2020 COVID RV Trip Out West

2020, the year of COVID. So much has changed at this point. Our vacation plans for 2020 certainly didn’t include renting a big ass RV and driving it across the country and back. But as COVID swooped in and crushed the cruise industry, canceled our cruise, and ruined the majority of dive destinations by way of limited inter-country travel, that’s exactly what happened.

Out west is amazing. I’ve seen parts of it on two previous motorcycle trips. Both times I’ve been in awe of the beauty and magnificence of it all. I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what’s out there. You just have to see it for yourself and photos simply do not do it justice. Claudine experienced this on our trips to Europe. You can describe the Alps, you can take photos of the Alps but until you’re there, breathing the air and looking up (or down) across them you just don’t “Get It”. That was the motivation for this trip. To share that awe with her and Matthew. Doing it by motorcycle was out of the question. We had talked about flying out, renting a car, and driving around but COVID made that problematic. While I understand travel isn’t horrible and there are hotel rooms are available, we wanted to be 100% self-sufficient. What better way to do that than with a big Class A RV that can support you self-contained for days at a time?

At this point, I will focus on our trip, how I planned it, where we visited, and share some stunning photos. I’ll put together another post on the RV we used for the job, how I came to that decision, where I found it, what worked, and what didn’t.

I had 11 workdays of vacation (two weeks and a day) to maximize. I picked up the RV on Friday, August 7th, drove it to our house where we packed it for an early departure on Saturday the 8th of August, traveling out west in a southern to northern loop (more on that later) returning home on Saturday the 22nd to unpack before returning the RV on Sunday the 23rd. 17 days, 16 nights with the RV and/or traveling provided us with the sampling of “Out West”.

Having done it twice on the motorcycle there were places I knew we wanted to see. Pikes Peak and Beartooth Pass speak to me so they were must-haves. Sadly the latter wouldn’t make it on the trip since we weren’t going to be close enough with a rental car at hand and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a 36 foot RV over Beartooth. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s not my RV.

I had started to plan the trip north to south but realized that would put us in the Black Hills during the 2020 Sturgis Rally. I don’t have anything against Sturgis or my fellow bikers who choose to ride Harleys, but where masses like that are gathered, well, that’s just not for me. Plus the point of this trip was not to mingle with millions of people amid COVID. So I planned it backward (to me).

Our route looked like this.

I used a couple of very useful apps to plan. The first of which was RVParky.com and you can see the entire itinerary here including addresses for parks and where we stayed. RV Parky is particularly useful to call out places you can stay in an RV, even if that stay is a Walmart parking lot that permits overnight parking. Since we were in a self-contained Class A, we assumed we’d probably spend one or two nights on the cheap this way. Turns out we didn’t need too. As I was planning our trip, I made only one reservation and that was night number 1. The entire trip was tentative and subject to change based upon weather, or if we decided we just wanted to stay somewhere longer.

RVparky has both a website and an app (which really only loads the website). But it was extremely handy. The reviews were often dated, and links to websites for a lot of parks were bad. But you could generally find them without too much trouble.

The other application that I stumbled on thanks to brilliant google adwords targeted marketing. You know, when you start looking for cars or RV’s on the internet and then all you see on the internet are RV and Car ads. Yeah that. Was:

HarvestHosts.com

All it took to hook me was a 15% off coupon code. For $79 you’re a member and can request to park or stay overnight at any of their hosts. These are generally wineries, breweries, museums, or farms. The idea is that in exchange for letting you park there you’ll patronize their wares (wine/beer/farm). You’re supposed to be self-contained, no hookups, but we found that some did offer electric hookups for a fee.

On our first night (1 on the map), we stayed at Arcadian Moon Winery just east of Kansas City. We got there early enough to order pizza and a bottle of wine. We’re wine snobs and prefer big bold Cabs and Reds Blends. Most midwestern wineries focus on sweet wines which are not our thing. I bought a bottle of their darkest red and it was OK, but it wasn’t awesome (for our tastes). Their pizza was amazing though and I’d definitely go back or stop again if I was in the area.

Free parking (with purchase of wine and food), but we would have had to eat anyway. 🙂

Day two of the trip was the slog across Kansas to get to Colorado Springs. Driving through Kansas sucks, there’s no other way to say it, up long hills, epic winds, and just plain, flat, basically boring scenery. I’ve done this first hand on the motorcycle and expected the worst. We got lucky, the winds were kind, and outside of being hot enough to have to run the generator to keep the beast cool, it wasn’t bad at all.

As we arrived into Colorado Springs we began calling around to find a campground. I had anticipated staying at the base of Pikes Peak in the Pikes Peak RV Park but they didn’t have a spot. Using the power of RV Parky we stumbled upon Lone Duck Campground

The woman on the phone assured us she had room for our 40 foot RV (36 feet with 3+ feet of bicycles on the back). We made our reservation and started hunting for a rental car. We found that at the Airport so we swung by the Col Spring Airport picked up the rental and drove to Lone Duck.

Lone duck’s driveway was a little intimidating for me at first, and when we pulled in we noticed the following on their website. Something our reservation person failed to mention to us.

The owners were kind though, honored the reservation, and helped us slide into one of their few open spots at an angle. This is a small family campground, with a fishing lake, pool, as well as a restaurant (closed for COVID), and an arcade full of vintage machines. It was quiet with lots of activities and kids for Matthew. He made a few friends that day, one of which he still talks to almost daily.

We were clearly the largest “thing” there and we felt just a little out of place.

We’d be here for two nights (2,3 &4 on the map), spending the 3rd day of our trip visiting Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, then some simple campground rest/time.

After two nights in Colorado, we headed towards Moab, UT. We took the RV safe route up through Denver and across 70 until wildfires pushed us around a 4-hour detour north through Steamboat Springs around to Rifle, CO where we could hop back on I-70 (6,7&8 on the map). We headed towards Moab without a place to stay or a plan.

The smoke from the wildfires could be seen for hundreds of miles and was actually quite thick during some of the detour affecting visibility. In the photos below you can see the cloud of smoke and if you zoom in can see some of the fire raging on top of the butte.

We once again leveraged RVParky to find a pull-through RV spot with full hookups for our 4th night at Moab RV Park just north of town (9 on the map). Our goal was to get up early and drive through Arches and Canyonlands. The detour really hosed us and put us in the RV park in the dark after the office had closed. It was a great park though, very well maintained, and easy to maneuver in. We had an end spot and hooking up in the dark wasn’t that bad. In fact, Claudine drove us into Moab and parked the RV.

