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There and Back Again: Part II – the “Back Again” Part

Mark & Hilary Steves
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Editor’s Note: This post is written by a member of LTV’s sponsored content team, the Explorers. Do you own a Leisure Travel Van and enjoy writing? Learn more about joining the team.

To set the stage, it is now the beginning of May. In Part 1, we chronicled the “There” part of our inaugural cross-country journey, going from home base in California to New Jersey (with a non-RV portion in New York City). Due to our schedule, the outbound trip took 8 days, resulting in long driving days. We were more flexible on our return trip, so we made sure to allow plenty of time to drive a little less, see a little more, and have a more relaxing vacation in our Unity FX we call “Zephyr.”

Day 1: Back on the Road

An example of our more relaxed trip plan was our first leg – going from family in New Jersey to another family just outside Columbus, Ohio. This could easily have been an 8-hour, one-day drive, but we weren’t in a rush anymore, so we broke it up into two parts. That meant on this first day, we could sleep in, have a nice breakfast, say goodbye to family, and even meet up with a good friend for lunch and pizza. Our stop for this night was a Harvest Host, but it wasn’t a winery for once. We had picked the High Country Creamery in Grantsville, Maryland, because it was: A) about at the halfway point to Ohio, and B) they made cheese!

Apollo was happy for some “grass time” when we stopped

Even with our later start, we pulled in well before dinner. We had the place, and the parking lot all to ourselves, so we shopped around, picked up some homemade cheeses, and settled in for the night, looking out over rolling farmland as clouds started coming in. It was a picturesque spot, and we got a good night’s rest before …

Day 2-4: Heading out to Ohio and into the Rain

Those clouds were still around as we headed out the next morning. With only a few hours’ drive, we made sure to locate a dog park to give Odin, Thor, and Apollo the opportunity for some run-around time. As we got closer to Ohio, the clouds started to get darker – literally and metaphorically. As the rain started, we also heard that a family member in Ohio had to go to the hospital, so we made the best time to get there. Luckily it wasn’t life-threatening, and we were glad we were already planning on being there, so the trip so far wasn’t hugely interrupted. But between the medical issue and the rain, we didn’t get to do any exploring around the area. It was great to be with family, which was the main thing, and the dogs didn’t mind (although WE minded having to take them out in the rain. We missed our doggie door during this trip!) On the last day, everything was brighter. The family member was home from the hospital, and the sun came out, so we took advantage with a walk in the (muddy) woods and a trip to a large dog park. With the good news, we felt comfortable resuming our scheduled trip without any interruption, so with clear skies, we were off to…

Day 5:  Aim High for Wine Time

Our first stop was only an hour away. The National Museum of the Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, was on our list of “things to do” while in Ohio. Circumstances had kept us from visiting earlier, but it was on our way out of town. On this first day back on the road, we had planned for a short driving day, it gave us plenty of time to visit the museum, and what a museum that was! If you’re an aviation geek or just appreciate the history of the Air Force, this is a must-see stop. Four very large hangars house planes, missiles, and historical artifacts going back to the Wright Brothers and includes famous aircraft such as the Memphis Belle from WWII, the SR-71 spy plane, the XB-70 Mach 3 bomber, four presidential aircraft, and even a full-size Titan III space launch vehicle.

The Memphis Belle

One of the historic “Air Force Ones” in the collection

In the Missile Gallery

The F-117 Stealth Fighter

We spent over two and a half hours here, and it was enough to only scratch the surface. As someone who built model airplanes as a kid, standing in the gallery was like looking out into my childhood bedroom – just on a 1:1 scale!

