Wednesday, November 28, 2012

If It's Tuesday, This Must be Big Spring

In 1969, a movie called If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium was released. The movie, starring Suzanne Pleshette, followed the adventures of a British tour guide who would take Americans on whirlwind tours of Europe. During these tours, tourists would visit a large number of countries in a relatively few days, leading some to be confused as to just where they were at any given time.

I know how they feel.

Since November 19 -- a period of roughly 9 days, depending on how you count -- Donna and I have stayed in 5 different towns, usually spending no more than 2 nights in each place. Yesterday, we arrived in Big Spring, a place we've stayed numerous times while visiting our daughter and her family. Despite our familiarity with the area, we experienced a bit of confusion last night and momentarily forgot where we were.

This is not unusual, I suppose, but it seems to be happening to us more and more. When we began this journey in late July, we were traveling rather fast. From August 9 to August 26 -- a period of about 17 days -- we stayed in 8 different places, yet we didn't have this feeling.  From August 26 until early October, we began staying longer at campgrounds, usually from 1 to 2 weeks at each one. Then from October 11 to October 19, we began moving quickly again. During that 8 day period, we stayed in 5 different places, and we got that feeling of confusion for the first time.

And what's funny is that this confusion is happening to both Donna and me at the same time and at the same places. Now, we have been married for 35 years and we tend to think more and more alike with each passing year. I guess that explains a lot. But it is a bit disconcerting when we think about going to the grocery store and have to stop and figure out where we are first.

I suppose you could chalk some of this up to senior moments, but it's odd that we are having the same senior moments at the same time. The good news is that these moments happen only a few seconds, though they may recur several times in a single day. We are probably being told we need to find a place to settle for a while.

Gosh, I hope we don't get lost down the road.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

San Angelo State Park

After leaving Conroe Sunday, November 25, we spent the next 2 nights at San Angelo State Park just outside of San Angelo, Texas. We had never stayed at the park prior to this trip, though we have visited the park extensively over the years. The park has an extensive set of hiking/biking/equestrian trails, and Donna and I have hiked just about all of these. You can view my blog entries about those hikes beginning with http://ramblin-gamblin.blogspot.com/2012/01/san-angelo-sp-december-30-2011.html.

San Angelo does not have many RV parks. The leading competitors are the KOA park on Knickerbocker and Spring Creek RV Park on Lake Nasworthy. Although both parks have full amenities including WiFi, cable TV, and full-hookups, we decided to pass them by this trip. We've stayed at both of them in the past, and feel they are overpriced for the quality of services they provide.

So we opted for San Angelo State Park this trip. And what did we get? A good experience.

The park does not have full hookups, but it does have electric and water. Sites are spacious, and we enjoyed our pull-through site. We were also surprised to have WiFi at our campsite. In fact, I'm publishing this using the park's Internet services. The park does not provide cable TV, but we were able to pick up several local TV stations using our antennae.

Campsite # 4 in Red Arroyo Campground. Lots of room between sites.

There is precious little shade at the campsites, and the only trees in the campground are from mesquites. But during the winter, lack of shade is not a problem. Our site had a nice concrete picnic table on a concrete pad with a metal cover. Camping fees for our stay were $20 per night, almost half what other parks in the area charge.That's a nice little savings.

We stayed in the Red Arroyo camping area, which is nearest the entry gate at the south entrance. If shade is a concern, you might try the campsites in the Bald Eagle camping area in the north entrance. (See map)

The park was originally an Army Corps of Engineers park (see history). The state converted it into a state park in 1995. Almost all of the facilities are left-overs from the Corps days, and they are showing their age.

Even if you're not a hiker, there are plenty of paved roads near the campground that are perfect for daytime strolls.

The weather was nice during our stay. The wind blew both days, but temps reached the 70s both days, allowing us to sit outside some. A cold front moved through the area our second day, and that dropped the night temps into the 30s.

Winter sky moving in over San Angelo State Park; it'll get cold tonight!



Saturday, November 24, 2012

Online Tools for RVers

I rely on several online tools as we travel about in our RV. If you RV or are considering doing so, you might find these useful.

