OMG, it has been a full year since I posted anything here.
In years past, I wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving this website untouched for more than a week, and now 85 weeks have gone by since I published articles here on a regular basis!
Don’t look too closely…I’m afraid cobwebs are growing on the edges of these pages. And I’m sure many of you who signed up for our newsletter during our silence are reading this wondering who we are and why you got an email linking to this post. I hope you’ll stick with us!
THANK YOU FOR REACHING OUT TO US
We’d like to say a most heartfelt “thank you” to the many kind people who have reached out to us during the past year to see if we are still “alive and well,” as I last reported. Your concern has touched us deeply and we really appreciated hearing from you.
The answer is still a resounding “YES!” We are indeed alive and well, and we feel blessed beyond belief to tell you that our life’s journey has taken us down a new and exciting path.
We are doing just fine even though we’ve been in hiding for a while!
As happens when choosing a new direction at any fork in the road, certain doors have closed behind us as we embark on this new trail, but other wonderful new doors are opening wide ahead of us.
WHAT ABOUT COVID?
Like everyone, our jaws dropped clear to the ground as world events began to unfold at the beginning of 2020, and like so many, our jaws are still that way a year and a half later.
We have been extremely fortunate to have spent the intervening time in a corner of the planet that has been relatively untouched by draconian rules. For the most part, life has been quite normal for us in terms of personal restrictions, personal freedoms and personal relations.
We haven’t been untouched by the disease, however. Although for the first 10 months we didn’t know anyone who caught the virus, we lost our beloved friend and first RVing mentor in Montana over Christmas.
At 86, he had the unfortunate underlying condition of Valley Fever lung disease when Covid caught up with him, battled him for his life, and eventually overtook him. We miss his good humor and his gentle, noble soul immensely.
Three other friends and family members around the country also got severe cases that ravaged them for two to four weeks or longer. They were all middle aged and in good shape beforehand, and thankfully, all have recovered.
To say that we feel blessed to have been spared so far is an understatement.
A FORK IN THE ROAD
So, what have we been doing, besides not blogging?
In a nutshell, we put down roots, sold the fifth wheel and bought a truck camper for summer travel.
Our little Trail Scout, Buddy, leads us down a new path
This wasn’t quite as surprising a turn of events as it may seem at first glance. A variation on this theme had been in the works for us since the Spring of 2019.
As you may know, we had leased out our previous home during our traveling years.
That home was a fabulous rental, but it was a home we never really liked living in ourselves. We knew when we pulled out of the driveway for the last time and ventured into our new traveling lifestyle in 2007 that we’d never move back in.
Change in the air
So, we decided two years ago that it was time to sell the rental and buy a different rental that we liked enough to move into seasonally or perhaps permanently “someday.” Certainly we wouldn’t do that NOW, of course! We’d just lease it out and keep traveling until “that day” came, many years down the road.
We sold our old place a week before the disease hit our shores, and then, unexpectedly, the real estate market took off into the stratosphere in a parabolic upswing that has never let up! Holy smokes!
Suddenly, properties that had been affordable eight months earlier were now out of sight for us. How discouraging!
The last time that had happened, in 2005-07, we had thrown up our hands and jumped into an RV to start traveling full-time!
What kind of hat trick could we pull this time?
Eventually, we gave up on the idea of finding anything in the areas where we wanted to buy, and we headed out for our usual summer travels in Cool North Country as the pandemic settled in for what became a very long stay.
At that moment, though, we figured we’d let some time pass and let the world and the real estate market get back to normal.
This pretty columbine flower is oblivious to the foibles of human economies
Somewhere along the way, we stopped in a small town to do our laundry, looked around and said, “What a cool area!”
This has been one of our favorite sayings over the years as we have traveled from one cool place to the next.
As a lark, we checked for properties online, and lo and behold, there was our dream home staring at us. It had been on the market for two hours.
We knew within a few days of putting it in escrow that we would not be renting it out to anyone. We loved it and we couldn’t imagine anyone living in it but ourselves. Neither of us had ever owned a home that we truly loved. What a heavenly feeling that was!
As with everything great in our lives, the most important detours and unexpected turns have come to us on their own, unplanned and uninvited and yet totally appropriate and natural when they appeared.
We knew that by saying “hello” to this home we would be saying “goodbye” to a lifestyle we had cherished.
We realized that finding our dream home meant the end of our nomadic lifestyle even though the timing was some 10 to 15 years earlier than we’d ever expected it to be. But it just felt right to make this change, dramatic as it was.
This huge decision involved a lot of inner reflection about our life’s dreams
On the practical side, to go from a furnished and fully equipped 350 square foot fifth wheel to an unfurnished home with gaping empty rooms was quite a shock.
The long long long hot showers were a blissful change from all those years of one gallon showers while boondocking or anchoring out. But, believe me, setting up housekeeping from scratch during a pandemic when absolutely everything from furniture to tools is out of stock is quite an experience.
Sunrise brings a new day
When we’d left to begin our full-timing travel adventures, we’d kept our memorabilia, photo albums and bicycles, and nothing else. Those few things had all fit easily into a 5′ x 11′ shed in a friend’s yard.
Now, in our new non-mobile lifestyle, we suddenly needed all those other things that go with living in a stick-built home…except for the simple kitchenware, clothes and tools that we already had in our fifth wheel.
We had the clothes on our backs and the goodies in our trailer, but a stick-built home requires more than that!
After we moved in, a friend peeked in the walk-in closet that held two weeks’ worth of clothes on two shelves — our standard for the last 13 years — and he said with a smirk, “You don’t have many clothes!”
Truth was, we didn’t have much of anything!
Craigslist became our go-to resource for almost everything. Swap meets and yard sales rounded out our shopping destinations. As for anything new, if we could find what we wanted in stock anywhere, which was rare, it was only available in pea green with pink trim, or in a mustard yellow plaid pattern, or something along those lines.
But the thrill of starting a new chapter was deeply fulfilling. It felt so good in the midst of the world losing its mind to be able to gather ours together, shut everything out, and bury ourselves in fun new home projects.
Finding peace in our own little world away from the world
Where our lives before had been one continuous sightseeing photography tour for 13 straight years (a shopkeeper in Mexico had told us we were “Professional Tourists”), suddenly our hands were dirty all day every day as we painted, nailed and sanded things and dug into the soil to nurture plants and flowers that held the promise of a stationary future.
We slept on the floor for weeks waiting for a new mattress to arrive, and we sat in folding camping chairs or on pillows on the floors inside each room for months.
But we didn’t care. We felt like newlyweds just starting out! We were loving life and we were oh, so happy.
SELLING AND BUYING RVs
One day a friend of a friend passed word to us that he was looking for a good quality fifth wheel to live in at his property. We hadn’t intended to sell ours just yet, but suddenly, our home of a dozen years was gone, headed towards the horizon to become home-sweet-home for someone else.
After a pang of sadness at seeing it go, we jumped online and began looking for truck campers. What a blast!!
Hmmm…this could be fun!!
All the anguish we had felt for the final few years of our travels as we’d weighed which kind of fifth wheel or toy hauler to buy to replace our aging rolling home completely evaporated as we dove into the idea of traveling in a nimble little truck camper with our RZR in tow right behind. No more triple-towing! No 44′ long toy hauler to haul around!
Mark soon found a truck camper on Craigslist that was just what we wanted. It is a 2005 Arctic Fox 860 (almost identical to the modern Arctic Fox 811 model but six inches shorter). It had been garage kept and rarely used since it was new. It looked great and all the systems worked.
Our 2005 Arctic Fox 860 truck camper is a breeze for our 2016 Ram dually to carry, and the 2017 Polaris RZR 900 is easy to tow behind on its little flatbed trailer
Although our blog went dark for 19 months, I kept writing for the RV industry magazines. Seven of our photos appeared on RV magazine covers and another six appeared in artsy wall calendars (2020 and 2021).
With each article I wrote, our astonishing experiences came alive in my mind once again, and I marveled at what a fabulous adventure our wandering lifestyle had been.
Stars swirl above us on the Escapees RV Club magazine cover for March/April 2021. During our blogging blackout we published many magazine articles, covers and commercial wall calendar photos
Mark and I find ourselves reminiscing all the time now.
Whenever we go back through our hundreds of thousands of photos to find a particular image for someone, we get lost in our recollections and take four times as long as necessary to find whatever we’re looking for because the photos tell a steady stream of vivid stories.
We thank God every single day for the life changing experiences we had and for the window of opportunity that appeared in our lives at just the right time in 2007.
In our traveling life we could land anywhere.
We were the right age, we were overflowing with curiosity, and we had limitless faith that our Big Adventure would prove to be the best years of our lives.
Every aspect of our lives up until the moment we departed had led us to and prepared us for the incredibly free-spirited years that unfolded before us on the road.
It was a beautiful life of total freedom and wonder that just isn’t possible when you are rooted in place by a stick-built home.
The sky was the limit
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED – DREAMS FULFILLED
One thing that neither of us anticipated at all, though, was the sudden bittersweet feelings of sadness mixed with joy that overwhelmed us as we opened the door to this exciting new phase of life.
The heartache wasn’t due to ending our travels but was due to what was silently implied by having completed a lifelong dream and checked it off of our Big Life List.
With a shock we realized we’d had a huge dream, had chased it down for all we were worth, and had fulfilled it more brilliantly than we ever imagined we could, completing what we’d set out to do with more flair and greater depth and beadth than either of us had ever thought possible.
We had chased our dreams for all they were worth
Yet now our biggest dream to date has been completely fulfilled — and then some. It is behind us and can’t be called a “dream” any more.
Instead, we have transformed our greatest dream into a cherished memory and integrated it into the very fabric of our souls.
Most shocking, though, is admitting that now a big chunk of life is behind us. There’s a tangible wistfulness that goes with that.
The sun sets in a glorious spray of color across the sky
Where all those years have gone is a mystery, but there is no denying that the wet-behind-the-ears 47 and 53 year olds who drove off into the sunset full of wide eyed anticipation in a 27 foot travel trailer are now a pair of travel-seasoned 61 and 67 year olds whose memories are brimming with fantastic travel stories and whose understanding of the world around them has been vastly enriched.
A prickly, thorny cactus welcomes Spring with big beautiful purple flowers
Recently, the new RV Magazine (which is a combination of the former Trailer Life and Motorhome magazines) asked me to write an article on the theme of “Life Advice from Seasoned RVers” for their August 2021 issue.
I’m certainly not comfortable dispensing Life Advice to the world at large, but I took the assignment as an opportunity to express how important it is to uncover your innermost dreams and then do all you can to make them come true.
In a world where we all find ourselves saying, “Who Moved My Cheese?” over and over, month after month, as things get crazier and crazier around us, it is more important than ever to keep our most cherished dreams in the front of our minds while holding faith deep in our hearts that we can make them come true somehow.
It is easy to lose sight of the whole forest of Life for the abundance of individual trees unless you spend time with your dreams and envision yourself living them until you find a way to make them come true.
As Escapees RV Club co-founder Kay Peterson once wrote, “If you don’t fulfill your dreams now, when will you?”
And as Mike Mitchell, CEO of NuWa (the Hitchhiker fifth wheel manufacturer), once wrote on his company’s owners’ forum back in 2008 when the RV industry was starting a years-long nosedive into near oblivion (paraphrasing): People who have dreamed for years of traveling in an RV during retirement are not going to abandon that dream just because of a bad economy or faililng RV industry. They’ll adjust the dream so they can still live it.
Our dreams are still unfolding and we hope our little truck camper will bring us new pleasures that we can share with you. Our first few forays have been eventful and rewarding.
In the meantime, thank you for being a part of our journey. What a ride!
In those days, many of the manufacturers of higher quality rigs offered an upgrade to a 12 or 14 cubic foot fridge. Also, a lot of the entry level units being built back then by those same (now non-existent) manufacturers had an 8 cubic foot fridge with an upgrade to a 10 footer available.
Our Hitchhiker was a “budget” model that we bought right off the back lot at the factory, so we ended up with the smaller 8 cubic foot fridge.
Our 2007 Hitchhiker fifth wheel has an 8 cubic foot refrigerator. This now “tiny” fridge has served us well since we moved into our trailer in 2008.
The 8 cubic foot model has been fine for us ever since then, although our ears do sometimes perk up when we hear the turf wars breaking out between the veggies and the beer.
Neither the beer nor the veggies has emerged a consistent winner over the years, but we have found a way to keep the battles from spreading onto every shelf in the fridge.
Even though most owners of late model higher end RVs have either a residential 110 volt a/c refrigerator or an 18 cubic foot two-way “RV refrigerator” that runs on either propane or household 110v electricity, modest sized RV fridges still appear in many smaller RVs and truck campers. So, I thought I’d share our tactic for keeping those big unwieldy bags of vegetables under control.
RV two-way propane/electric refrigerators do best when stuffed full. There’s actually lots of room for goodies even in this small model. This isn’t even full!
I like to buy all the veggies we’ll be eating for the next week or so at once and then cut them up and store them in a single container all together. I cut them in large chunks and then layer them into the container so they are nicely mixed rather than segregated.
I’ve found about six to nine veggies will fill a half-gallon size plastic tub. I have a taller thinner size container with a snap-on top that disappears inconspicuously into a corner of the fridge. I mix up the types of vegetables I put in it with each supermarket run.
All these colorful fresh veggies used to take up a lot of room in the fridge. Their plastic bags were everywhere!
Sure, this method means that we eat the same basic veggie mix until it’s all gone, but I love being able to grab the veggie bin and whip up something without having to take each individual vegetable out of the fridge, get it out of its plastic bag, and chop off what I need for that meal.
If I want the veggies diced smaller, I just grab the chunks I want from the bin and cut them into smaller pieces.
All those veggies fit in this small half-gallon snap-top container!
The veggies seem to last quite well in this snap-top tub, usually a week to ten days. Starting with super fresh veggies helps.
We have our own favorite vegetables, but depending on what is popular in your RV, any or all of these work well:
Bell peppers (pretty colors)
Zucchini and/or summer squash
Broccoli and/or cauliflower
The veggie container is tucked away in a corner!
