As many wives, I am the co-pilot in our RV relationship. I decide when to leave, where to go, and what to provision. Armed with lists upon lists of ingredients to take and possible meals to prepare, I often pack the fridge and cupboards with enough food not to stop to shop for at least a week. I also prepare checklists of all necessary implements, tools, supplies, and accessories that should be on board. And all of this is done BEFORE we even leave. Oh, and let’s not forget that it is also “my job” to determine what we will see when we arrive at our destination.
This uber planning is a remnant of our sailing life when proper planning was absolutely imperative since there are no Safeways or Lowes in the middle of the Atlantic.
However, when my 70th birthday was on the horizon, the thought of planning it felt overwhelming. For the last three years, Manny and I have done nothing but a plan. In 2014, we moved to Pueblo, Colorado, a much better hub than Philadelphia for our RV travels.
Imagine all the planning that move required!
We figured it would be worth it to have years of exploring this beautiful state and its surrounding neighbors of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, rich with history and national treasures.
We bought a home, and when we learned of the frequency of hailstorms, we built a garage to protect our precious Serenity Leisure Travel Van—and that is where Serena has sat for most of these past three years.
From the moment we arrived in Pueblo, Manny and I have become major political and social activists. Traveling has somehow been put on the back burner. Our life has been entirely about organizing events or attending meetings. We have even launched a brand new non-profit, the Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America.
Since it was a very special birthday, I wanted to do something very special. I looked at the calendar and realized that we could either fly to Las Vegas for a long weekend or if I switched a couple of meetings, we would be able to have a blissful three weeks away from our responsibilities, the perfect amount of time for a much-needed RV getaway.
Although I was ecstatic at the prospect of getting back on the road in our beloved Serena, I was a little worried. Arranging, organizing, and scheduling have become my daily life and I had absolutely ZERO desire to plan my birthday vacation.
So, I convinced myself that one of the great things about a trip in an RV is that actually much less planning is required: there are no airline reservations to make or hotels to book. You don’t even have to decide what will fit in a carry-on bag because you can take almost anything you want.
My biggest concern was that we would be traveling over Memorial Day Weekend, the traditional start of vacation season. But then I realized that being self-contained means sleeping in a Walmart parking lot is basically the same as sleeping at a campground—particularly with the shades closed.
I also decided that I would take whatever food was in our fridge and devise meals as we traveled. Of course, I did a quick check to be sure there were the requisite pots and pans, dishes and towels, and other basics on board. However, I did not make a “to do” list, a “to check” list, or a “to buy” list; just a simple “must take” list of items like medication, iPads, and chargers. After all, we weren’t going to be in the middle of the ocean. If I forgot something, there would be thousands of opportunities along the way to purchase whatever it might be.
We hoped to leave on May 10. Our only scheduled destination was to be in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on May 20, so I could spend my birthday with my best girlfriend. That helped narrow the decisions about how far we wanted to go. However, we still had to decide what direction to turn the steering wheel as we exited our driveway.
Since our life has been so busy, and we haven’t explored many of the local places of interest, we thought a radius of about 3 to 4 hours would be perfect. That way, we concluded, we might discover locales close to home that we could escape to for a few days in the future.
We had always wanted to visit some of the old western towns and quaint villages nestled around the magnificent Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When I told a friend our intentions, she asked where we were headed first. I mentioned Crestone, a quirky town known for its multitude of world religious organizations, like a Hindu Temple, a Zen center, a Carmelite Monastery, several Tibetan Buddhist centers as well as a litany of other New Age groups.
“You’ve got to go to Valley View Hot Springs!” she exclaimed. “Wow, I didn’t even know there were hot springs there!” I said. (See, kismet is already happening, I thought.) Then she added, “You’d better make reservations! Especially for the weekend. They book up months in advance.” “Oh, but we are going with the flow. We don’t want to make reservations,” I explained. “You’d better book ahead, or you’ll never get in,” she insisted, her voice reaching a crescendo as she tried to convince me of the urgency of reserving our place.
