As recently as a few months ago, my attitude towards “RV’ers” was one of disregard.. those lumbering highway behemoths clogging the roadways on their way to some crowded “campground”. Especially in light of our (very) past history of week-long backpack trips throughout the entire Big Sur range and most of the Sierras, plodding about in an RV seemed as only remotely connected to the great outdoors.
That was before our multimonth-long sequestration at our home due to Covid-19, and the prospect of many more months to come of the same. It was these driving factors that prompted us to take another look (along with thousands of other Americans) at the idea of an RV as providing some escape from our isolated life, while providing a decent amount of separation from close contact with others (not possible with air travel or a car trip and the associated hotels and public eateries along the way).
Our somewhat brief exploration of possible RV options spanned the range of self-contained motor homes, uber-expensive Airstream trailers, and other lesser expensive truck drawn trailers.
Our “exhaustive” but hurried research finally settled in on a particular brand, Winnbago, due to it’s relatively high ratings for quality and durability, and a particular model, the 2108DS. We chose the 2108 due to its light weight and relatively short length (21 ft), and most importantly, incorporation of a pull-down Murphy bed, which allows the bed to be always made up and ready to go. The Murphy pulls down over a folded couch, and can be stowed in literally 15 seconds, leaving a nice size couch AND a separate dinette/table. The dinette is built into a slideout, which allows the trailer to be just 7 feet wide, but have ample room for all the necessities of living when pulled out (powered, of course), including a full kitchen with double sink, 3 burner range and oven, microwave/convection, near-full size refrigerator, a nicely sized TV along with “media center” for FM/AM/Bluetooth, etc Finally a full bathroom is included with separate shower, and vanity.
We had hoped to save money by purchasing a lightly used unit, but we were set on the 2108, and found them to be in very high demand in this Covid-19-fueled market. Every time I would see a used one for sale online, by the time I’d call it would have been already sold.
Finally, by stroke of luck, I stumbled onto a brand new unit at a dealership in Memphis. Not an ideal location for us, but immediate availability and a deeply discounted price compensated for the distance. Our choice of dealer turned out to be fortuitous, as we couldn’t have received more personalized service. Other circumstances prevented us from taking delivery of our trailer for some 6 weeks after our formal purchase, and the dealer graciously allowed to store it for us at no cost. Also, most surprising, there were NO “gotcha” add on fees (paperwork and registration fees, etc) as so commonly employed these days. Our total cost was the exact agreed-upon price, plus a $5.50 fee for temporary Tennessee tags to get us home.
If a prospective new RV’er has a preconceived notion that vehicle expenses end when the check for purchase is written, I am here to dispel that idea. By the time of our departure to retrieve our “rig”, we had amassed a truck-load of items to furnish the trailer:
So it was that in early September, 2020, we struck off in our trusty 1998 Chevrolet truck pre-dawn, for the long-day’s drive to Memphis, where we had our one and only overnight stay in a hotel. Bright and early the next morning, we showed up at the dealership to find “our” trailer all freshly washed, our responsive salesman David standing by with final paperwork and accessory items we had pre-ordered, and staffer Cody all set to give us a full 1.5 hour orientation into the trailer’s features and operation, followed by installation of the recommend weight distribution hitch (WDH in RV parlance) combined with an anti-sway control.
By early afternoon we were on our way to our very first RV overnight at a beautiful campground just a few miles from the dealership in Memphis (Just in case).
Our entire trip would span 10 days, 31 hours of driving, and about 2,000 miles of roads:
The park is named, inexplicably, “Jellystone Park”, and as the name might imply, includes lots of kid-friendly amenities, such as water slides, pools, and outdoor games.
We did succeed in discovering a Covid-friendly Mexican eatery nearby with outdoor seating, virtually deserted at our near-closing-time arrival:
The following day we were hooked up early, and ready for our first towing experience and a good 7 hour drive to our first real stop.. Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The truck and trailer performed admirably as a team, solid as a rock with not a hint of swaying or buckling. The only downside was the sub-9 mpg fuel consumption we logged while towing the beast!
