So you probably guessed by the title, but we chose Universal, specifically Universal Studios!
Disney made a strong case for itself. Who doesn’t love the Mouse? However, we had been there already and the brochure didn’t sell the kids on it. Universal had the most appeal with the Harry Potter rides/decorations. We ended up choosing Universal Studios so that we could see Diagon Alley.
Spoiler Alert: The day started a little rough, as we got lost.
PREPARING FOR OUR VISIT:
I never thought this would happen. In my mind I had these firmly locked away back in the 80’s, but I bought fanny packs for me and the boys. While Disney and Universal allow you to bring a backpack/purse into the park, Universal only allows fanny packs on most of the rides. They do offer free lockers near the rides for other types of bags. These lockers are only free for a certain amount of time (park calculates time based on ride time and line wait time). There are lockers that you can pay to have longer time periods as well. Universal allowed bottled water and small snacks in the park, which was nice (click for rules). We kept a bottle of water, a poncho (there was a chance of rain), a bag of nuts, and a granola bar in each pack. I kept a tiny 1st aid kit in mine.
We also checked on how they were dealing with COVID, as we have been trying our best to be safe along our journey. I will say that in general they did a good job. Face masks were required, social distancing markers were placed on the ground and floors, limited capacity, temperature check before entering the park, and everyone got a squirt of hand sanitizer before getting on a ride. There were also a few other hand sanitizer stations for rides and in shops. They made announcements at each ride as well, reminding people of correct mask wearing and social distancing were required. If you failed to comply you could be asked to leave the park. We did see a few people get reminded on keeping the appropriate spacing.
We parked, went through the temperature station, and started walking into the park. It was our first time at Universal, so we followed the main street and the crowds. Newbie mistake!
We kept on the main path and walked through CityWalk (shops/restaurants) and accidentally ended up in Islands of Adventure (IOA), which is not where we wanted to be since we wanted to see Diagon Alley. Luckily, Will noticed that the decorations did not match what we expected and we ran quickly to Guest Services and they were able to transfer our tickets to Studios since the park had just opened. NOTE: On our way out of the park, we saw a small directional sign. It was either faded or done in pastels and Universal Studios was the very last sign. Bigger signs would be helpful for first timers, especially when it is crowded and you can’t see the sign through the people.
We hurried over to the Universal Studios entrance and got there by 8:00am. We were a little sweaty, as it was warm already with really high humidity, but we were excited to have an adventure.
TICKETS: Starting at $109+plus tax/adults (ages 10+), Starting at $104+plus tax/child (ages 3-9). COVID Restrictions: masks required, limited capacity including on rides, temperature screening.
HOURS: 8:00am to 10:00 pm
PARKING: Pay parking for day guests (non-hotel), free after 6:00pm
TIME RECOMMENDED: At least a day
*Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
When I was in High School I was exposed to a poet named Gary Snyder. My favorite poem of all time is a short one of his:
“After weeks of watching the roof leak, I fixed it tonight by moving a single board.”
This regularly comes into my head when I am being complacent or too lazy to fix something.
Our campground at Yellowstone was the first one that we had to back into. I have referred to the travel trailer as a reverse Tardis. It is bigger on the outside. After about 40 minutes of fighting it, we got the travel trailer kind of in in its spot. We had already made a bit of a raucous and our neighbors were out to gawk at the newbie goofballs. One even commented, “I bet you need a drink after that.”
Since we were in, and a little embarrassed, we decided to leave it how it was, even though the rig was not optimally where we wanted it on the site.
After getting the travel trailer disconnected from the truck, hooking up the sewer, electric and water, we pulled the slides out…and realized they wouldn’t extend all the way because we were too close to the fence in the back and the fresh water spigot on the side. We were exhausted and decided we would try it as is and see how it went.
You guessed it. It went poorly. After a week of fighting it, bumping into wall edges, windows half covered, and worried about leaks, we decided we had to take the time to fix it. With that mindset and a good nights sleep, we were able to fix it pretty quickly on a Saturday morning. Once positioned right, everything worked great.