I’ll admit, her warning gave me pause, but I decided to hold firm. No reservations! I did take her comments seriously, though, and decided to avoid being there on a weekend.
Her suggestion propelled us into a trajectory we hadn’t thought of previously. Hot springs. Warm water. Relaxation. Just what we needed!
We didn’t exit our driveway until 7:00 pm on Thursday, May 10.
I told Manny that I didn’t care if we slept at a Cracker Barrel that evening.
We. Were. Leaving!
As luck would have it, Dakota Hot Springs, only an hour from our home, is open until 10 pm, with “camping” in their parking lot available. And that is where we went.
After another short hour’s drive, we spent Friday and Saturday night at Four Seasons RV Resort, a well-kept private RV park along the Arkansas River in Salida, a picturesque mountain town in the heart of the Rockies. Yes, the weekend, and not only did we get an incredible riverside site, we were almost the only campers there.
We arrived at the highly recommended Valley View Hot Springs on Sunday but alas, my friend had been right. Booked solid. Until Monday.
“Can you come back tomorrow?” they asked. “Sure!” we said.
We learned that the hot springs are part of the Orient Land Trust (OLT), a charitable non-profit dedicated to preserving this diverse ecosystem of birds, plants, bats and natural springs. We were told that for $30, we could stay in Serena at the historic Everson Ranch, a 150-year-old ranch that is part of the OLT and is being developed as an agricultural facility showcasing sustainable agricultural procedures. The fee included a tour of the ranch in the morning and as much lettuce as I could pick from the facility’s greenhouses!
What a great experience! Their new garden manager, agricultural specialist Brian Ross, took us on a memorable jeep ride around the property. He was bursting with excitement about his plans for experimenting with different crops to determine their sustainability in this rugged windy climate with a very short growing season.
We sampled at least 6 or 7 different lettuces, while Brian explained his desire to grow crops that are not only resilient, sustainable and delicious, but attractive as well. His enthusiasm was contagious. He gave us hope for the future.
Back to Valley View for two glorious days of soaking in a variety of natural hot springs, each having a different temperature, and all of them artfully carved into the mountainside, secluded beneath a thick canopy of pine trees. Our wooded RV site was conveniently located directly across from the swimming pool and the adjacent sauna, which had the unique feature of a tiled cooling tub right inside the sauna.
Manny and I also had the best massages of our lives—and we have had many. I should add that the massage therapist only worked there on Monday and Tuesday that week. Had we had reservations for the weekend, we would never have met dear Jane. (You definitely want to book Jane Adornay and her healing hands. She is a master in the use of hot stones.)
We hadn’t expected to go to yet another hot springs, but Jane suggested that the lithium rich pools at Joyful Journey, only 15 minutes away, would be highly beneficial after our message. Since we were “going with the flow” and doing whatever came next, we took her advice.
While Valley View has a rustic ambiance, Joyful Journey felt more like a luxurious spa, with three man-made pools ranging from 98 degrees to 106.
Hanging baskets overflowing with colorful flowers lined the wooden deck filled with comfortable lounge chairs.
The view from the campground was spectacular. The majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains are a backdrop for the unusual guest accommodations of a number of yurts and teepees.
We were able to snag one of the six RV sites with electric—without reservations. In the morning we joined the hotel guests and enjoyed a continental breakfast complete with fresh quiche made with vegetables grown in a hothouse on the property.
Over the years, we’ve learned to look for campgrounds run by the Army Corps of Engineers. They are usually clean, well-maintained, inexpensive, and always near water. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that there were three of them in the land-locked state of New Mexico, and one of them, Abiquiu Lake, was right on our way to Santa Fe.
When we arrived, there were no more electric-water sites available, but we were offered a fabulous spot with a breath-taking 360-degree view of the Abiquiu reservoir —a view not available in the sites with hook-ups.
