In almost 3 years on the road, we have never tried to travel as many miles in as short a period of time as we did recently while crossing the country. And there’s a reason for that. The longer you drive, the farther you go, the more stuff goes wrong. Driving these rigs is exhausting. You’re on beat up roads in heavy traffic. You’re stressed. You’re tired. You’re putting your rig and tow car through hell. You’re not following your normal set-up and tear-down routines. You get careless. You make mistakes. Things break.
Yet, sometimes, you can’t avoid these lengthy treks. Sometimes, you have to get from Point A to Point B in a short period of time. That’s what happened to us, and it went about as well as expected – which was not well at all.
The plan was to drive almost 1800 miles, from South Dakota to Connecticut, in two weeks. We’d be traveling through 9 states, splitting the driving equally between us. We’d drive anywhere from 150 to 325 miles per day, and stay in most places for just a night or two, except for weekends when we would stay 3 nights. We’d stay at a mix of campgrounds and free spots and, unlike our usual practice, we would mostly travel without reservations.
Never in the history of humanity have two people exclaimed “What the fuck?!” more times in a 14 day period than the two of us did on this trip.
I mean, it was really somethin.
Wall, South Dakota to Eyota, Minnesota
Typically, these days, I limit our drives to about 150 miles. 200 is our absolute maximum. However, because we were driving through several low population states on flat roads, and because we had so much distance to make, I increased the mileage on some of our drives. Fortunately, our first day went great. 225 miles split between the two of us was no problem at all.
We stopped at a Cabela’s in Mitchell, South Dakota and were positively delighted. The store was huge, they had an enormous parking section just for overnight RVers, there were beautifully manicured green lawns to exercise the dog, and as the afternoon wore on, we were joined by several other travelers. Perfect!
The next day, the plan was to blow our normal mileage limits out of the water. This day would involve a 310 mile jaunt that would take us to a county park in Minnesota where we would spend a long weekend.
The trip started off well enough. I drove, he drove, I drove, he drove…. we stopped to get gas. As I was pumping gas into the rig, the guy next to me started chatting about RVs and we had a delightful discussion about the joys of life on the road. As he walked away to go into the store, he said “You kids be safe, ok?!” Lovely, just lovely.
I got back in the RV, we started out onto the main road, and we heard something. There was a “ker thunk” followed by a loud whooshing. It was the same kind of “loud whooshing” that we heard way back when we learned we’d been towing our car wrong for thousands of miles and dragging our tires. Kevin looked at the back up camera and said the Xterra looked “off” and suggested I go check what was going on.
As I walked out the door and looked toward the back of the motorhome, I saw a tire laying out in the middle of the road 50 yards behind us.
The tire that was supposed to be on the car.
It was in the road.
Because it fell off our car.
Now, boys and girls, what do we say when our tire falls off our car?
“What The Fuck?!?!”
What we quickly realized was that this was the same tire that we had replaced when we were in Portland in September as part of our very expensive Xterra rehab project. And, given that all of our other tires were NOT laying in the middle of the road, we surmised that the repair shop in Portland likely failed to tighten the nuts sufficiently when they put the new tire on. Over time, and after a long, bumpy drive through Minnesota, the nuts came loose and off went the tire.
Of course, at the time, we were focused on solving the immediate issue and getting back on the road. Later, when things had settled down, we took stock and realized how incredibly lucky we’d been.
First, if the tire was going to fall off while we were towing, it fell off at the absolute perfect time. We were driving less than 10 miles per hour (because we’d just turned out of the gas station) and we immediately heard it and stopped. Had it happened 20 minutes earlier or 20 minutes later we likely would have had no idea for miles. In fact, this exact same thing happened to our friends Jon and Cathy, and they towed their Jeep on 3 wheels for over a mile before someone flagged them down. At highway speeds, there’s no way to know when something like this happens. For Jon and Cathy, that meant a new axle.
More disturbing, had we not been towing at all, it could have come off when we were driving the Xterra. Just two days before, we’d been driving down I-90, in the rain, on our way to pick up supplies in Rapid City. If the tire had fallen off then…. well, that would have been bad.
So, as much as were all: “WTF?,” we were more: “Holy crap….”
Anyway, we called roadside assistance and as we waited the mandatory 90 minutes for the local tow truck driver to finish whatever he was watching on TV before coming to help us, we were visited by 4 – count em – FOUR people offering help. The first was my friend from the gas station who drove out 3 minutes after we parted ways and found us on the road (So much for “the joys of life on the road,” I guess?) The second was this guy, who pulled his truck up on the lawn outside the gas station, walked over to our front tire (Kevin had jacked up the car already), and explained that he didn’t see any major damage and we’d just need to get the bolts cleaned up and if he had the parts he could help us, but he didn’t have anything with him.
