Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Roadtrek Vacation, Part II

Continued from Part I

We spent the night at the KOA RichmondNorth campground, as I wrote about last week. That morning we were heading off to do some sight seeing before we continued along to our next campground in Charlottesville, Virginia. We were about to head west into the mountains and into central Virginia. Our destination was Appomattox, Virginia, the site where General Lee surrounded his army to General Grant to start the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

We have been to Charlottesville many times but we have never been there in an RV and we had never taken this particular route to get there. I did a lot of planning of the route to take looking at Google Maps and the satellite views to see what I was taking the Roadtrek into and what the roads would be like that I would be taking the Roadtrek on. Many of the satellite views were nothing more than trees - no road in view that was there beneath those trees. I came up with what looked like a good route. It included going a bit out of the way further west to take a much larger road/highway back north toward Charlottesville, than taking the twenty minute faster route that took us twisting back through mountain roads. We would be taking part of that twisting mountain road to get to Appomattox, but I did not want to take it as the route all the way up. So, after consulting with Meryl, I routed the Tom Tom to go the longer route. I had all of the routing to and from new places completed almost a month before the trip.

Two nights before we were leaving, I decided to look at the website for the campground in Charlottesville. I had been on the KOA website and saw the full description of this campround, but I had not, for some reason actually looked at the campground's own website. I looked at the directions that the website had to get there and then - uh, oh - I saw this:

WARNING: DO NOT take exit 120 off I-64 as some GPS and online maps may suggest. This route (631/Old Lynchburg Rd) is not recommended; it is very narrow and has sharp turns! We also DON'T recommend route 708/Red Hill Rd coming from route 29 if you are driving an RV. IGNORE YOUR GPS!

My route was going exactly how they were warning you not to go! Oh boy. I immediately went out to the Roadtrek, got the GPS out of the dashboard, and started re-routing to the campground. I still did not want to take Route 20 all the way up and I did want to take the longer and straighter Route 29 that I had planned, but I had to make some changes to avoid approaching the campground from the west and come onto the access road from the east (which is basically what they are saying in the warning). This added another ten to fifteen minutes to the route. Lesson to be learned- always check the campground website location and directions page. I have seen warnings like this before for other campgrounds in various places.

So, OK. We were all routed and off into the mountains. With no surprise, the weather forecast was "Scattered Showers and Isolated Thunderstorms". What else was new? It was overcast but it was not raining. The road surfaces were dry and visibility was clear. That was what was important.

I have to share that the Roadtrek handled some steep roads quite well. There is plenty of power in my 6.0L 8 cyl. engine with its six speed transmission. There were a few spots where I had to push the gas pedal a little further down, and the engine would roar a bit, but following a little hesitation the Roadtrek went back up to speed. Of course, on some of these roads we were not driving much faster than 45 mph and on some of these roads where the speed limit was higher, I was not comfortable bringing the Roadtrek up past 45 mph considering the single lanes in each direction and the twists and turns that the roads made. I am sure I was not making some of the little cars that knew these roads well that were driving behind me very happy, but I was going to drive the Roadtrek as safely as I felt necessary.

We made the trip to Appomattox pretty much in the time that the Tom Tom predicted on its screen. As we were driving along, Meryl had the task of checking cell phone signals on the new cell phone that I had got just before we left on the vacation and comparing this new company to her cell phone on the company that we have had as our cell carrier for years. We were driving through areas where cell phone voice, and especially data, signals are weak to poor - for all of the companies. My new phone had service pretty much where her phone had service - and where she did not have any service at all - and there were quite a few places like that along the route - I did not have service either. Along the way we listened to recordings of the old Burns and Allen radio show on a CD and laughed our way west.