The next morning she got up and did her sunrise thing, and I broke the drone out for a little sunrise photography. We had a great breakfast and coffee then took off for Arches.

Arches, Oh My… What a beautiful place.

So much amazing scenery in a single park. It was mind-blowing. We spent about 4 hours driving through, taking photos, seeing the sights. Claudine and Matthew took a short hike up one of the easier trails. We’ll spend a lot more time here next time for sure.

Canyon Lands – The Northern Rim.

Our original plans had us getting into MOAB in the early afternoon. We were hopeful that we could check the Arches box upon arrival but the detour ruined that plan so we needed to squeeze them into a single day. We were already north of Arches/Moab so we focused the north rim of Canyon Lands; Island in the Sky and the Grand View.

At this time it was time to turn the trip north. (Point 12 on the map) Up through Provo, Salt Lake, etc. towards Tetons and Yellowstone. But not before spending the night at what would become one of my top 3 spots or stays (#12 on the map).

Once again, HarvestHosts.com for the Win! While planning the trip I didn’t really expect to stay at more than two harvest hosts, there just weren’t that many along our trip. The ones that did exist were in the first half and last half. But deep in the middle, near Hiawatha, UT, was this thing labeled a FARM/Ranch but we didn’t know what to expect. It was a bit out of the way but it was intriguing. When the detour messed up our plans heading towards Moab I showed it to Claudine and asked her what she thought. She liked it, and we were jonesing for a boon-docking experience with big skies and no other lights so we called the number and asked if we could spend the night there.

Leo, the owner of LZJ Ranch’s Hiawatha Hideout, said he had an opening. Harvest hosts need to be self-contained, if we wanted electricity we needed to book via the campground site in the link provided.(Essentially there’s a huge difference in the level of release/indemnity/coverage from the campground broker than there is from Harvest Hosts). So, we opted to just do Harvest Hosts self-contained camping.

On our way there the winds were out of this world, a crosswind sucked a window right out of the RV. One of the escape windows has a bracket that’s glued to the glass, it ripped the glass from the bracket. I knew there was a reason I had Claudine buy the double-sided Gorilla tape.

Upon arrival we were amazed. A little campground, out in the middle of nowhere, with a huge fire pit, picnic tables for two camp spots complete with fire rings. He allowed us to park there w/o hooking up to electric. I got the drone out and started flying while Loe tended to some chores; filling up the cistern, and feeding the horses. Claudine and Matthew went for a hike down the path and I sat and chatted with Leo for about an hour. He inquired as to our route and asked me what exactly I needed to see in Salt Lake. “Nothing ” I said, “It’s just on the way.” He said we were doing it wrong, we needed to take 191 all the way up to Tetons, through Vernal, UT, across the Red Fire Gorge Dam. So we did.

We had a great night looking at the stars, cooking over a camp fire that Matthew started with a flint and striker that he bought at a gas station. Never mind the fact that he got so excited he lost the flint into the fire. He’d never make it on Alone…

Up and at-em early we headed up 191 towards the Tetons as Leo suggested, with a single over-night at Pine Ridge to fill up on water and dump the poo at Rim Station (#14 on the map).

When we rented this RV, I was very skeptical about taking a 26,000lb gas-powered RV over any significant mountain ranges. Up 191 we topped two 10k passes, all without issue. You just have to drive it like you care. 25/30 MPH up the mountains at reasonable RPMs and low gear saving brakes down the mountains. It was so much better than I expected that I thought about making the trek over Beartooth pass. However, I made a commitment to the owner that I wouldn’t, so I didn’t. I would have taken my RV up and over, despite being cussed buy all the guys on Motorcycles 🙂 (I used to be that guy, so I have first-hand knowledge.)

The Bridger Teton Forest boon-docking night was certainly top 3 and might be #1 (#15 on the map). We had planned to boon-dock “around” Tetons but didn’t know where. Claudine did some research and was given a tip to try the Pacific Creek campground. This was just outside the park, in the Bridger Teton National forest. Up Pacific Creek road was a riding stable and a small loop with 9 camp spots. Nine!.

First-come, first-served, no reservations. You either got a spot or you didn’t. Once you were in a spot you filled out an envelope, dropped a check in the box, posted your stub, and stayed up to 5 days. It was 8 miles up a pretty rough 1.5 lane gravel road (40+ minutes in the RV) only for us to find no spot, as we circled around near the trailhead where there was additional parking with horse corals for the trailhead. That’s where we found spot #9 was completely vacant. The stub still had the days date, but clearly they were gone and had cleared out. Not a single chair, or a scrap of garbage, so we backed in and set up.

Matthew and I went for a hike first, then Claudine and Matthew took a hike along the river. We gilled amazing steaks and Claudine discovered that Caymus is the bomb-digity. What an amazing stay. On the way out we were passed by a camper, we flagged them over to let them know we had vacated #9. About 15 mins later they passed us going back down the hill and asked if we’d seen any bears. We hadn’t up to that point. They were told bear #3xx was active in this area and they had driven up to take a look. Not 5 minutes later we round a bend and there he is, having breakfast. We stopped the RV and watched him for about 10 minutes before he rambled off back into the woods.

Bridger Teton forest was point 14 on the map, but I have no idea what day we’re on at this point. Right about half way.

From Bridger Teton, we headed back out, finished our drive through Teton up towards Yellowstone. Our accommodations tonight would be a one night stop in West Yellowstone KOA after taking in the South and Western Yellowstone sites including Old Faithful.

Ahh Yellowstone

Pictures simply cannot do Yellowstone justice. Most of what we saw falls into that category. Try as you might, nothing can represent those breathtaking views. Literally Breathtaking. We spent time at a number of scenic stops, including skipping rocks in the river. Unfortunately, this entire trip would be the equivalent of a “Sampler”. I can easily see 3-4 days just in Yellowstone next time.

In typical; Traveling with Claudine fashion, we rolled into the Ol Faithful parking lot, walked to the geyser, waited maybe 7 minutes and watched it erupt. When I visited on the motorcycle I remember standing around for well over an hour, in mid-July heat in full moto-gear. It sucked. After the show we headed to the Yellowstone gift shop and loaded up on items for everyone in the family. I picked up a new Tilley hat so all was right with the world.

