Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Better Way to Level a Roadtrek

Anytime we are heading to a new campground or even a campground that we have been to before the big question in my mind is will the campsite we are assigned be level. Too often campsites are not even close to level. They are sloped up or sloped down or sloped to one side or the other. We have the Nova Kool all electric condenser refrigerator so we don't need to be level for the fridge as some three way absorption fridges require. For me it is how I feel inside. I am sensitive to being on a slant and it is uncomfortable. If we have to be off, being higher in the back is better for sleeping than being higher in the front, but it is still something that bothers me. When a site is very off, we ask for a new site and that happened twice this year. The new sites we were given were not much better but doable - one by spending 30 minutes moving around in the space trying to find the best the most close to level position and the other by resorting to the "Lego" type blocks that we carry for leveling. Those blocks can be a pain in the neck and I have resisted using them unless there was no way to getting the RV into any position that was close including trying positioning diagonally as much as possible.Large RVs, so equipped, push a button and an automatic leveling system levels the RV - legs come down and adjust to the correct heights. Nice! There is no room under a Roadtrek or any Class B to accommodate the mechanism required to do this. The leveling blocks are the most common way to level a Class B. We always ask for a level site when we are making reservation and also when we arrive at a campground. We are always told that the site is level and have been told that we are getting their most level site - and that most level site is often not level. On the campgrounds that we go back to regularly we request certain sites that we have been in that we know are level (and even that can change when the sites are gravel), but often those sites are not available. I kept thinking that there had to be a better way.

During this past summer I learned about a new type of leveling device that can be used with a Roadtrek or any RV or travel trailer. They are called Camper Levelers (3604) and are made by a company named Andersen Hitches. When I first saw these on the Internet and the company video about how they work (video link) I thought how great this seemed. I wanted to know though would this work with a Class B RV like my Roadtrek. I went on various forums and asked about these and found out first that the company's claims were true - they worked as described. I then learned that those who have them like them and they like them much better than the blocks - and I also learned from a few Roadtrek owners who have them that they work just fine with the Roadtrek. I showed the video to Meryl and she was skeptical but when I explained how they worked and showed her the video more than once she agreed that they were worth a try, especially after our last trip where we played with the blocks every day to get level.We decided to order them.

I have not seen these in any camping/RV store. Some store may have them but they are easily purchased on the web either at the company's website , other RV accessories sites, or Amazon. They are not cheap - they cost $40 each - each as in $40 for one wheel. You need to buy two packages. We bought ours on Amazon through a company called Tweety's RV. There were several sellers on Amazon with the Andersen Levelers. I chose Tweety's because of a huge number of positive ratings. We bought two sets - one set for each tire needed to level side to side or front to back. On Amazon there was free shipping (given the price of these). Andersen's website was charging shipping. At $80 they are expensive, but if they make life easier $80 is not much to pay.

So what makes these levelers different? The Andersen leveler is a curved ramp - curved to match the curve of the tire on the top and slightly curved on the bottom allowing the ramp to rock.

It is made of a very tough material. I contacted Andersen while I was considering these and asked about their ability to take the weight of the Roadtrek and if they can stand up to gravel or paved surfaces. They told me there would be no problem at all. They can support up to 30,000 pounds. They will raise the wheel from 1/2" to 4" in height.

To secure the ramp once the wheel is in the correct position, there is a second piece to the ramp that wedges under the section that will raise up as the tire moves up the ramp to where the RV is level.

Together under the tire, the two parts will be like this -

So how do you use these? Simple. You set the ramp in front of the two tires you need to increase in height to get level and drive up the ramp. You stop when your level bubbles are in the middle and you are level. Get out - or have your partner as in this is Meryl's job - put the wedge under the back of the ramp and you are done! Of course, you set the emergency break and put the van in park before going near the ramps to set the wedges in place.