We arrived in Appomattox and the first attraction that we wanted to see was the newly built musuem that is an addition to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. I will write a separate article about the museum next week. We had to have lunch before we stopped there and the night before we had checked the internet to see where the closest McDonald's was. There generally is a McDonald's just about everywhere you go - and while we could have stopped and made lunch in the Roadtrek, it is far easier to stop for twenty minutes or less and eat and go. We had an address for it in the commercial area of the Town Of Appomattox but we did not look on a map. As we passed the museum, we saw a sign for the road the address was on - but the sign came up quickly and I missed the turn. Remember in the Roadtrek don't try to make any sudden fast turns. I kept going looking for a place to turn around. This is also another not easy thing to do when driving the Roadtrek. I saw a wash it yourself car wash up ahead and turned in. I had not realized as I pulled in that the exit out was very steep. I pulled around the little corner parking lot and was going up hill. The exit dropped off to the road. As I turned out of the exit and onto the street, I could hear a bang in the rear of the Roadtrek. I did a lot of cursing and wondered what damage I did now. We headed back to the road that we missed and got on it and seemed to be driving for a lot longer than the mile that this McDonald's was supposed to be and the road was becoming a limited access road. We pulled off at the next exit and started heading back in the direction we assumed we had to go. That direction was fine and we learned along the way that the road we wanted was the "business" route of the road with the same name and we were on that now. And there was the McDonald's up ahead with a sharp turn through traffic off to the left and into a very small parking lot.

Fast food restaurants do not always have large parking lots and we have encountered several of these in the Roadtrek that really have no place for the Roadtrek to park without sticking way back into the active entrance or exit lane. This was one of those lots. I pulled into a space with the drive through line behind me and hoped for the best while we were inside. Before we went inside, I looked as best that I could under the Roadtrek for the source of the big bang that we had heard when making the turn around. There was nothing obvious - and to date, nothing is wrong - thank goodness. We ate and got back out to go back to the museum we wanted to visit.

The GPS already had the museum as the next destination and it told us to go straight on the road that the restaurant was on and then within a block turn right. OK. I wondered where it was taking us. Well, it took us to the street that we came in on passed the musuem. The same street that the car wash that I turned around at was on, and in fact, there was that car wash up ahead as we turned onto that road. The museum was about thirty seconds further down. Had we stayed on that street coming in, we would have seen the McDonald's as soon as we came to its intersection. And avoided that bang... Oh well.

I will tell you about the musuem next week. I will move along now to the trip up to Charlottesville which was happily uneventful. By the time we came out of the musuem it was too late to visit the actual site of the surrender which is in a National Park right there. We have been to that site before and there is a campground right across the road. When we decide to head back here, we will likely try that campground and spend more time here.

We made our way along the route that I planned and drove in and out of towns - some looking like they have not changed in 75 years, and some looking very much like every other commercial, built up town in the country with shopping malls and lots of retail along the side of the road. As my route got further along, the main route that I decided to travel stopped being a limited access road and became more of a two lane in each direction open highway through towns. And it went up and down the mountains. The big 18 wheeler trucks seemed to do much better going up and down the mountains than the Roadtrek, but the Roadtrek held its own.

As we got close to Charlottesville, we passed the road that the campground was on from the direction that we were warned not to take. We passed it by and continued up and around and back east, and then headed south exactly where the campground directions specified. If this is the better route, I thought, what must the bad route be like? It twisted around and down the mountain. It twisted a lot and the speed limit was 55 mph and the road was one narrow lane in each direction. I was, of course, not doing the speed limit. I was driving between 40 and 45 mph with an eye on the warning signs that would come up to reduce speed down to 35 - which I was sure to do. It was a little bit of white knuckles on the steering wheel for a while. There was, luckily, a sign just before the turn to the road for the campground and the Tom Tom was doing a good job at notifying me of turns coming up. The road that the campground is on was not much better and at one point we came to a sign that said single lane bridge. This is a road that trucks drive on and I was very happy to see the truck behind me turn off. I was not going to miss the campground entrance - who knew where we could turn around and ahead we would be on the part of the road we were warned about. I reduced down to ten miles per hour and we both looked sharp for the campground entrance. It was well marked - and the Tom Tom announced it was up ahead. We turned into the campground - the Charlottesville KOA which is actually the only campground that I could locate in this area and within a number of miles of this area. I will write about the campground in an article in two weeks.

