Dumping is Top Priority
James arrived safely from Toronto on the motorcycle and enjoyed a quiet night in the Allegheny Forest with me. Traveling from Allegheny to Washington, we had 2 days so we planned to stay at a Harvest Hosts winery along the way. We felt like we had lots of time with an early start and did some touring along the way: Kinzua Dam, Bent Run falls in Allegheny and Kinzua Bridge State Park just outside. We needed to dump the black and grey water but I figured I could dump at the state park: big miscalculation as there isn’t even a campground there. We had to scramble to find a dump station and decided on Parker Dam State Park which seemed to be on the way to the winery.
Steep Sketchy Gravel Road
I followed my GPS blindly and it took me up a super-sketchy, steep gravel back road which was absolutely terrifying. I arrived at Parker Dam in tears and since it was already 3pm, we didn’t have enough time to dump and travel to the winery before they close at 5pm plus I was too upset. Furthermore the cost to dump was half the camping fee anyway and they wouldn’t give me a break for having such small tanks. So we got a site with no electricity, dumped and set up for the evening. It was hot – I put on my swim suit and walked to the lake with Sadie and found a rock I could jump off to cool down in the refreshing spring water! James preferred the comfort station showers.
Our battery was a bit low despite traveling, I had left the inverter on to try to run the fridge but James had turned the fridge off because it was clicking trying to start on propane. Not sure what happened, but we ran the genny to make popcorn (1440 watts was no problem) and finally tested out the AC on the genny: it worked! Genny seemed like it would stall on start but it didn’t and the light went back to green! Woo hoo! Our AC unit is a special power-saver model: it only draws between 1000 and 1200 Watts depending on the temperature differential so it is just the start-up draw we weren’t sure if the genny could handle.
We learned our lessons: dumping is always priority number one, avoid touring while towing and know your route! So the next day we drove directly to Greenbelt National Park campground. James created a route and loaded it in the GPS for me and I studied the route on a map and wrote down all the highway numbers on a list as a back-up. Much better: no sketchy back roads this time and we got there in good time. We rode 2 up no helmets around the campground to choose a good site since we would be there for 5 nights with no electricity. The campground was shady but we found a spot with a patch of overhead sun and borrowed the camp host’s ladder to tilt the panel (shopping list: telescoping ladder). We only needed to run the genny once on the rainy day.
Crossing the Border
Day three and I am alive and well! It took a few tries to get my brake controller set right. For my Tekonsha Prodigy it seems around 9 or 10 on boost 1 is the best setting for my rig. Taylor Coach fixed my stabilizer in no time at all – just bent it back and I was on my way. I filled up my one propane tank that was empty just south of TC, then went straight to the border. I had inventoried all my food in the morning before I left which seemed to satisfy the border official. He asked for Sadie’s vaccination records and specifically asked what fruit I was carrying and if I had eggs, citrus, meat and firewood. He asked where I was going twice – I said Greenbelt National Park Maryland which is near Washington DC. He asked why and I said I wanted to see the museums. He didn’t ask how long or when I was planning to return which is fine and I was on my way. I followed all the rules for border crossing: be prepared, tell the truth, answer questions asked directly without providing any additional embellishments. Success!
I found a town park on the way to the winery which had views of Lake Ontario and a deserted gravel parking lot where I practiced reversing. After a few tries I was feeling more comfortable and went to the winery.
Harvest Host: Schulze Winery
What a lovely experience at Schulze – I had a scenic spot on the grass all to myself. They offered electricity but it was too far to plug in and frankly not needed – my solar/inverter set up is plenty for one night – I was back up to 100% before I left in the morning. Wine was yummy and I bought 2 bottles plus jam and walnuts – why not? Sadie and I walked the grounds on leash in the evening and I let her explore off-leash in the morning when no one was around. :o)
Free Dispersed Forest Camping in Pennsylvania
With my coffers near bare, I routed directly to Trader Joes, bought groceries and had lunch in the trailer in the parking lot. Somehow this took until 1:30pm and I realized I better get going to find my next spot. I routed to the Bradford Ranger Station in Allegheny National Forest. I asked about rustic campgrounds and they suggested the two I had found in my research as well: Hearts Content and Tracy Ridge. To my delight, when I asked about dispersed camping for RVers they gave me a list of Forest Roads that have sites! No kidding!