Things we do with them (sometimes diced smaller) have included:
Served raw with a veggie dip made from plain yogurt and a ranch style powdered dressing mix
Served on a bed of spinach and/or romaine lettuce as a salad
Stir-fried in olive oil in a skillet
Cooked in a covered, salted skillet on medium heat with a splash of water thrown in one minute before serving for quick steaming
Steamed/boiled in a pot
Lined up on a skewer and grilled on our BBQ grill (best if segregated due to different cooking times)
Tossed into an omelet with meat and cheese
Rolled into a tortilla and microwaved with leftover steak/burgers/chicken topped with a little cheese
For sailors who come across this article, the best way I found to deal with the big, deep, dark refrigerators on older boats that require a veritable deep dive — feet in the air — to be able to reach the bottom is to put everything in large tupperware containers, segregating the meat, veggies, cheeses and even the condiments. This way, it’s easy to find the items you want because you are handling only a few big containers that are well labeled rather than digging around for that small jar of mustard you know is buried at the bottom in the wet mess somewhere.
Likewise with the tiny 3.5 cubic foot under-counter RV fridge that we had on our sailboat in Mexico. The plastic tubs were smaller and didn’t have covers (so the contents could mound up above the sides a bit as necessary), but the important items were grouped together into two or three bins, and when mealtime prep began, all the bins were taken out of the fridge at once and laid out so it was easy to locate the individual bits and pieces.
One of the unfortunate side effects of RV manufacturers moving towards ever larger refrigerators is that they cost a lot in terms of usable space in the kitchen. An 18 cubic foot RV refrigerator is 36″ wide while an 8 or 10 cubic foot RV refrigerator is only 24″ wide.
I measured out the 12″ we would have lost if our Hitchhiker fifth wheel had been built to accommodate an 18 cubic foot RV refrigerator the way all modern larger fifth wheels are built nowadays. We would have lost an important section of counter space, an upper cabinet that houses three shelves and a lower cabinet that contains a drawer and two shelves underneath. That is a lot of nicely partitioned storage to give up!
Modern higher end RVs have 18 cubic foot propane/electric refrigerators that eat up other kitchen counter and cabinet space.
RV refrigerators don’t get the Energy Star rating that many residential refrigerators do. They are inefficient and they operate best when they are packed to the gills with lots of cold stuff inside.
After we do a big shopping spree, we usually have two levels of goodies on every shelf and all the cold stuff is squeezed in pretty tight. As the days go on it loosens up a bit.
Given the RV propane refrigerator quirk of needing a very full fridge to operate well, I can’t imagine having enough cold food to keep an 18 cubic foot refrigerator continuously stuffed in a household with just two people. We would have to chill 24-packs of beer and multiple gallons of fresh water. Frankly, I think I’d be chilling our canned goods too!
That is all fine and dandy, but where space is at a premium — especially in the tiny living quarters of a toy hauler — it seems silly to give up precious cabinets and counter space to have a fridge that is difficult for two people to keep properly stocked (to overflowing) all the time.
Not only does it take a lot of propane to run an RV fridge when shorepower isn’t available, but RV refrigerators are expected to fail after about 8 years. We replaced our RV fridge under warranty right at the 8 year mark when it died unexpectedly.
However, built into the cost of any extended RV warranty is the cost of replacing the major appliances, including the RV refrigerator. So, the price of an extended warranty for an RV with an 18 cubic foot RV refrigerator is going to be a whole lot more than the price of an extended warranty for an RV with an 8 cubic foot RV refrigerator.
The bottom line that isn’t so obvious on the RV showroom floor is that RVers get hit with the exorbitant cost of replacing a huge two-way propane/electric RV fridge either way. Wouldn’t it be awesome if RVers were given a choice on a $100k (or more) RV to have a more modest sized RV fridge?
Of course, an 18 cubic foot residential 110 volt refrigerator is a fraction of the cost of an equivalent propane/electric RV refrigerator, along the lines of $2,000 versus $4,000, but powering such a beast without shorepower is a big ol’ can of worms unto itself. This is likely the reason why the National Sales Director at one of the major mass market RV manufacturers told us “The industry is getting away from residential refrigerators and going with the new 18 cubic foot RV refrigerators instead.”
Ironically, requesting a 10 cubic foot RV refrigerator from the custom manufacturers was met with the head scratching concern that their units are built to a certain very high standard and a modest RV refrigerator is not really up to that standard. In the end, they would prefer not to have their name on a fifth wheel roaming around the country sporting a smaller RV fridge. Undoubtedly, that issue could be pressed, but our initial request was not met with the expected enthusiasm of, “Oh, of course we can do that. We’d be glad to!”
Now, these are all very personal preferences, and there’s no right or wrong way to live the RV lifestyle. Our RV search has been an interesting journey through the maze of the modern day fifth wheel market, and this crazy refrigerator issue has been just one odd stumbling block in the whole process.
I just finished writing a detailed article for Trailer Life magazine about what we’ve learned and seen in our search. The article will be appearing in the September 2019 issue. If you subscribe to Trailer Life, keep an eye out for it!
In the meantime, give the veggie pre-prep idea a try. I like handling our veggies this way so much that I’d probably do it no matter how big a fridge we had, whether in a rolling home or in a stick-built house!
May 2019 – We’ve been on the hunt for a new fifth wheel trailer to replace our current one as our full-time home for a few years now, and in the last week or so we’ve been closing in on what we want.
It’s been a long and wild ride, but I know a lot of our readers have been going through the same roller coaster of emotions — from elation to frustration — in the search for an RV, so I thought I’d share a little about what we’ve seen and been thinking about in our own quest.
An RV home can be very warm and inviting and cozy. Warm banana bread in on a cold morning…what could be better?
We love our life on the road and we have a cozy home, but our zippy and fun RZR out back has sent us on a wild goose chase for a way to bring it along and still enjoy all the comforts of home. Triple towing is a tricky business, so buying a toyhauler seemed like the obvious solution at first and our search began there.
The Luxe toyhauler is very high end.
We started our search without a budget in mind. We wanted to see what was available regardless of price, so we visited The RV Factory where the semi-custom Luxe trailers are built.
These trailers have 3.25″ wide walls with graphite infused styrofoam insulation, and they feature 8k lb. Dexter axles with 17.5″ wheels and disc brakes along with gorgeous cabinetry and top of the line everything.
Disc brakes are standard on the Luxe
These are such high end trailers that all the drawers have dovetail joints.
Dovetail joints on the drawers…sweet!
The interior of the finished toy hauler they had on display at the factory was bright white and sumptuous. During our visit, we ended up chatting with a Luxe owner at the factory who was getting a few minor repairs taken care of. He’d owned his trailer for six months and was very happy with it. We just weren’t sure we wanted to tow a trailer this heavy.
We submitted our ideal toy hauler floorplan to both New Horizons and Space Craft (we also submitted it to Featherlite which we discovered is no longer building toy haulers). Both companies expressed concern that our truck, even with its dual rear wheels and 4.10 rear end, might not be able to tow one of their trailers if it exceeded 40 or 41 feet in length.
Our design was likely in the 42 to 43 foot range, but despite several phone calls and one two hour long in-person meeting, we never got far enough in our discussion with either manufacturer for them to put the design in their CAD software and draw it out.
This made us look more closely at the mass market toy haulers which are all in the 42 to 45 range. They are a bit lighter than the high end rigs, if less durable, of course.
Clean and crisp white Luxe toy hauler interior
By far, the most ruggedly built trailer for its weight that we saw was the Aluminum Toyhauler Company fifth wheel trailer. These folks come to the toyhauler market from the stackable race car end of the trailer world. The ATC fifth wheel toy hauler has a truly massive cargo carrying capacity, but it lacks some of the other toy hauler features most RVers take for granted. When we visited the factory in September 2018, the ramp door didn’t convert to a patio. It may now.
Aluminum Toyhauler Company (ATC) makes a rugged but lightweight rig
The ATC is purpose built for outdoor enthusiasts who expect their equipment to hold up under harsh conditions. All the interior cabinetry is aluminum and custom made in-house, and the whole trailer can be power washed inside and out. There are no slideouts but future models may include them. They have a basic open box model that you can modify to your own needs, and they’ll install a garage wall if you’d prefer an enclosed garage.
ATC prides itself on having no wood in the rig — that way nothing can rot, no matter how wet ‘n wild it gets!
Another interesting tour was the Sundowner factory tour at their plant in Oklahoma.
These aluminum trailers are also really well built although they are using Lippert axles in the current builds (they used Dexter until a few years ago). Coming to the toyhauler industry from the horse trailer world, they are designed around a gooseneck hitch. The beauty of the gooseneck hitch is that the bed of your truck doesn’t have a big ol’ fifth wheel hitch hogging up all the space when you’re driving around unhitched.
Sundowner makes beautiful gooseneck hitch toy haulers
Sundowner builds its own entry doors and ramp door, and like ATC, their ramp door didn’t convert to a patio at the time of our visit. But it may at a later date.
Looking into the garage of a Sundowner toy hauler
When a trailer is designed to use a gooseneck hitch, the height of the trailer is kept quite low. The Sundowners are around 11′ tall as compared to 13′ 6″ for most conventional mass market toyhaulers. This makes them more aerodynamic but also means the bedrooms are not standing height. They are more like the bedrooms in a truck camper.
Gooseneck trailers are designed this way because the arm of the gooseneck hitch is quite long, and the higher the trailer roof is, the longer this lever arm becomes and the more the roofline will sway from side to side as the trailer goes down the road, putting all kinds of lateral stresses on the frame.
Sundowner does a lot of custom and semi-custom work, and they will happily design a trailer that is 13′ 6″ tall and has standing height in the bedroom, but that is not typical of their designs.
One interesting thing with both the ATC and Sundowner trailers is that because they are coming from the stackable car trailer and horse trailer markets, their trailers sit quite low to the ground and the ramp doors have a shallow angle. This is great if you are driving your muscle car or sports car into the garage because the back end of the car won’t drag as you drive in. But it is less important for the folks with a rock climbing RZR that can drive up onto anything.
The cabinetry and finish work in the Sundowner is top notch and many different woods and fabric are available.
The gooseneck hitch means the ceiling is low in the bedroom, but that
doesn’t mean it can’t be romantic!
We also visited several mass market trailer factories in Indiana. At the time we were most interested in the Keystone Raptor and KZ Venom. We saw a beautiful Keystone Raptor 421CK at a dealership in Wyoming prior to going to Indiana. It was the first toy hauler we had ever walked into and said, “Wow. We could live in this!” However, the garage was only 11′ long and we’d decided we needed at least 12′ to fit our RZR and bicycles.
A KZ fifth wheel gets its flooring
The thing about toyhauler garages is that the patio doors and railings take up anywhere from 8″ to 16″ at the back of the garage when they are folded up against the closed ramp door. Also, there is a slope at the back of the garage floor that is about a foot long. It is there to extend the ramp angle of the ramp door so the ramp angle isn’t too steep. These two things combined can eat into the garage length by quite a bit. The 13′ garage might may have only 10′ 8″ of flat floor space, and that was typically what I saw with my tape measure in the various garages we looked at.
KZ fifth wheel walls and front cap get started
Also, if there is a side patio and some of it is built onto the garage sidewall, the garage will lose about 8″ of width where the side patio folds into the trailer.
Likewise, if there is a 2nd bath or half bath in the garage or living area, some of the garage floor space or living area floor space will be lost to the bathroom.
It makes a big difference in the livability and usability of both the garage and living space if the door to that half bath opens into the living area or into the garage. Whichever way it is, you don’t want to block the bathroom when you’re parked!
Some Heartland Road Warriors now have a moveable partition around the half bath that becomes a wall when you’re parked but folds out of the way when you need the extra inches for your toys.
KZ Durango. You don’t realize how huge the openings are for the slideouts til you see it like this!
Most toy haulers have a loft area above the garage that runs the full width of the trailer along the wall that separates the garage from the living area. It’s worth some thought to decide if you’d prefer the loft area to open into the garage or into the living space. It may also be possible to modify the loft wall on one side or the other post-purchase so you have access from both sides.
The sidewalls of the main part of the trailer are quite minimal!
We also visited the Highlander RV plant which is the Open Range toy hauler brand.
The Highlander toy hauler from Open Range
Open Range is owned by Jayco which is owned by Thor. The Highlander toy haulers come in at a lower price point than most. Jayco is known for employing Amish people on the assembly lilnes, and they really do. We saw their buggies in the parking lot and driving around the area.
Lots of Amish people work on the RV assembly lines
From what we saw, all fifth wheel trailers and toy haulers are in a very similar way that aims towards a specific price point. I don’t know that there is much quality difference from one mass market brand to the next since it seems the same overall manufacturing methods and materials are used in all the brands. Certain features are given different names in the marketing literature to distinguish each brand, but it often boils down to the same basic things.
I was astonished when our guide pulled out an 8′ wide roll of a material that looked like aluminum foil and said it gave their trailer an extra R-14 of insulation throughout. All I could think is that there are aspects of RV manufacturing that are pure smoke and mirrors, and to me this was one of them.
This metal foil has been used to produce great insulating R factors in certain scenarios, but it has to have at least two inches of air on either side of it, among other things, for the insulating properties to work. When it is installed in such a way that is is flush up against the other layers of material in the wall or ceiling, that big R-factor vanishes.
“So, which hydraulic line goes to the curbside slideout? ’cause I think it’s leaking!” Not all of what we saw inspired confidence.
Some of what we saw made it obvious why customers often have so many problems with their RVs, but our visit to the MORryde plant was an immersion in quality, much like our factory tours at Trojan Battery and B&W Hitches in the past. They had a cool toy hauler out front with their logo on it that was used for trade shows.
The MORryde tradeshow toyhauler
On the Independent Suspension assembly line, MORryde’s signature RV product, we saw axles marked “NH” and “DRV” for New Horizons and DRV. Those trailer brands offer the Independent Suspension as an option. How cool is that?!
