Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Our Rolling Vacation

This year, we decided to take a week off and travel across Michigan in an RV.

Actually, that's not entirely true. It was last year that we decided we wanted to take an RV vacation. However, the company that I was working for stopped paying me, so I had to seek greener pastures, and we had to put potentially-expensive vacation plans on hold. This year, the stars were right, and we rented an RV and headed west.

We got to see lakes and swamps and dunes; we got to sleep by the shore and listen to the loons; we got to play pinball and eat ice cream and watch a planet sail across the face of the sun.

Good vacation.


I've been asked what make and model of RV we were driving. I have no idea. Here's a picture:

It's a 25-foot RV with advertising on every available surface. It's not so much a camper as a rolling billboard you can sleep in. It's awfully nice of us to do CruiseAmerica's publicity for them (and sure enough, someone did come up and ask us where we had rented it, and we were able to tell them; we also gave the name of a competitor we had looked over as well, so take that, CruiseAmerica).

Here's a few pictures of the exterior and interior:

You can see that we had a small stove, a kitchen sink, a bathroom sink, a little bathroom and shower, a bed on the main level, a bed over the driver's seats (which we didn't use), a dinette (which theoretically could fold down into another bed), a refrigerator, a little freezer, a microwave, and all sorts of cabinets for stashing stuff. It was a fine size for two people; we were pushing it a bit by adding two dogs. Clearly it's designed to hold even more people, but I can't conceive of it. Mary Lynn and I had to coordinate our movements closely and keep aware of where our limbs were at any given moment to avoid collision or injury. With three or four people? Forget it. It would be a domestic violence incident waiting to happen.

Mary Lynn drove it. She's got prior experience driving a camper; I don't. I get flustered driving my Saturn at times, and I can see out the back of my Saturn. If we ever decide to get our own RV, I'll need to learn, but at least I'll have a good teacher.

What I can tell you for certain is that it's loud. You don't appreciate how much work goes into making a modern sedan drive quietly until you experience a poorly-maintained freeway in a 25-foot RV. It rattled and banged and made casual conversation all but impossible.

Gambit, our cocker spaniel, hated it. When he rides in our cars, he stands up and shivers the whole time; we were hoping that if he rode in a larger vehicle, where he couldn't see as much of the world flying by, that he might be more amenable to the experience. We were wrong. Some combination of the noise and the motion absolutely terrifies him. Fortunately, we had planned for this contingency, and we had made sure that no single leg of our trip was more than a couple of hours in the RV at once.


Cold Brook County Park was a kind of baseline camping area, a facility neither excellent nor abysmal in any respect, and thus useful for providing an experience that other campgrounds could be judged by.

The site we were placed at was in a well-populated area of the park; not full to capacity, but possibly two-thirds full. We were hemmed in by trees on all sides except the entrance, and so there was really nothing much in the way of scenery to look at. We had electrical and water hookups – no sewer, but there was a dump area we could have used while driving out. A building with bathrooms and showers was located just a few sites down.

And, of course, we had a fire pit. This seems to be mandatory at every campsite; there are several basic designs, but what they all come down to is a round hole where you can burn stuff. During the course of our vacation, we did see a few people using their firepits to cook by, but we also saw a few people that were just burning things for the sake of burning them.

It was a bit noisy; there were people walking around and chatting, and there were shouting children and an occasional barking dog. However, everything quieted down in time for park “quiet time” (a concept that I wish was a universal law) and so we had no difficult sleeping …

… except for our dogs, of course. Our dogs are extremely spoiled; one of the ways that we spoil them is that we allow them to sleep at night on the bed with us. We have a king-sized bed at home, so it's normally not an issue. The bed in the back of the RV, however, was only just big enough for Mary Lynn and I, without a square inch to spare for canines. As a result, the dogs were very confused and unhappy all night, and wanted to be up and active very early in the morning indeed. There wasn't a single night on our vacation that the dogs let us sleep past five or six in the morning.


Our one and only tourist stop for the day was Klassic Arcade in Gobles. I wish we had something like this near us; it's practically a museum of classic video and pinball games. You can enter and play all day for just $5, and while you're there, you can enjoy any one of many dozens of flavors of bottled soda pop, chow down on fresh-popped popcorn, or take home a growler of Klassic Arcade root beer. I'd come back every weekend if I could. Highly recommended.

These exterior shots of the arcade aren't very impressive; go to the web site to see the interior in all its flashing glory.