To which we said: “…and who the hell are you?”
Honestly, he was super nice and he was actually a former auto mechanic, so his assessment was extremely welcomed news.
In the meantime, another motorist and a truck driver both stopped to offer help. We assured them roadside assistance was on the way, thanked them for their offers, and headed backed inside to stay warm.
Finally, 86 minutes after we were told help was on the way, our tow truck driver showed up and towed us to a local repair facility.
Of course (of course!!!), all of this happened on a Saturday afternoon, so nothing was getting fixed any time soon. We figured we might as well continue on to our campground (which was an hour east of where this all happened) in the motorhome and just come back for the car when it was fixed. Fortunately, we were scheduled to stay at that campground for a couple nights, so that part worked out well.
Unfortunately, what had already been a long travel day became painfully long when we got to the campground.
I had reserved our site online and was expecting a nice, long, level site with a beautiful big grassy area behind it. Why did I assume that’s what we were gonna get? Because this is the picture the county posted of the site I booked:
Long, level, green grass, a couple trees… Perfect.
Yet, perhaps, it would have been more helpful if they’d shown what the site looked like from the side:
Or from the back of the site, looking up toward the road….
As soon as we saw it, we knew we could never get level, but we pulled in anyway because we needed to come up with an alternative solution. Then, just for cheap entertainment, we decided to give it a shot and see how close we could get. It was bad.
We used every single one of our blocks and still the automatic leveling system had a mighty chuckle before saying: “Please wake me when you’re serious.”
Ok, onto Plan B….
We noticed the site next to us was empty and thought it looked slightly less terrible. I pulled up the website, verified it was not reserved for the night, and we moved into that site.
No go. Same problem.
So, we took a walk around the campground and, after learning that ours was one of many comically unlevel sites in the park:
found one that looked workable.
I verified the site was available, reserved it, and we moved one last time. As the light completely disappeared, for the first time in almost three years on the road, we set up in the dark.
Oh, and the most awesome part? It was Saturday night, so all the locals were out camping – roasting marshmallows and, undoubtedly, laughing at the dipshits who didn’t know how to park their fancy motorhome.
“Look, you cretins, we know what we’re doing! We do this all the time! We can do this with one eye tied behind our backs! We’re professionals! You hear me? PROFESSIONALS!!”*
And with that, we hung our heads, walked inside, dropped the shades, and called it a night.
The remainder of our time at the park was lovely. The only other downside (not that we needed one) was I got a cold – which was WTF-worthy because it’s the second time I’ve gotten sick this year after going about 5 years without getting sick and 2 days into a drive from South Dakota to Connecticut was not the time to get sick.
(*Yes, that was intentional…)
Eyota, Minnesota to Madison, Wisconsin
The report on the Xterra was about as good as we could hope for. There was minimal damage, but the wheel (that sits inside the tire) needed to be replaced and, unfortunately, they couldn’t get that part for several days. Solution: Repair the car side of things (the bolts and the plate that holds the bolts) and then mount our full sized spare. Once we got to the east coast, we could replace the damaged wheel.
So, on Tuesday, we picked up the car, returned our rental, and got ready for the next chunk of driving.
Our destination was Madison, Wisconsin. The problem with this section of the country at this time of year is the highways are absolutely trashed after the brutal mid-western winter. There was tons of construction and tons of chewed up pavement. But, we were moving along alright until, suddenly, a construction project appeared and Kevin had to hit the brakes hard.
Turns out that whole “mass in motion wants to stay in motion” thing is totally accurate.
We have a small, 4 cup coffeemaker that sits on our counter. I never take it off the counter when driving and it has never moved.
As we braked, lots of things started moving forward – quickly. Including the coffeemaker. And, unfortunately, we’d unplugged it that morning (not our usual practice), so it slid right off the counter, flipped over, and landed upside down on the stairwell behind the passenger seat.
None of which would have been all that bad had we removed that morning’s used coffee grounds from the machine.
Alas, as the coffeemaker was spiraling through the air on its way toward its date with the stairwell, it belched up our soggy, used coffee grounds all. over. the. place.
On the back of the passenger chair. On the side wall. On the floor, On the stairs. Inside the map pocket next to the passenger seat.
Additionally, we always leave Thor’s water bowl on the ground on top of a mat so he can get to it as we drive. However, this time, for some unknown reason, we left the bowl sitting in it’s raised pedestal rather than putting the bowl directly on the mat. So, naturally, when Kevin hit the brakes, it tipped over, dumping a pint of water all over the floor and front carpet.
This wasn’t so much a “What the fuck” moment, as a: “FUCK!” moment.
