Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Thousand Trails - Our First Year in Review

Adorable Cabins at the Narrows Too in Maine, June 2018

It's a good time for a Thousand Trails review, since I just paid our first annual Thousand Trails renewal. It's been a good program for us, and it should work well for most roaming full-timers.

Our campsite at Lotus, near Placerville CA, May 2019
The view of the American River from my office window, May 2019

We shelled out a grand total of $824 to get started in June 2018 - the basic Thousand Trails membership came with one zone (we picked the NorthEast since we were sitting in Maine when we signed the paperwork). Since we had plans to return to the Florida Keys we added on the SouthEast zone and also purchased the Encore program which opened up the higher-end resorts across the nation (Encore are the blue dots shown below, they are not tied to zones).

Within the first 6 weeks of camping the program had almost paid for itself, then we had to high-tail it to Colorado and from there on to California to deal with emergency medical stuff so there's a big blank spot on our schedule between New York and California while our travel plans were put on pause.

Thousand Trails has a big blank spot too, right in the middle of the country. There are no Thousand Trails parks in Colorado, the Dakotas, in fact it's a blank slate pretty much between Washington and Wisconsin. If you plan to spend significant time there this program might not work for you.

When we resumed traveling we added the zone covering CA/NV and by the time the membership year closed out we had turned our  initial $824 investment into $1504 of free camping, despite the months of limited mobility.

A little hang time in South Lake Tahoe, CA, June 2019
Thousand Trails parks vary widely in amenities but can always be counted for at least the basics. Some of the fancier parks also have cabins, pools, clubhouses, and nightly activities. Lake George NY offers kayaks to paddle the slow river that bends around the park and South Lake Tahoe CA offers live music and movies under the stars.

Not familiar with the program? Here's the breakdown from our renewal bill July 2019. The prices went up a little this year, I expect small increases are likely with each renewal.
  • Annual dues include one zone and cost $585/yr
  • You can buy as many additional zones as you want for $54 each. This $54 is good until the end of your renewal year only, so if you add one in May but your program renews in July your extra $54 gets you only two months. You cannot switch existing zones mid-plan-year, only add new ones.
  • The Encore program is a separate program you can add on for another $214/yr, we find these locations tend to be on the swankier side. Encore resorts are not tied to zones, so this membership gets you into any Encore resort across the nation.
  • You may only book your reservations 60 days out. You are limited to a 2-week stay at any particular park, then you must stay elsewhere for a week before your next reservation can begin. I heard that there's a loophole here - you can stay up to 4 days, leave the park and move directly to another park within the system for another 4 days, and continue doing this indefinitely but we haven't tested this theory yet.
  • You can reserve over the phone or online. The website is easy to work with and the reservation phone hold times can sometimes be quite lengthy. On one occasion I struggled to get a reservation through the website and did get one by calling instead, so now that's my backup plan.
Thousand Trails has been around for a long time and the program has morphed quite a bit over the years. There are some folks whose stays are not limited by 2 weeks or who can book reservations further out, either because they have older plans that were grandfathered in or because they bought a more expensive plan than ours. Our plan is the base model.

Here's the breakdown for our first year ending 6/30/19:
6/12/2018Program Dues ($575 program + $49 zone + $200 Encore)($824)($824)
6/12/2018Discount on existing stay @ The Narrows Too, ME$287($537)
6/23/2018Patten Pond, Ellsworth ME, 6 nights @ $0, rate $67$402($135)
7/23/2018Lake George, Diamond Point NY, 1 night @ $0, rate $68$68($67)
1/15/2019Added an additional zone - CA/AZ($55)($122)
1/24/2019Lake Minden CA, 2 weeks @ $0/night, rate $41/night$574$452
2/7/2019Lake Minden CA, 2 nights @ disc rate of $30/night vs $41$22$474
5/7/2019Ponderosa CA @ $0/night, rate 2@$73, 3@$68$350$824
6/5/2019South Lake Tahoe 8 nights @ $0/night, rate $85/night$680$1,504
Lance practicing his 4-part cast at the Narrows Too in Maine, June 2018
We are hoping for no new medical drama this year and have sketched out a full, fun year of camping across the country. If all goes according to plan, the renewal math this time next year will be even more to our advantage.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Mount Shasta's Majestical Views

Our next stop on the way North was Weed, a little town just off Interstate 5 within a beautiful view of Mount Shasta.

"The Reunion"

Just outside of town we found the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden. The sculptures were made by veteran Dennis Smith and pay homage to veterans of all types, it was a tranquil and thought-provoking installation, especially stunning with Mount Shasta holding court in the background.

"The Greatest Generation"

My folks discovered the sculptures with us, and the after-dinner goodbyes were especially hard this time since the next jump will put us out of range for casual visits. We've become spoiled with all the family access.

Castle Lake is gin-clear

The next day we discovered Castle Lake, a quick drive from Weed, at 5440' elevation. Lance shot some drone footage from the shoreline and tried some fly-fishing - no luck this time. Chloe and I bagged the peak above the lake, another 1000' higher or so, and she even found some snow to frolic in along the way.

