the immigration people.
  5. Immigration was a nice building (a sort of collage between the Prairie School style and a concrete bunker) with several officers bustling around in it. I have no idea what they were all up to, since there weren’t many vehicles to deal with (see #2). All of the officers were wearing full BDUs and flak jackets. All were armed.
  6. All of them looked at me as if I was some sort of scruffy mutt-herder. Well, they had a point.
  7. The armed flak-jacketed officer that I would have to describe as some form of Extreme Receptionist went through the same routine as with the somewhat-more-unfriendly lady. Except that he was a lot scarier, as he was huge and bald and pissed-off looking, and seemed to be sizing me up as an excuse to practice whatever training he recently had picked up at Gitmo Nord. Eventually, he grunted, gave me a yellow piece of paper, and told me to go wait in the chairs under the big map.
  8. A few minutes later, another officer (also armed and flak-jacketed) asked me to come back to the counter (to the spot right next to the Extreme Receptionist’s, in fact, which made the whole affair seem even sillier). He was a very nice guy who reminded me a lot of Max, except for the whole gung-ho motif and his blonde crew-cut. Oh, and his distracting habit of caressing his gun holster every few moments. He wanted to know more about Alaska. Why did I want to go there? Did I know someone there? Who did I know in Canada? How long would I be in Alaska? How long in Canada? When was I expected back after my trip? How much money did I have with me? How much available on my credit card? (Oh yeah, I was scared by now. Did they think I was broke and hoping to mooch health care off of them? Or a drug mule or buyer? Or some sort of money launderer?) How much in my checking account? Savings? Any other sources of funding? So, why was I visiting Canada? Alaska, right. Why was I going there? How long would it take me to get to Alaska? How long would I stay there? How long would I be in Canada on the return trip? Hmm. OK. Please wait under the map.
  9. About 15 minutes later (a very long time when you’ve got no clue what’s going on and are wondering if you’re about to be detained), he returns, calls me back to the counter, and gives me back my passport and the yellow paper, now with something written on it. Back to the map again.
  10. A few more minutes and Mr. E. R. calls me back to the counter again. Takes the yellow paper and my passport. Reads the yellow paper very carefully. (I suppose I might have cleverly forged something on it while I was waiting. You never can be too careful about that sort of thing.) Stamps my passport. I’m free to go. Except that they’ll need to examine my vehicle.
  11. I go back outside. Two more officers (wearing that identical outfit–they must have all shopped at the same store). The older one asks me to unlock the RV. I tell them that I have a dog inside. They both tense up. Older Guy directs me to open one door, bring the dog out through it, then stand to the side. They both keep their hands on their guns while I do this.
  12. Score one for the Mayo pup! She is super-obedient and doesn’t try to run over to say hi to the officers. Plus, they’re obviously taken by her police-dog mien and happy-but-controlled response. Tensions dissipate. I ask if I can put a leash on her and now they’re fine with that. We talk about Mayo a bit, then back to business, but now it’s easy and almost friendly. Thanks, puppy!!! (And again I wonder about her life before we adopted her from the Dane County animal shelter. She was extremely well-behaved from day one, and knew leash handling better than we did.)
  13. They then proceeded to open every nook and cranny both inside and outside the RV, asking me multiple times to unlock panels that I had forgotten about. Much like customs agents rifling though checked bags, they were fast and thorough. And you couldn’t tell that they had touched a thing when they were done. I was a little worried since they searched the RV much more carefully than I had ever done, and it occurred to me that the previous owners had left something “interesting” behind that I hadn’t discovered. (But they were a sweet older farm couple so I wasn’t really worried. Much.)
  14. Done! Finally! Under 45 minutes all told, but it felt much longer. Maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if I had known what to expect. But all I had heard beforehand was that “they need a passport nowadays”.
  15. Surprising side note: I had also heard that they needed a record of a dog’s shots. They never asked for it, and Mr. E. R. refused it when I offered it after he stamped my passport.
  16. Surprising side note #2: I later met a couple of nice couples from Indianapolis who were also RV’ing to Alaska. They went through the exact same experience, and it clearly shook them even more than me. Not surprising that they’d get the same drill, except that these weren’t scruffy-looking people at all, but good salt-of-the-Earth types, classic old-school Midwesterners, clean-cut, nicely dressed, friendly. Hoosiers storm Manitoba border, details at 11.

After getting off on that foot, well, the rest of the trip seemed to pick up the vibe. But more on that later.

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Into The Wild Blue Yonder

Dateline: Minnesota

Mayo and I have rolled out from Madison and onwards towards Canada and Alaska. For the first day, we did an easy hop, figuring that the morning would be frantic and we’d get a late start. The Winnii once again had excellent road manners. It’s much more like driving a Toyota truck than some of the bigger Class C’s that I test-drove. The only tricky part is keeping it in the center of the lane (especially going through barrier-tightened road construction in high winds, whee, fun), and backing up.