 The ramp is slightly smaller in diameter than the tire, which gave me some concern at first but it is a fraction of an inch on each side if you put the ramp in the center of the tire. This was easy to determine as the ramp has a dimple in the middle from the mold and the third thread on the tire is the middle of the tire. I lined the two up and set the ramp just at the edge of the tire. You can see that the front of the ramp is moved up when the rear is just under the tire and looks in the photo like it is hitting the Roadtek's ground effect in front. It actually is not and does not touch.

Now that there is one of these set on the two tires - either the two front or the two rear or the two on the passenger side or the two on the driver's side depending on which way it is off-level - you get in, start the van, put it in First gear (this was easier than doing it in Drive), take off the emergency brake and move SLOWLY up the ramp making sure before you move that the front tires are pointing straight ahead. As you move you watch the level bubbles on your levels. I have a side to side level on the dashboard and a front-back level on the passenger door. As you start to climb the ramps you will see the bubbles move to level. I quickly found that if I went to brake to check the levels, the van would slide slightly back down the ramp so I used one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas pedal and moved the van into level. Once there I stopped, set the emergency brake and put the van in Park.

I got out to guide Meryl in putting the wedges in place which turned out to be very easy. Just slip the wedge in place and give it a push under the ramp.

That is all there is to it. Level!

When it is time to leave it is just as simple. The company shows in their video just pulling forward and off the edge of the ramp. I tried this and the Roadtrek came off with a slight thud. All was well but Meryl suggested trying it by removing the wedge and rolling back off the ramp. This worked. It was not hard to pull the wedge out from under the ramp and then I just put the van into Reverse and rolled back and off. The two ramps and wedges get picked up and put away and you are off.

Storing the ramps in the limited space of the Roadtrek took some doing and Meryl rearranged the outside storage cabinet to accommodate the two ramps and two wedges. Taking the tall stack of leveling blocks out helped a lot. The Andersen levelers are heavier than they look but stack easily and we got them in for storage without a problem and easily accessed to get out when they are needed.

We tried this out on the driveway at our house. The incline of the driveway is steeper than any campsite that we have ever been in - though I am not sure if the off-level campsite two years ago at the Yogi campground in Hagerstown, MD was not very close. The Andersen levelers level to four inches. The driveway drop was just more than that and I was on the very edge of the front of the ramps to get the level bubble to just inside the front level line. The van sat on the ramp in that position with no problem and we set the wedges and it was solid. I even went inside and jumped around to see what might happen. As I did that Meryl sat in the front and watched the bubble on the level. It stayed where it was.  That would be good enough and likely we will never encounter a site that far off. And if we do, we would still ask to for another site.

I would rather I always have a nice level site, but I know from experience that getting that every time just does not happen. As soon as I have an opportunity to try these out at a campground I will come back to this article and add an addendum on their first field trial. I am sure it will be fine and even better than on my driveway. (This may take awhile as our first campsite after getting these was nicely level all on its own. Nice that it was but I was looking forward to trying these out at a campground.)

Consider these. I don't get anything from the Andersen company. I am not a paid spokesperson. I bought these and paid full price.  I just want to share what I find to solve some of the things we all encounter when RVing. This one is works. I would say that this is the next best thing to pushing a button and getting automatically level - though if that were possible on my B I would still like to have that!

I am putting the table of contents link to this article on both the Living in the Roadtrek/How Tos page and the Modifications/Gizmos page as it is really more than a gizmo and an important thing to know about if you hate having to level your Roadtrek, trailer, or RV.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania PART II


We left Part I with our just leaving the film in the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors Center and being escorted with everyone else who had just watched the film up to the Cyclorama. The Cyclorama is located in the dome in the center of the building. So what is a Cyclorama?

In the 1880s, French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted the Battle of Gettysburg in the round. He and his assistants took more than a year to do the actual painting after months of research on the battlefield with veterans, guides, and a photographer. The painting is 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high. What you are seeing is a depiction of Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle. Four versions of the painting existed in the United States. It is the Boston version that is on display here and this first was displayed in Boston in 1884.

