Where is the grill?
Bears were on my mind as we set up our Airstream and campsite at Mahlon Dickerson Reservation in Lake Hopatcong, NJ. This was our second “test” trip in May and we were in NJ for my niece Valerie’s graduation. Now I know most people would not equate NJ with an abundance of wildlife like bears. However, NJ has many natural, beautiful, and wild places (aside from Newark Airport). This park had sent me multiple guidelines and warnings about bears. They said they would provide a grill but it was set back from our campsite to prevent bears from coming too close to your camper. We almost couldn’t find the grill because it was buried so far back in the woods.
Bear warnings and guidelines have been filling my email inbox as we make campsite reservations across the country. I also receive warnings on snakes, alligators, tics, and mosquitoes. Some park and trail names don’t help put you at ease. Snake Bite Trail, Alligator Alley, Mosquito Lake.
Did you know a bear can smell a dead carcass under water from a mile away? A bear’s sense of smell is 7 times stronger than a bloodhound and 2100 times strong than ours. Me being the “detailed-read-all-instructions-and-rules” half of the “Danbo” team I have read everything these parks have sent to us and followed every supplemental link. I have learned the differences between a grizzly and a black/brown bear. I know if we see a cub to immediately back up and back track. Same for if you spot a carcass. Some parks will only allow hard sided campers and no grilling outside is allowed. All food and used grills must be kept in your camper or in your car or truck and must be covered up. One article said some bears at Yosemite were able to recognize McDonalds bags as a source of food and would become aggressive if they spotted them in a car or near a campsite. Some of the bigger parks out west suggest not wearing any clothing outside of your camper you had on while cooking. Travel in groups of three or more. Carry bear spray.
If you see a bear and it sees you don’t run. Ah…sure. Ok.
Bear attacks do happen, but they are very rare. We have learned these warnings are mostly about preserving the bear populations in our parks and wild lands. In cases where a bear can easily obtain food at a campsite it will, of course, come back for more. Unfortunately, when this happens the park officials are often forced to euthanize the bear to protect us. At Mahlon Dickerson Reservation in NJ they had this sad note:
IN 2010 CARELESS CAMPERS CREATED A SERIES OF INCIDENTS WHICH RESULTED IN THE DEATH OF A BEAR AND HER CUB. Please do your part to help us in creating a park this is safe for visitors and our resident wildlife.
Many of the other parks also reference unnecessary tragic bear encounters, almost all of which end badly for the bears.
Lots of the parks suggest specific gear to have handy for your visit and as you walk around. A whistle, bear spray, snake bite kits, tic repellant, mosquito repellant, along with small first aid kits, sunscreen, sunscreen shirts, hats, water, food, cell phones, additional chargers, compact water purification systems, flash lights, manual compasses, etc. just in case. Perhaps this is what it will look like when we prepare to go out for a walk:
On to Trip Planning
I found a great app, Road Trippers, to plot out some the places we want to go to and discover other interesting stops we didn’t know existed. Above is our first map. We believe we are now on trip map revision #32. Only kidding. We probably haven’t really revised it that many times but it has certainly been more times than we can count. Here is our current map:
Our first plan was to head west to the big name parks right away after departing Charlotte in August; Yellowstone, Custer State Park in SD, Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Zion, the Grand Canyon, to name a few. Hitting as many as we could before the weather changed to snow and ice landing in the southwest for winter. After our first two “test’ trips we realized we both would feel more comfortable with additional experience towing before tackling the big mountains and parks of the West. We also decided to slow things down a bit, see some family, friends and places on the east coast first. This will work out better in the long run. We are finding that reservations are often required months to up to a year in advance for many of the public parks and they are often only open to campers a few months out of the year.
Another reason for revision #32 is volunteering. We both want to incorporate volunteer work into this trip. We found RV Care-A-Vanners, a program within Habitat for Humanity (HFH). This program enables those traveling via recreational vehicles to make Habitat for Humanity (HFH) a part of their journey across the country. The program requests you commit two weeks to a house build and they will arrange for a place to camp at a discount. At any given time, there looks to be 50 to 100 open new home builds and disaster recovery rebuilds going on all over the country.
To get a little experience before we depart we volunteered in July with HFH in Charlotte for the start of a new home, a framing job. They build around 52 homes a year in Charlotte. Our timing was not for the weather. It was really, really hot and humid but, they had plenty of water available and encouraged you to take as many breaks as you needed. Framing work is hard. All hand driven nails. No nail guns allowed since it is mostly volunteers. But the experience was incredibly rewarding. We were both amazed at the amount of work that can get done in one day with a group of inexperienced volunteers. We worked along aside a great group of volunteers from a local insurance company, some amazing volunteer professional builders, a driven young lady who was the HFH site supervisor and the future home owner; a single mom, and one of her sons.
Our first scheduled RV Care-A-Vanners job will be in early November in North Fort Myers, FL. Here is a link to their web site and the open jobs listing.
Roadways – I am the map/trip stops/planner/plotter of “Danbo”. Big learning curve! I have gotten us into a couple of uncomfortable situations. Ok, perhaps a few scary situations. We have learned Google maps does not realize we are now 48 feet long and over 10 feet high and probably around 8500-9000 lbs. Therefore, we can no longer stop on a dime or just stop anywhere to get gas, eat, or use the restroom. There are roads we do not belong on due to curves, steep grade, drop offs, narrowness, low bridges, etc. If you read Dan’s earlier blog posts then you know we have almost run out of gas twice. We have gotten stuck behind trucks at truck stops for extended periods of time and we have almost taken out a gas pump. Speaking of this, Dan is no longer allowed to say “I think I can fit”.
