September 2, 2010

Stumpin' Across Kansas (And Missouri and Colorado)

Because Tim could not take any more time off from work, I flew back to St. Louis with my friend Linda to finalize the purchase of the Free Spirit and drive it back to Colorado.  We decided to take our time and make an adventure of the trip.

I signed the papers and became the proud new owner of a Leisure Travel Vans Free Spirit.  Whoever would have thought that I would say such a thing?  John had removed most of the decals at our request and the rig looked beautiful.  John then gave us a complete walkthrough of all of the systems in preparation for our drive home.

Signing My Life Away
The Free Spirit Is Ready for Me at Van City RV

Explain That To Me That Again
By the time we learned everything we could think of and stocked up on supplies, it was late afternoon, so I braved rush hour traffic and headed to Babler Memorial State Park.  What a nice campground.  We spent the evening repacking the RV and ate dinner before it started to rain.  We only had to call John once when we forgot his instructions on how to turn the microwave on.  Silly, it has a separate switch.

We followed a scenic byway along the Missouri River the next morning and stopped in Hermann, Missouri, a charming town known for its wine.  Of course we had to purchase a few bottles for that evening.

Driving the RV was much easier than I had even hoped it might be.  I tested it on back roads, state highways, interstates and even dirt roads.  Wind didn’t seem to affect the stability, which was a huge relief.  Sitting up so high was also lots of fun.  I never quite mastered the art of backing up, although that’s not a surprise.  I don’t even like to back up my Subaru.

Linda found another wonderful campground at Knob Noster State Park, and we camped without hookups.  We quickly settled into a routine in the RV and at campgrounds, and we each assumed responsibilities for the duties that had to be done.  We developed checklists so that we would not forget anything important.

Linda at Knob Noster State Park
Our Moose PJs
We crossed into Kansas the next morning and headed for the Flint Hills and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  On the way, we stopped in Council Grove, where we looked at one historic tree stump after another.  I appreciate that important events took place under each tree, but what remains of the trees is really sad.  We quickly dubbed our trip “Stumpin’ Through Kansas.”

Stumpy, the Treaty Oak, in Council Grove, Kansas
We learned several lessons on our journey.  Probably the most important is to fill up with diesel before the tank gets too low.  We had to drive 30 miles out of our way to find a gas station with diesel.  Diesel is not always available in more remote areas, even on main highways.  I also learned the value of traveling with a smartphone.  After seeing field after field of a distinctive brownish crop, Linda decided to search for it on her iPhone.  She quickly determined that our mystery crop was sorghum.
Sarah in Tall Sorghum
I introduced Linda to the “Passport to Your National Parks” program, and she quickly became a convert.  Visiting national parks is one of my favorite activities, and I will stop if a park, or other unit of the National Park Service, is anywhere near my route.  I collect National Park passport stamps as a record of my travels.  As a result, we stopped at Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas and Bent’s Old Fort and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Sites in Colorado.

Fort Larned National Historic Site

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
We arrived back in Estes Park without incident.  I’m going to love driving and traveling in the Free Spirit.

August 20, 2010

The Search for the Perfect RV

After our experience with the rental, Tim and I were on the hunt for a Class B motorhome that would be the perfect fit for us.  All of the models are very well made, and all of them share certain similarities, but we needed to find the chassis and floor plan that would meet our requirements.

We looked again at the few Roadtrek, Pleasure-Way, Airstream and Winnebego models that were in stock near our home, but none of these seemed quite right for us.  By this time we had focused our search on Class Bs that were built on a Mercedes-Benz (or Freightliner) chassis.  These models were much taller, but narrower, than the Excel we had rented and provided full headroom in the shower, as well as a full-height entrance door.  Tim was pushing for the long Sprinter to give us more living space with the cat.  Although the longer length scared me somewhat, I agreed with his reasoning.

We then determined that a trip to St. Louis was in order.  St. Louis is the home of Van City RV, the top-ranked Class B motorhome dealer in the country, representing multiple manufacturers.  Why not go there and look at virtually all of the available models in one spot?  We might never see all of them in Colorado, and we wanted to look at all possibilities.  However, we did not want to buy an RV so far in advance of the trip, which was not scheduled to start until September 2011.