We did quickly learn some unexpected ancillary benefits of traveling by trailer. For example, when stopping at a gas station, there is no need to use the “public” restrooms that have been handled by hundreds of users per day. Just open the door of the RV, turn on the battery operated water pump, and use our own germ-free sanitary facilities. Same goes for snacks, as the RV refrigerator runs on propane gas while underway (automatically switching to A/C house current when plugged in at a park), and keeps everything frosty cold inside.
I had visited Eureka Springs about 18 months prior on a motorcycle trip with my biker buddy Nathan, but our itinerary allowed just a brief single overnight stay.
Our chosen first “real” RV park was situated just a couple miles from downtown Eureka on the spine of a mountain ridge with just a single row of RV’s and the terrain dropping precipitously on both sides into deep, wooded canyons. The immediate attraction for us sun-parched Austinites was the temperature.. brisk enough to warrant a long sleeve shirt in the morning, but remaining gloriously temperate for the remainder of the day. And, it was so quiet and peaceful. After our first full day, we decided to negotiate an additional 2 days stay added to our original 3 days, and just bypass the next campground altogether (a state park near Hot Springs). It turned out to be a great choice, and gave us ample opportunity to ease into the leisure life of true RV’ers!
Eureka Springs is an inexplicably cute village with narrow and steep streets. It’s glory dates back to the 19th century where nearby spring waters with purported healing qualities attracted visitors from all over the country. Now visitors come to enjoy the historic Victorian downtown area (and cute homes mostly cut into hillsides or perched on the edge of a deep canyon).
We chanced the crowds for one meal at a great restaurant with widely spaced outdoor seating:
In addition to the intriguing and quaint village of Eureka itself, two local destinations received our attention and admiration. The first was the Thorncrown Chapel, situated on a quiet, remote, wooded hillside just a few miles outside of Eureka. This was to be my second visit. A truly unique architectural wonder, mostly all glass, to make one feel they were almost outside with nature. I highly recommend that the reader google this unique treasure, I can’t possibly describe it myself in words that would give it justice.
The second site was the Blue Springs Heritage Center.. a lovely botanical garden with a spring which purportedly gushes at the rate of 28 MILLION gallons of water daily. This was one of the intermediate stops on the sad and embarrassing (to the US) Cherokee Indian “tribe relocation trail of tears” where so many perished.
Our shakedown trip was not without incident, and of course, Murphy’s law ALWAYS prevails. On a lovely Friday evening, after our nice downtown dinner, we strolled back to the truck only to find it wouldn’t start! This was well beyond the time any reasonable repair shop would have been open, so we asked for an Uber (turns out only one driver at any given time in the entire area) which arrived shortly and delivered us back to our RV. Not hopeful, I Google’d repair shops, pessimistic that any shop would be open on a Saturday. Lo and behold, one shop WAS listed as operating on Saturdays. I placed a call, expecting to leave a voice message, but instead Daniel answered, and explained that their shop was also the only tow company in town! It was arranged that Daniel would tow our truck to the shop early the following morning:
The next morning, right on schedule, Daniel showed up in the tow truck to pick me up and then proceed to retrieve the truck from its overnight parking spot. Long story short, after several gratis rides in the tow truck between the shop and our RV camp, by noontime the problem had been diagnosed (failed fuel pump) and repaired, a final pick up for me in the tow truck and I was on my way with repaired truck in hand before noon that same day! Only in a small town!