An unpainted DRV waits for a MORryde Independent Suspension upgrade.
We had been visiting dealerships on a regular basis for several years prior to our Elkhart visit, and we continued to look at toy haulers after we finished our factory tours in Indiana. Road Warrior (Thor/Heartland) was a brand we looked into, and the 427, which is now the 4275, was a possibility in part because of the side patio and MORryde ramp door.
Unfortunately, my favorite floorplans were the older Road Warrior 427s that had a big sliding glass door going out to the side patio and a tiny fireplace/entertainment system that didn’t block the door. As the model years went by for the 427, the door with the big view onto the patio got smaller and the fireplace and TV got bigger.
The Grand Design Momentum 399TH has a nice big sliding glass door heading out to the side patio.
One thing that is very enticing about a toy hauler is the ability to put a workbench in the garage. Most bigger toy haulers nowadays have a 2nd bathroom with the door going into the garage, which limits the wall space for putting in a workbench if you are toting a big RZR.
Will a small 30″ workbench fit between the two doors in this Fuzion 429?
At first, the idea of two bathrooms didn’t excite us because it is a mammoth waste of space for a couple. But then we realized that with a 2nd bathroom you get double the black tank capacity because most designers place a black tank below each toilet to let gravity do its magic of filling the tank as the toilet is used. Some of them drain the little half-bath vanity sink into the rear black tank too.
It is my understanding that the DRV Fullhouse uses a macerator on the toilets to pump the fluids from both toilets to a single black tank, so adding a 2nd bathroom doesn’t double the black tank capacity in those trailers.
The more we did our own soul searching about what we really wanted in our new trailer, the more we realized that we couldn’t go backwards when it came to tank capacities. Our current Hitchhiker has 70 gallons of fresh water, 78 gallons of gray split between two tanks (50 for the shower and vanity and 28 for the kitchen sink) and 50 gallons of black.
Reducing any of these numbers would impact the way we live since we rarely get water or sewer hookups. Unfortunately, although most toy haulers offer over 100 gallons of fresh water, which is awesome, many have a bit less than 50 for the black tank unless they have a 2nd bathroom.
So the decision for us became a trade-off between living space (giving up part of the living area and/or garage to accommodate a second bathroom) and black tank capacity. Argh! Big black tanks do exist. The Arctic Fox 35-5Z has 65 gallons of black tank capacity with just one toilet.
The Keystone Raptor 421CK floorplan that we loved (except for the 11′ garage) was replaced with the Raptor 423 which has a 13′ garage. But it has just a 44 gallon black tank which contributed to taking it out of the running. Also, the designers took 2′ out of the bedroom to increase the garage length from 11 to 13 feet, and they turned the bed so it was “north/south” or parallel to the driving direction instead of being perpendicular to it.
Trailer designers are constrained in overall square footage for their designs by the RVIA (RV Industry Association). This group increases the maximum allowable square footage a little bit now and then, but for right now the limit is 430 square feet.
This seems to be a bit of an arbitrary number, but it is an important one. When you see very long trailers with very shallow and short slide-outs, it may be due to this maximum square footage. Turning a perpendicular bed that’s partly in a slide-out into a “north/south” bed that’s parallel to the curb with no slideout eliminates a few square feet. The designer can then use those square feet somewhere else in the trailer, like lengthening the garage.
We spent a lot of time lying on these “north/south” beds and opening and closing the small wardrobes in the driver’s side slideouts. This type of bedroom was not as appealing as the perpendicular bed with the big closet in the front cap, but it is the predominant design these days, probably due to the square footage constraint.
Many toy haulers have a “north/south” bedroom where the bed runs parallel to the road rather than perpendicular. You can walk around a queen but a king goes almost to the curbside wall.
The biggest challenge in our search is that most dealers stock only a few toy haulers of whatever brands they carry. So there were several floorplans we wanted to see that we still haven’t seen, even after two years of traveling around and a visit to the factories in Elkhart Indiana. The KZ Venom 4012TK is an open floorplan U-kitchen design much like the Raptor 421CK/423 that I’d love to see. Maybe someday!
I’d also like to see a DRV Fullhouse, specifically the LX450. Until we began our search, I didn’t realize that even though DRV is not an independent company any more, they still allow some customizations to be made to their trailers. Working with a good dealer — we heard that Rolling Retreats in Oklahoma was outstanding — you can ask for all kinds of customized things and some might be granted.
I was very surprised when I found out that the factory would be willing to remove the 2nd bathroom and the dinette cabinetry in the Fullhouse LX450. I had other ideas for those spaces that would work better for us. But I have yet to see a Fullhouse toy hauler in person — they always seem to be at least 400 miles away and never in the direction we’re headed. And ordering any trailer without seeing something pretty similar in person first makes me uneasy.
The other thing that made the search particular frustrating is that all the folks selling toyhaulers also had regular fivers on their lots. So, although we couldn’t see the KZ Venom toy hauler we wanted to see, the dealer had the KZ Durango Gold 380FL available. We walked inside and instantly fell in love with the huge rear bedroom with its 2nd entry door on the driver’s side. This didn’t help our search for a toy hauler!
Where Raptors were sold we often saw Montanas, which are also Keystone products, and Mark fell in love wih the storage space in the massive pullout shelf under the raised living room in the Montana 3790/91. This was yet another reminder that If you don’t have a 13′ dedicated garage and you’re willing to go up to 40′ or longer in a trailer, you can get a really spacious rig!
And where Momentums were sold, Grand Design Solitudes were also on display. We both fell totally in love with the massive bedroom and walkin closet of the Grand Design Solitude 373FB. The twin vanity sinks and gargantuan closet were wonderful, and the big bright windows opposite the bed along and the window over the bed’s headboard were fabulous.
I’d never been in a fifth wheel where I felt I could spend happy daytime hours in the bedroom, but in that rig I surely could.
The Grand Design Solitude 373FB has a gorgeous bedroom suite with an enormous bathroom and walk-in closet
Good morning sunshine — the Grand Design Solitude 373FB bedroom has a wall of windows!
So, the toy hauler idea went out the window because we began to think we’d triple tow with something like this beautiful Grand Design Solitude 373FB. The only problem is that it is 41′ 4″ long and that would put us over the limit for triple towing in every state except for South Dakota where the limit is 75 feet!
Back to the drawing board we went where we revamped our search to be for smaller trailers. Suddenly, at long last, we were able to see an Arctic Fox 35-5Z after wanting to see one for a long time. This is a really well made trailer built on Northwood Manufacturing’s own in-house constructed frame with a traditional floorplan.
The great thing about Northwood Manufacturing / Arctic Fox is that they are the only trailer manufacturer left that offers a long list of options. All the others pump out identical trailers one after another except for a very few items the customer can choose such as dual pane windows, an onboard generator and exterior paint.
The Arctic Fox 35-SZ is built on a custom in-house frame and offers lots of choices for options
At Arctic Fox you can choose to have either one air conditioner or two. You can get an electric fireplace under the TV or you can have wooden cabinets in that space instead. You can opt for a 10 cubic foot propane/electric RV fridge, which gives you an extra foot of counter space and upper and lower cabinetry to boot, or a 12 cubic foot RV fridge or an enormous 18 cubic foot RV fridge. You can also get a residential 110v AC electric fridge.
This is awesome because there are some RVers, like ourselves, who would prefer to have more cabinet and counter space and let the veggies and beer fight it out for themselves in a smaller 10 cubic foot fridge.
Also, since we dry camp all the time, we power our 8 cubic foot fridge with propane 24/7. When we’re not using propane for heat and are just using propane to power the refrigerator, the hot water heater and the stove, we go through a 30 lb. (7 gallon) tank of propane every three weeks. In our experience, it is not always so easy to find places to fill our propane tanks, especially in certain parts of the country.
If we were to go from our current 8 cubic foot refrigerator to an 18 cubic foot fridge, we would more than double the amount of propane our fridge uses. We would probably go through that same 7 gallon tank of propane in about 9-12 days instead of 21 days. If the trailer’s LP tank compartment allows 5″ of extra height, then we might be able to switch to using the taller 40 lb. (10 gallon) tanks instead and we might make the propane last a little longer. But those big tanks are unwieldy to carry around.
Even if you have an extended RV warranty (which is an excellent idea – here’s why), the warranty contract will cost a lot more to purchase if your rig has a big expensive refrigerator in it than it would if the fridge were a smaller cheaper model. After all, the warranty company has to calculate their potential costs if things in your rig (like the refrigerator) fail.
KZ allowed buyers to order trailers with smaller RV fridges and opt out of the electric fireplace until last fall, and that is one of the reasons we were so interested in the KZ trailers.
Many Grand Design Solitude trailers have a TV that lowers into a cabinet revealing a nice big window behind (on the right in this pic). This is fantastic for folks who don’t watch TV during the daytime.
Perhaps the biggest thing for us, though, is the tank capacities. Small tank capacities certainly rule out a lot of brands! The Grand Design trailers have excellent tank capacities, especially the toy haulers with a 2nd bathroom where you can get as much as 157 gallons of fresh, 106 of gray and 106 of black. Wow!!
No more lines for brushing teeth!
So, last week we were back to looking at toy haulers. We went to a dealership where we saw a Fuzion 429 which had a very cool walk-through kitchen layout with the sink set on an outside corner with long counters running along either side. There was tons of cabinet space and it had and an interesting country style decorative motif.
But the slide-outs were so shallow we would be challenged to replace the furniture if we ever wanted to because the fronts of the theater seats and sofa were all set on rollers to roll in and out with the slide room. The fronts of replacement furniture could be set on casters, perhaps, but it might look a little funny.
I’m not keen on being married to an RVs furniture just because it is on rollers.
One thing I’ve noticed with most of the Thomas Payne theater seats is that if I sit with my back touching the backrest, my feet can’t reach the ground. They’re about 2″ short. This is really uncomfortable! I’m 5’4″ but have fairly long legs for my height, so I imagine that most women would be in the same position. So, for me, replacing the furniture at some point is a likely scenario.
We prowled around other toy haulers, and as I stood in the kitchen of one and thought about where I’d put my dishware (I’d already resigned myself to storing pantry goods in the 18 cubic foot fridge because that’s where the bulk of the kitchen shelving was), I realized there was no cabinet in the kitchen for plates or glassware. Those would have to go in a drawer in the kitchen island or in a cabinet outside of the kitchen area.
A similar thing had happened when I stood in the kitchen of another toy hauler a few months earlier and opened the slim upper cabinet door above the sink. The shelf in there was big enough for just one coffee mug — as long as it didn’t have a handle — and no more.
Space is at such a premium in a toy hauler that the designers have to be super creative to make a living area that has both comfortable seating and sufficient usable storage.
Ironcially, Mark had skimmed through Craigslist before this last dealership trip, and he found a 2011 36′ Hitchhiker Discover America for sale. We walked inside it and knew we’d found our rig. It was just like the one we’d lived in for the last 12 years but with some important differences!
This Hitchhiker had factory installed 8k lb. Dexter axles with 17.5 inch wheels and disc brakes. This was huge!
Every new trailer we’d looked at so far, including most of the toy haulers, would require an upgrade to disc brakes and in many cases an upgrade to bigger axles too, and none but the highest end manufacturers offered those things as a factory installed option. Almost all the trailers had tandem or triple 7k lb. axles and 16″ wheels. Many were Dexter brand, which is terrific, but the cargo carrying capacities were really skimpy almost across the board.
One lovely 38′ fifth wheel had a mere 1,800 lbs of cargo carrying capacity. This would have to include fresh water, solar and battery add-ons and all of our belongings. Several toy haulers had just over 3,000 lbs. of cargo carrying capacity which leaves little room for food, clothes, lilnens, appliances and kitchenware once the 1,200 lb. toy is loaded and the 850 lbs. of fresh water and 450 lbs of fuel are put in the tanks (water is 8.3 lbs per gallon).
Hitchhiker Discover America – Looks familiar!
Besides the big axles, this old Hitchhiker’s 17.5″ wheels were a massive plus too. Bigger tires on fifth wheels are much less prone to problems caused by grinding the tread into the ground when making tight turns. Blow-outs are all too common with fifth wheel trailers, and although bad tires are often to blame, it’s also possible that the steel belts eventually fall apart under the twisting lateral loads induced by tight turns.
How funny this was, though. We’d come full circle and were right back where we’d started trailer-wise, more or less.
It was only after we began making calls to line up folks to replace the stained carpets and do a detailed cleaning so we could get our soon-to-be new-to-us home back on its wheels as soon as possible after the closing that we realized the handyman projects on an 8 year old trailer were feeling more like work than like fun!
That wasn’t what we wanted!
Totally stressed out, we walked away from the deal at the last minute. We felt better immediately.
There are some incredible deals to be found on the used market for highly regarded brands of yesteryear. But buying used has its challenges too.
This whole process can be both exhilarating and depressing. Just like buying a sailboat or a house.
Our offer for our cruising sailboat Groovy was the 5th offer we put in on a boat over the course of a year. One deal went so far south we had to get the California Boating and Waterways agency involved. On another deal we paid $1,300 to get the boat surveyed (like a house inspection), and backed out when we got it hauled out of the water and saw the forest of seaweed growing on the hull.
But our persistence and careful approach paid off. In the end, Groovy was a much newer, cleaner and far cheaper boat than any of the others we’d made offers on!
In the RV industry there are very few structurally well built and cleverly designed new trailers out there, and going with a used one that was well built and beautifully crafted in its day years ago opens a whole new can of worms. For those who love renovating, it’s a great way to go. But not everyone does.
On our way home we decided to take one more look at some new fifth wheels just to change our mindset, so we pulled into a dealership and asked to see a line of trailers we hadn’t seen before.
Lo and behold, the first rig we walked into was fantastic. Holy cow! It had almost everything we wanted and the few things it didn’t have were upgrades that would be fun and exciting to do. Who woulda thunk?!
Home sweet home.
Is our search over? We don’t know, but we’ve got a hunch it is. We’re giving this latest idea a few weeks to simmer and we’ll let you know.