Our destination campground was Gile's Campground in Allegan (I've seen it spelled both "Giles" and "Gile's", so I'm picking one and sticking to it), which is a private campground, and by far the best campground we stayed at. Instead of facing a row of RV's or a dull wall of trees, we had a view of a wide, placid lake. We had water, electricity, and a sewer hookup, which allowed us to dump our tanks at our convenience. The rec hall building was immaculately clean, as were its restrooms and showers. When we were out walking dogs, we had our choice of surroundings: a bright grassy sward paralleling the shining lake, or a broad park normally reserved for tent camping (though it was unoccupied when we were there) or a tree-sheltered lane that provided glimpses of of a quiet swamp.

Here are a couple of photos of the view from our site:

And we had wi-fi. The campground has a nice, fat, secure pipe to the Internet, broadcast reliably through most of the grounds. The rec hall had an ethernet plug-in for those guests who needed real speed, but honestly, the wi-fi was plenty fast. The staff also take the precaution of changing the access password every few days; a wise choice, given how far their antenna was providing signal.

It's amazing just how much you can accomplish with an Internet connection these days. I was able to:
  • Check and respond to e-mail
  • Download the official Java and Python documentation packages, which I needed for a little project I was working on
  • Search for more campgrounds (and I could have made reservations at a KOA)
  • Connect to my Steam account and chat with a friend in Wisconsin (and, if I had so chose, I could have plunked down a few bucks and downloaded a shiny new game)
  • Connect to Mary Lynn's Netflix account (we didn't watch any videos, but her instant queue was right there, waiting for us, and we certainly had enough bandwidth to stream whatever we liked)


This was Monday, and we weren't due at Warren Dunes State Park until Tuesday, so we spent a full day at Gile's, with a brief trip away and back for groceries.

I probably shouldn't let that last bit go at half a sentence. With a 25-foot RV, one does not simply pop into town for groceries. We went into Allegan, a trip that was made complicated by several factors: the fact that we didn't exactly know where the grocery store was; a narrow bridge that indicated a four-ton limit (were we under four tons? All I know is that we crossed the bridge without incident) and a downtown district that was plagued by road construction. We found the grocery store, but getting into and out of the parking lot was a delicate maneuver each way. Clearly, on future RV vacations, better planning and storage of food ahead of time was required.

There was a closer store – just on the other side of the lake, in fact – but it was more of a convenience store that was grafted on to a hardware store and then merged with a hunting/camping shop. They didn't have the fresh produce we had our hearts set on (and thus had to go into town for) but they were able to sell us the special chemicals and toilet paper we needed to keep our RV's blackwater system happy, and they did sell us a Powerball ticket.

The campground was just as charming when we returned. I also want to mention here that we saw quite a few RV's that seemed to be there more or less permanently; they had gardens and patios and lawn ornaments and a variety of other improvements that had clearly taken a great deal of time to set up. Many of these long-term-stayers didn't actually appear to be present; their RV's were there, but the owners were nowhere to be found. One presumes they move their RV's in for the season (or longer) and just leave them there, coming to visit once in a while, on the weekends, perhaps.

Here's a shot of our RV (in the middle) looking quite small indeed between the untenanted juggernauts we were parked next to:


We left the sunlit shores of Gile's and proceeded due west to the edge of the state. Our first stop, at around noon, was at Sherman Dairy, which was a nice (if expensive) neighborhood ice cream parlor. The ice cream was good and came in generous helpings, along with optional innovations such as pretzel cones or chocolate-chip-cookie bowls. I myself had some Red Velvet Delight ice cream, which tasted nothing like red velvet cake, but was good just the same. We sat in the little dining room, listening to some dawn-of-rock-and-roll classics and enjoying our sugar buzz.

The main event was at Warren Dunes State Park. We not only stayed the night there; we watched the transit of Venus there.

About the park first: the campgrounds were mostly unoccupied. In fact, at our site, you absolutely could not see any other campers:

That's us, surrounded by nothing but trees and empty camp sites.

Our nearest neighbors to one side were around a tree-rich bend; to the other side, you could walk quite a ways before sighting another vehicle. We only had electricity – no water, no sewer, no wi-fi – but we had solitude in spades. Apart from that, the grounds were well kept up; the nearby shower/bathroom building was reasonably clean; and if we had needed it, there was a tiny little store near the park entrance where we could have bought some basic food and supplies, though probably at a premium.

And just a short drive away were the dunes themselves. One moment, you might be driving through the park, along an ordinary-looking road, with pretty but unremarkable scenery … then you come around a hill, and you find yourself staring at Lake Michigan, dominating the horizon to your left, and these giant piles of sand towering along your right. It's a striking sight, especially when you come upon it suddenly as you do. It's as if you've been transported to a different planet.