Chloe loves snow
Castle Lake as seen from about 6200' - almost at the peak

Beautiful little orchid-like flowers at about 6200' elevation above Castle Lake

Throughout this journey I've been keeping track of our internet speed samplings, it's always the first thing I do when setting up my desk at a new location and I keep a handwritten journal on these readings. It just occurred to me that Rhumbline readers might be interested in this info too, so I will be adding these samplings to future blogs. Here's the speed test for Weed, CA - I'll go back and add them in the comment section of previous posts as I get around to it.

Internet Speed Comparison
Trailer Lane RV Park, Weed, CA
Sampled 6/13/19 at 4:25pm

MB down
MB up
Calyx (Sprint)
Google Fi
Jetpack (Verizon)
Park Wifi
Park Wifi Ext2

From here we are heading West and North along the Oregon and Washington coasts, possibly into Canada at Vancouver (we're still considering that). We heard the first fire watch warnings yesterday so that's our cue to flee California for a while.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Gold Country, Lake Tahoe, a custom shade, and cutting the final AT&T string

I couldn't believe it when I opened my cellular bill - another rate bump. Calling them rewarded me with a long wait and then with the usual run-around "we changed the plan structure and the plan you had now no longer exists so we put you in this new more expensive plan, tough cookies if you don't like it, blah blah blah". Ah, AT&T's well-earned reputation rears its ugly head yet again, no surprises there. Lance had been bugging me for some time to switch to Google Fi so we'd be global internet access-ready but I'd been resisting because AT&T's coverage in the US is fairly reliable, because I'm somewhat reluctant to accept change, and most of all because I had concerns that Google's coverage wouldn't be as good. Well, there's nothing like a little righteous anger to force me into change, so a few keystrokes later my Google Fi Pixel phone was winging its way to me. 

For about three weeks I had AT&T coverage on the iPad and coverage from Google Fi on the new phone and so I did daily speed comparisons while we moved around the Delta Loop and Gold Country of California, and was shocked to find that in EVERY single comparison the Google Fi internet was faster. So I let the iPad subscription expire too - goodbye and good riddance AT&T, you've darkened my door for the very last time. Best of all I'm spending almost $50/month less for superior speeds, even including the financed cost (at 0% interest) of the new phone. The phone they provided is a world-wide internet ready Pixel 3, and a happy surprise was the quality of the phone's camera.

Chloe at Nevada Beach (South Lake Tahoe), shot with Pixel phone on "portrait" setting.
This is a  fairly technical shot because she is in the shade on a very bright beach, and fading out the sunbathers in the background requires an aperture adjustment; I'm impressed this phone camera pulled it off so nicely.

We put the Subaru on Craigslist and within a couple of days it sold to a young lady from the foothills near Lincoln, another adventure girl who was looking for a car with AWD for skiing, a rack for her surfboard, and back seats that lay all the way flat so she can camp in the car on the coast. Perfect. I expect they will have many years of adventures together. We used some of the cash to make additional improvements to Mr. Toad, pickled the bikes and the trailer and headed off to Lake Tahoe, the next stop in our clockwise lap of America.

Kayakers on Lake Tahoe, it's 80 degrees today but was snowing just last weekend.
The skiing at Lake Tahoe is top-notch, both on the mountain and on the lake.

We're settling back into our roaming groove. 
Lance found some time to relax and catch up on some reading,
as usual Chloe is within arm's reach.

Our last sunset in the Gold Country, shot from Loretta's settee window at the Elks Lodge in Jackson, CA.
This lodge is a happenin' place, with food/drink events nearly every night we were there.
The Jackson Elks made us feel like part of the family and so we jumped right into the activities.

RhumbLine readers may recall about a year ago we were eyeballing some cool window shades covering a neighboring Class A in Massachusetts, back when we were in a center-of-the-park fishbowl site. The summer sun beating onto my desk last week reminded me it was time to finally finish that project, so we broke out the sewing machine and measurements and finished it up. The original quote to buy a finished one was $350 show special (usually $550), we bought the materials for about $90 and built it in a few hours. If this is a project you're interested in, it's an easy win if you have a sewing machine handy; we bought the rare earth magnets from Amazon and the shade material, edge binding, and UV resistant thread from SailRite. SailRite has a cool tutorial to make them for catamarans with twist connections. We didn't want to drill holes in the RV so the deviation I made was to sew pockets under the shade for magnets, and stick corresponding magnets to the inside of the window of the RV. The difference this shade has made in terms of heat and privacy is monumental, this has been our favorite RV improvement so far.

The first draft fit well but was difficult to deploy wrinkle-free without a ladder
Adding loops over each magnet pocket means we can install the shade flat-footed with a stick,
and poke at the corners until the shade is wrinkle-free

The view from the inside out, showing the magnets on the interior of the window, the magnet pockets sewn into the shade, and the difference in glare coming in through the shaded and unshaded windows
From here we are heading West and North through Shasta to the Oregon Coast and up to Vancouver BC. It will definitely be a different journey with both of us riding together, I expect we'll be able to cover a lot more ground by sharing the driving responsibilities on those days when we really, really want to be somewhere way over there. For now we're planning the jumps at 200-300 miles apart like usual but I expect big jumps are coming. (Texas we're looking at you!)