In the meantime, have faith that your ship — or RV — will come in. It’s out there somewhere. It just takes a ton of online research, dozens of walks through dealership lots and, more than anything, some heartfelt soul searching to find it.
Full-time RVers and other long term travelers enjoy incredible freedom in a wonderfully independent lifestyle, but we still need to get our mail every once in a while! Fortunately, there are mail forwarding services of all kinds in several states.
Surprisingly, each mail forwarding service is a little different in what they offer their customers. Some simply collect your mail and then send it to wherever you are when you ask them to while others offer additional services from assisting with vehicle registration to offering a place to stay while you establish residency in the state.
If you’re researching the many mail forwarding options out there, here are some of the things we’ve learned about mail forwarding during our dozen years of full-time RVing. Looking back over those twelve years of travel adventures, we estimate that we’ve received around 120 shipments of snail mail containing about 3,500 pieces of mail. Yikes!
Americas Mailbox provides mail forwarding, vehicle registration and domicile assistance for full-time travelers
Even though most modern communication is done online or over the phone, when you become a full-time RVer or full-time traveler you’ll probably still want to have a way to receive your mail, whether it’s financial documents, old fashioned birthday cards or magazines.
Selecting a domicile state can be quite easy, and the requirements for establishing residency can be quite minimal. However, it is worth noting that if at some point in time you are called upon to prove in court that your chosen state is your true domicile rather than a different state where you might have more ties, you may face an uphill battle if you own large assets like real estate and/or spend a lot of time in a state that isn’t your chosen domicile state.
America by license plate — on the wall at Americas Mailbox!
There are lots of resources to help with your domicile state decision, including our blog post on the subject here which is the third article in our three part series on full-time RVing here, here and here.
Choosing a state to be your legal domicile is just the first part of the process, however. The second part is selecting a company that will assist you with establishing residency in the state and forward your snail mail to you on the road.
Americas Mailbox is right off of Exit 41 on I-90 – Easy!
The three most popular domicile states for full-time travelers are South Dakota, Florida and Texas, and each state is home to several mail forwarding service companies:
We joined the mail forwarding service Americas Mailbox, located in Box Elder, a suburb of Rapid City, South Dakota, last year, and we have been very pleased with their service. During this past year we have relied on Americas Mailbox to deliver our mail in eleven different states, and we’ve also received their assistance in registering and paying South Dakota sales tax on two new vehicles, our street legal Polaris RZR and the utility trailer it rides on (we triple tow).
A sweet reminder on the wall at Americas Mailbox.
Some mail forwarding services do all their work over the phone and online, and it is possible to become a resident of South Dakota without physically meeting the people who run the mail forwarding service you choose.
However, Americas Mailbox is very serious about their role in assisting customers with establishing their residency and other things that require staying in South Dakota for a while, and they have not only built an RV park on their property, providing both full hookup, electric only and dry camping campsites, but they have also built several hotel rooms in their main building for customers who don’t arrive in an RV.
We spent several days in the Americas Mailbox RV park on two separate occasions last spring and summer, and we set up camp alongside lots of other Americas Mailbox customers in the dry camping area.
We joined the group lined up in the dry camping part of the Americas Mailbox RV Park.
It was a lot of fun because most of the customers were brand new full-timers who were just getting their wheels rolling, and their enthusiasm and excitement about their new lifestyle was palpable.
Some RVers were doing their mandatory single overnight stay to establish South Dakota residency, and others were staying for 30 days to comply with the concealed carry requirements in South Dakota. In addition, many folks were establishing relationships with professionals in the Rapid City area, from estate planning attorneys and accountants to doctors and dentists and insurance agents.
We had fun chatting with other full-timers who were staying at the RV park. Many were just starting their adventures!
When we first walked in the Americas Mailbox headquarters building, we were taken aback when we heard a voice say, “Welcome home!” Wow! We were soon shaking hands with the General Manager and being introduced to members of the staff.
What a surprise to hear “Welcome Home!” as we walked in! “Travel” is the theme and there’s even a compass rose on the floor!
It really did feel like coming home. All the customers in the room were living the same crazy full-time RV lifestyle as we are, and most were setting up new Americas Mailbox accounts.
There was a flurry of activity all around us. An inviting living room-like waiting area was on one side and a long service counter for staff to work with customers was in front of us. We quickly felt ourselves swept up in a surprising sense of community and homey warmth.
Americas Mailbox was founded by Don and Barbara Humes after they had traveled full-time in their RV for a few years in the early 2000s.
Prior to opening Americas Mailbox, Don and Barbara studied the entire country to determine which state and which county within that state would be the most favorable for full-time travelers to use as a legal domicile.
Americas Mailbox founder, Don Humes (right), is a full-time RVer who understands the needs of folks living a footloose and fancy free life on the road.
Rapid City is the county seat of Pennington County, and Americas Mailbox purchased a fantastic piece of property in Box Elder just outside of Rapid City, located right off of Exit 41 on I-90, an easy place to find and a convenient place to stay for a while to get your legal and financial affairs in order in your new home state.
The waiting area is like a living room — very inviting.
Americas Mailbox now has a big staff not only up front serving customers who walk in and call in, but also in the offices behind the reception counter where the envelope scanning and vehicle registration work happens and also in the mail sorting room out back where truckloads of mail arrive and are sorted into thousands of customer mail boxes each day.
In addition to providing step-by-step paperwork for changing your legal address to be an Americas Mailbox address, there are step-by-step instructions for registering out of state licensed vehicles, registering new vehicles, obtaining a driver’s license, registering to vote, and obtaining a concealed carry permit. Americas Mailbox also provides a reference list for professionals of all kinds in the area.
Out behind the main building with its hustle and bustle of mail sorting, vehicle registrations and assorted paperwork going on in the Americas Mailbox offices, the on-site RV park had lovely views of farm fields and was very peaceful. Additional long pull-through campsites were nearing completion during our stay and could easily accommodate our rig. At the far end foundations for future cabins had been poured as well.
The campsites out back are very nice!
One thing we loved is that Don and Barbara live in their motorhome on-site. Not only do they talk the talk about full-time RVing, but they walk the walk too!
Also, they are so committed to keeping in close touch with their customers and helping them with any issues they might have that Don gives out his personal cell phone number.
The hotel rooms Americas Mailbox were full during our visit, so Don showed us their beautiful hotel suite that just happened to be vacant. It was an elegantly furnished one bedroom condo with a beautiful kitchen. Nice!
The hotel suite would be a comfy place to stay while doing business in Rapid City!
Want to get it all done without driving your RV to South Dakota? Stay in a beautifully appointed suite on-site!
A nice and homey place to relax — but there are more basic hotel rooms available too
One of the reasons Americas Mailbox was so incredibly busy during our visit was because another mail forwarding company in South Dakota had just gone out of business without giving any advance notice to its customers. People were flocking to Americas Mailbox and other South Dakota mail forwarding companies to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. Chaos ensued at all the South Dakota mail forwarding facilities for several months!
This unfortunate scenario brings me to some of the things we think are worth considering before choosing a mail forwarding service:
Long Term Stability of the Company
Your life will quickly turn upside down if your mail forwarding company goes out of business unexpectedly. It seems like it should be easy to switch to a new company. All you have to do is let everyone know your new address. However, there’s a bit more to it.
Most companies require you to keep a balance of cash in their possession to cover future postage expenses they incur on your behalf, and that money may not be refunded to you if they go out of business unexpectedly. They may also never send you the mail they’re keeping in their possession on the day they shutter the business. In addition, any monthly or annual dues you may have paid up front may not be refunded.
This may not sound like much but could add up to a loss of a few hundred dollars on top of the frantic search for a new mail forwarding servicing and letting all your contacts know about your address change.
When you move from one home to another you can fill out the US Postal Service Form 3575 to forward you mail from your old address to your new one. However, your PMB (Personal Mail Box) at your mail forwarding company’s street address is not distinguished by the US Postal Service as unique from all the other PMBs at that address. Obviously, you can fill out and submit the form and hope for the best, but the Postal Service may not acknowledge the address change and may be inconsistent about forwarding your mail to your new address if they even do it at all.
The offices and waiting area at Americas Mailbox are trimmed with all kinds of fun travel themed decorations.
It is impossible to know for sure if a company will last a long time, and I remember vividly how shocked the engineering community in Massachusetts was when Digital Equipment Corporation went from being a major employer with campuses all over the state to vanishing into thin air over the course of two very short years.
Some mail forwarding companies have seen several changes of ownership and management in recent years, and with each change there are staff, policy and procedural changes that affect the customers, whether they are explicitly notified about what’s going on or not.
In general, though, if the mail forwarding company has been around a long time, has a lot of customers, and treats those customers well, it is likely it will survive. Don and Barbara have many long term plans for Americas Mailbox and theirs is a family operation with plans in place for the company to outlast them.
How Fast Will They Ship Your Mail?
Every mail forwarding company has a different policy for how quickly they commit to packaging up your mail and sending it to you after you make your request for them to do so.
Some companies require that you notify them by 5:00 p.m. the night before it is shipped out. If you are in an earlier time zone or don’t think to make the call before 5:00 pm their time, your mail won’t be packaged up until the day after that! That is, a mail shipment request made at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday won’t be packaged up and sent until Thursday. This means your mail probably won’t arrive until the following Monday because of the intervening weekend unless you are in a neighboring state.
If they receive your request after 5:00 p.m. on Friday, then your mail will not be shipped until the following Tuesday, four days later! If you are in a distant state, it may not reach you until the following Friday, a week after you requested it! This is very frustrating and very inconvenient.
Americas Mailbox has a really rapid response time and will get your mail off to you first thing in the morning as long as you request it by midnight the night before and it is a weekday. Requests made at any time during the weekend up until midnight Sunday night will go out Monday morning.
For us, that is a huge advantage. Lots of full-time RVers plan their travels in advance, so that kind of instantaneous response isn’t important, but we regularly extend or cut short our stays depending on whims like changes in the weather. So, if we suddenly decide early one morning that we want to take off in a few days, it is critically important that we be able to get our mail packaged up and sent out as quickly as possible.
Some America’s Mailbox customers are international travelers.
Virtual Mail – What Do You See and Not See on the Envelope?
Many companies offer a “virtual mail service” where they scan every envelope you receive and either post the images online or email them to you for you to view. You can then instruct them to open the envelope and scan the contents or shred it or just hang onto it until you request your next shipment of mail.
We have found this to be very useful, but the quality of the scanned images can vary a lot, and poorly scanned envelopes are useless. The most important piece of information for us is the return address, of course, so we can see who the piece of mail is from! You’d be surprised, but sometimes scanned envelopes show only YOUR name and address.
It sounds silly, but you need to be able to read the full name and full address of whoever sent the piece of mail or you’ll be left scratching your head. Obviously, if the image is blurry or cuts off the company name (you’d be amazed how often that can happen) or if the image is of your own name and address instead of the return address of the sender, then the image is useless.
We chatted with the gal doing the scanning at Americas Mailbox and watched the meticulous care she takes with each envelope to make sure the scanned image is not only readable but is of the correct address — the return address (not OUR address).
Americas Mailbox outsources the software that manages the scanned envelope images and we’ve found it works very well.
One thing that is especially helpful with their software is that they clear out all the images of the scanned envelopes once they are sent to us. That way we can distinguish between the mail that is waiting for us in South Dakota and the mail that we have received. You see, if all the images are left in the database and you receive regular mail from certain entities, it can be very confusing to look at a scanned envelope and determine whether it has already been forwarded to you or not, especially if it was scanned right around the time you ordered a mail shipment.
Ins and Outs of General Delivery
When mail is sent to an RV park it is a pretty straight forward process if the park regularly receives mail on behalf of its customers. But sending mail to General Delivery at a post office can be tricky. For starters, it must be addressed very simply (no street address is included), and the software has to make sure no street address is inadvertently inserted (bad software can do that!).
If a street address is included, all hell breaks loose. Literally. It can cost days in delivery time.
We prefer to use small town post offices instead of big city post offices for general delivery because they have less volume and fewer employees.
We like to call the small town post office directly ahead of time to find out if they accept General Delivery. The USPS website lists whether each post office accepts General Delivery mail, but in a few cases we’ve found that the website says they do when they actually don’t. Disastrous!
We also like talking to the folks at the post office because we can let them know our package is coming and approximately when we’ll be in to pick it up. Post offices are supposed to keep General Delivery mail on hand for 30 days, but we had one post office return it to the sender after 24 hours. Of course, the contents of that package were very important time sensitive financial documents, and at the time we were total full-timing newbies who had been out on the road for all of a week!
Despite being on the outer edge of Rapid City, the area right around Americas Mailbox is wonderfully rural.
Addressing Mishaps Caused by Auto-Fill !
Another thing to watch for is the “Bill To” versus the “Ship To” addresses when you order something online.
Lots of websites have Auto-Fill, and they’ll very helpfully fill in all kinds of info for you. Unfortunately, the next thing you know, you’ve sent a huge package to your mail forwarding address that you wanted to go to the address of the friend you’re currently visiting. Not only will your receipt of the item be delayed by a bunch of days but you’ll have to pay to ship that heavy package twice, once to your mail forwarding company and then again to your friend or some other destination you’re headed to!
Don told us a hilarious story along those lines. Americas Mailbox goes out of its way to accommodate any and all packages that are sent to them, even when they are a bit unwieldy. One day they received several mammoth crates from Harley Davidson that turned out to be all the pieces for a big beautiful motorcycle.
Curious what they were supposed to do with it, they called the customer the crates were addressed to and asked if he’d just ordered a motorcycle from Harley Davidson. “Yeah, I did. How did you know?” the confused customer asked. “Well, we’ve got all the crates right here at Americas Mailbox!”
Of course, the customer meant to have those boxes shipped directly to wherever he was in the world at the time, but he had mistakenly given his Americas Mailbox address as the “Ship To” address.
Shipping crates is outside the norm for Americas Mailbox, but they hired a qualified shipping company to pick up the crates and get them to the address where their customer was staying.
As a side note, many companies charge a small fee for oversized packages they receive because they require extra time and space to handle. Americas Mailbox charges a dollar or more for oversized packages depending on the size.