Our stay that evening was at the West Yellowstone KOA. This was our first KOA on the trip, but only the first of many. What a great, clean campground. It was about 85% full, but we secured a full hookup pull-through spot. We opted for their dinner and had some of their “Almost Famous Ribs”. Look, I know ribs, and well my expectations were pretty low, but the price was right and we didn’t have to cook. They were amazing! Matthew rode his bike, made friends, played basketball, and had a blast. He’s a campground kid for sure.

Not much beats a full hookup; water, electric, and full sewer. It’s not cheap though $108 just to park the beast. KOA’s are premium and for the most part, they deliver.

Today we’d circle back through Yellowstone, up north, see some waterfalls, exit the east, through Cody and up to Billings where we’d again camp at another KOA.

The Billings KOA was THE FIRST KOA. It didn’t have the best reviews, but for our needs it was great. Again, full hookups. Their restaurant/grill was closed as was the pool. Actually as I write this it wasn’t all that memorable. Wait, I remember now, overall the campground was fine. Matthew and I attempted to use the pool, it was nasty. Then we tried the hot-tub, or rather the lukewarm tub and it was worse than the pool. We actually had a fire pit we could use without setting the RV on fire so that was good (not the case in West Yellowstone). I’d give this place a C+ to a B-.

Claudine got up, walked to the river for her early morning first light and sunrise. Saw some deer and talked to some local fishermen on the river.

Up and at-em early to another Top 3 destination/overnight. Devils Tower. By way of Custer’s Last Stand near Hardin, MT.

Devil’s Tower, I don’t have the words. We drove up to the Tower, hiked the easy trail around it. Matthew played on the boulders, then he and I rode our bikes down the mountain from the tower towards the bottom (Downhill all the way if you didn’t catch that part). We snagged a spot in the Devil’s Tower KOA (again with full hookups), with a view of the tower for Sunset and arrived just before the show. It was amazing.

From Devils Tower we headed towards Rushmore and the Black Hills. Our initial strategy was to swing by the airport in Rapid City, SD and pick up a rental car for two days to explore the Black Hills. Instead, we discovered that some KOA’s rent cars, and so did the Rushmore/Palmer Gulch KOA. So we procured a full hook up spot and rental car from the KOA. This KOA is large, and very well maintained and managed. We actually got a great pull through spot, out of the main KOA pull-through parking-lot. As they guided us past all the big busses and diesel pushers and 45+ foot campers I was initially concerned. Once we parked though, I was very glad we weren’t with everyone else. We had a great spot, on a hill and didn’t have to star in our neighbors windows.

On day two we took the rental car to Rushmore before everyone else got there, circled around, and drove Needles Highway, then up to Deadwood for the afternoon. It was a great day.

From The Black Hills, we started the sad, 3 Day drive home. Our epic journey was coming to an end. We left Rushmore and headed northeast up to 90 towards the Badlands. Of course, we had to stop at Wall Drug on the way in. I’m sparing you photos of Wall Drug, if you’ve been to our Jungle Jim’s it’s about the same thing. We stopped, we ate, we shopped. People loath the signs advertising it for 100’s of miles, but honestly that adds to the charm of it. It is what it is and you know what? I’ll stop every time on my way through for FREE ICE WATER or a 5 cent cup of coffee.

From Wall we dropped into the north side of the Badlands and drove through the park stopping along the way for Matthew to climb and take in the views. The Badlands are Epic as well. Hard to follow up on the scenery we’ve already witnessed but it’s unique in its own ways.

The initial goal was to stay at the ONE campground in Interior South Dakota, just south of the Badlands, but we popped up Harvest Hosts, com again and started looking for something a little closer to home to make the next two days less than 600 mile days and that’s what we found it. #4 on my Top three stays list. (Stop #23 on the map)

So many great photo opportunities. Out near Wagner, SD is a little Brewery; Choteau Creek Brewing Company. Paul and Lisa, run a little bed and breakfast while Paul works on building his Micro-Brewery. We camped, we drank, we ate. Lisa made us a killer breakfast, and if you stop by do not miss an opportunity for one of her pizza’s.

Really, one of our favorite stops, after this it was all driving, driving and more driving. We did find another state park for our final stop. On the river at the Illiniwek Forest Preserve campground in Hampton, Illinois.

Just a basic campground, water and electric, first come first serve with a dump station. There’s a story here but you’ll have to buy me beer or bourbon to get it. One last night of cooking over an open fire, then 500 miles to home

So, in total, 4960 miles round trip, untold gallons of gasoline, 14 sunsets and sunrises, an infinite number of memories created, vivid images burned into my memory. A little exhausting, lots of driving, some stress here and there when it’s not your RV. Only two Oh S### moments, a few RV repairs, all basic, but simply one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Now that a week has passed, I’ve had time to think about the trip, the mechanics of it, what I’d do differently, and what would remain the same. Honestly, I wouldn’t change much. We had a lot to do and see in a finite amount of time. It certainly wasn’t ideal RV’ing, but given our constraints, it was awesome. I am thankful that the owner of the RV entrusted us with his baby for this epic journey. Asking someone to let you put 5,000 miles on their RV, even when you rent it is a tall ask. Mileage is what kills the value on them. You can find this RV on RVshare.com if he’s still renting it. I believe they are but I wouldn’t ask to take it out west.

I’m going to write up my RV specific experience thoughts in another post here, this one is long enough as it is. It’s breaking my web host with all the images.

Will we be RV owners in the future? Stay tuned.

16 Days and 14 Nights in a Class A RV

This post/article is a piggy back to my article on our two week RV trip out west which you can read about here if you didn’t already. This article will focus on the RV itself, how well it worked for the task at hand, and what I would change if I could do it all over again.

2015 Fleetwood Southwind 36L

The RV we used was a 2015 Fleetwood Southwind 36L stats here via rvusa.com.

MSRP: $144,549
Fuel Type: Gas
Ford F53 Chassis / Ford Triton V10 (Gas) 362-hp and 457 lb-ft of torque, with fords dependable TorqShift five-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, plus Tow/Haul capability.
140 cubic feet of inside storage (cabinets. cupboards, closets, under-seat/bed, etc.)
118 cubic feet of outside storage. The brochures mention pass-through storage but I didn’t see that, although there were some full length ‘slots’ in the rearmost and middlemost slots.