To help plan where we will stay, I rely heavily on RV Park Reviews. This is an easy to use website that provides reviews and details about RV parks. The parks are grouped by city and state, so you can see a list of all the RV parks in an area where you are interested in staying. The site also provides details about the amenities available at each park, such as cable TV and WiFi. A link to the RV park's website -- if there is one -- is also provided. Reviews are provided by RVers, but they should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

There are other sites out there to help you find RV parks. Members of the Good Sam Club, for example, may refer to that organization's web site to locate parks. KOA, Escapees, Passport America and other organizations maintain similar sites to help you locate parks that belong to their group. I like the RV Park Review site, though, because it will list all parks regardless of affiliation.

When planning my route, I refer to http://autos.msn.com/everyday/gasstations.aspx to help me locate the best fuel prices. There are numerous web sites devoted to gas prices out there, but I like this one because you can drag the map along your route. You can also select a gas category (unleaded, plus, premium, or diesel) to make viewing fuel prices even easier. Fuel prices fluctuate widely from area to area. We have found they can vary by $.40 or more in just 30 or 40 miles, so using such a site can save you considerable money.

I probably use Google Maps and Google Earth more than any other online tools. I use Google Maps to plan my route, check distances, and locate places. I use Google Earth to to actually see what a place looks like once I've located it. I really like the street view feature in Google Earth. When you are traveling to areas unfamiliar to you, it's nice to be able to see what the place actually looks like. You don't want to end up staying in an RV park that backs up to a junk yard, for example.

Both Google Maps and Google Earth also will show what businesses are located nearby. One of the reasons that I selected Sundance RV Park in Cortez, Colorado, for example, was that Google Earth showed it was within easy walking distance of a number of eating places.

Google Earth view of Sundance RV Park
In the image above, you can see numerous fork and knife icons, which represent eateries. If you hover over one of those icons, it will bring up the name of the eatery. If you click on the icon, more information will be provided, including a link to the website if there is one.

You can also enter a business type in the address bar in Google Maps, and it will return all matching businesses in that area that it can find.

Screen capture from Google Maps of RV parks in Cortez, Colorado

In the screenshot above, I entered "RV Parks" in the address bar while centered on Cortez, Colorado, and you can see what it returned. The map on the right shows the location of RV parks, while an equivalent list is provided on the left. You will often find parks this way that are not mentioned in the RV Park Review site listed at the beginning of this entry.

There are, of course, numerous other tools I use, but these are the ones I use regularly. There are websites, for example, that provide information on road conditions. Weather sites are invaluable, especially this time of year.





Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

By the time this is posted, most of you will have probably embarrassed yourselves at a Thanksgiving dinner table. You've probably eaten far more than you should, and the men among you -- and perhaps even a few of the fairer sex -- have unhitched the top button on your pants and have settled back in an easy chair to watch a football game. But that's alright; you've earned this right. There's no harm in going a bit overboard on this day.

Donna and I took our trailer to Hayes RV in Longview for some maintenance on Monday. We had some free rooms at the Horseshoe, so decided to use them while repairs were being made. We really expected Hayes to take a few days to do everything we asked, but they called us late Monday to report everything was done. We pick up our trailer tomorrow morning, then head to Conroe for a visit to Donna's mother.

We've been using Hayes RV for years, and we've never been disappointed in their work. For any of you who RV and happen to pass through this area and need some work, I highly recommend Hayes. They are located in far north Longview. They do good work.

The colors in East Texas are beautiful right now. This is just about the height of their color. I do enjoy this area at this time of year. People not familiar with East Texas would probably be surprised at the good color available here this time of year.




Saturday, November 17, 2012

Time to Move On

We've been in the Longview area for nearly a month now. We've taken care of some business, visited a few friends, had some dental work done, and donated some money to the boats in Shreveport/Bossier City. It's about time to move on.