We were heading out for dinner that night to a restaurant that we have been to before in Charlottesville. At the campground I asked the very nice couple behind the desk in the registration office how much worse is the road that they warn about over the road that they recommend. I was told that the warning is really for much bigger RVs and trailers than ours but - there are a lot more twists and turns and some turns are very sharp. When were pulling out for the restaurant I turned to Meryl and asked if we should try that other direction - just to see it. Silly me... Meryl said OK and I made a right out of the campground. At first the road was pretty much OK. There were some houses on the side and a few businesses. Then it started to twist and there were - as warned - several very sharp turns. I drove slow and cautiously. One of those turns sharply curved around what might be called a wooded glade that then looked like more of a swamp. You certainly did not want to go off the edge of the road there. As we came out onto the main highway it started to rain. And then it started to pour. I mean pour like someone opened a faucet and a steady, heavy flow of water came down. Thank goodness the rain waited for us to get out off of that road.

It rained heavily for about an hour. It was actually too early to eat dinner when we got to the restaurant. There was a supermarket across the parking lot and we decided to go in there and spend some time. We put on our rain jackets and went out into the storm. While we were in the supermarket, the sky started to lighten and then as suddenly as the storm started it just stopped completely - and the sun came out. At least, if it stayed this way and did not start raining again when we had to return to the campground, I would not be driving back down the twisty recommended road in the rain - the dark would be bad enough.

End of Part II - see below...

Our story continues next week with an article on the Museum of the Confederacy - Appomattox Annex. The following week will be an article about the Charlottesville KOA campground. Following that will be an article about Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. Part III of this article will continue the week after that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Richmond N/Americamps KOA, Ashland, Virginia

Our first night on our trip this August was spent at the Richmond N/Americamps KOA located in Ashland Virginia. The odd name is because Americamps is - was - a campground chain that ran a number of campgrounds. From what I have found out, they seem to go for the "campground/resort" idea of campgrounds. Some of these - perhaps all - became KOA campgrounds - recently. For those who do not know KOA - "Kampgrounds of America" - they are one of the largest chains of campgrounds. This was our first KOA campground. From what I read about this campground, it had been completely renovated in the past year or two - when it became a KOA.

Ashland is, as the name of this campground states, north of Richmond. It is actually northeast of Richmond off I-95. We stopped here because it is a convenient stopping point coming south from New York with approximately a seven hour drive (with good traffic - ha, ha). This is a good stopping point if you are interested in seeing Richmond, Petersburg, or various historic sights related to this area. Patrick Henry grew up not too far from here and there are a number of historic sights related to him in this area. There is also a large amusement park named Kings Dominion just north of Ashland.

To get to this campground you exit off I-95 and the exit is just south of where the campground is located. You come across I-95 if you are driving south and then drive along side of I-95 to the road that the campground is located on - or if coming from the south - just drive along side of I-95. The campground is down a small road that curves around through an industrial area, though it is also a wooded area. The campground is on the left off of this road. Actually, everything is on the left as to the right of this road is I-95. Given the direction that we were driving this surprised me - but the road curved around. The campground is easy to get into and once you exit I-95 and get on the road the goes around (or along) it is easy to find Airport Road which the campground is located on. In the dark we had no problem finding the entrance to the campground.

We arrived at the campground in the middle of the night. Through the entrance there is a building on the left that is the office. There was a "late check in" area on the porch and our site number and a map of the campground had been left there for us. It is common when you arrive at a campground after hours that your site and a map will be left for you posted outside somewhere near the office door. We got our site number and started to follow the map which in the dark was a little confusing. Once past the main entrance, the paved road stopped and then the roads were mixed paved and gravel. There was some lighting in the campground and we were not driving totally in the dark. As we approached where the space should be located, Meryl got out with a flashlight and walked ahead looking for the site number.

We had reserved a back-in, full service site that included water, electricity, sewer, and cable. Wifi is available at all sites. This site cost less than a pull through site with the same full services. There are also sites with just water and electricity and these cost the least. I am not going to say what the sites cost because prices change from year to year and season to season at most campgrounds. The sites are gravel.

Meryl guided me in and I backed the Roadtrek into the space. The space was not very long, and I am not sure how a much longer RV would fit in one of the spaces that we were in. There were long pull through spaces across from us with plenty of room. We were also not far from the space next to us - and we could see into the pop-up tent camper that was there - enough so that Meryl waved to the man inside who waved back. The space we were in was NOT level. I moved the Roadtrek as much as I could around the space looking for a level or almost level spot. I finally gave up and got as level as I could - which means, one side was slightly up and the back was higher than the front. Better to sleep with your head above your feet - so that was where we stayed. We could have gone out with the plastic "lego" type leveling blocks and put them under the tires but I think it would have taken blocks on the back and one side to get us level. This is all done trial and error and we were just too tired - though Meryl offered to place the blocks under the wheels. It was good enough for one night.