The 36L has the following floorplan:

That’s right 1 and a half baths!

I’ll talk more about what was awesome about this and what was less awesome about this later.

Finding a rental and executing it.

When we were planning for our epic vacation I talked to numerous folks about what type of RV we should take. Everyone pushed us towards a Class A over a Class C for comfort, a step up in build quality, and most importantly noise level, especially for mountain travel. Apparently the doghouses (the area between the driver/passenger seat that covers the engine) aren’t as quiet, especially when you’re grinding up a mountain, or holding the engine back in low gear. I’ve driven many vans so I knew what they were talking about. Ideally, a diesel pusher with the engine and all associated noise in the back is best.

I started my rental search on rvshare.com as well as outdoorsy.com about 2 and a half months before the trip. Kind of last-minute actually. Both are great owner rental sites. I didn’t want to drive an RV USA billboard across the country and back. I wanted to look and feel like an owner, and rent an RV that was *hopefully* cleaner, and likely more cared for than a fleet rental RV. Mor than the vanity that that sounds like, I wanted an RV that the owner knew about and could tell me, it does this well, that well, doesn’t do this well. Over someone who would just hand me the keys. and say “Good Luck, Have Fun!”.

My initial selection was a diesel pusher in Cincinnati. I think I interviewed the owners more than they interviewed me. We talked about the trip, our desire/need to be 100% self-sufficient for boon-docking (the act of parking an RV anywhere legal without hookups). He totally got that. We talked about the route, mountain passes, roads, etc. We agreed on the deal but his RV was in the shop getting a ride enhancement kit, plus he was headed out-west 2 weeks before us and we’d be cutting it close. Then it happened, when he picked up his RV from the suspension work other things weren’t working, he wasn’t comfortable I’d have a trouble-free trip. So I started looking again. (We’ve kept in touch and I will rein that RV next).

I talked to a number of Class A owners, and asking to take their $100k+ RV across the country and back over two weeks is a big ask. Mileage is what kills the value in RV’s and I’m asking some of these folks who have less than 20k miles on their RV in some cases, to let me put 25% of the mileage on the vehicle. I’m paying for that of course, but If they could rent it to someone for 7 days that’s simply going to drive it 300 miles (150 miles to a campground, park it for a week, and drive it back), that seems more lucrative and simply a better rental strategy.

Surprisingly, most folks weren’t really all that concerned with our ability to drive one. While I’ve driven some big things in my life including a 40 foot UHaul, and a box truck back in the day, I had no REAL RV experience and I was clearly jumping into the deep end. It looks very intimidating, more mostly because you’re driving something that potentially costs more than our house to replace, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t that bad (more on that later).

Renting from rvshare/outdoorsy…

You need to be very mindful of a few things:
(1) The night rate usually only covers a very limited number of miles per day, some as low as 25, some as high as 150, the average seems about 100. Then there’s an overage charge for miles over that. We were looking at approximately 5000 miles, over 14 days. That mileage charge adds up FAST.
(2) If you’re going to be driving through very warm areas (+84F), boon-docking, or if you need to 100% self-sufficient, you’re going to be running the generator. They also only include a small number of hours. Again if you’re parking at a campground with full hookups all the time, not a huge deal. (We used 180 hours of 16 days which was about 11 hours a day on average. We had to run the generator driving through some warm climates to keep things cool and we did a fair amount of boon-docking that required the generator for AC. We were not ‘roughing it’. If you have a Class A RV, you’re not going to want to sweat while you sleep. Those excess generator hours can add up too.
(3) Road Side Assistance, both rvshare and outdoorsy claim to provide it, but it’s not free, it’s part of the fee. Neither have great reviews for their ability to provide any of this.
(4) The excess Insurance. That’s right EXCESS. Usually hidden under taxes and fees. While I can appreciate the buffer between the renter and the rentee that exists to solve disputes and offers some level of assurance to the renter, it’s sadly overpriced and underperforming. Read the fine print, RVShare makes you essentially buy STATE MINIMUM Coverage at an exorbitant rate for your small rental period. That’s simply not enough insurance for the damage you can do in or to a 25,000 lb vehicle that can cost upwards of $200k, or more to replace. Now I’m assuming you have good insurance, not 1-800-Call the General. With someone like StateFarm, Nationwide, Farmers, etc. With good limits 250k/500k or similar, your policy will extend to you renting an RV for less than 30 days.

Check with your Agent don’t take my word for it. Get it in writing too. Or just pay the RVShare Broker TAX and take their insurance knowing that if you end up testing it you’ll likely be disappointed.

It should be noted that I’m not bashing on these companies. They perform a service and helped me find an RV. Their business model is what it is. I’m not going to change them. Given the right rental circumstances, they are just fine. For us, driving 5,000 miles, we wanted better coverage and better exposure. I bought my own RV Roadside assistance through Good Sam, we also had more than adequate insurance coverage.

Renting is a great (albeit expensive for long trips) way to try RVing without the expense and pain of actual ownership. All in, for our adventure we spent $6100 on the rental, about $2000 on fuel for the trip, and another call it $1200 for RV parks and other RV things. Had we owned one, and didn’t have the rental fee we’d be talking less than $4,000 for two weeks of vacation. You can’t beat that for that type of adventure and the experiences we had.

You can also help someone else make their payments for that big RV they bought and aren’t using like they thought they would. Don’t be that guy. We’re trying not to become that guy. 🙂 So in that vein, renting is CHEAP.

I think that covers all you need to know about renting, find your vehicle, be smart, protect your self, (and the renter) and make a deal.

Let’s talk about equipment and experience.

Ok, this is about Class A RVing, some of it might apply to a large Class C as well. It won’t be applicable to Class B’s really, or if you’re looking for a popup-trailer, or tent camping experience. If you want to freeze your buns off in a tent; go for days without showering or roll the dice on community showers, don’t need adequate refrigeration and AC, want to make a fire to make camp coffee instead of just pushing the button on the Keureg then you can probably skip the rest of this article.

Camping in a Class A RV isn’t proper camping if that’s your description. This is glamorous camping or “glamping”.

A Class A RV is a rolling hotel room. A bit tight in some areas, but you can get to the bed and take a nap if you’re not driving. You can start the generator rolling down the road, use the microwave, make coffee without stopping. Pullover and you’ve got a clean restroom at your disposal. All of these things are also generally available in a Class C. But less so in others and certainly not available in a tow vehicle as easily.