We are taking our trailer in for some repairs in a couple of days. We have a few free nights at a Bossier City casino, so we will stay there while the work is done on our trailer. We'll pick it up the day after Thanksgiving, then head out. After a short visit to see Donna's mother, we'll head west again and follow the sun. We're seeking warmth right now.

It's a might cold to be staying in a trailer in this area. Days are pleasant enough, but the nights surely do get cold. We need to find someplace a bit warmer as the nights get colder and longer and the days grow shorter.

It's been great seeing the trees again, especially with many of them with their fall colors. I do enjoy fall in East Texas.

We don't have a plan for where we will go; we just plan to head west where the days are sunny. There will be times when we have no internet access, but I'll post entries whenever I can.

We'll see you on down the road.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Good Eats: Lil Thai House, Longview, Texas

Donna and I love Thai food. We fell in love with it the first time we ate it while living abroad many, many years ago. We are always on the lookout for a good Thai restuarant.

Longview has a good one, the Lil Thai House.

We have been eating at the Lil Thai House in downtown Longview for about 5 years or so, I guess. It is a little "hole in the wall" restaurant with a Bohemian spirit, and it seats probably no more than 25 people or so.

On this particular trip, I ordered the Red Curry with chicken, my traditional favorite, while Donna tried the Pad Thai with chicken. The Red Curry has a rich curry sauce. It is served with steamed rice, which I heap in the bowl to soak up that wonderful sauce.

This was our first visit to Lil Thai House in almost 2 years. I felt that the quality of the food had declined some during that time. Don't get me wrong; it was still good, but not at the high level we had experienced in the past. The bowl my curry was served in was smaller as well, and I felt the portion was smaller even though the price was higher than what I had paid in the past.

I was also disappointed that the restaurant is really only open a total of 18 hours per week (see hours of operation on website). It's almost as if that by charging higher prices, they do not have to open as much.

The restaurant does draw a loyal base of customers, and many are greeted by name. Employees are friendly, and I have seen many of the same faces over the years.

Lil Thai House has the Thai food market in Longview wrapped up. I do not know if there are any Thai restaurants in nearby Tyler. I feel that some competition would be good. I do not find the food any better than what we enjoyed at The Best Thai Restaurant in Canyon, Texas, where we enjoyed a great meal in August. The Best Thai Restaurant also has a more varied menu and a much better dining room.

But if you do hanker for some good Thai food, you can find it at Lil Thai House.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

RV People

Prior to the start of our adventure in late July, we hadn't spent much time in our travel trailer. In fact, when we did go out, it was for short weekend or vacation trips, usually lasting no longer than a few days or 2 weeks at most. And most of the time, we tried to stay in state parks. Our goal then was to get away from work, get to natural outdoor locations, do a bit of hiking, enjoy a campfire, and do a bit of fishing. The way we camp today is a lot different, and the other campers we encounter are certainly different.

Today, we spend most of our time in commercial RV parks. The campers we encounter here are different from those who usually frequent state and national parks.

In almost every RV park we've visited, there has been a sizable number of long-term or permanent campers. Many of these are workers who live in their RVs as their jobs move them about from place to place. Most of the time, the workers live alone in their RVs while their families remain at a permanent home. Each weekend, these workers return home to their families for a brief visit before returning to their RV for another week of work. Sometimes the workers are a bit older but not yet retirement age, so a husband and wife whose children have already grown will travel about in their full-time RV. Quite often the wife spends her days in the RV park while the husband goes off to his job. We occasionally do see a young family with pre-school children living this lifestyle, but those instances are pretty rare.

Some of the long-term occupants of RV parks are full-timers who are retired. They find a park they like and stay there for extended periods of time, especially if there are good services nearby. These services include groceries, dining, entertainment, and similar businesses. As long as the weather is good in a locale, these full-timers will hang around, especially if the park is a quality place and the price is right. In Colorado, we saw lots of folks from southern climates who return for several summer months year after year to enjoy the cooler temps of the mountains. During winter months, some of these folks will find a warm location while others return home to Texas or Florida or wherever their brick and mortar home is.