NOTE: A month later a helpful YouTube channel pointed out that you should know the depth of your slides to make sure you won’t hit anything when you pull in. A tape measure to ensure this is a helpful device to have. This would have been handy information.
We had a good start, finished packing up inside and worked on the outside. I went to line up the truck and bumped the hitch into the trailer. It wasn’t raised up with the jack yet. I obviously needed coffee and to not rush. Luckily nothing happened, but not a great start to my morning.
The drive was uneventful (thank goodness) to our next campground in Hurricane, Utah. We checked in and they led us to our campsite. It was a back-in and they helped direct us in. We set up the RV. It was pretty hot out (104 degrees F), but at least the site had some shade! I am so glad we had a 50 amp site and could run both A/C’s.
The town was bigger than I thought it would be. There were several restaurants and grocery places close by. The one grocery store was within walking distance!
We ran into St. George (about 10-15 minutes away) to go to Costco. This Costco was not very different from others we have seen, although they did sell ice and had diesel at the fuel station. It was very crowded. It was the least amount we had ever spent: $34, including a pizza!
We unpacked the groceries and Ben took the boys into town to try to find a replacement cup and forks. I got to read for an hour by myself! It was so relaxing. The boys came back, but didn’t have much luck at the nearby store. We called it a night and settled in.
Moving day! The boys and I got a lot of the RV ready to move while Ben worked. When he was done we finished packing up and got on the road. We were still going to be in Colorado and it was going to be a pretty short drive to our next campground (just 1 1/2 hours).
There was a lot of construction on our way down. The RV park only had a back-in spot when we booked and I had called down a few days before to see if they had any pull-throughs available. They said they would see what they could do.
Unfortunately, our site was a back in. The plus was it was a little shaded! It’s been pretty warm and dry so far in Colorado (getting to 90 most days), so the shade was really nice. We had just enough room to put up Ben’s tent.
That was where the decent day ended.
The new bike rack made the turning tighter. I didn’t notice right away because I was paying attention to the RV back up camera and truck side view mirrors. I knew when to stop when it was just the RV and the truck, but hadn’t accounted for the bikes. I thought (stupidly) that they wouldn’t be in the way. The bolts on Will’s bikes tires ended up scratching the paint on the truck and the truck cap. It also made the rear wheel of Will’s bike now rub against the frame. There is no visible big bend in the wheel. We’re going to see if anyone can fix it, but it is the back wheel with the gears.
We have some extra paint for the truck, if I can find where we packed it, so I can help fix the truck and the cap.
Now the next part is not so easy to fix, nor do I have any idea of how it happened.
The rear passenger stabilizer arm bent. We didn’t have it down yet. We had leveled before putting the stabilizers down. I really can’t think of what we could have done to have caused this.
On the plus side, it’s nothing that is integral to the moving of the RV. (I don’t think.)
It was just not a good day and very stressful. Tempers were high and there was some arguing. Having loud neighbors up until long after quiet hours probably didn’t help anyone’s mood.
After working all day, Ben wanted to unwind and explore a little bit. We didn’t want a huge drive, so after some Google searching, we settled on Idaho Springs. I think during non-Covid times, this would be a really cute town to walk around in. They had a pizza place that looked amazing (unfortunately we had already eaten), several cute stores, and some brewery type restaurants. Unfortunately, a lot of the stores were closed even on a Friday evening.
We (I may have pushed it a little bit since we were so close) decided to drive to Saint Mary’s Glacier. (Thank you Allison for the idea!) I found the path on my trail app, put in the directions, and we were off. The road goes up the mountain (as you might expect) and ends in a private drive. The road gets pretty twisty and turny in some spots. There were two parking lots off the side of the road (on the left when going up). The lots were $5 to park (cash only and you paid via envelope in a box). There were a few port-a-lets there, and while they were not full, they hadn’t been serviced in a while. The air was cooler, but not too bad even in shorts.
