Four Desert Dreams and a Nightmare

Enjoy some silliness and beauty, and go face-to-face with a nuclear nightmare, as we visit White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and the Titan Missile Museum, Tucson, Omar’s Highway Chef at the TTT Truck stop, and the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Plus, another great free night of camping at a winery with Harvest Hosts!

Dream: Driving west from Texas our first stop was White Sands National Monument. It looks like mountains of white snow, as far as the eyes can see. Except that the temperature is almost 90 degrees! These white sands are actually gypsum that has eroded over thousands of years from the nearby mountains. There’s nothing else anything like it.

Nightmare: After a nice stop for a free night of camping with Harvest Hosts, we made our way to the Titan Missile Museum, which is located in an actual missile silo that housed Titan Missiles with nuclear warheads during the cold war. Not only did we see a decommissioned Titan Missile, we got to tour the underground command and control facilities, led by a missile technician who served there during the cold war. Kathy was chosen to sit in the actual command chair at the missile control panel, and turned the key in a simulated launch. It looked like she was having fun while it was happening, but afterward she had some very emotional moments thinking about what could have been, thanking God that these horrible weapons were never launched, and praying that such devastating force will never need to be used in the future.

Dream: On a lighter note, Tucson is a great walking town, and walk we did, following the Turquoise Trail. It’s actually a turquoise line painted on the sidewalk that leads you to many of Tucson’s most interesting and beautiful sites. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, but be sure to bring water. Or, just stop for coffee!

Dream: Jeff got to relive one of his favorite memories when we visited the TTT Truck Stop just outside of Tucson. It was there that Jeff drank his first-ever cup of coffee while taking a college class on Desert Ecology. More importantly, it’s where he had what he’s consistently described as the “best deep-dish apple pie I’ve ever had!” He’s always dreamed of returning, and you should have heard him when we happened to pass the mythical restaurant as we were driving down the highway! Of course, we had to stop. Did it measure up to his memories? You’ll have to watch the video to see! (Hint: He ate the whole thing.)

Dream: The desert is alive and beautiful. Along the roadway we saw mountains painted yellow and orange by blooming desert flowers. And visiting the Saguaro National Park to see the majestic Saguaro cactuses is a highlight that no-one visiting Tucson should miss. Although we didn’t go there on this visit, we also highly recommend the Tucson Desert Museum which has very well designed exhibits that explain the complicated interdependence of the many plants and animals that live in the desert.

 

 

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Top Ten Tips for Visiting Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is large and beautiful. Here are our top ten tips to get the most out of your visit, including our favorite place to stay in our RV, amazing BBQ, a boat ride across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and the desert in bloom!

Tip #1 – The best place to camp may be outside of the park. In fact, we found a great RV park just outside of the north entrance called “Stillwell RV Ranch” that had great views, huge campsites, and reasonable prices. The National Park campground was nestled in a tight little valley with small campsites that were crowded very close together. And being inside the park wasn’t that great an advantage, because…

Tip #2 – Expect to drive about an hour from any of the major sites in the park to any other. Big Bend is huge and varied, but nothing is close to anything else. Fortunately, the drives are beautiful.

Tip #3 – Visit in fall, winter, or spring, because in the summer the park is HOT! Even in February things were beginning to heat up in the lower elevations.

Tip #4 – Some of the best BBQ we’ve ever had is about a half-hour north of the park in Marathon Texas. It’s a small town, but the Brick House Brewery and BBQ had big, bold flavors that are definitely worth the drive.

Tip #5 – Take the short hike to Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande River has cut a dramatic channel through colorful cliffs. It’s one of the most dramatic and beautiful sites in the park.

Tip #6 – Ask a ranger! In the video we specifically refer to asking park rangers about the best places to drive “off road” in our Jeep Cherokee, but this tip can be applied to just about anything you might want to see or do in the park. The rangers love their park, they know all of the best places to go and the best times to go there, and they love sharing their knowledge with visitors. Don’t just ask for directions – ask for advice, and you’ll be glad you did.

Tip #7 – Get gas in the park! There is a gas station right in the middle of the park beside the Panther Junction ranger station, and much to our surprise, we discovered that the price was not only reasonable, it was less expensive than buying gas outside of the park in Marathon.

Tip #8 – Bring your passport! One of the highlights of our visit to Big Bend was a day-trip across the river into Boquillas, Mexico. The “ferry” (a row boat) costs $5 round trip. On the other side it’s about a mile into town. We chose to hire a guide and walk (another $5), but you can also get a ride in a truck ($5) or on a burro ($8). It’s a charming, authentic little Mexican village that exists primarily on income from tourists. You can buy souvenirs ranging from tiny roadrunners made from wire and beads, to “No Wall” t-shirts (The people on both sides of the boarder here are deeply concerned about the potential impact of a wall on their way of life). 