And speaking of a different planet: we had come to the dunes to join the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society for the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. We got there early, when there were only a few dozen folks, and perhaps half a dozen telescopes. As we got closer and closer to the celestial moment, more and more people showed up. The parking lot filled with cars, and a crowd spread across the sand-strewn pavilion. A long row of telescopes and binoculars were aimed heavenward, some attached to complex and expensive arrays of equipment. We satisfied ourselves with the three-dollar pairs of sun-proof eclipse-viewing glasses.

As six o'clock rolled around, it started to seem as if this would be a disappointment. Folks gazing skyward through their dark glasses could see nothing but good old faithful Sol, round and unmarred as usual. As the minutes passed, though, folks began to announce that they could see a nick taken out of the sun's disk, at about the one o'clock position. The serious astrophiles, with their high-powered, USB-guided optics, indicated that the transit had, in fact, begun. And by six-thirty, the fact was unmistakable, even to us folks in the cheap seats. When I looked up through my dark glasses, I could see a small hole in the sun, just as if some cosmic prankster had come up and run a needle through it.

(No photos of the transit. Sorry. We put the dark glasses in front of our digital camera and aimed it at the sun, and just got pictures of a bright spot.)

We retreated to our designated, neighborless site, and spent a quiet evening there; at least as much of it as the dogs were willing to let us enjoy.


This was a decision point for us. It was Wednesday. We wanted to be home on Thursday, so that we could take our time cleaning out the RV before we returned it on Friday. We had initially wanted to spend at least one day at a KOA to see if it was everything that the pile of brochures in our camper said it was. However, there were no KOA's at a convenient halfway-point between us and home. There were two KOA's very close to us on the west edge of Michigan (and very close to each other, these KOA's – was there sufficient tourism to support both of them? Or did the owners have a long-running feud, complete with incidents of sabotage and slander?) but a Wednesday night stay on the west side of Michigan would lead to a four-hour drive home on Thursday. This would have been the longest single-day trip we'd made.

In the end, the appeal of two shorter journeys overruled our curiosity to see just what puts the K in Kampgrounds Of America. On the previous day, we had located and made reservations at Rockey'sCampground, near Albion. Today we reached it, with a stop at a rest area along the way for lunch and to give the dogs some freedom.

I want to start out by saying that there was nothing outright wrong about the place, and I would not warn anyone away. We were able to park the RV, hook up to water and power, walk the dogs and enjoy the breeze. If you were to list the features in a series of bullet points, it would come out looking much like Gile's – but in practice, it constantly came up short of Gile's, in every respect.

There was a lake, but it was smaller, less impressive. There was a main building with an office, a laundry, bathrooms, and even a little store (which Gile's didn't have) except that the laundry was basically a couple of machines under an overhang on the side of the building, and the store was a cramped little cubicle, packed full of camping supplies, basic health, medical, and grooming products, a shelf of battered VHS and DVD movies, a couple of coolers with soft drinks and cold cuts, and a freezer full of ice cream. There was a game room in a separate building, which held a jukebox, a ping pong table, a few arcade games, and possibly another table game – I honestly can't remember for sure, because there was nothing about that room that made me want to linger. It was constructed of bare, cheerless wood, and choked with shadows from end to end. It gave the impression that the people who had housed these games here had never intended to return; that they'd fled as soon as they'd given the cabinets power, leaving the games to fend for themselves in this drab, soulless shed.

And there was wi-fi, but it almost goes without saying at this point that it was unsecured, with only enough signal strength to reach our RV when the wind was right.

But still, it was quiet enough (when they stopped mowing the grass) and it gave us the prospect of a short drive in the morning that would carry us home. And in the evening, walking along the lake shore, watching the the fireflies flare and fade in the twilight, it was downright pleasant.


So are we going to run out and buy an RV?

Not immediately. First of all, the dogs were less than thrilled with the whole setup. Logan endured it stoically, but Gambit, as previously mentioned, was a nervous wreck any time the vehicle's engine turned over, and they both wanted more freedom. So it didn't really solve our "how can we take the dogs on vacation with us?" question.

For a humans-only vacation platform, though, it was just fine. Staying at campgrounds was certainly more scenic than staying at hotels, and it was nice having our own little kitchen and fridge and what not.

Filling the tank wasn't cheap (when refueling an RV, don't look at the total price if you have a weak heart) and I imagine maintenance could get costly. I've never had to bring a vehicle into the shop to have its toilet repaired before.

Renting wasn't cheap, but the RV came to us clean and in good working order, and when we were done, we got to give it back. No giant vehicle looming in front of our house all year taking up parking space.

So if we win the lottery, then sure, we'll pop down to the dealership and score ourselves a nice rolling vacation home. But for now, we'll probably stick with our Saturns.