Now, this was spur of the moment and we were rushing to hike before we lost daylight. The trail app said it was a 1.9 mile trail and that the “trail up is mostly rocks but not terribly difficult”, so I figured it was on the harder side of easy to an easy-ish moderate trail. We didn’t have our hiking boots, although we did thankfully have our walking sticks/hiking poles (thanks Dad!). I also did not bring a water or our spray with us on the hike. Yeah, not my best moment.
The hike was not easy. Nope. Not even a little bit easy in the beginning.
The trail up is steeper and definitely covered in various sizes of rocks. Our lungs are also not quite used to the altitude here yet, so that may have made it harder as well. It also could be I am in worse shape than I thought. Trails out here are not the same as back home! The path branches off in several spots, some going towards a private property, so I was glad I had the trail app to stay on course.
I had to stop several times to let my lungs acclimate and calm down. Luckily I didn’t need my inhaler this time. The hiking poles helped a lot on the rocky areas.
There were a few other groups there, but it definitely wasn’t crowded. We saw what looked like a small wedding finishing up when we got to the lake. Someone else had a snowboard on his backpack.
It was beautiful. The lake has a small beach and we saw a few people with swim suits in their bags, so I’m not sure if they went swimming or not. I would think it would have been very cold water, as the air was quite a bit chillier than down in town.
You can hike right up to the glacier. It was amazing. I haven’t been that close to a glacier before…well I haven’t seen a glacier before either.
It was a great experience, although I do need to plan these out a little better!
We ended up rushing back down because the sun was starting to set and we didn’t want to still be on the trail when it got dark. Although we were stressed at the end to get back to the truck before dark and get down the mountain once the sun set, it was still an amazing experience. How many people can say they touched a glacier?
Sunday, fun day! Well…a little bit of fun mixed in with a lot of driving.
Tonight as I am writing this, I am exhausted. It was a long day of driving, with some tourist stops thrown in. I got a few blog posts started tonight as well. I had made notes, but hadn’t had a chance to sit down and write things out for posting until now.
Another early morning travel day, this time we finished up heading towards Mt. Rushmore. We had things mostly packed last night and were just going to empty the fresh water tanks (since we would have full hookups) and the black and grey tanks. The black tank valve handle had been in the same position since we bought it. It could be pulled open, but not shut any further, so we thought that was the closed position. Nope. Big stinky nope. Poor Ben. He got sprayed with the black tank before managing to somehow get the valve actually shut all the way. We had the water hose out, so he could spray down and change clothes, but what a shitty start to the day. (Pun intended.)
After cleaning up the area and Ben, we were finally on our way. We had lots of hours of driving to get in so we could arrive at our next stop. The whole point of this trip is to learn and to see things we haven’t seen before, so we did make a couple of stops along the way.
Our first touristy stop was at the Corn Palace. Yes, you read that right. The Corn Palace. It’s another quirky place we found online. It has an interesting history, with American entrepreneurial spirit behind it. Today, it is a permanent building in the downtown of this small town and is decorated each year with a new design. The decoration is made out of corn! Different colors of dried corn are used to create patterns and murals. It was rather busy on the inside (again with limited mask wearing), so we mostly admired the outside. There is a video presentation, but with so many people crowding around, we didn’t stay to watch it.
Among our hours and hours of driving, we had seen signs for Wall Drug. (I think we started seeing signs in Iowa.) We had seen probably a hundred signs?! They ranged from banal (Wall Drug ahead) to outrageous (YOLO Wall Drug). In a testament to the tough character of the people of South Dakota, Wall Drug’s marketing never stopped. For literally hundreds of miles in either direction, they broke up the somewhat boring drive with focused, fairly low cost advertising. Along with being funny, you just have to respect the tenacity.
It turned out Wall Drug was on our way to the next campground. So, another win for Wall Drug advertising. We decided to stop and we were glad we did.