Tip #9 – Yes, it’s safe to eat in Boquillas. There are three restaurants to choose from. We went to José Falcon’s where we enjoyed an excellent lunch, but we are told that all three restaurants are equally good. But do stick to bottled beverages.

Tip #10 – The Texas Bluebonnets were in full bloom in February, along with many other desert wildflowers that line the roads and hillsides. There is something magical about seeing the desert in bloom.

BONUS TIP – Stock up before heading toward the park. If you’re coming from the north, your last chance for a major grocery store is in Fort Stockton. From the west there are some stores in Presidio. There is nothing convenient to the park for major supplies. Plan ahead.

Have any other tips? Please share them in the comments below! We love hearing from you, and will try to answer any questions we can.

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How To Replace the Sensors in RV Waste Tanks with Horst Miracle Probes

One of the top problems reported by RVers is waste tank monitors that just don’t work!

In theory, with a simple push of a button on your RV’s control panel, you can see just how full your tanks are so that you know for sure when they need to be dumped. The problem is that most monitoring systems installed by RV manufacturers are simply, excuse the expression, “crap.” After a couple of uses the monitors typically read “full” all the time, which means that you really have no idea how much capacity you have left.

THE CAUSE

Factory tank monitors rely on a series of metal sensors installed at different levels that extend inside the walls of the waste tanks. When wastewater reaches one of the sensors, it creates an electrical connection that sends a signal to the control panel inside the RV. Simple.

The problems begin when sludge begins to build up on the inside walls of the waste tank. In the black tank, that sludge is made of human waste and bits of toilet paper. In the gray tank it’s grease and soap scum from the sinks and shower. When the sludge gets thick enough, it too makes an electrical connection that tells your control panel the tank is full.

THE CURES

Cleaning

The first line of defense against this problem is to clean the inside of the waste tanks, and there are dozens of products that claim to help you do this. At any RV store you’ll find a variety of liquids and powders to pour down your drains that claim they’ll clean and maintain the inside of your tanks, as well as reducing tank odors. Some folks swear by a homemade mixture of water softener and detergent. Others have tried dumping bags of ice cubes into their tanks hoping that the ice will scrub them as you drive down the road. From my experience they all work a little, but none are great.

The only cleaning method I’ve found that really works on a black tank with a significant amount of built-up crud is to use a power sprayer inside of the tank. These sprayers can be built in (such as the Sani-Flush system), or you can buy a flexible wand (such as the Camco RV Flexible Swivel Stik) that you attach to a hose and insert into the black tank through your toilet. Not pleasant, but it does clean the tank and probes – at least until the next time the tank gets full.

Unfortunately, I have not found any product that thoroughly and reliably cleans the gunk from the walls of a dirty gray tank, and there is no way to physically insert a sprayer.

SeeLevel

One great way to assure accurate tank readings is to replace the entire factory system with a new “SeeLevel” monitoring system. The SeeLevel actually uses externally mounted sensors that somehow accurately sense the fluid level inside of the tanks. It seems like magic to me, but all of the reviews say that it works.

Unfortunately, installing a SeeLevel system on my RV (and I assume most others) is a very expensive and complicated proposition. In addition to attaching the external sensors (fairly easy), it involves replacing the electronic monitoring panel inside the RV, which means you’ll also have to replace the sensors on the freshwater tank, rewire the propane meter, and rewire the battery monitor.

Everything I’ve read suggests that this system works wonderfully, but to me the installation process seemed daunting and the price is a bit high—about $250-$300.

Horst Miracle Probes

Ultimately we decided to try a simpler solution: replace the factory-installed sensors in our tanks with Valterra Horst Miracle Probes. These come in two models, one for gray tanks, and the other for black tanks. In both cases, these Teflon-coated probes extend far into the tank, beyond any gunk encrusted on the walls. The black-tank probes also have a protective hood to shield them from floating debris such as tiny bits of toilet paper.

Black Tank Probes

Gray tank probes

Installation is easy and does not require you to run any new wires. In all cases, the first step is to drain your tanks! In many cases it’s then as simple as unscrewing the manufacture’s probes from the outside of the plastic holding tank, screwing the new Horst probes in, and transferring the wires from one to the other. In our case the old probes were not removable, so I had to drill new holes into the tanks, insert the Horst probes, and transfer the wires from one to the other.

Because we have an installed black-tank cleaning system, I initially replaced the probes only on our gray tank. The job took about an hour and would have taken less if I hadn’t been filming the entire process! The probes come in packs of four, and it turns out that our tanks have six probes each, so I had to buy two packages. The system worked so well that I went ahead and replaced the probes on our black tank as well.