You come up into the center of the dome and there is a metal walkway all around the dome facing the painting. You can walk anywhere around the painting to see it. The painting is displayed as the artist originally intended with a three dimensional diorama in front of the bottom of the painting - making what you are seeing very realistic. Each place you stop around the painting and each place you look you are seeing another part of this battle.

There is a very short recorded narration that is played while you are up looking at the painting. What they do not do is tell you to look at any one particular part of the painting as the narration starts and you may be looking at a part of the painting that has nothing to do with what the narrator is saying. Your time with the Cyclorama is short - perhaps ten minutes and everyone is then asked to follow back down and out of the Cyclorama. You are then brought into a room with an explanation of the Cyclorama and its own historic artifacts. Frankly, this should have been at the start of the Cyclorama experience and not at the conclusion of it.

The Cyclorama is the end of your escorted part of the building and now you are on your own to go into the museum. Your tickets are only good for the day of purchase, so unless it is very early in the day it would be unwise at this point to leave intending to come back later. Your ticket does let you into the museum throughout that day. The film and the Cyclorama may be seen only once with a ticket. We went right into the musuem.

The museum consists of 12 galleries. The exhibits are displays of artifacts - some put together to create a room or a scene. There are also video presentations in some of the galleries. The first gallery is the Impact of War. The second gallery is the Causes of War from 1776 to 1861. Gallery three is the Approach to War. Gallery four gets into the Civil War 1861 to1863. Now in the galleries are approaching July 1863 with gallery five's Campaign to Pennsylvania. Included in Gallery five is the Campaign to Pennsylvania Voices Theater, a film program where you will hear from people who were there.

General Robert E. Lee's campaign furniture as it would have been set up in his tent.

Now the museum turns to telling you the story of the Battle of Gettysburg that took place from July 1, 1863 through July 3, 1863. (Think of the irony of the timing of this battle in relation to the Fourth of July.) Gallery six is divided into six sections - essentially six galleries - Into Battle, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Out of Battle.

Soldiers' tent - two men share this tent - each carries half the tent with him.
General George Meade's bedroom furniture from his Gettysburg Headquarters

Two bullets that met in mid-air!

 Gallery seven is Aftermath of Battle: the Brave Men, Living and Dead. The gallery includes the Voices of the Aftermath Theater, again with a video program with people who were there. Gettysburg is one of the bloodiest battles in American History. Over the three days of fighting 50,000 men died or were wounded. During the battle the people of the town saw their homes and buildings used by both sides as places to fight, hospitals, and places to die. You will see furniture from some of those homes full of bullet holes. These three days were devastating to both sides and everyone who lived in Gettysburg. Some historians feel that this battle was a draw. Some see it as a turning point for the North toward victory. (I personally do not agree with that as much more will take place in the two years that the war continues.) Both sides reported the battle as a victory but it was the Confederate forces who had to quietly move themselves and those who they could carry on July 4th out of the threat of total destruction and further danger.

This photo of a piece of a hospital tent from the battle kept and embroidered as a remembrance. This photo and a series of photos of this piece were taken for Meryl who is an embroidery historian.
 When most people hear Gettysburg they think of the Gettysburg Address, a short speech made by Abraham Lincoln - added to the ceremony is a secondary speaker. Gallery eight is about the Gettysburg Address. The ceremony honored all that fell in the battle and dedicate the cemetery - part of the battlefield - where so many who died in the battle were buried. That is Northern soldiers - Confederate soldiers were buried in mass graves and then later moved to a well known cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. In this gallery you will learn about the ceremony, the speech, and see documents written by Abraham Lincoln.

Gallery nine is the Civil War, 1863 to 1865 - the remainder of the war all the way through to General Lee's surrender of his army to General Grant at Appomattox which led to the end of the Civil War. There are some very significant artifacts to see in this gallery.