(And yes, they are totally different.)
Anyway, after cleaning up the mess (while in motion because there was nowhere to pull over), we finished the long day of driving, stopped for gas, and then pulled into Lake Farm County Park, a very nice county park in Madison.
As I was in the Xterra unhooking the secondary braking system, I looked at the back of the rig and said: “Kevin! Where’s the gas cap?” To which Kevin responded: “What?” I said “The gas cap – for the RV?? Where is it??” To which he said: “FUCK!!!!!”
(It was a double “FUCK!!” kind of day)
Turns out, when he was pumping gas into the RV, the pump leaked, so he went to grab paper towels to clean it up, and then forgot to put the gas cap back on.
Presumably, our cap is somewhere on I-90 northwest of Madison.
When I wasn’t enthused about Kevin’s original fix for this problem:
…he suggested going to Auto Zone for a replacement cap.
“Yes, Kevin, that would be better.”
The only positive in this whole debacle was that, after picking up the new gas cap, we stopped at Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet – which is the perfect destination for those of us who understand cheese is the salve for all of life’s wounds.
Madison, Wisconsin to Hammond, Indiana
The day dawned cloudy and ominous and, soon, we were in a monsoon. Luckily, we didn’t have to leave very early, so we waited out the storm before heading out. This drive was particularly rough because the roads were ATROCIOUS.
However irritating it is to drive on pothole strewn roads in a car, it is about 100 times worse in an RV. It’s “Bang! Bam! Crash! Shake!” for miles and miles and miles. The shaking rattles your brain and wears on your nerves. It’s especially bad for us because we have a gas coach. Higher end diesel motorhomes often have these airbag suspensions that provide a ton of cushion. Us? We’re screwed. We feel every bump. And the road from Madison, Wisconsin to Hammond, Indiana was hella bumpy!
There was also a ton of traffic and we were soon reminded of why exactly it is that driving in the west feels so much easier…
Because it is.
Driving in Wyoming:
Driving in the Indiana/Ohio/Pennsylvania:
After a seemingly endless drive, we finally got the hell off the highway and pulled into our second Cabela’s.
This place was confusing.
The reviews were all over the place. From “great place to spend the night” to “You’ll get kicked out by the local cops.” There were also conflicting reviews about long haul truckers using the RV spaces. The most recent reviews indicated that while truckers could use the spots during the day, at 10:00 p.m., they were required to leave.
When we pulled in, there were a handful of trucks in the RV spots and we parked among them.
10:00 p.m. came and went and the trucks remained – none of which mattered to us. The engine noise doesn’t really bother us and since we didn’t see any other RVers, we were happy to have the company.
However, around 2:00 a.m, we heard a knock on our door. “Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me.”
We were sure it was a police officer and we were about to be evicted.
We heard the knock again, this time louder.
Kevin headed to the door while I trailed behind. He opened the kitchen window shade, looked out, and quickly stepped back. I asked what was wrong and, motioning toward the window, he said, “Look…”
Outside our door was a very drunk, very homeless guy with a bottle in his hand.
He knocked again.
After one more attempt, he walked (and by “walked,” I mean “staggered”) over to a nearby lawn.
Looking out the window, I realized our trucker neighbor had driven off and, now, we were the first vehicle parked across from a tunnel that went under the interstate. On the opposite side of the tunnel was a park. Probably a popular place for the homeless to hang out.
We continued watching until the guy eventually stumbled back into the tunnel and disappeared.
He hadn’t done anything but we had a sneaking suspicion he’d be back – possibly ticked off that we wouldn’t open the door. But, at 2:00 in the morning, we didn’t have a whole lot of options, so we crawled back in bed and tried to get some sleep. Fortunately, we never heard from him again but given our recent experience with the drug infested Colorado Walmart and this, I think our days of free camping along major interstates may be pretty limited going forward. While I hate paying $30 or $40 for a parking space at a campground, we’re finding that the alternatives are just not worth the hassle.
Hammond, Indiana to Goshen, Indiana
After leaving Cabela’s, we headed for the Elkhart County Fairgrounds in Goshen, Indiana. We were happy to have a 3 night break in the country. We arrived on the last day of an Entegra rally, so everyone was headed out and the place looked like it would be super quiet. As we sat down to have lunch after setting up, I remarked: “This place is great – nice and peaceful.”
And at that exact moment – and I’m not making this up – a train went blaring by our campsite.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Seriously??”
Turns out the county fairgrounds are built right next to the train tracks, and there’s a railroad crossing right up the street, and every time the trains pass that crossing, they sound their horn.
And this is a busy, busy set of tracks. There are trains going by all day and all night, and those mofos blare their horn no matter what time it is.