We checked the power at the electric box, both for polarity and voltage, and it was good. We hooked up the electric cord from the Roadtrek through our power/surge protector box, connected the cable, and we went inside. I checked the TV signal and it was good. The cable channel selection was actually pretty good, but the numbers that came up on the screen after the scan, did not match the numbers for the same channels that were listed on the back of the campground map. The wifi signal was very poor.

Since it was not raining - as we had anticipated based on our seeing lightening in the distance in this direction while we were coming down to here - we decided we would go outside and explore the campground. We took a flashlight and headed out.

The campground was not empty. There were a good number of RVs, trailers, and tents in the campground. Scattered around there were people sitting outside their rigs, some with campfires. Some waved. Some did not. Some did not respond when we waved. That seems to be the way it is everywhere we have been. We walked along the road through the campground and were heading to where the restrooms/showers/laundry building was on the map. There are actually two such buildings. One is at the front near the office and the other is off to the back. We were heading to the back.

It was clear when we saw the building that it was recently re-done. It looked new and the facilities inside were recently new. We were looking at them late at night and for having gone through the day with use, they were very clean. The facilities get an A.

We walked back to the Roadtrek and spent the night watching TV with ongoing frustration trying to figure out what channel we had on until something would come up and identify it in the broadcast, trying to get email to come in with the poor wifi and then going to bed.

This campground is very close to I-95. We did not hear any traffic inside our Roadtrek during the night. The Roadtrek is built on a van with road noise soundproofing so we do not hear much outside when we are inside the Roadtrek. If someone is here in a thin walled trailer or RV, it is possible that you will hear the traffic on I-95. When we got up the next morning and went outside I could see the cars and trucks driving on I-95 through the trees from our site.

That morning when we went outside we found a printed note on the Roadtrek and there was also a note on the pop-up trailer next to us. The note said that the campground was having chemicals put down on the grass everywhere in the campground between x am and y am and it was hazardous to walk on the grass for an hour after that time period. How nice! We had to unhook from the electric box and be on our way. We planned this as an early departure day because we had sightseeing to do along the way to our next stop. Annoyed, I leaned over the grass - luckily I could reach and grabbed the plug from the box and pulled the cable wire (we use push on connectors to make hooking and unhooking the cable easier). I got both away without stepping on the grass.

Exiting the campground from your space involves driving in a loop around most of the campground. On our way out, we stopped at the office, paid for our night's stay, and we were ready to go. The office is large and has a store inside with souvenirs, snacks, and camping supplies. There is sales tax on campground sites in Virginia (there isn't in Pennsylvania). There is a 10% discount with an AARP or a AAA card. It was easy to get back on I-95 in either direction.

Across from the office there is a small swimming pool. It is on the side of the entrance parking lot across from the building with the office. There is no shade for the pool so if you are taking your kids swimming, where sun block.

We come down to this area often. We were looking for a campground that would enable us to visit the sights here and this was the best of what I found when I was researching what is available in this area. My only real complaint here was the sight being as off as it was. When we got out the next morning in the daylight I looked at the other back in sites around us and they all looked off to my eye. There was an obvious slope to the side and also a slope down from the back to the front. The wifi signal could have been better too - and while it is available to all in the campground you are paying for this in the price - and we were not too far from the building with the office where at least one wifi transmitter must be located. The positives were the location (despite being so near to I-95), the campground was clean, the facilities - rest rooms, showers, laundry room etc, were relatively new, there were no children running around unattended, there was plenty of shade, the campground was pretty easy to get around in (in the daylight) and once you know where you are going, the cable selection was good, and it was not overpriced.

Would we stay here again? When I asked this question of Meryl she said, yes we would. My first reaction was no, we wouldn't. She said that other than the space not being level everything was nice. OK - remember, I once said, "Meryl is always right" If we do come back, I would ask when I make the reservation that we be put in a site that is level.