The Surrender Pen
Chairs used by Grant and Lee while signing the surrender

Gallery 10 is Results of the War: That These Dead Have Not Died in Vain. Gallery Gallery 11 is Preservation of the Battlefield in which you learn about the immediate collecting of artifacts of the battle, the reunions of both sides held at the battleground, and the work done to preserve the battlefield as a National Military Park. That work still continues. The NPS is currently removing trees that did not exist on parts of the battlefield in 1863. They are trying very hard to put the battlefield back to what it looked like at the time of the battle. (For every tree removed, another tree is planted at another local site.)

The last gallery is a special exhibits gallery and the exhibits here change here on a schedule. At the time of our visit this exhibit was (and may still be) Treasures of the Civil War: Legendary Leaders Who Shaped a War and a Nation. This includes artifacts from collections from all over the country. The following three photographs are of artifacts in that exhibit.

Robert E. Lee's Dressing Gown

Pickett's Sash
George Meade's Boots

 After the gallery we went into the gift shop - which was soon to close at 6 pm. We knew at the beginning of the day that we would not have very much time to see any of the actual battlefield itself - and as I said at the beginning of Part I of this article, we have been through the battlefield many times before - but never in a Roadtrek. We headed back to the parking lot and decided that before dinner we would try to see a little of the battlefield and headed toward the route of the tour. The tour road goes in one direction only. You start the tour on the Confederate side of the battlefield at the bottom and drive along in a long oval past the field where Pickett's Charge started - and the statue of Robert E. Lee.

The route takes you along to Big Round Top and then Little Round Top. There was fierce fighting on Little Round Top. You may park and climb to the top of both looking out over the entire battlefield.

Atop Little Roundtop

After Little Round Top in the Roadtrek it is important to make the correct turns and I am not certain that it is a good idea to go down along the route to Devil's Den where the route climbs a rather steep hill and then drives through some very tight roads with rocks on each side. Now, tour buses do this route, but these are drivers experienced in maneuvering a large vehicle on a road they know well. I have driven on these roads with a car and with a small van - as it was beginning to get dark, I decided not to attempt it with the Roadtrek and we took the alternate route that continued the oval.

Devil's Den - a famous photograph taken right after the war was taken at this same spot by Alexander Gardener showing dead soldiers between the rocks right here.
 The oval route then takes you past the ending point of Pickett's Charge and the High Water Mark monument. This then leads you out of the park. There are other routes through other parts of the battlefield. As I have been saying this battle took place all around the town.

It was getting dark and we went to a place that many reenactors know to go to for dinner when in Gettysburg - General Pickett's Buffet - a Southern buffet menu restaurant almost outside of town. Going into the main parking lot entrance of the restaurant the Roadtrek banged as it hit bottom in the back going up the driveway cut from the street. I hoped that no damage was done - and so far it seems we were OK. Leaving the restaurant later that night we went out the rear of the parking lot where the exit cut was less of an incline - and no bang.

We returned to the campground in Lancaster that night the same way that we came. What happened to the rain? It did not rain in Gettysburg while we were there. The roads to Lancaster where wet and it had rained there. We saw some interesting lighting shapes in the distant sky as we drove back - one of which was red and in the shape of a U - high in the sky.

I recommend going to Gettysburg. Go for more than one day. There are several campgrounds in Gettysburg. Some are better in the reviews than others so be sure to check before you go and pay close attention to the reviews. There is a Walmart in Gettysburg but overnight parking is not allowed in their parking lot. This is a local ordnance and applies to all parking lots in Gettysburg. When in Gettysburg be sure to see walk around the town. There is a great history bookstore in town called The History Store. There are also a number of ghost tours of the town at night - these cost money and may or may not be showing you anything but legends, but we aware that Gettysburg is said to be one of the most haunted places in the country - and considering what happened here, I would not doubt that at all.