Alas, Murphy was not through with us yet.. on the following day, we drove the truck again into the village. This time it was weekend, and the village was packed with visitors, leaving virtually every parking spot filled. Luckily, we scored a street-side parking spot on a narrow winding street near village central. In preparation for our truck’s new duty as a tow vehicle, I had installed a new pair of (relatively expensive) powered exterior mirrors that can be extended an additional 4 inches or so (you know where this is going, right?). Sure enough, we came back to our truck to discover that some nimrod had whapped the driver side mirror, smashing it into pieces, and of course, moving along without so much as a note. The final insult came when I learned from the supplier that they don’t provide any individual parts.. just a complete pair of 2 mirrors.. lesson learned (the hard way, as always):
Reluctantly moving on from Eureka, our next stop was the Poverty Point Reservoir State Park in North Eastern Louisiana. We deemed the park to have been aptly named, considering the numerous sad looking villages in the nearby vicinity. The kind of towns that prompt one to ask “why”. Although the park was beautifully appointed, perfectly coiffed, and our site well spaced from others, it was in broad sunlight, and September just wasn’t quite late enough in the season to encourage languishing outside any time after 9 AM. We were thankful that our itinerary called for just 2 overnights (one full day), and were quite happy to be moving on when our time was up. Nevertheless, is was a quiet park with pleasant mornings, and one we’d considered for an overnighter in the future.
Our final stay, and definitely our favorite, was well-appointed and wooded Lake Livingston State Park, just less than 4 hours from Austin. All the RV sites are well spaced from each other, all with level concrete pads and full hookups, and the huge Lake Livingston itself just yards away, providing a bit of respite from the summer’s heat, and made us appreciative that we had opted for 3 nights stay. This is a very popular park, and it appears ALL the sites will be occupied by the weekend.
It was enroute and at Lake Livingston that we had our first introduction to the “lovebugs”. We encountered droves of these interesting flying critters on the highway to the park, such that on arrival the entire front of the truck and RV were just covered with suicidal bugs. The lovebugs are so named because of their propensity to mate IN THE AIR, hooked up rear to rear (so that one of the two is flying backward). They are literally everywhere during the brief season, and seem to be most prevalent in the gulf coastal areas. A Google search provided some interesting facts.. one.. they are completely harmless, and two.. they remained hooked up for the roughly 52 hours of their total lifespan!
Upon arrival at Lake Livingston, we encountered the final operator error of our trip. The trailer has internal tanks to store drain and toilet water (grey and black water). It is customary to keep the external drain for these closed to retain a bit of liquid to aid in the decomposition of the contents, and only drain into the sewer receptacle provided by the park when the tanks get over 1/2 full.
Both our tanks were showing 2/3 full when I decided to open the 3″ sewer drain for each.. Surprise, NO effluent came out (there is a clear plastic elbow on our train pipe to observe the action). I was baffled, as were several nearby “seasoned” campers. I went to bed that night laying awake trying to determine an appropriate course of action to “clear” that drain. Finally, in early morning, I awoke an “aha” moment and the thought that I must have left the plug in the end of one of the sections of drain pipe (these plugs are provided to prevent any residual liquid in the pipe from leaking while stored away). Sure enough, next morning, when I checked my box of drain plugs, there were only 3 instead of the 4 provided with the two sections of pipe.
I knew that there was going to be a couple gallons of ugly effluent backed up on the downside of the flush valves when I removed the drain pipe to remove the plug inside. Not wanting to dump anything on the ground, I drove down to a nearby lumber yard to purchase a 5 gallon bucket (post script.. YES, there was a good 2 gallons or so of liquid in that line when I disconnected the hose).
It was at Thomas Supply that I had a free time travel experience back to the 1960’s! Inside the store, instead of the expected check-out counter, a la Home Depot, there were 6 guys seated at 6 desks ready and waiting to write up your order (I’m gonna take a wild guess here that females need not apply!)
Each desk was equipped with land line phone and a big paper price catalog (not a computer to be seen). I dutifully approached one of the desks and made my needs known, at which time the “associate” got up from his desk, personally walked me back into the store for each of the items I needed, returned to his desk and hand wrote an itemized invoice in triplicate, then used an old school adding machine with paper tape roll to total up my purchase and calculate sales tax:
The final step, when I proffered my credit card, required my “associate” to walk to a central desk in the front of the store where apparently the only credit card machine was located, process my card, and bring it all back to me.
Ahh.. the good old days when there were plenty of jobs available for people providing actual customer service!
A bit weary, but almost reluctant to finish our trip, we had a leisurely drive back home, already planning our next adventure!