Then there are the short term and overnight visitors. These are the people who pull in for a night or two on their way to a more permanent destination. For example, we had an older couple from up north pull in next to us last night for an overnight stay on their way to the Texas Valley. The gentleman said he stops overnight here twice each year, once going to the Valley and once on the return trip back north. I visited with another couple earlier in the week who had come through on their annual trek from Denver to Florida where they winter over each year.

So, some parks are called "destination" parks, while others are simply overnight stays while on the way to destinations. Destination parks are a stop where people will spend longer periods of time. Such parks offer good weather for the season, activities, and conveniences. Overnight parks usually offer few if any of these, but they do offer adequate amenities for overnight stops.

RV parks can become little communities, especially if the park managers/hosts plan activities, such as weekly lunches, happy hour get togethers, or other events. Even without these events, people walk around the parks and get to know their neighbors. We often see our neighbors at the laundromat. RV folks like being outside, for the most part, so we spend as much time out of doors as possible. This allows us to come into contact with others.

One of the great advantages of RVing is getting to know the people who share this lifestyle with you.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

RV Lessons I've Learned

It's been quite a journey thus far. Donna and I sold our house on July 23 and actually began living in our Rockwood on July 27. So, we've been RVing for about 3½ months now. We've covered quite a bit of territory in that time. Here are some stats:
  • Total miles traveled (trailer miles only - does not include side trips in truck): 3,522 miles
  • Fuel costs (pulling trailer only - does not include side trips): $1,361.23
  • Camp site rental costs: $2,431.51
We've learned a lot about RVing during this short time, and we have much more to learn. But here are a few things we've picked up so far.
  1. Get the right rig for what you plan to do. Donna and I purchased our trailer while we were still working. Our plan was to simply take it out on weekends, vacations, and holidays. We never intended to stay in it longer than 2 weeks or so, and we certainly didn't plan to be in it for as long as we have now.

    Though nice, our rig is simply too small for full-time RVing. It lacks storage more than anything else. We simply have no place to store all of the clothes we need. Our kitchen also lacks cabinet space, so our pots, pans, and dishes are limited, as is storage for canned goods. The fridge has limited space as well.

    Living space is a bit cramped, too. Even with a deep slide, we have limited limited floor space.

    Again, for short trips, the trailer is fine. For full-time living, it is inadequate.
     
  2. Just because your RV is on wheels, you don't have to constantly travel. Traveling from RV park to RV park after staying only a few days is much more expensive than staying put in one place for a month or longer. Here are the rates for Fernbrook RV park outside of Longview, Texas, which I recently reviewed. These rates are for "standard" sites.

    • Daily: $33 
    • Weekly: $155
    • Monthly: $350 plus electricity, usually less than $75 per month

    Thus, if you stay a week, you actually pay only $22.14 per night, and for a month, you pay only $11.67 per night plus a charge for electricity.

    Although you will always have times when you travel long distances over a short period of time and stay in various parks, the best plan is to find a park, stay a month, visit all you can in that area, then move down the road and spend another month. Not only does this allow you to reduce lodging costs, but it allows you to thoroughly comb an area and visit all points of interest there.

    For our travels, we have averaged a nightly cost of $22.94. That doesn't seem to bad, but it actually comes out to a monthly fee of $688.20. If we had averaged the $11.67 figure I quoted above, we would have saved $1,194.62. That's a significant sum.

    So, should we continue this lifestyle, we will select a handful of destinations and plan to spend a month or more at these. Now, not all parks offer rates like Fernbrook, but if you look diligently enough, you can usually find a good park with reasonable rates. We will try to keep the parks close enough together so that we can go from one destination to the next in a single day, thereby keeping fuel costs down as well.
  3. Donna and I have decided we just cannot function without a reliable Internet connection. If we continue RVing full-time, we will look for some sort of connection, perhaps an air card. It has been our experience that half the parks that offer WiFi do not deliver on their promise. Although most parks offer this service for free, many charge a fee, sometimes as much as $5.99 a day with reduced rates for longer terms.