(The three photographs taken of the battlefield above were not taken on this trip. It was too dark and we had no time to stop for photos when we drove the battle route with the Roadtrek. These photos were taken by me on a trip to Gettysburg in the Fall of 2008 and this explains the color of the leaves on the trees in General Lee's statue photo.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania PART I

We were in Lancaster, PA on another of those days that seemed to be all too frequent during our travels this summer that was predicted to rain. We decided that this would be a good day to do something that we have never done with the Roadtrek but had done many times before we started traveling in the Roadtrek and that was to go to Gettysburg. This was a day trip. A day is really not enough to go to Gettysburg if you have never been there before. A visit can easily take two days - perhaps three. Our intention on this possibly rainy day was go to the NPS Visitors Center with its film, Cyclorama, and museum.We have been through the battlefield many times and knew that there would not be enough time to do that again on this trip and that was OK.

Gettysburg is about 75 miles from Lancaster to the west. There is a very direct route from Lancaster to Gettysburg going west on Route 30 and remaining on that same route right into the town of Gettysburg. I have always hated that route when we drove by car and I knew that it would be even worse in a larger vehicle like a Roadtrek - or any RV or Travel Trailer for that matter. Route 30 is fine until you get not too far from Gettysburg when it becomes a one lane each way road through small towns with slow speed limits and traffic circles. I will never forget the night years ago when we drove this back to Lancaster from Gettysburg in a severe storm with trees falling around us and barely able to see what was ahead. In good weather it is not much better. There is another route to Gettysburg that is far from direct but only adds five minutes to the trip and is completely on multi-lane highways that is just five miles longer but so much more comfortable to drive. This route takes you off Route 30 West right at Lancaster onto Route 283 up and across and around to Route 15 South and down right into the town of Gettysburg at Route 30. This is the preferred way to go and the drive from Lancaster is one hour and twenty minutes as opposed to one hour and fifteen minutes on the so called direct route. (I discussed this on an RV forum and had a number of locals and others who have driven both routes agree.)  We set out from Lancaster, stopped for lunch at a Wendy's as soon as we got off Route 15 in Gettysburg, and after a fast lunch we headed for the National Park Visitors Center.

There is a relatively "new" NPS Visitors Center in Gettysburg. We were there several years back when it first opened. The old Visitors Center's building is still in the center of town and was actually much better located in relation to the battlefield and the town itself - which is also a place to tour as much of it is as it was during the battle. The "new" Visitors Center is off on a much bigger plot of land. Building this meant moving the small museum that they once had and expanding with many more artifacts into a large facility, moving the Cyclorama - which I will explain as we go along, and creating a theater in which to show a film made for the site that briefly explains the battle of Gettysburg. Before we left we learned from their website that due to construction one of the parking lots for the Visitors Center was closed. We had some concern that this might be a problem but we ventured out to see what we would find.

There is an RV parking lot at the Visitors Center. This is a good thing, particularly while one of the parking lots is closed, as the parking lot for cars was a problem for the Roadtrek. Lanes were narrow and spaces were tight. We drove through this parking lot and could not have fit into any of the few spaces that were open. Even had it been less crowded the Roadtrek would really not have fit. We drove back out and back down to the RV and Bus parking lot which was a distance away from the Visitors Center building. One can walk or wait for a not frequent shuttle bus. We walked.

As you can see from the photo above the RV spaces are large. The spaces behind where we parked had a number of large RVs in them, what looked like another Class B, and buses. From this parking lot you can arrange a tour of the battlefield with a guide, by bus, or go on bicycles. There are all types of tours one can take of the Gettysburg Battlefield including one on horseback.

A paved cement path that was for the most part uphill went from this parking lot to the Visitors Center building - and the car parking lot. As I said there was a sign for a shuttle bus, but no sign of any shuttle, and we would have walked even if it was sitting there waiting. (And I made this walk twice, as once at the Visitors Center building, I realized that I left something in the Roadtrek and went right back down the path to get it. Meryl stayed inside.)