We’re staying the night at a KOA (a nice, friendly, clean and safe campground, not to be confused with a Wally World parking lot because the campground’s store does actually close at night and the tree-to-pavement ratio is higher, it has showers, and it’s about a mile further out of town). This is the type of camping that is one step removed from a motel room. But for starting out slow and easy, it feels right.

This picture should give you an idea of the campground. It’s from my bed looking out at our neighbors (the 5th-wheel set–ah, the ratchety racket of idling diesels in the morning–it smells like luxury.

Well, dinner is done, and I’m feeling lazy, so TTFN. Next post from somewhere North.

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Loop de loop

On the road again. This time, in a new toy. A 1993 21′ Winnebago Warrior, aka a “minnie winnie”. We just got back from a loop around Lake Michigan, where the RV was given the opportunity to display its comforts and road manners. It did very well in both departments. Mayo very much enjoyed having several lounging spots while underway, and I enjoyed the luxuries of a real bed and microwave oven in undeveloped campsites. The photo is of the RV parked at the Old Veterans Lake State Park in northeast Wisconsin, near Crivitz. We had the park completely to ourselves–a definite benefit of camping early in the season (the flipside of which is that most of the campgrounds are closed and chained off).

 

 
Speaking of Mayo, here she is, in all of her moochily goodness. Pretty cute doggie, hmm? She seems to think so. This photo is from the Fishermans Island State Park near Charlevoix, MI. We had this place to ourselves as well, except for a few remarkably well-fed raccoons and some bored local teens.

 

Now we’re just waiting for a replacement fridge for the RV (one that can run without either the RV being level or the generator running). Once it arrives, we’re off to Alaska.

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East Peoria, IL

Well, I can’t help but feel that today was a bit more poop than scoop.

We first went to the American Science and Surplus in Geneva, IL. I had heard that “the Chicago store” (either this one or the downtown one) was far bigger than the Milwaukee store. Nope. Geneva’s is much smaller. The manager, who has worked at all 3 stores, thinks that the Milwaukee store is now the largest. Note that I was still able to find things to buy, heh.

Fermilab is now officially and completely surrounded by sprawl. Last time I saw it, it was waaaay out in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s conveniently bracketed by WalMart superstores. Just in case those high-energy dudes and dudettes need a quick shot of Jolt.

And, saddest of all, the otters at the Union Federal Bank in Kewanee, IL were asleep. Their habitat is very impressive, especially considering it is in the middle of a small bank in the middle of the midwest. Two stories tall, with slides, waterfalls, and even a solarium (closed for the season). We got there just as the bank was closing, so there wasn’t time to wait around and see if the otters would eventually come out to cavort.

But, on the up side, Mayo’s new portable water dish (a Lixit Waterboy) works like a charm. $15 at PetSmart. A very clever, simple design that can be used in a moving car (or even a Jeep!).

And Peoria is a remarkably nice little city. Far prettier than I expected. In rolling hills covered with oak trees, next to the durn big Illinois River. Plus, they just put in a new off-leash dog park, which Mayo and I managed to track down right at sunset. Nice way to end the day.

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Home again, home again, jiggedy jig.

Back at the ranch, between snowstorms. Been spending the last few days being a hermit. Reading, watching stupid daytime TV, and generally ignoring the outside world. Glorious. Also appreciating the savory feeling of knowing where my bed for the night is and being able to leave everything scattered about without having it get in the way of the gearshift or burying the dog.

Loop 2, eastaway, starts this weekend. Or as soon as I get everything repacked and there are fresh tires on the Jeep.

Something I didn’t know before: when folklore speaks of doing something “by the light of the Moon”, it doesn’t refer to doing it at night, but rather during the lunar phase between the new Moon and the full Moon (centered on the second quarter). Makes a lot more sense that way. During this time, the Moon is waxing; it is thus growing brighter every night. Similarly, “by the dark of the Moon” means between full and new, and each night will be darker during this phase. According to some folklore, root crops should be planted by the dark of the Moon for best results, and showy (but not productive) flowers should be planted by the light. Plus, the tides will be increasing from neap to spring coming out of both the “light” and “dark” times, so seeds may see the most moisture as they start to sprout.

A couple of wonderful blogs that I want to spread the word on. Both are by crazy women who have biked to heck and back. Fat Chick Goes AWOL has convinced me that everyone from Perth is insane, not just Tom. Her plaints of the battle with her personal trainer are a special treat. And Heidiho’s travails during her trips to Alaska and across 3 countries are jaw-dropping. Both did their adventuring on “adult tricycles” (no, not this kind, but this kind). Wow.

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Survey says: "Cow!"

Well, we’re both tired of being in the Jeep and are swinging towards home. Gonna dump a ton of junk that hasn’t been used once, give Mayo some more room to laze in the back seat. Hopefully be able to put the top down without risk of losing something. Then a few days in Madison, a little quiet time, maybe do a bit more RV shopping, then off to parts eastward. The western loop was OK, but since I grew up in California, I’ve kind of done it all before. The next loop should be quite a bit more interesting, as we’ll be going through several states that I’ve never visited, and we should also have our travel logistics polished.