In the meantime – and not surprisingly – Kevin picked up my cold. So now, we were both sick.
Goshen, Indiana to Gibsonburg, Ohio
By the time we left the fairgrounds, all we wanted was a good night’s sleep. Our original plan was to stay at an inexpensive RV parking lot operated by the Ohio Turnpike, but we were so desperate for peace and quiet, I decided to see what else I could find. Fortunately, we found this awesome little county park in Gibsonburg, Ohio. Best part? There was only one other RV there the night we stayed. We had the whole place to ourselves.
It was dreamy.
Once we got set up, we collapsed in bed, took a 3 hour nap, and proclaimed Ohio the nation’s finest camping destination.*
(*We were extremely high on NyQuil and Sudafed at the time.)
Gibsonburg, Ohio to Howard, Pennsylvania
Our plan had been to spend the next night in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a town located right off I-80. However, as you travel east in this part of the country, RV parks become more scarce, and the ones you do find are often wildly overpriced.
And I do mean wildly overpriced:
And I know that you’re thinking. “But Laura, of course they’re going to charge a lot of money in Mercer, Pennsylvania because it’s right near that amazing national park… Oh wait… No, it’s not… It must be because it’s near that world class museum…Oh… Right… There are actually no incredible museums anywhere near there. Is it because it’s an unforgettable city with its own unique culture, music, and cuisine? Hahahaha! Yeah… No.
I mean, really….
Dear Mercer KOA,
Screw you and the horse you rode in on.
All of us who know your shit ain’t worth $70 per night.
(And yes, I know… me and my potty mouth. Whatever.)
Anyway, after flipping the bird at my computer screen, I closed out the tab for the KOA and kept looking.
Turned out, if we were were willing to drive 330 miles, we could make it to a Pennsylvania state park. And that HAD to be better, right?
In some ways it was great – we got a full hook up site, there was lots of greenery, and very few other campers.
In other ways, it was still in keeping with the theme of this trip.
From the price:
to the hellaciously unlevel sites:
To the fact that dogs are only allowed in certain loops – and you’re not even allowed to walk your dog through the other loops – so all the dogs are concentrated in one place and when you walk your dog through that place, it’s like walking the gauntlet… every dog loses its mind and starts barking, which sets off all the other dogs and they start barking too.
After spending days having our nerves rattled by the endless drives on terrible roads, the last thing we wanted was to get barked and lunged at every time we took poor Thor (who was also totally fed up) on a walk.
We did go visit Kevin’s alma matter, Penn State, which was pretty cool. He found his old apartment (by locating the beer distributor on the next block over – true story), visited the engineering buildings, and marveled at all that has changed
and all that has stayed the same…
It is an idyllic campus and we enjoyed walking around and soaking up the awesome energy that permeates college towns.
Howard, Pennsylvania to Greentown, Pennsylvania
Our penultimate trip was from Bald Eagle State Park to Promised Land State Park, a place we’d actually stayed in back in 2016. This drive featured a huge downpour, ever increasing traffic, and our fridge door flying open when we turned into the park (thanks to the magic of refrigerator bars, no damage done, thankfully.)
This, too, is a park that only allows dogs in certain loops, but, as we found out, not only are you restricted to certain loops, but you can only walk through parts of those loops.
After arriving to a wet, muddy, mess of an unlevel site, we took the dog for a walk, only to be confronted by a somewhat Soup Nazi-esque camphost who told us we were not supposed to be walking the dog on whatever road we were on.
It was as if we’d flown our Cessna into restricted airspace over the U.S. Capitol and an F-16 showed up on our wing to escort us out of the area.
Except we weren’t in a Cessna over the Capitol. We were just walking our dog. In a park.
He told us we could walk the dog on some other road in the loop or on one of the park’s hiking trails – which would have been super enjoyable after the day’s downpour – but we were not permitted to walk on the road we were on.
Kevin mentioned that we hadn’t seen any signs that indicated where we could or couldn’t walk the dog…. to which our overzealous camphost agreed and said they still needed to put signs up.
So, apparently, if we’d just been clairvoyant, we could have avoided this whole thing.
The fact that we did not completely lose it at that moment is testament to just how exhausted we were.
Pennsylvania to Connecticut
Finally, we made the last hop. Other than it being an incredibly long day, and having to deal with a ton of east coast traffic, it was as good a drive as any.
Happily we made it to our landing spot – only to find the spot sucked. But that’s a story for another day. At least we were no longer being stranded, jostled, overcharged, mislead, kept awake, lunged at, or on the receiving end of a stern talking-to for violating rules no one had communicated to us. So…Yay?
Next up: Connecticut: a terrible place to camp, but a great place to visit family.