A short while after we returned home from the trip, I received an email with a survey from this KOA. This is standard to KOA campgrounds, as we received the same email survey for another KOA that we stayed at on this trip. I answered the questions honestly and made a point to comment in detail about the site not being level. I received an email response from the campground that apologized for our inconvenience and offered us a 15% discount on our next stay at that campground. A follow up letter was mailed to us about a week later that stated that if we present the letter on our next stay we will receive the promised 15% discount - and that they are trying hard to improve and make everything good about their campground. This was very nice of them and I appreciate this effort. When we need to stop in this area again, I will stay here again, and we shall see if another site is any better. I will, of course, let you all know.

Here are some photos that I took of the campground -

Photo of a full site - you can see how it slopes down to the right.

Water, Electric/Cable Connections and Sewer dump hole.

Pull through sites - is it my eye, or is that space sloped to the left?
Looks like the space to the left is a lot more level...

Road through the campground.

View toward the front of the campground. That is a little ravine behind us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Roadtrek Vacation, Part I

School has started and many returning scholars have had to sit down and write an essay just like this one - "How I Spent my Summer Vacation". We'll I spent my summer vacation in a Roadtrek. We were away for 16 days and 15 nights in August. We went south again this year to Virginia with a stop on the way home in Pennsylvania.

My original plan for this vacation was almost three weeks - 20 days out. My original trip included Washington, D.C. and I had reservations to stay in Cherry Hill Campground which I am told is a very nice campground in College Park, Maryland about 25 miles outside of Washington - and, pretty much, the only private campground around if you want to visit the nation's capital. I wrote about why I cancelled my reservations there in my recent article, "A Roadtrek Can Go Anywhere - Almost..." . I won't repeat what I wrote there and you can follow the link and read about it for yourself. Again, nothing wrong with the campground - it was my problem and not theirs. Anyway, before I cancelled those reservations I had an alternate plan to be able to visit Mount Vernon in Arlington, Virginia (George Washington's home) that involved booking one or two nights at a Virginia regional park campground. About three weeks before the trip I called the park in the morning to find out if there were sites available for the days that I wanted. I was told yes they had a site for me. I should have taken "a site" literally. I wanted to be sure that I could cancel the reservations at Cherry Hill before I made a commitment that had to be paid in advance and was not refundable. So, I hung up with the park and called Cherry Hill. There was no one answering the phone and I did not want to do the cancellation by voice mail so I hung up and called back a couple of hours later. There was no problem cancelling my reservation at Cherry Hill and I got my full deposit returned. When I called the park back and asked for the site, I was told IT was gone. There had been only one. We did get to Mount Vernon and I will write about that in its own article. We went on the way back north and did not stay overnight but continued along to Pennsylvania that night.

As I was re-planning the trip after I had made all of the reservations, I decided to change another piece of the trip. We had reservations to spend two nights near Petersburg, Virginia touring the battlefield there and then moving along on the part of our trip that would be now heading west in Virginia to follow the route that General Lee took his army in an attempt to get away from General Grant. This is known as the "Lee Retreat Route" and ends in Appomattox. This involves a number of back roads and stops along the way at history markers. I re-thought that idea at the last minute and cancelled those reservations too - I will not name the campground, but from its reviews, description, and my conversation with the lady there while making the reservations, did not come across as very desirable. Things were now set. We would stop first outside of Richmond, then travel on to Charlottesville, Va. with a stop on the way to Charlottesville at Appomattox to see a new museum that opened there just a few months ago and see, if we had time, the National Park site of Lee's surrender.

For a few weeks before we left on this trip, the weather report every day was this - "Isolated Thunderstorms or Scattered Showers". I am not quite sure what the difference is and exactly what is "isolated" and what is "scattered" to a weatherman. All I know is that it was cloudy every day before we left and on some days it rained and other days stayed dry. The reports continued this way - every day - and the day we were leaving on our trip, the same report was given. I checked what the report was for NJ, PA, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia and it was exactly the same. I also looked at what the predictions were ahead and each day for the number of days that they would commit there guessing, the report was the same - "Isolated Thunderstorms or Scattered Showers". That morning it was cloudy and looked like rain. Meryl wanted to know if she should wear the shoes she has for when it rains. My answer to her was that it was anyone's guess. She could easily flip a coin, as it seems the weather men do, and be just as correct as they are. As we drove along from state to state, it rained, was dry, was cloudy, and somewhere along the way the sun peaked out momentarily.