Top 5 things Richard Dawson’s spirit thinks I-76 smells like:

  1. Denver.
  2. Cows.
  3. Not hamburger or steak. Mooing, preprocessed cows.
  4. A faint hint of bovine fragrance. “Faint” in the sense of “I think I can taste the odor.”
  5. John Adams and Ben Franklin. If they’ve been rubbing their pantaloons on cows.*

The picture is, I believe, of an F-11F dressed out in Blue Angels colorings; it was mounted, without markers or identification of any kind, in a field just across from the Motel 6 in Grand Junction that we stayed at. The F-11 was one of many interesting yet short-lived models from the “Golden Age” of jet design in the 50’s – 60’s. It was one of the last single-engine ( or single-tail) fighter jets used by the Navy. It was replaced after just a few years by the amazing F-8 interceptor, then the hulking F-4 Phantom II multirole airframe. It took me a while to ID the plane. The single engine really threw me. The F-11 looks quite modern, and has landing gear that’s similar to the F-18 (which both the Blue Angels and Navy combat units currently fly).

Speaking of unexpected sightings, I saw no less that 8 automotive prototypes while driving the Rockies. 6 were in a tight group that zoomed past me while climbing towards Vail Pass. Even though they were covered with black cladding and tape, I thought that they were shaped like the Mazda 3, except with a Porsche-style “whale tail”. They were remarkably fast while climbing the steep grades, and were really fun to watch while they played “follow the leader” through the slower traffic. The other two mystery cars were parked at a rest stop; they sped away while I fumbled to get my camera out. Only their trunks were covered, and I think that they were Chevy Cobalts, probably with the Super Sport package. Zoom zoom zoom, indeed!

( * That’s a “Funky Phantom (Spirit of ’76)” meta-joke. Mediocre, to be sure, but still far better than that cartoon ever deserved. And yes, the entire I-76, the entire interstate highway, smells funny.)

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Rolling Craps In Vegas

So, I made a mistake. After bombing down Nevada 95 from Death Valley to The Vegas, I got confused and headed north on the I-15 instead of south. (I blame North Vegas’ highway construction and infuriatingly slow stoplights.) I wanted to catch the I-40 so we could head towards the Grand Canyon and see the skybridge. As is usual for me, I didn’t realize my error until I was well into Utah, and. as is even more typical, I decided to keep going and see what happened rather than backtrack.

Ends up it was a pretty cool mistake to make. This part of the I-15 is gorgeous. It starts out as just more desert, then all of a sudden it looks like you’re headed straight for a canyon wall. At the last moment, the road swoops to the left and you slice into a narrow crevasse, just wide enough for the highway. The walls tower on both sides, like some forgotten gateway from Lord Of The Rings. And the wonders just keep coming. We then swung onto the I-70 eastbound, and it was just as good. Easily worth missing the Grand Canyon for. When everything was said and done, we covered the entire length of I-70, and it now ranks as one of the prettiest highways that I’ve driven on.

A few random notes on the experience:

  • Western Utah (on the I-15 and I-70), wow. Spectacular. Particularly going through Fishlake National Forest.
  • Eastern Utah, meh.
  • Western Colorado, better, but still just OK.
  • Central Colorado, wow. A twisty run of mountain roads through forests and ski resorts. Sunrise on the snow-covered red rocks above the Colorado River can (re)affirm that there is a God.
  • Vail Pass (10,666 feet) down to Denver is a serious rollercoaster. They had just re-opened the interstate right before we drove it, and there were a few icy spots. Nothing quite compares to hitting black ice on a 7% downhill grade at 70 per. I think that both Mayo and I have a few more gray hairs. At least you’re going fast enough that you’re over it and past before the car can get seriously sideways. Motorcycle nuts should not miss this thrill ride. But maybe not in February.
  • A rant: Utah has no clue what the phrase “rest stop” means. It definitely does not mean “a bathroom in a gas station 2 miles off the highway”. And each 200 miles of interstate should have more than, you know, one. If any of the curses I called down happen to come to pass, the Mormon Church will suffer worse plagues than Pharaoh ever knew. (Western Colorado made up for Utah’s sadistic joke with 4 rest stops within 10 miles of each other. Seriously. And they were, each and every one, different from the others and worth the stop.)
  • I didn’t take many pictures of all the geological eye candy. There are a few scenic stops, but most of them are overlooks of some canyon or other. Most of the really cool stuff can only be seen as you roll past it. Which is OK, in a way, as it is like riding through some Disney theme coaster writ large. Besides, pictures won’t do justice; you really need to drive there and see for yourself.
  • Another rant: I’m a fan of The Filthy Critic, who calls Arvada, CO his home. He makes it out to be some rundown mountain town, ala South Park. Ends up it’s really a sprawling suburb of Denver. And not even a little seedy. Well, maybe he lives in the part without Starbucks and Lowe’s.
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