We had some wonderful stormy days during our stay at Americas Mailbox.
What Happens to Improperly Addressed Mail?
Despite your best efforts, some entities won’t address your mail correctly no matter how often and how nicely you tell them what it is.
Most addresses in this country don’t include a PMB number, and some folks just leave it off. The correct address must include your PMB number, preferably on the same line as the street address, and it may be written as “123 Main Street PMB 789” or “123 Main Street #789.”
In our experience, an awful lot of entities leave off the PMB number all together. By leaving off the PMB number, the address they send our mail to is simply the street address of the mail forwarding company itself, leaving your piece of mail lost in a sea of thousands of people who share the same address.
When this incorrectly addressed piece of mail arrives at the mail forwarding company, the mail sorters have to figure out who it’s for and what the PMB number is so they can put it in the right box. The bigger mail forwarding companies use super fast mail sorting machines as well as people reading the addresses, and an incomplete address gums up the production in a massive way.
Some companies have a policy in place to set the piece of mail aside and then later look up the name of the person to find out which PMB they have, write it on the envelope and then carry all the mis-addressed envelopes to the appropriate PMB files.
However, some companies simply mark the envelope “RTS” (“Return to Sender”) and put it in their outgoing mail for USPS to pick up because it is too time consuming for them to go through all the wrongly addressed mail and look up all the PMB numbers.
Americas Mailbox has a tiered strategy. First, they look up the customer name (hopefully your name is unique!) and hand-write the PMB number on the envelope and put it in your box. They’ll call you if they have questions (i.e., “Are you the John Smith that is expecting a package from Amazon?”). Last of all, they’ll write “RTS” on it and put it back in the mail for USPS to return it to the sender.
Be sure to find out from your prospective mail forwarding company exactly what their policy is for mail that arrives without your PMB number, because it is guaranteed that at least one piece of mail for you will arrive that way someday.
Also, take the time to triple check with anyone sending you either important documents, a check, or a time sensitive piece of mail that the address they put on the envelope for you is 100% correct.
Vehicle Registration and Sales Tax
Americas Mailbox dots every “i” and crosses every “t” when it comes to registering your vehicles and paying any sales tax that is due.
We were floored by the degree of detail and the number of documents necessary to get our RZR and our utility trailer registered, licensed and on the road: Power of Attorney for Americas Mailbox to do the legwork registering the vehicles, images of front and back of our licenses, fronts and backs of the titles, bills of sale, money orders for the sales tax, and a few other goodies.
Americas Mailbox provides a detailed checklist of the documents you must gather, and of course some might have to be notarized. If you don’t have a scanner, you can just take a good quality photo of each document and attach all the photos to your email correspondence with Americas Mailbox to verify you have all the right pieces in place before you mail the package of documents to them.
Another thing to watch for when you buy a vehicle is whether the community you are making your purchase in will impose a local tax on the purchase. Maricopa County in Arizona (Phoenix area) is notorious for dealerships charging tax on all vehicle purchases made by out of state buyers.
So, while you may think you will be paying only the South Dakota sales tax on your purchase, you may find yourself staring at a document at the dealership that requires you to pay a tax to Arizona too. I’m not sure if there are other places in America where this happens, but double check with the person who will be writing up the final sales receipts and taking your check before you finalize your purchase.
On Mother’s Day Don brought roses to all the women on his staff. Now that’s class!
There are all kinds of mail forwarding services available, and they range from bare bones to full service. You may need just mail forwarding, or you may want to have someone handle the vehicle registration and lines at the DMV, and/or you may want to have a sense of “home” with an RV park where you can stay each time you return home to take care of life’s legal and financial technicalities.
We’ve found that Americas Mailbox is a wonderful full service operation, and what’s more, we love the Black Hills and being “residents” of this part of South Dakota.
We have spent the last two years going back and forth about whether to move into a new fifth wheel trailer or a new toy hauler as we look forward to our second dozen years of non-stop travel and full-time RV living. We’ve been to tons of dealerships and did a bunch of toy hauler factory tours in the Elkhart area of Indiana as well as in Missouri and Oklahoma (there’s more about those tours is in the 2nd half of this article).
As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past few months since we started this experiment, triple towing is working out a whole lot better that we expected!
This may be in large part because the utility trailer is only 5′ wide compared to the 8′ width of our fifth wheel trailer, so even on a tight U-turn, the wheels on the fifth wheel carve a tighter turn than the wheels on the utility trailer. So, if there’s something we don’t want to roll over or hit, the vehicle at risk is the fifth wheel, just as it has always been!
The utility trailer just cruises along behind. It’s a little caboose!
When we’re triple towing we notice a lot more chucking action than when we don’t have out caboose connected. This is due to the accordion and jerking action of the three vehicles moving apart and back together as they rumble down the road. It’s not a violent sensation, but we can definitely feel it.
We’ve been to a few gas stations… yikes!
We have been to several gas stations fully hooked up as The Train. Even though The Train is quite long and winds up curved far behind us as we turn in to the pump, as long as the gas station is large enough and there aren’t too many customers, it all works out.
That RZR sure is a long ways from the pump!
We have also been to several RV dump stations with The Train, and again, as long as the approach and exit to the dump station aren’t too narrow or laid out in a tight turn, we can align the fifth wheel sewer hose and other goodies with the RV dump station while the truck and utility trailer sit in a curve ahead of and behind the dump station sewer.
We’ve been to a few RV dump stations.
We’re okay dumping our tanks as long as it’s fairly long!
We set up the utility trailer with a spare tire and tire cover just in case that trailer gets a blowout. At this point we don’t have a backup camera to watch the utility trailer while we’re towing. That may come in the future but will take some research as we figure out which model and where to place the monitor in the already full cockpit of the truck.
Unfortunately the utility trailer is too small to carry our bikes as well. A 12′ long trailer would be long enough, but our RZR came with this trailer so it’s a natural starting point. So, for the moment, we have left the bikes behind at a friend’s house.
We’re leaving the bikes out of the equation for the moment.
When loading the RZR onto the utility trailer, Mark drives the RZR’s front wheels flush up against the front of the trailer which leaves enough room behind it for two 5 gallon gas tanks lashed down on the utility trailer.
With the wheels flush against the front railing there’s room for two 5 gallon gas tanks in back.
Before hitching up The Train the very first time, we had to sort out the different heights between the tongue of the utility trailer and the hitch receiver on the back end of the fifth wheel.
This is awesome for those pesky gas station ramps and other sharp dips in the road that are so steep they cause the back end of the fifth wheel trailer to drag on the asphalt. It’s also great for bumping over washes and other things on gnarly dirt roads.
However, all that good drag-avoidance stuff got thrown out the window with the decision to triple tow!
The utility trailer has 15″ tires and sits quite low, and in order to keep that trailer relatively flat instead of nose-up while towing, we had to put a 10″ drop hitch mount on the fifth wheel trailer’s hitch receiver to reach down to the utility trailer’s level.
We needed a 10″ drop hitch mount to reach down to the utility trailer
We use a receiver hitch tightener to eliminate any possible rattling in the connection between the receiver hitch and the hitch mount, and an electric plug ensures the lights on the utility trailer are powered and light up at night as well as when Mark hits the brakes.
The hitch tightener keeps things from rattling and the electric plug lights up the lights on the utility trailer
If you stand behind The Train at night and have someone tap the brakes in the truck, it’s quite a light show because not only do the lights on the fifth wheel light up, but the ones on the utility trailer do too. We almost never tow at night but it’s good to know The Train is so visible on dark and stormy travel days.
It was a dark and stormy morning…
We’re really glad we decided to jump in with both feet and buy a RZR before we figured out how to transport it because there is nothing like hands-on experience to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
The biggest surprise we’d never thought of before is that it is super handy to have a utility trailer to tote the RZR behind our truck when we’re going to a trailhead that is a long distance from our campsite.
There’s an advantage to being able to tow the RZR to a distant trailhead.
Although our RZR can go 70 mph and is licensed for the road, driving it on the highway is not what we got it for. We’d rather drive 25 or 50 miles to a trailhead in the comfort of our truck and then arrive with the RZR gas tank full of gas so we can enjoy our off-road adventures without worrying about carrying spare gas.
The RZR has a 10 gallon fuel tank and gets about 15 mpg. So far, none of our adventures has been more than about 40 miles, so we don’t foresee a need to carry gas with us on the RZR any time soon.
At the end of a day of off-road adventure, after the sun has set, we find it’s much safer to drive our truck on the highway than to be out there in a little open air buggy that sits a lot lower on the road than most cars and trucks.
The RZR rolls on and off the trailer ramp.
Lastly, we’ve wanted to ensure that Buddy loves the RZR. For us and our lifestyle there’s no reason to own a RZR if our puppy doesn’t want to come along. We’ve integrated him into our lives so he doesn’t spend any time in our fifth wheel by himself. If we’re going to have RZR adventures, he’s going to be a part of them.
When we’re in the RZR, Buddy sits on my lap. I don’t want to go more than about 35 mph with him sitting in there. He’s not too keen on the loud noise of the RZR engine on the highway and of vehicles passing us, and I have to say, neither am I.
His favorite thing riding in the RZR is to sniff the air when we’re off-road, watch for rabbits, and to stare down at the dirt road going by just below RZR door. All that is lots of fun at 10-15 mph, our typical dirt road speed.
Mark has mastered driving the 56″ wide RZR onto the 60″ wide trailer!
We have a B&W Stow & Go hitch on the back of our truck, and the utility trailer hitches up to the truck very easily. After one or two tries loading the RZR, Mark has figured out how to align it so it drives in without rubbing the wheels on the railings at all even though the railings are 60″ apart and the RZR is about 56″ wide.
When we arrive at a trailhead, Mark drops the ramp door of the utility trailer, hops in the RZR, and backs it down the ramp. The driver’s door on the RZR swings out above the railing on the utility trailer, so he can get in and out of the RZR easily when it’s on its trailer.
The RZR came with a windshield, roof and a fancy stereo that the previous owner had installed, and this XC EPS edition of the RZR 900 includes upgraded wheels, wider fender flares, a hitch receiver and the Polaris Ride Command navigation system.
However, the trunk is just a shallow open area at the back, not the best place to store stuff if you don’t want it to get dirty.
We tossed around ideas and finally bought a Lifetime 55 quart cooler that sits very nicely on an old welcome mat in the back of the RZR. It is lashed down to keep it in place.
We use a Lifetime 55 quart cooler for easy flip-top trunk system.
What we love about this cooler is that we can keep all the little essentials we always want with us — emergency water, toolbag, flat repair & spare air kit, first aid kit — in the bottom of it at all times, and we can throw things like jackets, hats, cameras and snacks on top as we need them for each ride.
The flip top lid makes it super easy to access everything in the cooler, and it has an excellent seal when it is closed which keeps everything inside dust free. We’ve also put a long shank padlock on the cooler to keep the less determined thieves out. Of course, anyone that really wanted that cooler and its contents could simply carry it away.
Another great feature of the cooler is that the things in the bottom of it don’t get overly hot. The engine sits right below the RZR’s trunk area, but since this little “portable trunk” is actually a cooler, there’s lots of insulation between the contents of the cooler and the engine below.
You can see a hilarious video of a grizzly bear trying to get into one of these coolers here.
We’ve found that the multi-use trails that allow motorized vehicles are not only lots of fun for riding but are also great for running and hiking too. Sometimes Buddy and I hop out to run while Mark drives.
Unlike yours truly, Buddy can easily keep up with the RZR and loves chasing it at top speed. But after he’s done a 5 minute mile with some surges to 3 minute mile pace thrown in, he’s usually ready to ride again, and he happily jumps back in.
Need a ride?
Come on in!
We’ve experimented with quite a few scenarios for arriving at a campsite and unhitching the bits and pieces of The Train.
The utility trailer has to be hitched up to something — either the truck or the fifth wheel trailer — in order to drive the RZR on or off of it. Otherwise, once the RZR wheels roll on or off the ramp the tongue of the utility trailer will fly up in the air.
So, at campsites where we want to use the utility trailer with the truck to take the RZR somewhere, we have to move the utility trailer from its caboose position at the end of The Train to a place where it can be hitched to the truck, and then we reverse its location before we leave.
We can move the utility trailer around small distances by pushing or pulling it ourselves. However, if the RZR is on the trailer, neither is going anywhere until the utility trailer gets hitched to either the truck or fifth wheel.
The RZR has a hitch receiver on it, and we purchased a ball mount for it, so the RZR can tow the utility trailer around if needed. This is handy in small campsites since the big long bed dually truck isn’t very maneuverable in tight spaces.
Luckily the RZR can also do the job of towing the utility trailer, if needed.
Again, we learned a few things that we hadn’t thought of before.
First, although it seemed daunting to back the fifth wheel to the utility trailer to hitch it on when it’s already got the RZR loaded on it, it’s not all that bad. Using our two-way radios as Mark backs up the fifth wheel and I stand at the tongue of the utility trailer, and then using our feet to shove the tongue of the utility trailer the final inch or two, we can get it done quite easily.
Second, if the utility trailer is already hitched to the fifth wheel but is at an angle to the fiver and not aligned straight behind it, there is a lot of lateral force on the fifth wheel’s stabilizing jacks and the front landing legs when the RZR drives onto the trailer.
If the utility trailer is aligned with the fifth wheel, the fiver takes the impact much better (I’ve stood inside the fifth wheel and felt it both ways!).
Mark has sorted out how best to tie down the RZR on the utility trailer.
The ramp door folds up.
We are liking this triple towing thing and may stick with it. We’ll see. If we do, then our new home search will be focused on conventional fifth wheel trailers rather than fifth wheel toy haulers.