Here’s the good news: You can use black tank probes in a gray tank, too. If you’ve got six probes on each tank, I suggest buying two packages of black-tank probes and one package of gray-tank probes, then using four gray and two black probes in your gray tank. It’ll cost you less than $100.

After several months and thousands of miles, we’ve had only one problem. Due to road vibration, several of the nuts that connect the wires to the probes had loosened, causing intermittent false readings. After retightening the nuts, I placed a bit of nail polish on the treads to stop this from happening again.

I highly recommend Horst Miracle Probes. For less than $100, we can now count on accurate readings of our tank levels, which is much more pleasant than simply waiting for the shower or toilet to back up!

Have you tried any other solutions to the tank monitoring problem on your RV? We’d sure like to hear about them. Please share your questions and experiences in the comments below.

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2 Don’t Miss Things To Do in New Orleans

We finally made it to New Orleans!

Last year we planned to stop at the Big Easy on our way from Florida to Texas, but our plans were foiled by freezing weather and closed interstates. By the time the roads opened (and after we’d spent three shivering days in Theodore, Alabama) we had to bypass NOLA and hightail it to Texas for a church meeting.

But this year things worked out great! We pulled into beautiful Bayou Signet State Park and headed out to explore.

Now, if you’ve been following us for long, you know that we are not “party animals,” so hitting all of the bars on Bourbon Street wasn’t even a remote interest. But, as we discovered, New Orleans has SO much more to offer.

Our first day was spent on a “French Quarter Stroll” with Two Chicks Walking Tours. At $24.99 each, it was well worth the investment of time and money as we were introduced to the history, architecture, culture, and cuisine of the city at a leisurely pace with an expert guide. Tours like this, whether on foot or by trolley, are a great way to get acclimated to any new city, and this one was a blast! Our guide was full of great recommendations and fascinating stories.

The next day we decided to visit the National World War II Museum. This is an extraordinary museum that walks you through the events leading up to the war, the various theaters of battle, and the aftermath—using films, dioramas, and personal accounts from the men and women who lived through this awful chapter of history. World War II may not be what comes to mind when you think of New Orleans, but this museum should be high on your list of MUST VISIT destinations when you are in the area.

Come to New Orleans expecting great food, music on every other street corner, beautiful sights, and an all-around good time. There’s so much more than Mardi Gras! “Let the good times roll!”

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The least and most expensive RVs at the Tampa RV Supershow. A $2.7 million RV.

How much money would you spend for a brand-new RV? Here are the least and the most expensive we found at the Tampa RV show. Now, if we could just work up a down payment!

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Weird and Wonderful Florida – Part 2

In the “real Florida” we take you to an eccentric artist’s castle, kayaking on an alligator infested river, and eating Greek in the sponge capital of the world. And, along the way we manage to find oranges and BBQ. Opa!

Do you have any suggestions for our next trip to Florida? Please let us know in the comments below!

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How to Restore Faded RV Decals

You might think that those beautiful motorhomes you see driving down the road have a full paint job, just like your car or truck. But if the dominant color on a motorhome is white, off-white, or gray, chances are the white is plain fiberglass, and the graphics (swoops and swirls) are vinyl decals (not paint).

Vinyl is cheaper than paint. And in the RV world, particularly with older rigs, “full paint” is a luxury for higher end coaches.

The problem with decals is that while they look nice at first, they don’t tend to age well. The UV rays of the sun often cause them to crack and fade. Well-intended attempts to make them shiny by applying wax actually cause them to deteriorate more quickly. Wax can also leave gray streaks and splotches. Many cleaning products will cause them to peel.

Our problem was that our 2004 Fleetwood Southwind looked pretty good but had UGLY FADED decals that made the entire vehicle look kind of shabby. So, I went to the Internet for advice on how to clean them. I was told to use:

  • Mineral oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • WD-40
  • Toothpaste
  • Alcohol
  • 303 UV Treatment and Sealer
  • Rejuvenate Plastic Restorer
  • Various other brands of cleaners and wax, and even
  • Peanut Butter!

I tried some of these decal treatments (but not peanut butter) on small, inconspicuous spots. But none of them cleaned the decals very well, and the ones that worked didn’t look good for long. The best of the bunch was Rejuvenate, but even that didn’t look very good.

The solution, it turns out, is both cheap and easy!

Necessary Tools:

  • Green-backed scrub sponge. I used Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scrub Sponges that we bought at Costco (but available almost anywhere)
  • Water
  • Rejuvenate Restorer Wipes. I used eight wipes for two coats of sealer.

Step 1 – Saturate the sponge with water.

Step 2 – Scrub small sections of the faded decals with the green side of the sponge using medium pressure. I found that this worked best when I kept the sponge really wet, and I wasn’t shy about using lots of pressure to clean the dirtiest areas.