(We have noticed that it is often the case that the sites without hookups are more picturesque.) It is nice to be self-contained and have a choice.
Five minutes from the campgrounds is Ghost Ranch, made famous by the painter Georgia O’Keefe.
As we drove along the magnificent winding roads surrounded by vast red and yellow cliffs with their ever-changing light, we could understand why the artist was drawn here.
When we climbed the steps to the visitor center, we were treated to the sight and sounds of the talented Nashville musician, Rob McNurlin. He had been hired to perform at a square dance on the property that evening and was giving the audience on the patio a sample of his musical magic.
A true showman, Rob had the crowd enthralled with his heartfelt country crooning and his guitar. When he realized that Manny plays the harmonica, Rob invited him to join along. It was hard to believe that the two had never met or played together, yet their harmonies blended so well. The crowd —and Manny— felt they had happened upon something special. And they had: they were at the right place at just the right time.
Apparently, Rob was happy with our timing too as he invited Manny to sit in with him and his band that evening at the square dance. Unfortunately, because we had arranged to be at my friend’s for dinner that night, Manny couldn’t stay to play. How ironic that the ONLY plan we had made interfered with “going with the flow”.
After our four-day scheduled stop with my friend in Santa Fe, we were ready to continue our unplanned odyssey, but we wondered where to go next.
New Mexico is rich in Native American history. When the Spanish arrived in 1540, there were over 100 settlements, which the conquistadors called Pueblos, along with the Rio Grande. We realized that we would be passing right by one of the 19 remaining communities, Ohkay Owingeh, still occupied by descendants of the original inhabitants. The website indicated that it was okay to visit, but had many warnings about proper behavior, including no photographs of the inhabitants.
It was very quiet when we arrived; there seemed to be no one around. Suddenly, a little boy about eight years old appeared from nowhere and showed us a shortcut between two buildings. He confided that at the end of the alley, we could go left or right. Manny and I followed his directions and arrived at the village plaza. A man standing in front of his adobe home called to us and waved us over. Boise turned out to be a friendly, jovial Puebloan, happy to show us around the town. He gave us a bit of history and at the end of his tour, invited us to their annual St. John the Baptist Feast Day. What an honor—and what timing!
Since we had been doing the hot springs circuit and were enjoying the variety of relaxation experiences, we decided to try Ojo Caliente, just a half hour from the ancestral Puebloan settlement.
A vast manicured property, Ojo Caliente is exquisitely landscaped to create quiet places, private spaces, and a nurturing environment for their guests. I felt like I had joined the world of the rich and famous, lying in a hammock or reclining in a chair under one of the many pergolas, sampling each of the six pools containing various combinations of minerals to soothe whatever ails you.
Ojo Caliente has been a meeting place and healing fountainhead for many peoples for thousands of years.
Especially at night, under the vastness of the starry skies of New Mexico, you can feel its power.
If you wish to dine out, you don’t have to leave the premises to get an excellent meal. Both the restaurant and the wine bar have high quality, well-prepared dishes at a reasonable price. Although we usually eat most of our meals in Serena when we travel, we celebrated my birthday trip by eating out—a lot.
Manny and I enjoyed their grilled artichokes so much —seasoned with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon— that we ordered them every day we were there!
The luxurious pools are only $ 24.00 for a weekday soak Monday through Thursday from 8 am- 10 pm and $ 38.00 on the weekend.
Additionally, there are a number of accommodations ranging from a historic hotel to luxury suites, as well as 29 RV sites with water and electric and a private, immaculate bathhouse for campers.
We would have been happy with a level parking lot, but this was a beautiful campground, with ample wooded sites, and a bargain at only $40 per night. Camping guests’ privacy is ensured by design, and we were treated with the same respect as a hotel guest paying $300 a night.