It was crazy! We tried to see as much as we could in an hour, but we probably could have spent the better part of a day there. There were a bunch of little shops (bookstores, camping supplies, fudge, ice cream, cafe, souvenir, etc.), a chapel, a splash pad…There was free water near the splash pad, a tribute going back to when the store offered free ice water to travelers in the 30’s. It wasn’t ice cold, but it was cool. We bought some donuts and a slice of cherry pie to share. We also tried the $0.05 coffee. It was actually good coffee! Ben liked it so much, he bought another cup. 🙂
RVer NOTE: Stop for gas before the Wall exit if you have a larger RV and/or are towing and need to refuel. There were two gas stations right near the highway exit/entrance, but neither were set up for larger vehicles. The next exit had 1 broken diesel pump. Finally at exits 60 or 61, we found diesel and spaces large enough for us.
We got to see part of the Badlands on our drive. The change in scenery was amazing and beautiful. Ben and I were talking about the settlers who came through. To get all the way there and see just more vast open space, somebody must have just said “Nope. I’m done. Not going anymore.” The sheer amount of openness is daunting to think about crossing on a horse or on foot.
We checked into our campground and Ben finally got to put up his netted pop-up room/clam shell/tent. We got situated, set up, and ready to relax. Our spot is great. It has an amazing view of the mountains and it’s nicely shaded. The laundry room isn’t too far and the pool is open. The boys are excited to go swimming.
I have been told that I am not writing enough. I am taking that as a compliment because the people in my life think I have something to say. Well intrepid fans, thank you for your patience. Hopefully the following is worth the wait.
My wife is so darn nice and optimistic, that her version of RV life comes out too…perfect. Everyone loves Sarah. But many want to hear the real story of RV life. Well, I really struggle with being anything but blunt and people love a train wreck, so here we go.
Driving: I tell anyone that will listen that the key to life is marrying well. I wish I could say I found the right one and I was so amazing I charmed her into marrying me. Unfortunately, I was just a stupid 21 year old that lucked into an amazing person who decided I was good enough to hang on to. All that said, Sarah has driven the rig 80%+ of the time. I took a brief 200+ mile stint of the first 1,400 mile we have driven so far. It wasn’t hard driving, but certainly not my favorite. So, I am very glad that she is a competent, independent woman that can manage almost anything.
NOTE: My driving experience stopped when I got over confident pulling into a gas station and set the RV up for a bollard catastrophe that required backing out of a rather easy pull through spot. We are still learning to back the rig up well, so this ended up with some terse language back and forth with my aforementioned love of my life. Gratefully the gas station on the semi side was close to empty and real truckers can spot a newbie RV owner a mile away. They all gave us a wide birth as we figured things out. Apparently I am going to learn humility on this trip.
Kids: Sometimes I think God put kids on this planet to test us. More time with them has been such a rewarding and frustrating time. Being mini versions of us, the kids know exactly what buttons to push to get us angry. Overall, I am learning to be more patient and they are learning how to deal with Dad in 400 SF of space.
Some fun kid situations so far:
During one of his first events using the rather small shower in the RV, one of them managed to shut himself in the doors. To which the rest of the RV got to hear “Ow my penis.” This has been an ongoing refrain for anyone that gets hurt (regardless of region).
The kids convinced me that since the Greyhound did not make it on the trip we had enough room for bikes. After Walmart provided fully assembled bikes for under a few hundred bucks I was convinced. Will got a nice Mountain bike that he can grow into and Nick got a classic BMX with upgraded handle bar brakes.
So, the kids are not expert bikers. They have only cycled in controlled suburbia sidewalks. So, after we got the bikes ready at the camp site, I gave them a quick tutorial on biking with hand brakes and on gravel. I would have been better to teach the various trees how to ride bikes as in retrospect I don’t think they could hear me over their internal dialogue of “YEAH BIKES!!!!!!”
Well friends, no matter how frustrated you get with your kids, you never need to reduce yourself to corporal punishment. Mainly, because kids do it to themselves.
Day 1 of bike ownership the older one learned the hazards of gravel as he lost most of the skin from both elbows. On the upside, this allowed me to use the nice first aid kit my mother-in-law made for us and to dust off my first aid merit badge skills.