I will not go on and on, as I have sometimes done, about the traffic. Traffic and road construction in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states is just a given now. The trip to Washington, D.C. should take six hours from where we live. We left at a bit before 10:30 am. We stopped on the NJ Turnpike for lunch and it was after 1:30. We were not going to avoid Route 95 District of Columbia rush hour so we just resigned ourselves to knowing that. We actually made it past Washington with few hold ups, but about ten miles south of D.C. we heard on the radio that there was an overturned truck between exits X and Y and those exits were ahead of us. It did not take long for the traffic to back up to us and we stopped moving along with everyone else. We followed the progress of closing both lanes, of removing the truck from the road, of opening one lane, and then opening both lanes but still the road was at a standstill. It was a half hour after the radio reported that all lanes were opened that we started moving - slowly along. When we got to where the truck was - now pulled off way off the road - cars and trucks had to slow down to a crawl to see - and then after that, started moving as they should have been. I had thought that this was a NY phenomenon but it seems that it is more important everywhere to get a good look than to get on your way after sitting for hours. The trip to the campground in Ashland, Virginia from our home took us over ten hours including a half hour stop for lunch and an hour and half stop for dinner and gas. We should have been there in just over six hours.

Our destination for the first night was a town called Asland and a campground named, Richmond North/Americamps KOA. I will be writing a report on the campground in a separate article. We were still some distance from the campground and it was well past the time that we would have liked to stop for dinner. I had a place in mind - a Ryan's Buffet Restaurant in Fredericksburg, which I find is one of the better of the remaining Ryan's chain. It is located in a very large shopping center called Central Park just off Route 95 in Fredericksburg. At the exit of that same shopping center is a gas station that consistently has the lowest price gas that I have ever paid. That gas station is always a must stop when we are heading south - and sometimes heading back north. It was almost dark when we got to the restaurant - and this was mid-August, so it was late. It was still cloudy but no rain. When we finished dinner, off in the distance, there were huge flashes of lightening. "Isolated Thunderstorm" perhaps? It was south of us and we were heading that way. We did not want to be outside in a downpour hooking up the Roadtrek in the middle of the night so we got back in the Roadtrek - not stopping in a few stores that were still open that caught our attention on the way in - and got back on I-95 to Ashland. We arrived at the campground with no rain - and no more lightening.

The next article will be about the Richmond North/Americamps KOA campground and then following that will be Part II of How I Spent My Summer Roadtrek Vacation.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Talk to the President of Roadtrek

Jim Hammill is the president of the Roadtrek company. Recently he has taken up residence on a Roadtrek Facebook fan page and has been responding to Roadtrek owners, answering questions, and helping to resolve problems.

There are three Roadtrek pages on Facebook. One is the Roadtrek corporate site and then there are two that have been in existence for some time that owners of Roadtreks have come together to share experiences and ask questions of each other. Mr. Hammill selected one of these pages - not the Roadtrek corporate page - and joined and became very active in the discussions. He has, through what he has written in some of his posts, invited Roadtrek owners to interact with him - not only on this page but through his email address as well.

When word got out about this, there was a sudden flurry of new memberships, which made the page owner wonder what was going on. Once she was told what was happening she seems OK with his being there and the page suddenly becoming very popular.

Mr. Hammill (Jim) is very gracious and very open. He also seems to be a very down to earth guy who cares about his company, his product, and his customers. He has announced new work in progress. He has asked for suggestions. He has gone out of his way to find sources for parts and help for Roadtrek owners with problems, including older models.

Mr. Hammill is not alone in this idea. On the, forum, which is run by the Good Sam RV Club, though it is not Good Sam specific, the president of Good Sam, Marcus Lemonis, has been present on a special Good Sam forum section - open to all - to answer questions and complaints. It is good that these two top RV corporate execs have made themselves available to their customers.

If you would like to become a member of the Facebook page with Mr. Hammill - and Mr. Hammill has made it clear that you can still contact him through his email or get help from him at Roadtrek even if you don't want to belong to Facebook - and many don't - but if you do - here is a link:

You need to register for Facebook before you can join any Facebook page.