Step 3 – After completing a section, squeeze out the sponge and use the soft side of the sponge to rinse and wipe away the loosened dirt and oxidation.

Step 4 – Repeat on other sections of your decals and allow them to dry.

Step 5 – When the RV is dry, apply Rejuvenate to the clean decals. I found that I needed two wipes per side of our 37-foot Southwind, and put on two coats (a total of eight wipes). The Rejuvenate added a bit of shine, and will, I hope, help protect the decals from further damage.

Please understand that this process will clean the decals, but it won’t fix cracks or any other physical deterioration. But as you can see, the before and after pictures are pretty dramatic.

All in all, this job took me two days, and a total of about three hours. I could have done it in one day except that it was very hot. I got tired of scrubbing (and sweating), and I also didn’t want to apply Rejuvenate to the decals in full, hot sun. The total cost was less than $30.

If you try this, please leave a comment to let us know how it works for you. And if you have a have another method, we’re eager to hear about that, too!

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Oranges & Alligators in Florida in an RV!

The best parts of Florida are far from the House of the Mouse! After some really BAD orange juice, we and the dogs explore the beach and jungle at Hanna Park in Jacksonville, Florida, visit the Everglades at Everglades National Park, see the Royal Lipizzan Stallions, and enjoy Christmas at Peace River Thousand Trails.

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Savannah Smiles!

A spooky graveyard. A revolutionary war fort. A war memorial shipped from Canada. And more good food! All of that and more in this new episode of Miles and Smiles.

 

Our New Store!

Do you like the t-shirts you see us wearing in some of our videos? Now you can have one too! Check out the new store on our website to proudly declare “Life’s a journey… Make every mile count!”

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THE ADVENTURE BEGINS: AN ACCIDENT AND ADVICE

It was a rainy, sleety day in late November when we bundled ourselves up and buckled in our three dogs and cat into “Windy” (our new nickname for the RV). This year, we told ourselves, would be different. We’d reset our expectations about the weather – yes, it gets cold in the winter, even down south. We’d fine-tuned our plans for travel, with shorter drives, longer stays, and better planning ahead for overnight stops. With prayers that this year the pets would stay healthy, the roads would be safe, and Windy would run smoothly, we began our journey south.

Would you believe that someone hit us before we’d even left New Jersey? Yep. Imagine you’re following behind a 37-foot motorhome that’s towing a Jeep. That makes us about 50 feet long! Now imagine that it’s raining, the motorhome has its right turn signal on, and it’s starting to merge into the lane for a toll-booth – the same toll-booth you want to use. Do you: a) Stay behind the 13-ton vehicle and wait patiently for your turn; b) Pull out and try to pass on the left or choose a different toll lane; or c) Hit the gas pedal and try to pass the RV on the right so as to get ahead of it before it completes the merge it’s already begun?

Well, he almost made it. (He chose C, in case you were wondering.) Fortunately, the damage to Windy was minor – just a couple of scrapes where he left some of his red paint on our green right-front fender. His car got the worst of it on his passenger-side door, but it was already a junker that he planned to get rid of. Neither of us was interested in filing insurance claims, so we exchanged basic information, took photos just to be safe, and continued on our way.

We were able to clean most of this off with a green scrubbing pad!

Not more than ten minutes later, another driver attempted the same thing! He could have slammed into the concrete barrier in his lane, but he was lucky enough to be going so fast that he managed to squeeze by in front of us. So much for day one.

Our first night of travel was also our first experience of staying overnight in a parking lot. Thank you, Cracker Barrel, for providing designated RV parking spots and a safe place to park for the night – and for a great excuse to eat dinner and breakfast at your restaurant. (We also tried out our first Walmart parking lot a few days later. Both these businesses usually allow free overnight parking for RVers.)

We’d been to Colonial Williamsburg before, so this time we visited the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and enjoyed the Christmas Festival of Lights. We also toured the Frampton Plantation House/Lowcountry Visitor Center and Museum in the Low Country of South Carolina. It’s a tiny museum but helped us get a better sense of how cotton and slavery shaped the southern economy before the Civil War. For you RVers who are Thousand Trails members, we recommend Thousand Trails Williamsburg as well as “The Oaks at Point South,” nice parks and conveniently located. Just don’t get your hopes up for the “cappuccino” advertised on the gas station’s sign near the Oaks.

In the category of “learning from our mistakes,” watch our video about what not to do if there’s no hot water, and how to fix it. Thank you, “The RV Geeks,” for helping us (meaning Jeff) figuring out what was wrong and how to fix it!

We invite you to watch our videos and travel with us down south and then westward to some incredibly beautiful, and sometimes harsh, places across the United States of America. Bon voyage and buen viaje.

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