We could’ve spent all day there, but we still had some miles to go and a winery waiting at the other end. Our stop for the night was Tuscan Hills Winery in Effingham, Illinois. Not to knock Illinois wine, but it isn’t quite what we’re used to coming from the Central Coast of California. We had tasted other wineries in Missouri and Ohio on our way out, so we knew this would be different than our regular varietals. While a bit too sweet for our taste, they might be perfect for others. There were two big differences between Illinois wineries and our California ones: 1) they served food, which most of our wineries don’t (and quite good flatbreads for dinner), and 2) they’re open late – 9 pm for this place. We’re used to the agriculturally-licensed wineries, all closing by 5 pm, so this was a pleasant surprise. We stayed in the air-conditioned comfort of their large tasting room before we all settled back into the Zephyr for what was, unfortunately, a hot night. We do like camping at Harvest Host sites, but the lack of hookups can be…uncomfortable when it’s hot outside. Ohio’s nice weather started to warm as we headed west. It’s a fate we’d suffer the next night as we journeyed…

Day 6:  We Keep Wine-ing

Okay, we’ll whine a little about the heat. We know it was May and not the scorcher it can get later in the summer, yet it was still hot as we left the winery and headed into Missouri and another winery for this night. We kept our eyes peeled for antique malls with a light travel day. When we’d stop for a bit, Hilary could take her time searching for treasures, and I’d go back to the Zephyr to fire up the generator and give the dogs (and me) a little A/C, and it worked out well. Even with antique shopping, we made good time and searched out another winery in the area before we drove up to our final stop of the night at Arcadian Moon Winery in Higginsville, MO. Although it was still warm, a nice breeze kept us comfortable as we sat on their porch by a pond and enjoyed some good food and wine. Again, the wine might not have been our cup of tea (or “glass of vino”), but that didn’t stop us from getting a couple of bottles and enjoying the sunset.

Hilary and the pups enjoy the evening.

It was another hot night, but we knew we’d have hookups the next night. Although we didn’t know where we’d be, we’d be winging it the next day on our….

Day 7:  Road to Nowhere

Technically, not “nowhere.”  It was Kansas, and while I’m sure there are wonderful parts of the state, the truth is they’re hard to see as you barrel down I-70. This was the one night on our return trip that we didn’t have a reservation for, and that was on purpose. We figured we would let the conditions, and our desire, decide how far we’d go. We stopped in the cute town of Abilene, Kansas, and while we didn’t visit the Eisenhower Presidential Museum there, we did visit more antique shops! But as the miles went on, we kept making good time and soon realized we would be into Colorado before we’d need to stop for the night. So that’s what we did, as I used our RVLife app to research and find a small RV park for the night. It had a dog park (good for the boys) and hookups (good for all of us). Finally, we had A/C for the night! Driving a little longer today also meant a shorter drive tomorrow as we headed towards…

Day 8:  Pikes Peak or Bust

Colorado Springs was our destination and would also serve as a longer stop-over for us. We lived here several years ago, so we wanted to spend a few nights as a break from the road and a chance to catch up with old friends. Before settling into our campground for the next few days, we visited the Garden of the Gods. Sitting right below Pikes Peak, this rock formation stands out from the surrounding land and is a great sight to see if you’re in the area.

Unfortunately, we’d forgotten that parking there is limited, and I had hoped to take the dogs for a nice walk amongst the rocks (great picture opportunities), but we were thwarted at nearly every stop. Only at the last stop, as we were leaving, did we find room for Zephyr. We got our pictures but no place to hike, so we settled for the memories and drove a half hour south to our campground.

The only place we could get them to pose for a picture

View from one of the trail heads

Mountaindale Cabins and RV Resort is only two miles off the main highway, yet seemed a world away. Many of the campsites there are filled with permanent residents, and the grounds are beautifully kept, and even has a café, a dog park (yay), and large, wooded spots.

We were pleasantly surprised as we pulled into our spot to see another LTV next door. We had spotted some LTVs on our outbound trip but hadn’t seen any heading west. We chatted with them a bit, and they gave us one piece of important advice – don’t stay out late, as they had seen a bear in the campground the night before. We took that warning to heart and kept the dogs close to us for our first night there. We had time to relax, as we were staying put for…

Days 9-10: Camp Life

We had three nights at the campground, actually the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place. This gave us a good time to unwind from a few days of driving, and while it was still unseasonably warm, we were plugged in so we could get comfortable whenever we wanted. Best of all, we had friends who came out to visit. Some brought their trailer, one rented one of the small cabins, and others came just for the evening. We stayed out past “bear time,” catching up with each other, drinking wine, eating pizza and goodies, and having a wonderful time. The next day, Hilary went with some of them to a local town for an antique fair, while I was happy to keep the dogs company and read a good book.