Day 2 the younger one learned the hazards of the front brake as he flew over the handle bars. Luckily nothing was permanently damaged and he kept all his teeth.
POOP: I have gotten the opportunity to do some plumbing in my life. As a two time home owner and a dad to two rambunctious boys, I have replaced a number of toilets. It is never a fun job and often leaves me stinky and disgusted.
Well, RV life gets you close and personal to this exciting part of human life. On day 2 of boondocking we got to empty the black tank and remove the hose. Nothing can really prepare you for a 6:30AM poop shower/bath. Apparently we had a knife valve that was sticking. I haven’t seen much more that motivates me in this word than a 3″ open line of urine and feces under 30 gallons of head pressure. I found the strength within me rather quickly to “unstick” that knife valve and stop the cascade of fun. After a quick wash off, I even managed to smile long enough for a photo. Although, I have to admit the smile is slightly forced for the picture.
Money: Man is this cheap adventure expensive. It seems like everything we do costs more than I expected. $10 to park at Mt. Rushmore, $30 to see Crazy Horse, $20 Custer State Park, $10 parking Deadwood, $25 Buffalo Ridge 1880 Cowboy Town Museum, $6 for bundles of firewood, multi-hundred dollar RV campgrounds. Hopefully most of these are normal start up costs and this outflow of cash slows significantly. Some of the more expensive items we purchased to get started (besides the RV itself): TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring Sensors) for RV tires $327; Coach-Net insurance $179; backup camera for RV $546; EMS (Electrical Management System) to help manage potentially unreliable campsite electrical grid $387; telescopic ladder $120.27; RVLock door locks $290.99; Viair compressor $311.37; under mattress pad (keeps air flow, prevents mold) $106.95; blackout curtains for boys’ room (they broke the aluminum blinds night 1 of use) $73.39; wheel chocks/x-chocks/levelers $150; LevelPro $145; full time RV insurance $621; Good Sam roadside assistance $80; the list goes on, but it makes me tired just to write it all down. I factored in about $5,000 for start up costs and I think we will likely blow through this pretty quickly. I will do a later post mid adventure reviewing this gear and seeing if it stands up to full time living. In general, so far, I have really loved all the things that we have gotten.
Work: I was lucky enough to work for a company that let me go remote for a year to live out this dream with my kids. They agreed to this all pre-COVID, so prior to the huge swell of remote workers making this mainstream. They are a remarkable company and I am grateful to work for them. Based on perceived limitations of remote work, we decided it would be best to move from a Manufacturing Leader to an Operations Analyst. The Manufacturing Leader role is easiest done with a physical presence and has many direct reports that require regular interaction. The Operations Analyst position has no direct reports and allows for more independent contributor work. This has been my first week in the Operations Analyst role and it went very well.
When doing independent contributor work, I can retreat to an office with the best view of my career.
I thought the hardest part would be connectivity. I have been blown away by how good the coast to coast networks have been. I would say it is very similar to home. The only time we lost signal was deep in a National Park. We were even able to FaceTime my dad in Deadwood so he could see the staged gun fight.
I am still adapting to being an hourly employee. I have done this before and will get back in the swing of things. I tend to get lost in my work and time flies by. It is just a hassle to set alarms to make sure I do not go over my 40 hours.
Time zones are tough. We are currently on in Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) and my work is in Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). This translates to a 2 hour delta. This is a double edged sword. I start earlier (i.e. – 6:30AM/4:30AM EDT/MDT). I finish earlier (i.e.- 3:00PM/1PM EDT/CDT). So I am working several hours before the family wakes up and going to bed several hours earlier. It should be interesting to adapt to the Pacific Time Zone.
So far, I couldn’t have asked for more.
More time with my kids has been great. I am really getting to know them better and am learning a bunch of things over that I thought I knew about them.
Things break, smell and challenge me every day. I am regularly humbled by all that I do not know, frustrated by interactions with my family and the world and pushed to learn faster than I previously have. It is all good and really just part of life. We are living more now than we did and getting out there. Hopeful for the best that is to come.