We flew to St. Louis and immediately drove to Van City, where we spent the rest of the afternoon.  John Chelist walked us through all of the models and quizzed us on what we were looking for.  He helped us to focus our search and never applied any pressure to make a sale.  It’s too bad that all salesmen are not like him.

We reconfirmed that a Sprinter was right for us, but which one?  I had already given in on the length, so that narrowed our options to a Roadtrek Adventurous, Pleasure-Way Plateau or Leisure Travel Vans Free Spirit.  John helped us rule out the Roadtrek because it features a second row of seats, which we do not need.  That left the Plateau and Free Spirit, both of which we took for long test drives.  I felt surprisingly comfortable driving both of them.

Two Free Spirits On the Lot
The Free Spirit was completely new to us and was not a model that I had carefully researched prior to the trip.  It was a beautiful rig with lovely finishes, as was the Plateau, and both would meet my design sensibilities.  Both would meet our other needs as well.  We left Van City with a lot to think about and planned to return the next day.

Tim and I spent a lovely evening in downtown St. Louis, sampling toasted ravioli, a local specialty  We came back to our hotel and listed the pros and cons of each model.  Tim came to the conclusion that the Free Spirit had a feature that no other model had – a “basement.”  This was a cut-out, lidded compartment under the sofa between the rear wheels where the spare tire is often stored.  What a perfect location for the litter box!  The Free Spirit was also completely open between the main living area and the area under the sofa, allowing free access for the cat to access the litter box.  This would not be possible in the Plateau.  None of the other features seemed to be as important once we knew that the cat could be easily accommodated.

Tim came to the conclusion that the Free Spirit had a feature that no other model had – a “basement.”  This was a cut-out, lidded compartment under the sofa between the rear wheels where the spare tire is often stored.  What a perfect location for the litter box!  The Free Spirit was also completely open between the main living area and the area under the sofa, allowing free access for the cat to access the litter box.  This would not be possible in the Plateau.  None of the other features seemed to be as important once we knew that the cat could be easily accommodated. 

Nice Interior
The Lid to the "Basement" Is on the Left
There were two 2009 Free Spirits on the lot, and we decided over lunch the next day that we would buy one of them on the spot.  No waiting for us.  We just knew that this was what we wanted.  The Free Spirit was as perfect an RV for us as we could possibly hope to find.  We returned to Van City, selected the model with the lighter, birch cabinets and made an offer.  John made a counter offer and we sealed the deal.  What a pleasant experience.  No hard sells or dealer shenanigans. 

John and Sarah at Van City RV
It's Ours!
I can’t believe that we just bought an RV!!!  We would later name it “The World’s Most Expensive Kat Karrier.”

We spent one more night in St Louis enjoying a wonderful dinner and visiting the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion.  The next day we toured St Louis’s rehabilitated downtown district and Union Station before jumping onto the plane for our flight back to Colorado.  We had an uneventful flight, wondering what we had just done.

Gateway Arch

Union Station

July 5, 2010

Is This For Us?

How Does This Work?
RV America in Johnstown, Colorado, rents all sorts of RVs, including Class Bs, and the staff was so helpful and patient in answering all of our questions.  They even allowed us to take a test drive the week before our rental was to start.  We rented a Pleasure-Way Excel, the only Class B available, and we had a complete orientation the day we picked it up.

Of course, I had already purchased supplies and specialized equipment that would fit into a Class B, and I wanted to outfit the RV as if we were traveling for our extended trip.  Perhaps I went a bit overboard, but I really wanted to simulate that experience and not just throw things into cabinets.

Our plan was to spend the first night nearby at Horsetooth Reservoir and then make our way to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park where we would spend a few days with our friends Noreen and Mike.  Grand Teton National Park is one of my favorite places, and this seemed to be the perfect destination.

Our First Dinner at Horsetooth Reservoir, CO

Fish for Dinner?