The downside is, unless you’re pulling a car, you’re pretty much stuck when you get where you’re going. They are harder to park, and not super conducive to sight seeing in tight places. Needles Highway comes to mind here, parking lots and pull offs, if they are full or small aren’t conducive. One of the RV rental sites doesn’t allow you to tow anything so keep that in mind. Finding rentals isn’t that hard, you just have to plan ahead. Some KOA campgrounds rent cars and airports handle large vehicles and busses every day so getting in and out was easy. So it’s a trade off anyway. You do sacrifice freedom when you don’t tow but it costs you in mileage, drivability, and park-ability.

Campgrounds have plenty of pull-through spots but not always a lot of spots for40+ feet and a tow vehicle. I’m convinced we got into some campgrounds because we didn’t have a tow vehicle. We could not have gotten in/out of three of the places we stayed had we been towing including our two of our favorite spots.

Drivability.

As I said, I’ve driven many things, and multiple trucks. I was a little concerned about at 36-foot vehicle (40 with bicycles hanging off the back), one that wasn’t just a ‘truck’. Here’s what you need to know:
(1) Go Slow, start slow, stop slow. They are big, heavy, nothing happens fast. Just accept the fact that you’re not going to be the fastest thing on the road (this was hard for me). You’re going to get passed by trucks, it’s going to happen. You can’t just jerk the wheel, nothing happens fast. Get a feel for your boundaries and just stay within them.
(2) Use your mirrors and cameras. Newer units have great visibility when you do.
(3) Comfort will come. The first 600 miles were nerve-racking, to say the least. Cars and trucks will move you when they pass. In time you just take it in stride. It wants to go straight, it wants to stay in its lane, let it. If you’re constantly correcting you’ll be exhausted. Look down the road, look at where you want to go, and go there. Don’t look at the lane lines right in front of you. Look ahead. By the end of the trip, I was shocked at where I could park it, drive it, and could back it just about anywhere. For me the two biggest concerns were: (A) Just how dang tall it was, I needed 13′ of clearance, which almost got me pulling into a Walmart that had a truck gate at 12′ two inches to keep trucks out of the main parking lot. Go around. (B), the amount of swing you have passed the back axle. there was probably 12+ foot of coach back there, which made parking lots tough, and you had to pay extra mind pulling away from gas pumps not to take them out. That was basically it.

Let’s talk about the coach and it’s amenities.

Exhibit A:

2015 Fleetwood Southwind 36L

OK, so this RV is 36 feet long, two slide outs, the living room area with the dinette and the sofa/sectional (the driver’s side slide), and the bedroom slide, which really is just pushing the bed out so you can walk past it to the back lavatory.

What I loved about this RV:

Lot’s of room, once the slides were out. I never felt cramped. Slides in for travel, yeah they can all be tight. Access to the back lavatory in compressed mode means you have to roll across the bed and you can’t open any of the dresser drawers, or get to your clothes.

1 and a half baths! (the red stars on Exhibit A) Oh yeah, there were only 3 of us on this trip but it meant it wasn’t tied up when someone was showering, and well, when you gotta go you gotta go. If/when we buy an RV it will have 1.5 baths for sure. No question.

Set up was easy, park, push the auto-level button, wait, get confirmation, push the slides out, done. Packing up was equally easy, just reverse the process.

What could be improved?

Starting with (1) on Exhibit A. That damn sectional. It wasn’t a good couch, and it was an even worse bed. Matthew slept on it just as a couch because the bed was so bad. We had a twin porta mattress to toss on the floor but he felt that was too bouncy. I can see why the sectional is there because the primary TV is on the bathroom wall. There was also a TV in the bedroom and one above the cab as well as one outside. The only use any TV got was on the bedroom hooked up to a PS4 so Matthew could play while we rolled down the road. Other than that we were camping, we didn’t need TV, let alone 4 of them. Yes, our RV will have TV’s but we never once tuned them on to watch TV or even stream a movie over Netflix.
I don’t want a sectional unless it makes a good bed, this one did not.

(2) The sectional and dinette both should be swapped. The dinette belongs in the kitchen. The recliner/Euro Chair should be with the couch. If this were my RV I’d switch them or pull the sectional for a Jack Knife couch that makes a better bed. The dinette also allegedly made a bed, but it was too hard to opperate.

(3) Some RV’s offer a bunk in the cab, we would have preferred that. Above us was a TV and all the satellite gear that we never used. If there’s a real bed here, then none of the couch/sectional comments matter other than position, I’d still switch them.

Other items; the queen bed felt short, I’d opt for a King, but I’m fearful it wouldn’t be any longer, my feet hung off the end. It’s a preference, I slept well though. Afterall we’re roughing it. I could live with a queen sized bied in my RV.

The brochure says this thing sleeps 6. No way, unless they are going to pile into the bed in the back. The couch/dinette are not acceptable ‘beds’ at this level of spend in my opinion. This is a great RV layout for 2 people. More than two and the rest will not enjoy it.

Overall Impressions

Look, I’m not trying to be overly critical or sound that way. I loved this RV and it really changed my mind about what you can do with a GAS powered Class A. Granted I didn’t tow anything with it but people tell me you can’t even feel a 3,000lb car back there. It’s less than 15% of the overall wait at 26,000 lbs.

It was still noisy though, even when not pulling up a hill or engine breaking down a hill, at 68 MPH, it was still quite loud. Not engine loud, just loud, you’re essentially pushing a billboard down the road. I found comfort in my Bose Quiet Comfort headset while driving listening to an audiobook but that takes all conversation off the table. I would hope that a diesel pusher would be quieter.

It had a ton of squeaks, moans, groans. It’s a mobile home rolling down the highway at 68 MPH, however, I expected the fit and finish to be a little better. After all, this RV only had 17,000 miles on it, it’s only 5 years old and looks brand new. There are things I as an owner would tighten up to solidify things where possible. Admittedly that’s very hard to do if your spouse doesn’t drive so you can track the noises. The dash was super squeaky. I even spent a good hour tightening a few things up, putting in shims to eliminate the most annoying noises. But since I don’t plan to drive it for 2 hours and park it for a week, I will drive it, it will need to be quieter. I hope I can find that in an RV, it might not exist.