Odin, Thor, and Apollo are wondering where everyone went.

Most of our days traveling in the Zephyr are spent moving – going from one place (often a winery) to another (more wineries). It was a little unique to just sit still for a few days, but during this long journey, we felt it was very beneficial. The next night was spent with friends, a homemade casserole, more wine, more fun, and, luckily, no bears. A good respite from the road because the next day, we were picking up and off to go…

Day 11: Up and Over the Mountains

Our destination for this day was Grand Junction, Colorado. More specifically, Palisade, CO, next to Grand Junction. This was our stop because it was a good, but not too far, distance to travel, and there were wineries. We’d had Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois wine so far, so we figured we might as well try Colorado. But we first had to go up and over the mountains to get there.

This is where driving an LTV is so much better than a larger rig or trailer. We passed a few other RVs, slowly making their way up. We weren’t zooming, but we could keep a good speed as we made our way up and eventually over the Monarch Pass. The elevation was so high, we were in the snow! This was the first time Thor and Apollo had even seen snow, so we were excited to see their reaction.

Apollo could ALMOST blend into the snow

Thor strikes his “winter wolf” pose

It was anticlimactic.  They sniffed it, probably wondered why the ground was colder than normal and posed for some pics. Granted, we couldn’t let them off leash to run around, and it wasn’t soft snow for them to play in. We’ll make a trip out to “real” snow some other day. We ate a quick lunch at the summit and then started down to a more reasonable altitude.

The “Zephyr” at Monarch Pass. All downhill from here!

We pulled into Palisade early enough to try a local winery before our Harvest Host stop for the night. Not expecting much, we were pleasantly surprised to find good, not just decent but really good, wine! I guess the climate in this area does grow good grapes, and we were happy to pick up some bottles. Our stop for the night was Sauvage Spectrum Winery. It was still hot outside, so we took advantage of their frozen wine drinks as we waited for it to cool down.

Sipping our frozen wine concoctions at the winery

View from our spot

When the sun went down, we were treated to a lunar eclipse over the hillside. But the next day was the one I was looking forward to, as we were headed towards…

Day 12: Canyons and Views

A bright day greeted us as we headed out to an early start. We didn’t have far to go for our first destination – Canyonlands National Park, Utah. We’d swung through Utah years before on our pick-up trip with the Zephyr, but Canyonlands was a no-go due to no visibility. This time we didn’t have that issue and rolled into Canyonlands with only high clouds in the sky. For those who haven’t gone, Canyonlands National Park is huge, and we stuck to the “Islands in the Sky” part of the park, which has some of the best views. Getting there early paid off, as we found parking spots for the Zephyr at all but one of the viewpoints. Alas, being a National Park, dogs aren’t allowed on the paths or trails, but at the first stop, they were, so we took them out for the obligatory pictures.

They are unimpressed by the very impressive view at Canyonlands

There are quite a few stops along the tour route, including the Mesa Arch. Although there are many trails, we didn’t want to take the time to hike them (plus the “no dogs” rule). Yet that didn’t stop us from seeing magnificent scenery at every stop we made.

Although we didn’t do it, many people try to be at Mesa Arch at sunrise.

After a few hours and lunch with a view, we had a short drive to the park next door and our stop for the night – Dead Horse Point State Park. Don’t let the name, or the fact that it’s a “State” vs. “National” park, lead you to skip this place. This is one of our favorite parks. While smaller than Canyonlands, the views are just as, if not more, spectacular (and, in many cases, simply the view from the other side of the canyon). We also found the parking lots to be bigger, with actual RV spots, and overall, the park was less crowded.  There are easy trails to walk, and, best of all (for us), dogs are allowed everywhere!