Just Another Lovely Spot at Alcova Reservoir, WY
We thoroughly enjoyed our first two nights on the road.  The two campgrounds where we stayed were in county parks in beautiful settings directly on the water.  We even were able to camp without hookups in the rain the second night and had a great experience.  We had not been able to reserve a spot in a campground in Grand Teton National Park, so we had made reservations at a private campground in Jackson.  The sites were much closer together here, but there were lots of trees.
Ready for a Party in Jackson, WY
Visiting with Noreen and Mike was wonderful, and we enjoyed hiking in the park.  But camping in an RV, maybe that was not as much fun.  We had not been able to successfully make up the bed to be comfortable, and we were learning that there’s a lot of work involved in living in an RV.  My least favorite aspect, however, was campground showers.

Mike and Noreen in Grand Teton National Park

Sarah and Tim in Grand Teton National Park
When we left Jackson for our drive home, I was very discouraged.  “This is just not going to work,” I thought to myself.  “My dream is slowly dying, and there is no way we are going to be able to take the trip.  RVing is just not for us.”  I even suggested that we stay in a hotel that night and not look for a campground.

Camping at the Hampton Inn
On the drive home the next day, Tim and I were able to regroup, and we made a list of pros and cons, what our requirements might be.  With a good night’s sleep behind us, we were able to think more clearly.  We came to the conclusion that certain things would make a trip by RV work for us.

First, we decided that we would take a break and plan to stay in a hotel one or two nights a week.  We would try to camp in more natural settings, instead of private campgrounds.  We would also focus our search on Class Bs with certain features, including a shower with enough headroom to stand upright in and a taller entrance door.  Other custom amenities like bedding designed for the RV would also be a must.  Also, we had to determine how we would deal with the needs of the cat, particularly where we might be able to put a litter box.

We returned the RV with a new attitude, confident that our original plan to travel by RV was for us after all.

May 1, 2010

How It All Began

At some point in early 2010, Tim and I began to formulate a plan to take approximately one year off to travel throughout the United States.  Since I’m a gypsy at heart, I had always dreamed of taking off and traveling for an entire year.  Unfortunately, although I am retired, Tim is still working.  Rather than wait impatiently until he could retire, I suggested the possibility of a leave of absence.  That way, Tim could take off now and work for as long as he wanted when he returned.  To my surprise, everyone bought into the plan, and the beginnings of what would become a nine-month trip began.  More about how this crazy idea came about can be found here.

Tim and I had come to the conclusion that in order to take our cat with us, we would have to travel by RV.  Now, Tim and I know absolutely nothing about RVs.  I’m not sure I had even set foot in one and didn’t even know where to start in our search.  Since I have done historical research for a living, I figured that researching RVs couldn’t be too different.  The internet and books would provide more information than I would know what to do with.

One of the first books that I reread was Live Your Road Trip Dream, by Carol and Phil White.  I had been inspired by that book prior to the seven-week trip I took when I retired from the City of Miami in 2005, and I remembered that the Whites had traveled for a year in a Class B motorhome.  That seemed to be a good place to start.

What, you might ask, is a Class B?  It’s simple, really.  It’s a van converted to a motorhome.  Class Bs can take many forms, can be built on a Ford, Chevrolet or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis and can range in length from approximately 19 to 24 feet.  Popular manufacturers include Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way.  So, Tim and I started looking at Class Bs.

We had missed the RV shows that had taken place earlier in the year, so we visited several dealers in the Denver area and looked at the few models that were on the lots.  Class B motorhomes are a tiny subset of the RV industry and are not widely available.  However, this type of RV seemed to suit us perfectly.  I wanted something that would be relatively easy to drive and park (I don’t even like to drive SUVs).  Handling a larger RV just wasn’t for me.  I didn’t even consider pulling a trailer – that would have put me over the edge.  I had also been turned off by the interior design features of the larger RVs, while the Class B interiors were much more my style.  Yes, Class Bs are tiny, but I thought we could deal with that limitation.  Tim agreed with this choice.

We discovered that we could rent a Class B motorhome from a nearby dealer and decided that a test-run would be a prudent move before we considered a purchase.  We made a reservation for July 5 for a week-long rental.