    Of course, I like a good connection to update my blog and web page. But we also use the Internet for so many other things, from finding RV parks to locating the cheapest fuel prices around. When we don't have a connection, we feel lost.
These are probably the big three items we have learned. Of course, there are numerous smaller lessons. This is a good life. If we decide to continue living this way, these lessons will make it even better.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Boats

Donna and I enjoy gaming. So, while in East Texas, we made a short trip over to "The Boats" in Shreveport/Bossier City. Because of recent play, we had a few free nights at the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City. We jumped at the chance to get out of the trailer for a few days.

There are 5 Las Vegas style casinos in S/BC, all located along the Red River near downtown Shreveport. We've visited them all at one time or another over the past 10 or 12 years. There have been lots of changes in that time.

Shreveport is home to 2 casinos, Sam's Town and the Eldorado. Sam's Town occupies the facilities formerly owned by Harrah's while the Eldorado occupies the facilities formerly operated by Hollywood.

Across the river in Bossier City, what once was the Isle of Capri is now Diamond Jacks and what once was Casino Magic is now Boomtown. Only the Horseshoe has not changed its name. However, it has changed ownership. Formerly owned and managed by Jack Binion, it is now part of the Caesar's Entertainment Network and their Total Rewards program.

All of the casinos in S/BC are riverboats, but they vary in size and appearance. We have always thought that the Eldorado and the Horseshoe had the best physical facilities. Their casinos seem larger, and they certainly have higher ceilings, which helps reduce the smokey environment that the smaller casinos sometimes seem to have. In all the casinos, the hotel is located on dry land while only the actual casinos are on the riverboat. At the Horseshoe, there is a lengthy walk from the hotel section to the casino, requiring guests to pass the million dollar wall.

For convenience, we enjoy staying at the Eldorado. This location allows us to get out of the casino and visit Sam's Town if we like as the two casinos are next door to one another. We can also visit the businesses beneath the Texas Street bridge, such as Nicky's Mexican Restaurant and the Blind Tiger. The three casinos across the river are rather isolated from other businesses, so you must either eat on site or hop in your car to visit area restaurants. Dining in the S/BC casinos for the most part is expensive and comps don't flow as readily as they do in Nevada. I wish the casinos would put in some inexpensive delis. Most casinos in Nevada have places where you can pick up cheap hot dogs and nachos for just a few bucks, and since comps are rather liberal there, you can usually comp your meals with decent play in a short time.

We enjoy getting out and sampling local restaurants. Some of our favorites in the area are Indigo Indian restaurant (8660 Fern Ave Ste 110 in Shreveport; the buffet has limited options, but is tasty) and Yeero-Yeero (Greek restaurant at 4511 Youree Drive in Shreveport). There used to be a Greek restaurant on Line Drive, but we've not eaten there in years, so I don't know if it is still there. The restaurant scene changes constantly, so visit the Shreveport - Bossier City Convention and Tourism website before your visit to see which restaurants are available.

These days, we tend to play at the Horseshoe more because it is part of the Caesar's Entertainment Network. This allows us to build comps that we can use all over the country. Our game of choice is video poker, and the S/BC area does not have a strong VP inventory. The Horseshoe does have some lower denomination games in the 99% plus category (Bonus Poker Deluxe at 99.64%, Jacks or Better at 99.54%, and Bonus Deuces Wild at 99.45%), as does Diamond Jack's (9/6 Jacks or Better). Opportunities at the 1$ or above level are a bit more prevalent, but they are often on triple or five play machines, requiring a significant bet per hand. For a complete inventory, check the Gulf Coast section of the VP Free website. Louisiana law sets a ceiling at 100%, so no games in the state can exceed that return. We do miss Nevada for gaming.

For more information on the S/BC casinos, visit the American Casino Guide.  This site provides data regarding number of hotel rooms, size of casino floor, and related information as well as reviews. Take the reviews with a grain of salt. People tend to vent more when they are unhappy and tend to remain quiet when they are happy. Also, comments are not always factually accurate. In the review of Sam's Town, for example, one reviewer was actually describing the Sam's Town in Vegas, not in S/BC.