At the end of the day, I would make sleeping arrangement changes but I could easily own this RV otherwise. It was nice in all respects despite my nitpicking.

Comments or thoughts? post them or email me: matt.rv@dishers.com

Tuft and Needle–Mattress Review Update @ 5 Years

Almost 5 years to the day I wrote the original Tuft and Needle mattress review here: Tuft and Needle–Mattress Review and it’s time for an update.

Perhaps that original review was prophetic. At the bottom of the review I called out their 10 year warranty and if I had any issues in 5 years I’d shoot them an email and they’ll replace it. That’s basically what just happened.

Let’s rewind a little bit first. I would say the first 2 years with our Original Tuft and Needle Mattress was perfect. About that time, I started to feel like my side was sagging a bit. But that’s not supposed to happen so I blamed it on the the original box springs we used from the old bed frame. I purchased two sheets of 3/4 inch plywood and put a platform between the box springs and the mattress. This helped for a while and to be honest I forgot about it, for the next two years.

At around the 4 year mark, I really started to realize that as I rolled to the center toward my wife, if felt like I was rolling up hill. That’s no good. Standing back I didn’t see any clear visible indentation but clearly I felt like I was sinking or my side was softer.

About 3 months ago we got rid of the big traditional wooden bed frame and opted for a newer platform bed. This took the box springs and the plywood completely out of the picture. It didn’t take long until I was hating life. Yes, something was wrong, I was clearly sinking and my side was softer than my wife’s.

So I reviewed the warranty:

Quoted here in case it changes later: ‘We offer a 10-year limited warranty that covers manufacturing and workmanship defects in the product. It includes things like sagging, or body impressions that are greater than 3/4 of an inch. It’s also going to cover any material breakdown of the foam that causes it to split, crack, or deteriorate in any other way. The cover is also included in the warranty. So if you notice any undone stitching or if the zipper breaks, we’re here to help you out.”

That was the rub, 3/4 of an inch, when I looked at the mattress, I didn’t see that. So I reached out. They replied almost immediately with suggestions for checking the bed. You could place two similar weighted objects on the bed, one in the impression, one in the area not depressed, lay a straight edge across the bed and it should be obvious. It just so happened that I had ordered a waterrower and had 4 gallons of water just sitting around waiting for it to arrive. So we took their suggestions and took the required pictures.

For reference the difference in the labels showing was right at 3/4 of an inch.

They immediately replied, “No Question”, we’ll send you another mattress and make arrangements to pick that one up.

I took the opportunity to ask about upgrading to their new MINT Mattress and awesomely they have a policy for that. Just pay the difference in price. Lucky for us it was Black Friday week and they were on sale so the difference was right in line with what I was willing to pay.

*Boom* 3 days later we have a new mattress. Here’s the best part, we get a 100 night free trial on the new mattress since we upgraded. If we decide we don’t like the MINT, they will pick it up, refund our money and send another Original. I’ll update this post in a few weeks when we make our final decision but as of right this moment I think we’ll be in love with it as we were the Original when we first got it.

So if this one lasts 5 years we’re golden 😉 and I’ll buy another. (The replacement doesn’t restart your warranty, which makes sense).

This was one of the smoothest customer service experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years. They stood behind the product and have earned a fan for life.

California Wine Country 2019

2019 marks 30 years Claudine and I have been married. To celebrate, we decided to take a couple of vacations this year. The first was a trip out to California wine country (Napa and Sonoma). We’ve visited both a few times but only as daily jaunts up from San Francisco. We also share our anniversary date with some friends (Vic and Kim) who visit wine country more often than we do so we booked a trip together letting Victor coordinate the lion’s share of the trip.

The following are the highlights of our trip along with some tips and suggestions should you find yourself out in wine country.

Historically we’ve stayed in San Francisco, San Jose, or some other part of the state, usually extending a business trip. Staying in wine country is the way to go. For this trip we opted for a luxury boutique hotel. The olea hotel to be precise. Vic found this hotel, and while it was pricey, it’s right in line for what it offers and have no buyers remorse from staying there. Future trips will likely be at a VRBO or something less hotel like, but I would absolutely stay at the olea again if the price and conditions were right.

The Olea Hotel

If you’re looking for a private boutique hotel with; gourmet breakfast, a good view, fabulous staff, great outdoor places to relax, wonderful pool and hot tub, on-site spa services, crazy comfy rooms with heated bathroom floors look no further.

The Olea was our home Monday – Thursday for our trip. Claudine and I actually came out to California two days earlier and spent those days in a nondescript Marriott in Walnut Creek. We stayed there on points because we thought we’d be bums and hangout by the pool. Turned out the hotel wasn’t all that great so we ventured out on Saturday to Mt. Diablo and the surrounding area and a trip up to Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and some shopping in Mendocino on Sunday.

Downtown Walnut Creek was nice, lots of great restaurants including http://kaiwasushi.com/ for awesome “hole in the wall’ sushi. We also rolled the dice for an off-airport rental car through Sixt. While our experience was great; there was no line to get our car, and we returned it late at night on Friday. It turns out that’s usually not the case. Our car, a full size Chevy Tahoe was great, even though it was a Chevy.

Wine Country 101

If you’ve never been to wine country, or are new to wines and winemaking do take a tour or two. After that, all the stories are the same, the wine making process is the same and usually goes something like this:

Our winery was founded in the <late 1800’s, early 1900’s> we have always made wine here in some form or fashion. We survived prohibition by making wine for the Catholic church or for pharmaceutical use, or we turned into an orchard, and back into a vineyard after prohibition. In 1976 it was <our wine, or one of our closely related wines, vines, winemaker, father or grandfather of our winemaker> who was responsible for beating the french at their own game and putting California wines on the map. We still have those vines today, in a corner of our vineyard.

We <insert winery name> are focused on making world class <insert wine type>. Our micro climate here in (Napa/Sonoma) is the best for <insert one type of grape> because of our unique soil/sun/fog/coastal breeze/non-coastal breeze> and our <flat/hillside/north/south/east/west> facing vineyard is the best for <insert wine type>. We use only the finest barrels from a cooperage in the <USA/France/some other location> and only use <new/old/american/french> oak. We tightly control the char in the barrel better than anyone else and age the wine in our <warehouse/cave> and bottle it at exactly the right time every year. As you explore our wines through this tasting you’ll discover why we are the very best at what we do.