You come up to see this building - the "new" Visitors Center.

There is a cafeteria in the building with very high prices. There is also a very nice and large gift shop including an excellent book selection of books on the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. They also sell driving tour CDs in the gift shop to play while you take the tour of the battlefield which needs to be driven (with whatever form of transportation) and cannot be walked due to distance and safety. And as I said above in this building is the musuem, the film, and the Cyclorama.

Let me explain a little about how to understand the Battle of Gettysburg that is vital to know for anyone going to visit Gettysburg. This is a very difficult battle to follow. The battle took three days. Each day was very different from the day before and over each day and over the three days the battle took place in a variety of locations - some of what could be considered battles all on their own taking place at the same time as each other. I visited Gettysburg as a boy and as a young man and never really grasped what had gone on there other than it was another Civil War battlefield. Without this understanding all you are seeing are big fields, rocky hills, and you drive on a winding road throughout it all. When I was younger I never really liked visiting Gettysburg. It took until my interest in history grew - and then one big thing that helped me  - and others I have discussed this with - to immensely finally understand and appreciate the battle in its entirety.  That was seeing the major motion picture, Gettysburg, which stared Jeff Daniels and many others. Like the long battle this film portrays, it is a long movie. It was filmed in Gettysburg - some on location and some on nearby farms that were part of the battle. (National Park Service is very strict about reenactments in any of their parks including prohibiting the firing of any arms towards anyone - including reenactors firing blanks toward an opposing force of reenactors. When you attend a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg it is held at a farm just off the NPS park.) This movie shows each day of the battle and significant events that took place on each day of the battle. It does not include all parts of the battle but watching this movie before going to Gettysburg will bring these fields and rocky hills to life for you. You will stand in places you see in the film and know exactly what happened on that spot. You will know why those involved in the battle did what they did. You will appreciate your visit so much more if you and your family watch this movie before you go. And as it happens this movie is now available as a bargain DVD for $5 in many places that sell bargain DVDs. This is not a documentary film - it is a Hollywood movie made for entertainment that was made well. The film is taken from a book named. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. So, I get nothing from the producers of the movie for telling you any of this - it is just a very easy way to have this whole complicated battle make sense and you will appreciate your visit to what is known as hallowed ground so much more.

OK - so we get into the Visitors Center and go up to the ticket desk. I recently got a National Park Service Senior Pass that entitles those who have it to go into National Parks for free along with up to four guest - who also get in free. I was thrilled to finally be able to get this. I was all ready to use this to go to the three attractions in the Gettysburg Visitors Center building which, frankly, is not something I had paid to do in the past. Touring the actual battlefield is free to all. At the ticket desk there was a sign that said that no passes are accepted. Really!?! My first big chance to use my pass and it was not accepted. OK - we bought the tickets - and could not even buy them for the senior price as that was 65 and over! So we plunked down $12.50 each and got our tickets.

With your tickets you move on toward an outer gallery with exhibits behind glass along the walls - various weapons, uniforms, insignias, etc. The entrance to the film is there and this is the first part of your visit with tickets. The film is titled A New Birth of Freedom and is narrated by Martin Freeman with voices by many well known actors. You are presented a brief introduction to the start of the Civil War as it moves quickly on to the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath. This battle took its tolls not only on both armies but also heavily on the people of the town. This battle moved from the battlefield into the streets of the town and into people's homes. You get a brief understanding of what took place here - though far from what is done with the movie I have explained above. The film is presented in a comfortable auditorium designed for the showing of this film. When the film is over you are escorted from the theater and to the entrance way to the Cyclorama, which is the next thing your ticket entitles you to see.

As I am writing here, I am realizing that this article will be almost as long as the battle itself so I better split it at this point and leave you here with the end of Part I and start on a Part II in which you will hear about the Cyclorama, the museum, and a very abbreviated drive through the battlefield.