There are pros and cons to both conventional fifth wheels and toy hauler fifth wheels. Here are a few we’ve come up with:
Conventional 5th Wheel
Toy Hauler 5th Wheel
More Living Space
Less Living Space
More Closet Space
Less Closet Space
Recliners + Sofa + Dining Table
Pick any two
Generally, bed in slide w/ windows each side
Generally, bed not in slide & window on one side & small wardrobe on other
Back Deck AND Possible Side Patio (always includes 2nd bath)
Tow RZR to trailhead behind truck
Drive RZR on highways to trailhead
Triple tow not legal in some states
Always a legal beagle
Can travel w/o caboose
Full length toy hauler is always with you (47′ in some cases!)
TRAILER LIFE ARTICLE – SHORTCUT to TOY LAND!
The March issue of Trailer Life Magazine features an article I wrote surveying some of the 2019 offerings in the toy hauler market. I chose four different toy haulers to highlight in that article and included another dozen models in the lineup.
Our personal favorites for sheer innovation and cleverness and/or ruggedness are the Aluminum Toy Hauler fifth wheel and the Keystone Raptor 427.
Aluminum Toyhauler Company (ATC) has been making stackable car haulers for the high end racing car set for ages. They build an incredibly strong and durable toy hauler. Unfortunately, they don’t have any models with slide-outs yet, but their toy haulers are built like tanks and can haul 9,700 lbs. of stuff in a trailer that has a GVWR of 21,000 lbs. Unbelievable!
The Keystone Raptor 427 is a fabulous new entry into the garage-under-the-master-bed style of toy hauler. Montana and Grand Design have these floor plans too: the Montana High Country 380TH and Grand Design Momentum 376TH (and formerly the Grand Design Solitude 374TH which was discontinued a few months ago).
All of these manufacturers place the bedroom in the rear of the trailer and put a small garage big enough for bikes or a motorcycle under the bed itself. A workbench could fit in this garage. The bed above the garage raises and lowers if you need full standing height in the garage.
Montana and Grand Design place the kitchen in the middle of the rig. Montana has a beautiful open L-shaped kitchen with counters along two walls, a style that I like, and Grand Design has an island kitchen that is very popular. Both put the living room in the fifth wheel overhang.
The clever idea in the Raptor 427 is that the kitchen, which doesn’t need vaulted ceilings, is smartly placed in the part of the trailer where high ceilings can’t exist: the fifth wheel overhang. I don’t know what the headroom is there, probably around 6′ 4″ or higher, but it was more than sufficient for cooking, dining and even entertaining a cocktail party or buffet crowd! And there’s a window in the front cap so you can see out in all directions.
The kitchen is truly vast, and there is a side-by-side dinette for two that overlooks the living room. We just loved the design. For us, though, it’s too long a trailer since we’d have to tow our RZR behind (it’s 44′ long), and we’d prefer hydraulic slides to cable slides in the bigger slide-outs. Our two hydraulic slide mechanisms and single worm-gear electric slide mechanism on our current trailer have pushed our slides in or out an estimated 2,000 times so far.
The Keystone Raptor 427 has an immense kitchen in the front of the trailer.
The counter space is incredible (although I could do without the purple lights)
Seating for two overlooking the rest of the trailer – very cool!
Opposing loveseats in the slides plus dual recliners facing the TV (not seen in this pic).
Looking back up into the kitchen above the recliners
The bike or motorcycle sized garage is under the bed. The ceiling raises and lowers.
Another outstanding RV magazine and RV advocacy group and discount camping membership club and mail forwarding service, among many other things, is Escapees RV Club which we highly recommend joining.
IMPRESSIONS from VISITING the TOY HAULER FACTORIES
When were in Elkhart, Indiana, last fall (2018), we visited several RV manufacturing plants. We hadn’t done a factory tour in Elkhart since the spring of 2009 when the industry was in the midst of collapse.
The consolidation in the RV industry since the beginning of the recession of 2008 has been staggering and has whittled the list of RV manufacturers down to three conglomerates: Thor, Forest River and Winnebago. It has also reduced the list of major component suppliers down to two, Lippert Components and Furrion. Mom-and-pop shops making fifth wheel trailers independently of these conglomerates like Aluminum Toy Hauler, New Horizons and Space Craft and smaller component suppliers like MORryde are exceedingly rare.
The fraternity of talent at the top of the RV industry is very close knit and goes back many decades. If you follow the mergers and acquisitions back to the 1960s and 70s, the same names appear over and over in the executive suites of each company. The brothers who founded Keystone together with another executive who oversaw its huge growth sold it to Thor which itself was the result of the acquisition of failing Airstream from Beatrice Foods. After the three held top executive positions at Thor, these three men went on to found Grand Design and oversee its growth and sale to Winnebago. One of the partners sat on the Board of Directors over at Lippert Components, and after the sale to Winnebago another of the partners left the RV industry to start a pontoon boat company in partnership with Lippert Components.
The advantage to the rise of the conglomerates is wonderful economies of scale, but the flip side for the brands under these corporate umbrellas is the loss of the wild frontier style innovation that made early RVs so fun and funky as well as the forced adoption of quality standards that may not match the standards these brands had back when they were independent companies.
A Dishwasher = “That True Residential Feel”
Perhaps the most shocking thing for us was to discover how few people in the RV industry actually own and use RVs. I asked the general manager of one brand and a national sales rep of another what kind of RVs they owned, and the answers were, “I’m too busy to vacation in an RV” and “My wife likes hotels.”
This lack of personal RV experience has caused a disconnect between the manufacturers and their customers’ needs.
A perfect example was when a top executive at one brand told me that full-timers want a true residential feel to their fifth wheels, so every unit in his line of full-timer fifth wheels would be shipped with a dishwasher in it starting in 2019.
Now, of course, lots of full-timers want a dishwasher in their RV, but a lot of full-timers don’t want one.
Another executive at a different company told me, “Well, the dishwasher is a great place to store your dishes in an RV.”
It is? I’m not keen on mixing my clean and dirty dishes in the same storage place!
A National Sales Rep proudly showed me the outdoor kitchen on his toy hauler. He was so excited about it when he pulled it out, “Emily, you’re going to love this!” But when he pulled it out, it came to shoulder level on me. I’m 5′ 4″. I raised my arm and made a stirring motion with my hand in front of my chin and said, “I can’t cook like this.” He was crestfallen.
I began asking the executives we were meeting how they get their feedback from customers, and it seemed that they rely on a combination of the orders placed by the dealership buyers and by talking to people at trade shows.
So, it turned out that because 95% of the units of the one brand had been ordered with dishwashers in 2018, it was obvious there was a massive demand for dishwashers. So that’s why all units will have dishwashers going forward.
Similarly, since the sales rep with the outdoor kitchen had seen only grins and enthusiasm when he showed it to folks dropping by the booth at trade shows, he thought his outdoor kitchen was something his customers loved.
Ironically, doesn’t it make sense for dealers to put predominantly fully decked out units on their lots to show customers what can be ordered? And when you’re gallivanting around at an RV trade show and having a ball dancing in and out of tons of brand new units, are you really going to tell that smiling and friendly sales guy that his outdoor kitchen would never work for you?
The takeaway we got from all this is not to be shy and to find out who the buyer is at your local dealership and to tell them what you like and don’t like about the units on their lot. It seems that the closest the residents of the RV manufacturers’ executive suites come to their customers is the contact they have with the folks ordering their units in their dealer network.
ESCAPEES RV CLUB and WINNEBAGO
Fortunately and fabulously, Escapees RV Club and Winnebago have begun working together to get real feedback from real RVers into the design process. This project is in its earliest phase right now, but the emails I’ve received from Escapees about it are very encouraging. It is because of this kind of innovative and forward thinking at Escapees that we keep recommending our readers join Escapees. (They give us a tip if you mention “Roads Less Traveled” when you sign up, but we’d recommend them anyway!).
Founded by Kay and Joe Peterson, Escapees RV Club has been led by three generations of family members who have spent years on the road living in their RVs. They are the real deal when it comes to understanding the RV lifestyle.
TRAILERS BUILT by the AMISH
On a completely different note, some folks feel that a trailer built by Amish hands is of better quality than one made by other hands. It certainly makes for great marketing, especially for the companies that are in the heart of Amish country and employ lots of Amish people. We saw Amish workers in some of the plants, both men and women, but we didn’t see how their work could be substantially different than the work done by anyone else on the same assembly line.
The Amish really do work at the RV factories. They do the same jobs as other assembly line workers.
The factory workers are given jobs to do and are told how to do them. The quality standards and aseembly techniques are determined by corporate goals in areas like profitability, target market share, and unit build time to completion.
While a conscientious individual might put tremendous thought and care into a backyard project at their own home, the work they do on the assembly line at their job for an employer will be done the way management demands and not necessarily in a way that they would choose for their own personal project at home.
Before I tell you, take a quick guess at how long it takes to build a 44′ toy hauler fifth wheel. A month? A week?
At the Raptor plant we were told it takes 3 days. At the KZ plant it is 2.5 days. They have a ton of hands working simultaneously, and they all get the job done as quickly as possible.
INDEPENDENT MANUFACTURERS – ATC, Sundowner, Luxe, Space Craft, New Horizons
Independent RV manufacturing plants like ATC and Sundowner (another new entrant into the toy hauler market coming frome the horse trailer industry) take a few days longer to build their units than the bigger mass market brands. This partly because fewer people work on each trailer at a time, and partly because they start from scratch and build their own frames, doors and ramps rather than buying a ready-made frame, door and ramp.
Both ATC and Sundowner looked appealing to us, and we toured each plant. ATC is near Elkhart in Nappannee and Sundowner is in Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, without any slideouts we couldn’t fit our lives and belongings into an ATC fifth wheel toy hauler, and although the Sundowner toy haulers are an aerodynamic two feet shorter than standard fifth wheel toy haulers and are built with a fifth wheel gooseneck hitch which makes a fabulouos connection to the truck and completely frees up the truck bed when you’re not towing, they are also built with a very small bedroom because of the short gooseneck overhang.
However, for folks who have other lifestyle needs than ours, both the ATC and Sundowner deserve a good long look as they are sturdy, well built and rugged trailers that can be modestly customized on order and that have an intermediate price point between the mass market trailers and the high end custom units (New Horizons, Luxe and Space Craft). We visited Luxe and went to Space Craft a second time but will get into that in another post.
ALTERNATE SUPPLIERS – MORryde, Dexter
I mentioned the RV parts manufacturer MORryde, and as we studied toy haulers it seemed to us that there are two components in toy haulers these days where the MORryde version is superior to the competition: the ramp door and the stairs. Likewise, the Dexter brand of axles is considered to be superior to the competition (although the axle brand is a moot point if you plan to upgrade to the MORryde IS suspension which replaces the axles completely).
When our second factory-installed axle failed on our current trailer after our first axle failed and was replaced under our extended warranty, we replaced both axles with Dexter brand at our own expense (not under warranty) and have been very pleased.
So, in our evaluation of toy haulers during our own personal search for ourselves, the brands we focused on came with these MORryde and Dexter components. Generally, if a brand doesn’t specify in its marketing literature that it has a MORryde or Dexer branded component, then it doesn’t have it. There is marketing value in advertising that your trailer includes these brands, and the RV manufacturers call it out in their literature.
One of the side benefits (or disadvantages, depending on your point of view) of massive industry consolidation is that a hugely dominant parts supplier can strong arm its customers into buying its products by bundling them or offering other perks as part of the deal, something like: “If you buy our doors and windows we’ll throw in our stairs for free,” or “If you buy our stairs and ramp door we’ll warranty the frame for three years.”
MORryde Zero-G Ramp Door
Check out this video comparing the deployment of the MORryde Zero-G ramp door and the Lippert ramp door:
We like the old fashioned flip down front stairs on our fifth wheel, but that design is antiquated these days. The MORryde stairs called the “StepAbove” deploy easily.
One of the interesting fallouts from the wholesale decimation of the RV industry that began in 2008 and went on until 2013 or so is that the smaller companies that survived the downturn did so because they engaged in some true soul searching and revised their self-image.
The folks at B&W Trailer Hitches began making farm fencing, and they had enough cash flow to pay their employees to work for the town where they are headquartered, providing groundskeeping and other municipal services. This not only kept everyone employed but it heightened their pride in their town and their loyalty to their company. Amazing and very smart. The folks at MORryde also branched out into non-RVing related products in a similar way.
The management at ATC took a long hard look at how to motivate their assembly line workers to make the best product possible. Rather than providing incentives based on the number of units produced, which is a common metric, they offered incentives that focused on quality control and reducing mistakes and system failures. ATC has the longest and deepest warranty of all the fifth wheel toy hauler manufacturers.
PHEW — THAT WAS LONG!
We’ve got more thoughts to share as we ponder this fork in our less traveled road. At the moment we’re leaning towards a new traditional fifth wheel trailer because the triple-towing seems okay, but who knows what the coming months will bring as we travel further afield and encounter a wider variety of situations with our rig.
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February 2019 – One of our favorite sightings in our RV travels is the cute little coffee kiosks and coffee huts we find tucked into parking lots and standing on street corners all around the West. As America’s quest for the perfect cuppa joe has become more refined and exotic over the years, these adorable little coffee pit stops have been sprouting all over the place.
Drive-up (and walk-up) coffee kiosks can be found all over the American West!
When we got to Oregon a few years back they were everywhere. And no wonder. Starbucks is headquartered in Washington, and it seems that America’s demand for fancy, fluffy coffee spreads out from there!
De La Bean Coffee in Bend, Oregon
Some of the little coffee kiosks serve more than just coffee too.
Hot Shots and Smoothies in Oregon
As we’ve taken our RV from one small town to another we’fve found that many of these cute coffee joints are marked by a big “Espresso” flag flying out front.
Java Rock Coffee Shop, Terrebonne Oregon
Along with bearing whimsical names, many of these coffee kiosks have all kinds of amusing displays and props too.
Blue Banana Coffee Shop in Lostine, Oregon
These coffee shacks are usually simple little buildings, just big enough for a barista or two inside, and they often have an inviting porch or patio area decorated with flowers out front.
Coffee Corral in Baker City Oregon
Java Rock in Terrebonne, Oregon
Besides being cute and serving great coffee, what I love about these little coffee kiosks is that they are all mom-and-pop shops.