While a little tongue in cheek, it’s not far from the truth. There are, depending who you ask, between 400 wineries in Napa (600 if you include Sonoma) with tasting rooms and upwards of 2000 different wine producers in the region. Even google doesn’t have a solid count.

Over the course of our trip we visited (10) wineries for tastings or tours. Which is a lot over 4 days, as almost all involved a tour or considerable tasting time. 3 per day is a lot unless you’re going to taste and spit, or have a dedicated driver.

Day 1:
Clod Du Val
We didn’t have a scheduled tour or tasting. We dropped in and they were able to accommodate us for a tasting. Newly remodeled or added tasting room was fabulous as were the wines. We liked it enough to join their wine club. They do distribute some wines although the story is always “What you get here is not what we distribute”

Trefethen
We were set up with a tasting here by a co-worker. We opted to taste the red flight in their recently renovated barn tasting area. Trefethen is known for their Pinots and whites that we didn’t taste. Their reds weren’t our favorites but I did like the Dragon’s Tooth Blend quite a bit.

Dinner: Glen Ellen Star
This place was amazing, pricing was steep but amazing 5 Star food.

Day 2:
Del Dotto Cave Tour (Historic), the have 3 different locations and tasting options. We chose the cave experience with barrel tasting and it was excellent. They have a certain reputation but we enjoyed their wines and bought some. I also bought a checkable wine case for the trip back home from Del Dotto.

Favero
Fred Favero winery. Fred’s estate is also his home. Our friends met Fred back in 2009 and insisted we return on this visit. They weren’t wrong. Favero winery is perched atop a ridge that straddles the Sonoma and Napa borders. He makes 3 reds, an estate Sangiovese, a Monte Di Sassi, and an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. He only produces around 500 cases a year and you must buy direct. His prices are very fair for the wine quality, in fact, he could charge 65% more just by labeling them Napa wines but he chooses not too. If presented with an opportunity, don’t miss a private tasting at Favero on his patio overlooking the valley.

Dinner: The Girl and Fig
Excellent food, great service.

Day 3:
B. Wise
B. Wise was a recommendation from Olea, in fact it’s one of the wineries that has an agreement with Olea and promotes a free tasting. The story is unique, there isn’t a winery visit, but there is a tasting room just north of Sonoma. We had the place to our self, they have some really powerful and unique reds. Highly recommend a tasting here. We bought a few bottles and will likely order more from B. Wise.

Kunde Mountain Top
We had pre-booked the Kunde mountain top tasting before we came out to California and we thought it was pre-paid. Had we realized it wasn’t pre-paid we would have cancelled it simply because it made getting to Repris on time a bit tough. The mountain top tasting was OK, not horrible, not great, just OK. You start in the main tasting house, board a shuttle to a perch at the top of the winery overlooking the winery for a handful of tastings, then ride the shuttle back down. Maybe 45 minutes at the top. It is a beautiful view, no question. The wines though were not to our liking. I did enjoy the reserve wine at the end. Same spiel as most, join our wine club for exclusive deals you can’t get in distribution. We didn’t join, nor did we purchase wine. Wade our tour guide was fine, a little too Mr. Rodgers like and they are living off the view and the fact that parts of Bottle Shock were filmed there.

Repris
Repris was a recommendation from Fred (Favero). He called Repris and set up the appointment for us. This was my second favorite private tour behind the time with spent at Favero. We beat feet from Kunde and got there just in the nick of time. It is also up on a mountain and takes time to get there. We arrived were greeted with a white wine for tasting, then another for our ride in a 4×4 side-by-side for a ride up to the top of the vineyard for a spectacular view. We stayed up top for a while getting the backstory for the winery then taken back to the caves for more tastings. We bought wine here, their reds were amazing as well. They too only sell direct.

Dinner: The Salt and Stone
Good food, great service. Likely our most forgettable meal though. Steaks were overpowered by the sauce or all would have been excellent. Mac-n-cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil was amazing.

Day 4:
Napa Wine Train:
This was a vacation check-box item. We’ve done it, we’ve checked the box, and that’s that. We are not group tour people. We don’t do cruise ship excursions we book on our own, direct and private (usually for less). So why in the world would we do a group train tour to take group wine tours and tastings? Because trains are cool that’s why. The wine train isn’t cheap initially, the Estate tour itself is about $375 per person, but when you break it down, 3 tastings at say $60 each is $180, the meal is a $75 meal, that gets you to $280, a driver for the day at $120 bucks is a deal. The train is nice, fairly cozy and thankfully for our tour only half full. I probably would have lost my mind if it was 100% at capacity as it was the tours seemed crowded.

The food was good, but not awesome. Portions were smaller than I expected and we got stuck with one winery that no one in our group would have chosen to visit. But again, box checked. I just wouldn’t do it again.

The wineries we visited from the train:
Domaine Chandon
Bubbles, nobody in our group cared for bubbles. I did enjoy a mixer and the grounds are spectacular. If you like bubbles, this is a no brainer stop for you.

Louis M. Martini
We entered this winery with low hopes. Their wines are average, and we think we’ve visited here before the renovation when the grounds were quite plain. The renovation is amazing, and the wines were surprisingly better than expected. I would visit here again, for a private tasting or tour, but not for a group tour.

Inglenook
Francis Ford Coppola makes Inglenook great again! We visited this estate many years ago and had, honestly a not great experience. The wines were good but the tasting server just didn’t want to be there that day. This time we took a broader tour, got the story of the winery from inception in the 1800’s to now. We even bought a bottle. Well worth the trip!

Dinner: Glen Ellen Inn (late evening dinner after the train)
This might have been my favorite meal, certainly right behind the Glen Ellen Star if not the favorite. Killer Cucumber Martini, and a great Salmon filet. The fact that I had just come from a couples massage at the Olea has nothing to do with my assessment 😉 don’t hesitate to eat here or the Glen Ellen Star.

Day 5:
We wrapped up our wine country time after breakfast at the Olea we checked out and headed south for a day in San Francisco with a mildly successful whale watching tour, dinner at Alioto’s, and a sunset cruise around the bay. The latter was my favorite. Awesome new boat in the Red/White fleet, all electric, very clean and quiet.

I loved every moment of this trip with good friends as phase 1 to celebrate our 30 years of marriage. I’ll post more photos later when I have time.