Although this was the run-up to the holiday weekend, we had no problem getting a campsite for 3 weekday nights. (In the interest of full disclosure, we did have to move to a different site each night, but the staff said they were amazed that they had anything available.) And frankly, the site we booked first because we thought it was going to be the best, turned out to be the worst, so one night there was enough! Once again, no reservations, no problem.
We really had no idea where this adventure would take us, and it led us to exactly where we needed to be. We returned home relaxed and refreshed. The bonus is that I learned a huge lesson: sometimes the best trips are unplanned.
P.S. With Serena, our self-contained Serenity Leisure Travel Van, now we have no reservations about no reservations!
Travel has always been a part of my life. My first major adventure on the road was in the early 1970s when I planned a road trip to Nova Scotia from southwest Missouri in a 1966 Volvo 1800S with two kids (just over one and almost four), mostly by writing for information. The basis of my research was a listing of state and provincial tourism agencies I found in the travel section of the local newspaper. I wrote letters to each state and province we anticipated visiting and it took several weeks for all of the information to arrive. Long distance telephoning was quite expensive and virtually everything was done by mail. I took the maps and planned routes that looked logical. The process took a lot of time but the effort was worthwhile as we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Planning a major adventure on the road today has evolved significantly over the last several decades. While the Internet has revolutionized how we plan travel, there is still an important place for some of the traditional resources. My wife and I have talked about a trip to Alaska for many years, but two years ago I started planning what an actual road trip to Alaska might look like. The conveyance is to be our 2013 Leisure Travel Vans Unity U24IB.
The resources at our disposal are almost limitless. This article is based on the process I went through in planning our own Alaska adventure that is planned for July 2015 and I will share some of the resources I found most helpful. One more word of caution: it is important to recognize that individual travel styles vary significantly. Some prefer group travel and others prefer experiencing travel adventure alone. There is no right or wrong unless you find yourself doing a trip with someone else’s travel style. Personally, my wife and I lean toward solo road adventures and the flexibility (and, yes, sometimes challenges) that the style presents so my planning is from that perspective.
No effort to plan a trip to Alaska is complete without a current copy of Milepost, billed as “Legendary Alaska trip planner and Alaska travel guide to the highways, roads, ferries, lodgings, recreation, sightseeing attractions and services along the Alaska Highway to and within Alaska, including Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and the Yukon.” That’s quite a mouthful, but in truth it is that and more. The “more” is their website – what a resource. Here’s a brief list of what you’ll find:
In the printed Milepost:
On the Milepost website:
The resources in this category are virtually limitless, but all searches should start with the official state of Alaska vacation and travel information website at www.travelalaska.com. Here you’ll find photos and videos, things to do, places to stay, tips on both travel to and within Alaska, and numerous planning helps.
Find a road or point of interest that looks interesting, just do a search on Google (or your favorite search engine) and you will find all kinds of interesting information, often posted by independent travelers who share their experiences.
There are numerous guide books on Alaska. One of my favorites is Lonely Planet’s “Alaska.” The style is casual, frank, and a bit irreverent, but it cuts through the normal fluff you find in similar guides and gives you a perspective on what you might enjoy and what you might not.
Members get free maps and guide books which can be helpful, but the roadside assistance that is part of “RV Premier” with 200 miles of free towing and assistance offer peace of mind when you are traveling not only far from home but, often, far from anywhere. Now all you need is a cell signal so you can call them.
You need to somehow keep track of small resources you come across that pertain to destinations you might like to visit. In this case, the file would be labeled Alaska. Tangent to this would be a bookmark file for Alaska on your computer. Keep articles you find in your paper file and bookmark websites you find helpful for later reference on your computer.
Listening to the tales of Alaska travel of friends and others you meet can be invaluable, especially if you share interests and perspectives. Their information can give you a feel for what to expect and may give you a reality check on any number of questions you might have. An example is our meeting, quite by chance, of another couple who own a Unity almost identical to ours. We met in the parking lot of a restaurant we were both about to go to for lunch. Over lunch together, we found that they had driven the Alcan Highway dozens of times and had a wealth of experience which they later shared with us in detail, including seven pages of hand-written notes on a legal size pad. Their notes are an invaluable resource.