Well, my tanks were mostly good but my fresh tank needed a top-up. I had asked where the waterfalls are because I like waterfalls but when I realized there was one right off the main road (Big Bend) with a safe parking area to stop in, it was a no-brainer to grab my water jug and top up my tank with fresh waterfall water (my drinking water is separate)! Good chance for me and Sadie to get out and stretch and a beautiful spot too!
The dispersed sites are off a gravel road high in the mountain, though happily the road up was paved. I took it slow and Eddie seemed to be able to handle it just fine – revs good and high but that`s okay it was designed to do that. I found the right road following the directions I got at the ranger station and decided the first spot I came upon would work just fine. I am trying to be a sufficer not a maximizer – so many decisions to make all the time you can drive yourself crazy if you try to find the absolute best.
I thought I set up at a good angle for the sun but realized in the morning that I was off by 45 degrees. Lesson learned: use a compass to determine north if getting sun on the solar panel is critical. So I repositioned this morning though it`s a bit cloudy I am still getting some draw.
So I have everything I need for a couple days – James arrives on Saturday and Sunday we head for Washington DC!
Proof of Concept
With our full-time RV life go-date still a year away, 2015 is our year to test drive RV living in our current set-up on some extended trips. Since we will normally use our 6 month limit in the US to avoid the Canadian winter, this is a rare opportunity to do some exploring in the northern United States. We have already had the privilege of spending a week exploring the major New England cities of New York, Boston and Chicago. Next on our list was Washington DC for it’s amazing museums rumoured to be free (can it be true?). With about 3 weeks available before my brother would be visiting from The Netherlands, it was a good window to go. James booked time off work with the plan to save a few vacation days by working his Canadian employment remotely from an IBM office in Washington while I visited the museums. I will be leaving a few days ahead of him with Sadie so I could take my time getting to our rendezvous point: Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, an easy one day ride for him on the motorcycle.
So here I am at our seasonal campground in New Lowell Ontario the night before I tow out Nellie myself for the first time. I already hitched up Eddie earlier this evening, only the second time I’ve attached the weight distribution hitch. I am taking my time: not only is the process still unfamiliar but I am still learning the tricks to making things easier.
Tonight’s lesson: use leveling blocks under the van wheels to ensure van is level from left to right as well as front to back when hitching. The small slope to the passenger side meant I had to crank up the trailer impossibly high to hook the correct link on the weight distribution hitch on that side. I did finally get it but my back is sore from the cranking.
The last month has been a whirlwind of preparations to hit the road. Not only did we have to buy a van and get the hitch installed, there was a myriad of equipment I felt important for traveling and boondocking. We bought a Honda EU2000i generator, an Oxygenics showerhead, Lynx Levellers (which I needed on day one for hitching up due to the slope on our site), USB phone charging cables & 12 volt adaptors, RV surge protector, grippy shelf liners, water hose Y connector and water bandit, the final couple of LED lightbulbs, a fruit hammock, travel mug, water jug, RV size dishpan and Grey’s Anatomy on DVD (9 seasons). I sewed a high end RV sleeping bag with removable duvet, a stealth cover for the genny and even a bug jacket for my dog. I wrapped our set of four pylons with reflective tape, replaced a malfunctioning RV entry door handle and installed a stylish set of hooks for keys.
Being still a newbie at actually finding places to camp, I’ve researched extensively the different options for overnight camping. As it turns out, there is a huge range of camping styles from parking lots to RV Resorts laden with amenities and everything in between. Many RVers don’t fully understand the range of options and just gravitate to what is most obvious or accessible (eg. private RV campgrounds) only to discover that they don’t actually like camping sandwiched between 2 other RVers within spitting range.