Working from home, what it’s really like.

Getting up and going to work

For the majority of my career I have gotten up every day and driven into an office somewhere.

I have also been fortunate to work for good companies that worked hard to keep employee morale up and endeavored to provide good working conditions. I’ve lived in my fair share of cubes but I’ve been fortunate. Digineer prided themselves on a great working environment with good 10×10 cubes with high walls and large desks with great chairs. Seapine as well, while the cubes weren’t as large, they at least had tall enough walls to provide some privacy. I was also fortunate to have a closed office for a good portion of my time, though it was rare the door was ever closed. It was invaluable when it was, either for time to focus or time to collaborate in private, without searching out a huddle room or some other hard to schedule resource. Open offices vs cubicles vs closed offices is a debate that will never end. I’ll tee that up for another day.

During this time I’ve always had the ability to work from home occasionally but not as a primary work method. Being on call 24/7 sets you up for that. I’ve always had a virtual office at home, with a full VPN tunnel to HQ, VOIP phone for calls, etc. But the times I used it were rare and more for off-hours coverage working with folks over seas in different time zones.

Bottom line, my go to the office life has been a good one, with manageable commutes, and for the most part great working environments.

The grass is always greener

Throughout my career I’ve interfaced with a lot of users, mostly vendors and consultants who “Worked Remotely” and I’ve supported my fair share too. This usually meant; working from home, car, hotel, someone else’s office, starbucks, or gate B-17 at their local airport.

I admit at times I was envious. Usually when I was heating up my lunch in the cafeteria/lunch room in the microwave, or when the weather was especially nice.

In 2016, I made a career change to the other side of the table. After spending nearly 30 years running an organization or infrastructure, I’m now the guy working from home, traveling, creating solutions, and supporting sales. I’m now that guy who works from “where ever”, but mostly from home.

It’s awesome right?

Yes, it mostly is, and I’ll likely never go back to a 9-5 office but there are some drawbacks and if you’re considering a change like this there are some things you need to know.

Pros to working from home

  • Your office is what you make it. Nobody gets to tell you what your office will look like, how tall the walls are and if you have to share a desk or cube cluster with that person who’s perpetually sick, or is, well, just gross.
  • While you might be given a laptop, your choice in monitor, keyboard, peripherals is usually up to you. Of course you might get to pay for that, but you get to choose for the most part.
  • You have access to the coffee you want to drink, not what’s provided which usually sucks. Speaking of coffee, if you make it, you get to drink it. No more making a pot, walking away to let it brew, come back to find an empty pot.
  • You get better toilet paper 🙂
  • If there is rotten stuff in the fridge, it’s your stuff, for sure, and nobody’s stealing your lunch.
  • If there’s a mess in the kitchen it’s yours. You pretty much know if the dishwasher is clean or dirty, and you don’t have to scowl when you’re the only one that cleans up the kitchen.
  • Work attire, while I mostly worked in a t-shirt and flip-flop software environment, most people don’t and now they get to work in comfy clothes if they want.
  • It’s quiet (usually).
  • I get to move about the house, work from the porch or pool area and get to hang out with these co-workers:
  • Travel, can be nice, it is what you make it. Getting out of the home, out of the office, visiting customers is where it’s at for most of these jobs. (Requires a wardrobe change though). I probably could not work from home all day every day.
  • I’m fortunate that my travel is mostly local, within a 150 mile radius for the most part with limited air travel. That does mean overnights in Toledo, Findlay, Columbus, Louisville and Lexington. Those can be good and welcome from time to time just for the change of scenery.
  • When you’re traveling you normally get to eat pretty good too.
  • You are pretty much immune to office gossip and when it does circle around it’s easier to stay out of it, and/or not perpetuate it.

The Cons to working from home

  • Your at home, a lot.
  • There are no lines of demarcation. This is fundamentally the biggest issue, especially if you’re prone to be a work-o-holic. Work doesn’t start when you get there, and it doesn’t end when you leave. I’m not saying that people who go to the office every day don’t work outside the office, they do, and I did, a lot. But there is a mental switch that happens when you show up and when you leave. Your world changes, and your attitude can change just by changing your environment. When you have a bad day at work, it’s a lot easier to leave most of that behind when you when you walk out the door. It’s a lot easier to “Not take work, home with you”, and likewise to “Not take home into work”. When you work at home, and wake up at 5:30am, you are at work. 8pm at night, you’re still at work especially when the company you work for is headquartered on the left coast. You have to consciously make the decision to turn off work and it’s harder than it sounds, at least for me.
  • The amount of impromptu conversation and collaboration is minimal. Sure you can pick up the phone can call someone, or skype them, or slack them, but it’s not the same. Not even close. It is really hard to keep your pulse on the office vibe. This is a double edged sword, when the vibe is negative you’re not subject to it and that’s generally good. But you’re also out of the loop, a lot more than in an office environment. There is no water cooler to hang out near and just have casual conversations with peers or others in the organization. From a management perspective, those candid discussions with people are invaluable.
  • The phone, you live on the phone. Conference calls, video calls, webinars, Skype, WebEX, zoom, etc. Good thing cellular is pretty much unlimited these days. I used to have a phone plan that provided 500 minutes a month and never used them all. Now my phone usage is counted in days, not minutes. 79 days and 1 hour of phone calls at the time of writing since July of 2017. That’s, 113,820 minutes over a 24 month period, or about 215 minutes a day (22 working days per month) puts that at 3.59 hours on average. Keep in mind there are days when I’m on-site with a customer all day, days where I’m in meetings most of the day. So there are days when 7 of 8 working hours is on the phone. (There’s also no such thing as an 8 hour day, never has been, even when I worked in an office). But that’s a lot of phone time and I am on the phone less than a lot of guys in sales or sales management. Bottom line, I’m on the phone more in 2.5 days (on average) than I used to be for a whole month. (Oh, and regardless of the products ability to use computer audio, I always dial into conference with my phone when possible. It allows me to not be tethered to my desk).

Video/Conference call realities:

  • Collaboration, despite all the tools, just isn’t the same as getting in a room with a whiteboard and working through it.
  • Nobody sees how hard you work. Nobody sees how hard some people don’t work either.

All joking aside. Working from home, or remotely has its challenges. It’s good way more than it’s bad that’s for sure. But it’s not for everyone. It is unlikely that I will ever go back to a daily office job.