Yes, there are numerous free mapping services available online but a map program on your laptop like Microsoft Streets and Trips (which was discontinued in 2014) gives the flexibility of route planning when you have no Internet access.
I don’t use GPS when planning, but when I’m on the road it is quite helpful. For instance, I can force the driving route to the route I’ve planned and let the GPS keep us on track. If you are looking for an address in an area you are unfamiliar with the GPS is very helpful. If you travel with a destination in mind for the end of the day, a GPS will give you an ETA based on real world conditions that can be most helpful in timing stops along the way. Not long ago our GPS helped us realize that staying on Hwy 1 north of San Francisco would place our target destination in Arcata near midnight and our hosts were looking for us for supper. The GPS then found a route through the mountains from Hwy 1 back to Hwy 101 that proved to be spectacular and we were in Arcata in plenty of time.
Let me give a brief overview of how I integrated these resources in planning our upcoming trip to Alaska.
As we started a serious planning process I found articles in my paper file about RV tour companies taking groups to Alaska. I looked carefully at their itineraries to see where they went and what they did, making notes of things that appeared to be of interest. A friend in Victoria, British Columbia, sent me an article on ten places to see in northern British Columbia and the Yukon and I read it carefully. I reviewed the notes from my new friend who has driven the Alcan so many times. I browsed my Milepost guide and visited milepost.com, making notes of places I wanted to be sure to include. I looked at the state of Alaska website and did several searches to learn more about some points of interest I had found. I stopped by AAA and got their tour guides for Alaska and Canada and nice maps for both.
Armed with this information and a lengthy list of points of interest, I entered the RV tour itineraries and the ten places from my friend’s article into Microsoft Streets and Trips. Using the “optimize stops” button I turned all of these random points of interest into one sequenced tour.
I copied the sequenced points of interest into Microsoft Word and made one vast itinerary which I started cutting into daily segments based on what I had found to see and do. Some days the itinerary called for little or no travel because there was a lot to see and do. Denali National Park, for instance, has several days allocated. In a few cases, the itinerary has travel days of a couple hundred miles.
The itinerary for each day identifies what there is to see and do and where it is. If we find that we are fascinated by a location, we simply look for a place to park for the night and slip the itinerary back a day since we travel without reservations. In cases where reservations are essential (perhaps a ferry that is seasonally busy), we know how to pace ourselves just by looking at the itinerary. The GPS can be helpful when a ferry is the next stop as it can give you the ETA for the ferry dock.
This may sound quite structured, but actually it is quite loose. The itinerary is thought of as a guide, not a master, and simply helps us focus on what we found that we thought would be of interest. Sometimes we find things that aren’t in any of the literature and, conversely, find things we thought would be interesting but aren’t.
The map with this article includes everything I found rolled into one grand tour. The total mileage according to Streets and Trips is 9,932 miles from Bellingham, WA and back. Since we developed the initial plan, we signed up to volunteer for three weeks with NOMADS at Birchwood Camp about 20 miles north of Anchorage so we will adjust our real world travel accordingly.
We plan to leave for our Alaska adventure on July 1 with all of our resources onboard. Obviously, we don’t have time in July and August to drive it all. A friend of mine who has driven to Alaska many times says that the first trip will only set us up to crave another!
Our new plan is to follow the itinerary to Anchorage and use weekends while we are at Birchwood Camp to explore the Kenai Peninsula. Before we leave Birchwood Camp on July 30, we will make an assessment of what we would most like to see during the month we plan to take to get home and choose the parts of our prepared itinerary that fascinate us most.
I will report on the outcome of this planning effort in September after we return home. A special part of that report will be how we packed our Unity IB with four tool boxes, a 7′ ladder, two bicycles, and my wife’s cello … and, yes, two spare tires … all stashed inside and out of the way!