My preference for more secluded camping in natural settings has led me to focus on National Forests campgrounds with no hookups. The majority of RVers want electricity so these campgrounds should be less crowed and since they are not wired, the sites should be spaced farther apart. State Parks seem to offer hook ups more often than not and their price tag reflects that. Somehow just going to a state park seems too easy, though I am eying Ricketts Glen SP which is famed to have many beautiful waterfalls. It took quite a bit more sleuthing to find good info on the Allegheny National Forest Campgrounds which are more varied in their offerings and price points. But the learning process is an important part of this trip – I downloaded the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) and found the ranger stations. It seems the famed “free dispersed camping” for RVers in National Forests is not something they have heard of in Pennsylvania but we will see (the person I talked to said the dispersed camping is only for hike-in tent campers). I don’t mind paying for a site if I like the campground, the price is reasonable and there is a dump station. Water, not electricity, is going to be my single biggest limitation.
Further research on camping programs has put the following on my short list: Harvest Hosts, Boondocker’s Welcome, Escapees and Passport America. Of these, so far I have only joined Harvest Hosts and I took the leap to become a Lifetime Member. I love farmer’s markets and am an avid wine drinker and love museums so it seems like a really good fit for me.
Boondocker’s Welcome seems like a higher effort to coordinate but I expect it would offer amazing experiences. I felt like it was enough to start with Harvest Hosts and focus on staying at their locations in between public lands for this first trip.
Escapees and PA both offer 50% discounts on their network of private campgrounds: while PA has more campgrounds (1800 vs 1000) my own research suggested that the PA campgrounds had far more restrictions and limitations on their discounts. In particular, in Florida there were far more Escapee campgrounds that were actually offering a discount during peak season; it seemed nearly all the PA campgrounds in Florida would not honour discounts from January to April. Everyone talks about PA like it is a no-brainer but I am not sure it is for me. I don’t want to focus on private campgrounds to begin with and Escapees offers their list of boondocking locations to their members as well as access to their flagship resort campgrounds for a few nights at a sizeable discount. PA? Just discounts but only Monday to Thursday for only one or two nights and not during high season or in Florida. Hmmm.
Then there were all the apps. Technomadia conveniently did a recent blog post on their favs and I allowed myself to purchase a few that seemed worthwhile: AllStays is a great everything resource, while CoPilot is an offline GPS program James likes. UC Public Campgrounds lists all the National and State parks, National Forests, BLM lands etc and Cherie (of Technomadia) said it was her go-to app so I got that one too. I also bought the Audubon Birding app. Lots of good free apps too like Gas Buddy (more important when filling up 75 litres a pop and already saved $7 on my first fill up!), Red Cross Tornado warning, Weather Underground, Road Trippers plus Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests. The often-touted Sanidumps promptly crashed and so many people said it was out of date, I deleted it shortly after downloading it. AllStays apparently has dump station info and is more reliable as a pay-app.
Currency and Connectivity across the Border
Finally, I had to get currency exchange sorted out. The past month I obtained a USD credit card for both James and I and opened a USD savings account! Today I got $500 US cash, especially to be ready to pay for campgrounds that don’t take credit card. Then there was the connectivity issue: after some research, I took up Bell Mobility on their offer of $30 for 100 US minutes phone calling and 1000 US text messages for 30 days plus $50 for 1000MB of data for 30 days (normally I only have 500MB per month but then again normally I am at home). I also put James on the phone plan so for this one trip it will cost us $110 plus tax extra to keep in touch. Not really optional as James and I need to be able to meet up and I have to take care of any problems that may crop up at the rentals while I am gone.
So I am ready, I think. The reality of hitting the road has been a mountain of work especially since I am a Canadian with limited experience traveling in the USA. Tomorrow I head to Taylor Coach for them to fix my bent BAL Stabilizer jack and I found a winery just across the border that sells a Riesling and offers free wifi who said I was welcome to stay.