Family Photo time

And now, just the kids

We were staying on the park property, which had large, separated spots with easy walks to either rim. All the walks are level, although some can be close to an edge and none are very long (the East Rim trail from the visitor’s center to the Dead Horse Point Overlook is only 1.5 miles long).  Each rim has different and just as spectacular views and is worth it, even if you don’t hike the whole trail. There’s a reason this park is referred to as a mini-Grand Canyon.

The Dead Horse Point Overlook is our favorite viewpoint

The West Rim views are pretty great, too (although you do have to walk a little)

We had an electric hook-up, which was nice as it was still warm. The spots are large, with plenty of separation from your nearest neighbor. No water, though, so if you stay here, top off your tank before coming.

Our site in the Kayenta Campground

When the sun went down, it got dark, and I hoped I could get some good night sky astrophotography over the canyons. Unfortunately, it was a full – and very bright – moon. But while the pictures may not have come out, it was very peaceful to sit in the perfect stillness of the night, looking at the moon and stars, with nobody else in sight or sound. Truly a magical place and a great way to spend one of our last nights on the road before we were off to…

Day 13 -14: Viva, Las Vegas!

At this point, we’d seen the “sights” we wanted, and home was what lay ahead. But before getting there, we had a long day’s drive from Dead Horse Point to Las Vegas. While there are campgrounds in Vegas if you want to stay and play, our destination was more subdued, visiting good friends that live out there.  We planned for one night but wound up spending two as it was too much fun to relax and hang out with them in their pool.

The corgis are pooped in the heat.

They have two dogs, and the combined pack of five got along great, even if we couldn’t coax our dogs, or even Apollo the golden retriever, into the pool. Maybe next time. But this trip was coming to an end as we left Vegas for our last segment…

Day 15:  Finally, we’re “Back.”

An easy, although long, driving day got us from the heat of Vegas to the cool climate of our home here on the California Central Coast. We pulled up, emptied the rig, and put our feet up with a glass of wine as we enjoyed being home and tried to sum up this trip.

The Zephyr back at the home dock

A lot of miles for us. Longest trip (so far)!

Conclusion

For our first cross-country trip and the longest time spent in our LTV, it was a definite success. Other than the wind (we REALLY didn’t like the wind!), the driving was easy.  We never got tired of being “cooped up” in the RV.  The dogs took to it like champs and got into their routine of driving, stopping, pooping, driving, etc. Probably our biggest complaint was not having the luxury of a doggie door and therefore having to take them out on leashes multiple times during the day and night.

When we take longer trips in the future, one thing we’ll try to repeat is having breaks from driving now and then. Having our stops on the east coast, then in Ohio, and even in Colorado and Las Vegas gave us a few nights off the road and sometimes out of the RV and into a house. Some of you do much longer trips, or even full-time, and hats off to you. But for us, these small breaks made the whole trip more enjoyable. The shorter driving days are always better, as it gives more flexibility to stop along the way. Dog parks are a must, giving our furry kids time to stretch their legs. We cooked and froze food in flat Ziploc bags before leaving (saved space in the freezer) but wound up eating out more than we thought, which just meant our food lasted longer. We used apps such as GasBuddy to find our next gas stations, RVLife for campgrounds, and Google Maps to plot our routes and look for stops along the way. We had some audiobooks but also found that podcasts made the driving days easier. We planned a lot of the trip but had a few days of improvisation, and in the future, we’re going to try to do a little more of that.

Most importantly, this trip opened our aperture for what we can do next. Maybe a trip along the southern route of the US? Head to Texas to see friends out there? Perhaps a Mississippi River “Cruise,” where we take the Zephyr instead of a river boat?  There’s so much to see in the US and Canada, and now that we’ve taken our first step into longer-duration trips, we’re ready to keep on exploring.

Mark & Hilary Steves

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