Rather than being part of an impersonal international corporate behemoth, they are locally run and the owners have often put everything they own on the line to try to make their venture a success.
Bare Naked Beans (now called Cricket Flat Coffee) in Elgin, Oregon
When I visited one coffee kiosk a very little girl appeared at the window to take my order. Her mom was busy with another customer, and she was helping out.
I hung around a while afterwards to enjoy my coffee, and the mom told me this was the perfect enterprise for her. She could walk to work, she was with her two small children all day long, and she was building a business at the same time.
Longhorn Espresso in Enterprise, Oregon
Coffee Depot in Redmond, Oregon
One of the first coffee kiosks we ever encountered was Wicked Brew in Moab, Utah. We discovered it before we began RVing, and it was so neat to see it was still going strong years later when we returned to visit the area with our fifth wheel.
This classy little coffee hut serves each cup with a chocolate covered coffee bean perched on the lid!
Usually, these coffee kiosks are drive-thru shacks with windows on both sides of the building.
Drivers pulled up at both sides in Douglas, Wyoming
However, we often walk up to them instead. It only took two or three walk-ups for Buddy to realize that the smell of coffee, the sound of the milk being steamed, and a patient wait at a window might add up to a doggie treat!
Now he sits expectantly looking up at the window and licking his lips.
City Brew Coffee in Red Lodge Montana
Although the frequency of coffee kiosks diminishes as you go east and south from the Pacific Northwest, they are still plentiful in Wyoming.
At Rawhide Coffee in Cody, Wyoming, Buddy decided to do the ordering for us.
Rawhide Coffee in Cody, Wyoming
He’s a smart little guy, and he knew this clever stunt could win him two doggie treats instead of just one!
Buddy puts in his order.
On our first trip through Newcastle, Wyoming, we visited the Kaffee Klatsch several times, so we were looking forward to a return trip the next year. But the Kaffee Klatsch wasn’t there any more! After a brief hunt around town we found it in a new location.
The owner explained that they owned the building but leased the land it sat on. Happily, the new location has made their business grow exponentially. How cool is that?!
We don’t have a photo of that shop, but we do have a few others from South Dakota.
Pony Expresso in Belle Fourche, South Dakota
Hot Springs Coffee Kiosk in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Of course some of our favorite coffee shops are in ordinary buildings. One is the Calamity Jane Coffee Shop in Custer, South Dakota, where we’ve spent many mornings sipping a latte, munching a muffin and chatting with the owners, Jim and Deb.
This enterprising couple had a camera shop in this location for many years. Deb is a photographer, and Custer is located in a popular tourist area surrounded by tons of gorgeous scenery and almost-tame wild animals to photograph.
Mark and owner Jim ham it up at Calamity Jane Coffee Shop & Winery in Custer, South Dakota
But the rise of the internet and digital photography n eput and to film sales and retail camera sales at their shop. Rather than throw in the towel, they thought about what modern day tourists are looking for when they come to a small historic town, and they realized gourmet coffee would be the perfect thing.
The addition of a wine tasting room out back and a huge wine selection was another clever idea, and their store is as busy as can be.
This former camera shop is now thriving as a coffee shop and winery in downtown Custer, South Dakota.
East of the Dakotas the little coffee huts disappear for the most part, but that doesn’t mean great coffee can’t be found. In the small town of St. Ignace in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula of Michigan we came across Harbor Hope Coffee.
Harbor Hope Coffee Shop in St. Ignace, Michigan.
This unusual coffee shop is home to a church group that gathers to worship in the back of the shop each week, and the profits from the coffee sales go to charitable causes. We were astonished to hear the volunteer barista tell us the story behind this unique coffee shop, but what made Buddy’s ears really perk up was when she ased, “Does your puppy want a puppaccino?”
She grabbed a whipped cream dispenser from the fridge, filled a small bowl with homemade whipped cream and put it on the floor in front of Buddy.
He went crazy!! I have never seen him lap up a bowl of anything so quickly. He got it on his whiskers and all over his muzzle.
The next day, the moment we parked in front of Harbor Hope Coffee Buddy just about jumped through the window to get inside. I knew I was addicted to hazlenut lattes, but Buddy was absolutely bonkers over puppaccinos!
Buddy tastes his first puppaccino. Yum!
Unfortunately, although dogs are warmly welcomed at most coffee kiosks and they are usually offered a treat to boot, some coffee shops with inside seating have strict rules for dogs relating to food service and unexpected visits from the Health Inspector.
So, Buddy has learned that not every “Open” sign at a coffee shop is actually an invitation for his four paws to head in.
Sometimes our four-legged friend has to wait outside.
In Wisconsin he had to wait outside several coffee shops. Fortunately, he is a patient pup.
Buddy watches my every move through a crack in the front door.
At one coffee shop there was a bucket of chalk outside, so we marked his special waiting spot.
This time he got a specially marked spot to wait on outside.
In Hot Springs, South Dakota, before Buddy joined us, we found another shop with a bucket of chalk outside, so we added a bit of sidewalk art there too!
While I’ve been typing away during this past year to bring you a glimpse of our travels on America’s less traveled roads, roaming about with a little pup in tow, I had no idea that Buddy was working on his own pet project for his canine RVing friends.
Buddy explains to Mark what it’s like to live a Dog’s Life!
I thought he was just licking his paws over there or maybe surfing the web for better dog treats. I had no idea that he’d created a popular dog magazine…!
K9 Publishing by Puppy Chow
It turns out that for the past year our friend Bob (a PhotoShop and photography expert) has been working with our little Buddy (whom he affectionately calls Puppy Chow), and together they have created quite a library of magazines for RVing pups and their owners.
I had seen the first issue last year and had shared it on the blog post where I introduced our new furry roommate:
Since then I’ve seen a few of these unusual magazine covers float by every once in a while, but I didn’t realize just how many there were until recently when I noticed there was quite a collection.
For a change of pace from our ordinary blogging fare, here are a few covers from these fun magazines. Hopefully they’ll put a smile on your face today!
Each issue reflected a bit of what was happening in our lives at the time, so when Camping World brought a camera crew out to make a video about our RV lifestyle, that special event was highlighted…
When we got out into the snow-capped mountains and had some wintry feeling spring mornings where we could see our breath in the air before we got out of bed, that unique tid-bit of RV life made it onto the cover…
Buddy’s mouth was too small to grasp a baseball at first, but when he grew a little bigger he could hang onto a baseball in his teeth just fine. This was just in time, too, because he’d found one under a tree near our campsite…
Despite spending a lot of months in very buggy places last year, we avoided getting too bitten until we got to Missouri where Buddy got four tick bites in a week and I got one too! Apparently, after that bout with those nasty little biters, Buddy came up with some tips for avoiding them…
Now, “Dog’s Life” isn’t the only publishing project that Buddy and Bob have been working on. They’ve put together a few other periodicals too, from “Trailer Dog” to “Gun Dog” to our very own Roads Less Traveled magazine.
The first “Trailer Dog” issue came out when Buddy was very young just shortly after he’d found a very old dead bird and made a meal of it…only to have the meal come right back up again a few minutes later…
The movie reviews were lots of fun, and we were especially tickled when Buddy reviewed the all time classic, “Old Yeller.”
The arrival of our new RZR made the cover (yay!)…and Buddy solved a very important mystery that has been puzzling a lot of folks!
And that’s it for today from the Buddy-and-Bob K9 Publishing team. Hopefully they’ll keep ’em coming!
January 2019 – For the last two years we’ve been pondering the idea of getting a side-by-side UTV. When we were visitng Custer, South Dakota, it seemed that everybody got around town in their UTV, and we had a blast at a SXS Jamboree in southern Utah where we test drove several models from a few different manufacturers.
Buzzing around in a little off-road buggy seemed like such a fun thing to do!
What luck that on Christmas this year Santa loaded a pretty one onto his sleigh for us and delivered it to our friend’s house where we were staying.
Wow! A fun new ride!
It is a 2017 Polaris 900 EPS XC edition, and it is as cute as a button.
Ever since we got inspired by the idea of exploring remote back country roads with a Polaris RZR (“razor”) 18 months ago, we’ve both been exhilarated by the idea of getting out into nature further and deeper than we can on foot or on our bikes.
The Polaris RZR 900 XC Edition is a small and sporty two-seater side-by-side.
For the last year and a half we have researched toy haulers endlessly, studying each and every brand in depth online, making spreadsheets comparing the features, and traipsing through dozens of units all across the country. (if you’re currently searching for a new rig, I know you are smiling and nodding at this. It’s quite a process!).
I even had the good fortune of being assigned the task of writing an article about toy haulers for Trailer Life Magazine in which I discussed some of the things to look for and reviewed a few of the current offerings in the market (this lengthy article will appear in the March issue of Trailer Life).
Raptor and Carbon toy haulers lined up at the Keystone manufacturing plant in Goshen, Indiana.
But we hadn’t pulled the trigger to trade in our fiver for a toy hauler yet because, well, we didn’t have a RZR yet!
We kinda had a chicken-and-egg problem on our hands.
What do you get first, the toy hauler or the toy? If you live in an RV full-time, how can you haul a toy without a toy hauler? But if you go all in and get both at once, what happens if, after all that, you then find out you’re not really into the whole RZR thing?
What if — gasp — the DOG doesn’t like riding in an off-road buggy?
All smiles now!
We were going through the familiar throes of simultaneously dreaming and doubting, an experience so many people go through as they plan a major change in their life — like taking the plunge to live and travel in an RV full-time.
There was a lot of expense involved in making such a change, and a lot of upheaval and a bit of risk too.
Mark looks pretty comfy and happy behind that wheel!
We dreamed of the fun times we’d have seeing scenery we just can’t reach any other way. Everywhere we’d traveled for the last 18 months we’d asked ourselves if we would have seen more with a side-by-side, and almost everywhere we went the answer was Yes.
In Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains we saw people driving off on dirt trails with their UTVs loaded down with gear, and they didn’t return for three days. Who knows what they saw out there, but the grins on their faces were ear to ear when they came back.
We dreamed that maybe a little backcountry buggy would take us to places in the hinterlands where we could pitch a tent and be set up in a fabulous spot to photograph the sunrise and sunset without having to trek in or out for a bunch of miles in the dark. It could be the gateway to little getaways!
The RZR takes us far into Arizona’s outback!
But we also worried about making the change to living in a toy hauler.
If we went to the trouble of setting up a new toy hauler the way we’d like it with solar power and vent-free propane heat and disc brakes, what would we do if after a year or so we we found we didn’t use the toy enough to warrant the big garage and smaller living space a toy hauler would squeeze us into?
On the other hand, a garage might open up some fabulous possibilities.
We might be able to get another porta-bote like we had with our sailboat and putt-putt across serene lakes and rivers. We’d be able to haul the bikes in the garage instead of hanging them precariously off the back of the trailer. And Mark might be able to have a small workbench rather than digging out his tools from the basement and laying them across the tailgate of the pickup for every project.
And we’d have a back porch and possibly a side patio deck too! How totally cool would that be?!
Some toy haulers, like this Road Warrior, have side patio decks. Cool!
And then the doubts would set in again.
What would it be like to tow a gargantuan 42′ or 44′ toy hauler like so many of them are these days? Gosh, we struggle at gas stations as it is with a 36′ fifth wheel. Would we ever be able to fuel the truck when we were hitched up if we were towing such a beast?
It certainly didn’t help that every time we went to an RV dealer to look at a particular brand of toy hauler, we’d eventually wander over to the luxury fifth wheels and fall in love with one of those instead!
Trying to see the woods for the trees…
Round and round our conversations would go, from optimism to pessimism and back again as we weighed the pros and cons of turning our lives upside down to accommodate a little off-road vehicle we weren’t sure about!
We contemplated renting a UTV to try it out, but few places rent out the Polaris models we were interested in, and most have been used and abused and aren’t outfitted beyond bare bones. The price of a rental was usually around $350 a day in the most scenic places, so it wouldn’t take many rental days to take a big chunk out of the price of buying one!
Most of the rentals we found were pricey and not models we’d want to buy.
We felt immense empathy with our many readers who have contacted us over the years asking for input into their decisions related to going full-time.
I’ve always advised folks to tip-toe into the full-time RV lifestyle so they are confident and happy each step of the way: Get a cheap small rig, use it a lot, and talk to full-timers you meet while you’re out exploring in this little rig. And THEN take the plunge to commit to full-timing once you’ve gotten some real miles and adventures under your belt.
First trip to the trails.
And it was finally listening to this common sense advice that helped us begin to navigate our dilemma.
We realized that our first step was to figure out if a side-by-side would be fun or not and to find out how Buddy would react to it. He’d gone through a period of not wanting to get into the truck, and we didn’t want to make a huge investment of time, effort and money to move into a toy hauler if we couldn’t take him with us on our RZR outings.
So, with that in mind, we put the toy hauler decision on hold and focused on getting a RZR. We figured that even if we ended up selling it at a loss after a few months, it would be a far cheaper and better way to evaluate it than doing a series of rentals.
We found a barely used Polaris 900 XC on Craiglist that came with a small utility trailer, and we decided we’ll just triple tow it behind our current fifth wheel for a while and not travel long distances until we’ve made a final decision to get a toy hauler or stay with a regular fiver.
It’s a tight squeeze back onto the utility trailer but Mark handles it like a pro.
There’s a ton of fabulous sounding forest roads and trails to explore with a UTV in the southwest, and if we tow just a little and stay in each spot for a while, we can get some hands-on experience and make an informed long term decision about what our next rig will be.
What a cool ride!
Our first trips have been a total blast! We have run around in the Arizona desert out by Wickenburg and Lake Pleasant, and we have loved every minute of it. The scenery is classic, pristine Sonoran desert scenery, and with each bend in the road the views of saguaro cacti and mountains get better.
Desert scenery far from paved roads.
Desert meets water at Lake Pleasant.
Perhaps best of all, it turns out our little Buddy is a RZR Dog.
Buddy has chased down the RZR a few times!
He seems to really enjoy being out on the trails despite the noise and the bumpiness of the ride. He has even chased the RZR at a full gallop a few times when Mark was driving it around, and then he hopped in for a ride.