I navigated us onto a few very narrow, very windy roads with 8% to 8.5% downhill grades, lots of curves and no shoulders with signs like this:
We had a sudden stop once on a very narrow pull off that really didn’t accommodate our size or needed turning radius requiring us to spend 40 minutes working our way back out of it. I have left my finger prints permanently embedded in the dash of “The Beast” (our nickname for the truck we now own). On a few occasions we had to “phone a friend”, or two, that have been RVing for years to help us remap a path (or figure out a process related to our new mobile “home”). We are forever grateful and owe them one (or two). We are in the process of purchasing a GPS system designed for RVs.
We have made it through thus far with minimal damage, no accidents, no one hurt, and we are still married. It has been at times stressful. We made a deal before we started this adventure, no one gets left at a rest stop. We have since incorporated an exception clause, no one gets left at a rest stop without a cell phone, credit card and some cash. We decided we will get a yellow emergency zip bag to keep in the glove compartment and pre-stock it with these items. If you come out of the restroom and see the yellow bag where the Airstream was parked, you know you are on your own.
Fuel – We refuel frequently while towing, especially traveling through the hills and mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. It has reminded me of my father and something he says every time we speak of the turquoise Pontiac Catalina my parents owned when I was about 5 or 6. It was enormous.
My dad always says, “it passed everything but a gas station”. Except that for us, with the beast and Airstream in tow, we don’t pass anything, including gas stations! Our current average MPG while towing is 10. Average miles per hour including all stops and hills is 45. So far, average distance on a full tank is roughly 250 miles depending on the number of hills and mountains.
Campgrounds – As the official “Danbo” plotter/planner/detail person I research campgrounds before we book reservations whenever possible. We are trying to mostly stay in national, state, county and city parks. The Army Corp of Engineers also has a large network of campgrounds along the waterways and lakes they manage. So far, these public campgrounds have provided the experience we are looking for on this trip. More natural settings, spread out, trails and lakes, reasonably priced, along with helpful, knowledgeable Rangers.
Another option we have discovered and can’t wait to try is Harvest Hosts. This is a network of farms, vineyards, breweries and local attractions that you can park at overnight. There was a small membership fee to join but there are over 620 participating businesses.
They ask all members to patronize the businesses allowing them to overnight park. Here is a link to their website which also has a great short video on the network. Harvest Hosts
Most of the Harvest Host parking options do not have “full hookups” (electric, water, sewer) and many of the desirable public parks and lands are lacking one or more of these hookups as well. We are hoping this will not be a problem for us on a short-term basis. Our Airstream has solar panels for basic electric functions and fresh and waste water tanks. We tested our ability to go without hookups and we lasted less than 48 hours the first time. Our nemesis was the grey water tank (all waste water but the toilet). Even though we were taking “military style” showers (turning the water off and on only as needed) we filled that sucker up quickly. Besides showering, when you add in hand washing, cleaning fruits and vegetables, cooking, doing dishes, etc. we generated way more waste water than we anticipated. Everyone we spoke with has the same problem when “dry camping” (no hookups) with the grey tank. We are learning from others along the way how to cut back on the grey waste water.
This trip will include more random social interactions than I am accustom to and/or normally like. Dan on the other hand, having a sales engineering background, is much more at ease with this aspect of our trip and truly enjoys meeting people at almost any given time. Me, not as much. So far we have met some very nice people from all over the country with a wide range of backgrounds and stories. Teachers, mechanics, all kinds of engineers, former CIA and military, artists, and several accountants! Go figure. (Ha! Pun intended). Most of the people we have met are very generous, kind, interesting and want to help others whenever needed. They have shared their time, knowledge, food and tools with us. On the darker side of this aspect of our trip, we had a very disturbing and chilling encounter when a neo-Nazi tried to befriend us.
Preparing for launch
Immediate Challenges – Fitting all the stuff we think we need to bring with us into less than 200 square feet! Changing our address and insurances, etc. with no specific “home” this has been very challenging and interesting to coordinate. Luckily, there are associations and groups for full time nomads to help us navigate these challenges. We are currently working with one called The Escapees. Here is a link to their site if you are interested: Escapees
Next Up – As mentioned previously, we were originally blazing a fast path west but now we are going to meander a bit first on this side of the country and see some family and friends. Our first stop at the end of August is very close by, Asheville, NC to visit some friends. Then onto West Virginia for our first National Park stop, the New River Gorge National River. It is a newer national park, established in 1978 encompassing over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River.
The New River is the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. It is home to this:
The New River Gorge Bridge. It is the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere and the third highest bridge in the United States. I am hoping to talk Dan into crossing it with me. 😊 They connect you to it with cables and you can walk across the catwalk underneath set up for bridge repairs.
We will then be heading up into PA to visit family, circle back down through the Carolinas and GA and on into FL as the weather turns colder. The next national park will most likely be the Everglades. After that we will start to work our way across the southern part of the country westward.
We have just set up an Instagram account as well, under the name Dan created for us and our trip (Dan, not me) “Danbosbigadventure”. We will start posting pics there along with posts to this blog when we get underway in about 10 days!
Good Bye Charlotte – Wish us luck packing up the Airstream. We will miss Charlotte and all the wonderful people we have met here very much.