He likes it!
It’s a two-seater, but two in one seat is okay too.
So, with the start of 2019 we’re starting a new chapter in our travels. Who knows where it will lead, but it has been a thrill so far.
With any luck we’ll be brining you lots of beautiful images from remote spots down some special trails. And someday we’ll be trading our Hitchhiker for a new rig, possibly a toy hauler!
When we rang in 2018 on New Year’s Day last year, we had been traveling full-time for over ten years, and our traveling lifestyle and methods were a well oiled machine. We had lots more travel adventures planned for the future, but we figured they’d be similar to what we’ve been doing for over a decade involving two people, several cameras, a bunch of lenses and a rolling or floating home.
And then we unexpectedly became the owners of a puppy, and our lives were turned upside down!
2018 RV travels – The Year of the Dog!
We didn’t know at the time that in the Chinese calendar 2018 was the Year of the Dog, but we soon discovered that in our own personal calendar that’s exactly what was going on!
Our sweet little puppy, Buddy, stole our hearts. He also stole a bunch of our living space and a lot of our time, but we were happy to give those things up because he was so dear.
Buddy goes from Pound Puppy to Travel Pup!
Suddenly, we were emptying our shelves and closets to make room for bags of dog food. In no time at all we’d acquired 100 lbs. of dog food to feed our 20 lb. dog!
And everywhere we turned we were stumbling over little dog toys. Not only did Buddy have an indoor toy box full of toys he’d received from friends and his indulgent owners, but he also had an outdoor toy box full of treasures he’d found on his own during our walks, from balls to sandals to sticks and gloves.
Adorable Puppy Chow with the first toy he found.
Suddenly our time was no longer entirely our own either. Not only did we need to make time for energetic walks with our puppy morning and night and monitor his nature calls, but every so often a little furry face would pop up in front of us wanting to play.
Let’s play tug!
All of this took quite a bit of getting used to, so we began 2018 by sticking around central Arizona and not traveling too far. At Lake Pleasant and Canyon Lake we got into a rhythm of twice daily walks and training sessions to teach Buddy some basic manners. He proved to be an eager and fast learner.
The Dolly Steamboat ride is a fun excursion on Canyon Lake in the Sonoran Desert.
Buddy peeks out of the outhouse at Goldfield Ghost Town.
Buddy was a trooper through all the commotion of endless re-takes in front of the camera, even though he was just a few months old. The producers didn’t give him a speaking role, but there’s no question he was the star of the show.
Utah’s Scenic Byway 24 is one America’s best scenic drives.
Going north from there, we came to the fabulous red rocks of Goblin Valley State Park where crazy hoodoos fill a valley and kids of all ages and furriness love to play.
At Goblin Valley the cliffs were multi-colored and the hoodoos were a hoot.
It was early April, and as we continued our northward progress through Utah we soon encountered snow and ice in the mountains at Strawberry Reservoir. This is a summertime hot spot, but we loved the stillness and peace of the pre-season.
Strawberry Reservoir is a popular summer getaway, but we loved the quiet of the ice and snow.
In the village of Wanship, Utah, we made a turn in town and suddenly found ourselves right in front of Escapod Teardrop Trailers. This small shop turns out terrific, rugged off-road teardrop trailers, and we got an impromptu and inspiring look at a few.
If you want to get off-road in a rugged teardrop trailer, Escapod has a rig for you!
We saw fairytale landscapes in northern Utah after a dusting of spring snow.
Buddy had his first taste of snow and left his little paw prints on our stairs.
Bear Lake, located in the north end of Utah, is known for its inviting vivid blue water and is lovingly nicknamed “The Caribbean of the Rockies.” In mid-April it was way too cold for swimming, but with few campers wanting to brave the wintry air at the water’s edge, we were able to watch the wildlife and enjoy the lake in solitude undisturbed.
A loon shakes out his feathers on Bear Lake in Utah.
Bear Lake, Utah.
It was cold at Bear Lake in Spring, but it was wonderfully quiet too.
We headed north and east for a while along wonderful back roads in Wyoming. Winter wasn’t exactly over in this neck of the woods, and as we climbed over mountain passes storms threatened.
The Wyoming mountain passes were a little forbidding.
When we pointed our trailer west again, we found sunshine at lovely Keyhole Reservoir where Buddy posed amid the evergreens and craggy rocks. Mark snapped a pic of him that won a small jackpot in a photo contest a few months later!
Buddy is faster than a speeding bullet and leaps tall bushes with a single bound… At a quieter and more statuesque moment, Mark took this image and won a photo contest!
Glacier Park Lodge at Many Glacier on the east side of Glacier National Park.
What a spot!
It was early June and the Going to the Sun Road was still closed because of icy and avalanche conditions at the peak of Logan Pass. So, we drove, walked and wandered all around the eastern parts of Glacier National Park, especially spectacular Many Glacier, and we took endless photos of wildflowers in front of a snowcapped mountain backdrop.
Wildflowers and snowcapped mountains are a great combo!
Our original goal for the year had been to visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan over the summer, so we began moving east and a bit south with an eventual arrival there in mind. We visited tiny Choteau, Great Falls and Harlowton in Montana. On the way we were surprised to find ourselves near an Amish community when we turned at Eddie’s Corner.
We came across an Amish community in rural Montana.
We love small towns, and the town of Red Lodge, Montana, charmed us with its main street full of cute shops and bistros. Buddy was particularly fond of the store, “Lewis and Bark’s Outpost.”
The canine explorers that were left out of the history books: Lewis and Bark.
Red Lodge sits at one end of the jaw-dropping Beartooth Scenic Highway, and we drove it several times. Our mouths hung open in awe every single time. It was mid-June and the vast mountain-scapes were still covered with beautiful patterns of snow.
The Beartooth Scenic Highway is stunning.
If you don’t mind cold nights, early Spring is an incredible time to drive the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Scenic Highway is another of those “must do” trips for all RVers, and seeing it before the snow melts is wonderful.
By now we were pretty used to having a dog in our lives. Oddly, it seemed as though Buddy had always been with us, and whenever we’d chat about memories of different places we’d have to remind ourselves he hadn’t been with us then. So strange! It seemed only natural now to have all three of us together all the time and for me to look over and see his fuzzy face next to Mark’s in the truck.
We were getting used to having a canine companion.
The Beartooth Scenic Highway crosses from Montana into Wyoming, and from there the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway branches off. This is yet another “must do” for RVers (we were so lucky to hit so many “must do” spots in 2018).
We drove the exquisite Chief Joseph Scenic Highway several times, and in our explorations we came across groves of wildflowers that were like nothing we’d ever seen. Flowers of every color were in the peak of bloom. It was a photographer’s dream.
The wildflowers on Chief Joseph Highway were the best we’ve ever seen.
The views on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway were dramatic as the road climbed and fell and swooped around the mountains. One morning we got up before sunrise so we could catch the pink light at an overlook at dawn.
Cody, Wyoming, brought out the big guns for the 4th of July parade!
After all the cold weather in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, it was quite a shock to visit Big Horn Canyon which is a lot lower in elevation and very hot in mid-July. But the red rocks were spectacular in the early morning light, ideal for a photo shoot.
Family photography outings became the norm. Buddy loves it when he sees us grab our tripods and head out the door!
Bighorn Canyon lit up beautifully in the early morning light.
In the heat of mid-July we kept looking at the map and the various routes that might take us from Wyoming to Lake Superior, but the temps in those places were scorching. We decided to wait for cooler temps rather than burning our toes hop-scotching across the country. A stop in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and Lake DeSmet gave us some fun photo ops and a slight respite from the heat.
The greeter they’ve hired at the Visitors Center is the wild bovine kind with big horns and a thick furry neck. What a surprise it was to see him on duty as cars and trucks rolled in and out of the parking area!
The greeter at Roosevelt National Park had hooves and horns!
By now it was mid-September and the temps had cooled sufficiently between our neck of the woods and Lake Superior to make a dash for it. Seeing the leaves changing color at Roosevelt National Park, we worried we might miss the show in Michigan if we didn’t leave soon, so we decided to save that National Park for a future visit and hustled across the top of the country.
At Walker, Minnesota, we pulled into town on the weekend of their Ethnic Festival. This is a town that has a festival every weekend it isn’t snowing — and even a few when it is — so it’s a good one to add to any itinerary since you’ll be swept up in a celelbration no matter when you go.
What fun it was to see and hear real alpen horns being played by two women in Scandinavian garb!
The mellow tones of alpenhorns were a highlight of the Walker, MN, Ethnic Festival.
We finally landed on the shores of Lake Superior at charming little Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Big sailboats and little kayaks bobbed in the water.
Cornucopia, WIsconsin, is a tiny piece of heaven on Lake Superior.
In our new travels-with-dog we’d discovered that dogs are as particular about their friends as people are. Buddy loves dogs his age and size, and even though we’d met hundreds of different dogs all across the country, few were a matching size, age and temperament for a lasting friendship. On the docks of the marina at Cornucopia, Buddy found a soulmate in the resident pup, and they tore all over the place in a rolling heap of happy puppiness.
Lakeshore Drive along Lake Superior is a beautiful scenic drive, and we stopped at all the pretty towns along the way. Bayfield, Wisconsin, was particularly enchanting in the early morning hours of a blustery day. But it was an accidental upside down photo of Buddy reflected in a puddle that stood out for us as a favorite pic from Bayfield.
Buddy in the Sky with DIamonds.
With any new place we travel to, we always arrive with some preconceptions of what it will look like and be like. These usually prove false in one way or another, and the Upper Peninsula shoreline of Lake Superior in Michigan was no exception.
In the waterfront town of Ontonagon we strolled the beach at sunset and got some wonderful photos of the sun setting. This was one of our first Lake Superior shoreside stops in the U.P., and we assumed we’d have afternoons and evenings like that every day for the next few weeks. So, we glanced at our photos and shrugged that we would do so much better in the coming days.
Well, Mother Nature had other plans, and that was the last we saw of sunrises and sunsets for the next few weeks. What a wonderful life lesson was reinforced as we looked back at that evening on the beach: always treasure the moment you are in right now!
Sunset on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We thought we’d have a dozen sunsets like this!
Fall color at Worm Lake, Michigan (Upper Peninsula).
Buddy was loving the lush grass that grows everywhere east of the mountain states, and having a few leaves in the pics added a colorful touch!
This area is known for the little meat pies that were beloved by Cornish miners across the pond a century ago. Yummy “pasties” were sold everywhere in the U.P., and we ate quite a few. It was fun to warm up the cold, damp interior of our trailer by popping one of these meat pies in the oven to heat it up!
At the bottom of Michigan’s U.P., just before crossing into the Lower Peninsula, we took a ferry out to Mackinac Island. This special island never took to motorized vehicle travel, and everything is done by horse and buggy or by bicycle. We had a ball watching the carriages and flat bed trailers being towed down the street by teams of horses.
Macinac Island, Michigan
Down in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan we stopped in at Metamora-Hadley State Park. All of the state park campgrounds in Michigan — and many throughout the midwest — entice folks to go camping even when it’s cold and wet in October by hosting fabulous Halloween events. We arrived on a Sunday morning, and not only was every campsite full but each one was decorated to the hilt with ghosts and goblins and witches and pumpkins.
Halloween is a big deal and a fun time at many midwestern state park campgrounds.
It was mid-October and high time to start dropping south. But first we visited Elkhart, Indiana, and the surrounding towns of Goshen, Shipshewana and Nappanee that are all home to the RV industry manufacturers. This area is fascinating for its long history as the heart and home of all things RV, and the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum was a highlight of our stay.
The RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum offers a fascinating glimpse of the RV and Manufactured Home industry.
The antique trailers were fun to see in the museum, but I loved turning the pages of old issues of Trailer Life from 80 years ago.
At that point, as we looked back at our year of travel to date, it felt as though we had made two big journeys — one from Arizona up through Utah into Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota, and a second one along Lake Superior and down through the midwest. It had been an outstanding year, but we were absolutely pooped.
Buddy was affected too. He had loved being in our truck early in our travels and had happily sat between us as we drove. But the weeks of long 150+ mile days in stressful rainy driving conditions on scary busy roads that made our tempers rise each time we got lost (which was about every hour or so), wore on him as well as us. Suddenly, he developed an outright shivering fear of the truck.
We finally slowed down and caught our breath in Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in New Mexico.
By the light of a silvery moon.
Inching our way from New Mexico to Arizona, and driving short distances and staying for a week or two in each spot, we slowly recovered and Buddy grew to like the truck again.
When we arrived in Phoenix he was beside himself with excitement as he saw the people and homes he had known as a young puppy. We were very surprised to find he not only remembered them all but was thrilled to be back.
Before we’d left Arizona the previous winter, Buddy had become best friends with our friend’s pup named Mason. Mason was a rescue dog too. Whereas Buddy had been left in “a box of puppies” at the Animal Welfare League in downtown Phoenix, Mason had been dumped in the desert on Table Mesa Road north of Phoenix as a puppy and left to fend for himself. Somehow he’d survived, despite being an ideal coyote snack, although he was in very tough shape when we was found hiding from the rain under some debris.
He and Buddy took to each other the moment they met last year. It was truly love at first sight — or sniff.
This year, as we drove to a parking spot on the street by Mason’s house, both dogs went crazy before they even saw each other, Mason in his fenced yard (he couldn’t see us arriving!) and Buddy in our truck (he’d only visited a few times last year!). How did they know?
After 8 months apart, the two dogs picked up right where they left off in a happy tussle of fur and paws rolling around with each other and running across the grass.
Buddy became best friends with Mason in the beginning of 2018.
The dynamic duo didn’t miss a beat when they met again at the end of 2018.
Like all travelers, Buddy has learned the wonders of seeing new things and meeting new friends. But he has also learned how heartwarming it is to return to a favorite place and be back with loved ones.
As for us, we have learned that traveling with a dog has its complications, but there’s nothing like living with a little fur person who is absolutely thrilled to jump out of bed each morning and is unabashedly happy to be alive each and every day.