Sunday, March 24, 2019

Visiting Gulf Shores, AL

We had one very busy week back home, accomplishing all our business for the next 6 months in preparation for our trek Northeast, our first visit back in nearly 5 years!  Dad had blood drawn which provided good results thanks to his plant-based diet.  True to his word, his cardiologist agreed to deviate from the standard of care for cardiac patients and remove Dad from the last of his pharmaceuticals.    No more worrying about long-term side effects from statins and blood thinners!  We managed to get new tires installed on both motorcycles, have our annual telcon with our financial adviser, do our food shopping, sort through our mail and Amazon purchases that we shipped home ahead of time, re-clean the rig inside and out, and Mom even donated blood.  We also needed a new electric extension cord, but wanted to avoid purchasing it at Camping World.  So we visited Acres RV and Outdoors Store on Route 59 Business in Livingston, TX.   Independently owned/operated, it is like a mini Cabella’s, offering RV supplies, hunting supplies, and sports equipment, all at reasonable prices (unlike the RV supply store right down the street from Escapees Rainbow Park).  Acres even has a small nature diorama.  Acres was a nice find for us!

We hit the road on March 19 at 0630 hours—much too early for my liking.  But we were blessed with a glorious sunrise as we crossed the Neches River.  We opted to skip I-10 and bypass New Orleans, taking some less traveled roads like Route 190.  It added about an hour to the drive, but it offered a more scenic view and the road was in much better shape than I-10—that is until we hit St. Landry, where we encountered more craters than Neil Armstrong on the moon!  Mom did her best to avoid the road obstacles, but you know it is a lost cause when a small, unincorporated town with virtually no business community has 10 places that sell tires!  

We took a break at Exit 2 at the first rest area over the border.  “Welcome to Mississippi, birthplace of American Music”.  This welcome center has pull-thru RV sites and a dump station to boot.  Good to know for future travels!  As I took a stroll to stretch my legs, I encountered some familiar pests—can’t believe Canadian geese are this far south!  We passed through Mobile, AL, whose skyline offers some architecturally interesting buildings.  One reminded me of New York City’s Empire State Building.

We reached our destination for the next few days:  Escapees Rainbow Plantation RV Park in Summerdale, AL.   In this rat’s humble opinion, it is the nicest of all Escapees corporate parks.  Dotted with groves of live oak trees, the sites are spacious and level.  Like most Escapees RV parks, it is a bit off the beaten path, about 30 minutes outside of Gulf Shores.  Nestled in a quiet, residential area with through streets (not a series of dead ends like in Livingston), traffic is light to non-existent.  Best of all, there are no off-leash, viscous dogs barking and snarling at us, making it easy for us to accomplish a 5-mile walk.  We noticed many of the homes have RVs parked on their property, some as many as 3 units.  We learned there is lots of “moochdocking” down here, or as the locals call it, “squatter lots”.  But it seems to work for all parties involved, so no harm, no foul in my book. 

There is no better way to start touring an area than by witnessing daybreak, as we did the next day on Shelby Lake within Gulf State Park at Gulf Shores, AL.  The Park has a HUGE campground with adequately-sized sites and a ton of amenities like laundry facility, exercise room, even pickle ball courts.  But I warn you--it don’t come cheap!

We parked at the campground’s Nature Center and hit the well-marked trails, including Alligator Alley.  Unfortunately, the only alligators I encountered were juveniles playing in a pond within the Nature Center.  But I did see a pair of osprey within a nest built on top of a light pole.  Mama stayed close to home while Papa glided in the wind to find a fortified, nutritious breakfast for his family.

You can see the pole housing the osprey nest in the background of this photo.

The Gulf is called “America’s Sea”.  Waters from 32 states and 2 Canadian providences flow into it.   I was thrilled to dip my feet and take home a few shell specimens that I collected as we walked along the beachfront.  Funny, we lived in New Jersey for most of our lives, but we did not “go down the shore” frequently.   You see, while Dad and I are quite personable and gregarious, my Mom is unsociable.  She detests crowds, and she gets annoyed with screaming kids kicking sand.  Obviously, Mom and summers on the Jersey shore are like oil and water. So we went to the waterfront only “off peak”—like visiting Cape May in December or Jenkinson’s Pier and Aquarium in April--when your chances of encountering congregations of people are equivalent to winning the Mega Millions.

A rare family photo, yours truly on the far right!

The Gulf shore towns offer FREE parking for beachgoers and patrons of business establishments!  (Holy swiss cheese!  This is unheard of in New Jersey—you pay dearly to park your vehicle.  In fact, you must even purchase a pass in order to get onto the beach!)  We decided to give our weary feet a rest (on that particular day, GPS calculated and trail maps confirmed we walked over 14 miles) and parked Big Boomer outside Picnic Beach, a very cool restaurant with Astroturf on the floor, wood picnic tables, and some pretty views.  It offers a variety of freshly prepared foods, including many Vegan options.  While Dad ordered some good-for-you plant-based entree, Mom and I cheated and shared a brisket platter.  It was sooooooo good!

Obviously, this is Dad's meal.

Another day we visited Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, 7,000+ acres of undeveloped land on the Fort Morgan Pennisula that provide a seasonal sanctuary for migratory birds.  Bon Secour in French translates to safe harbor in English—how apropos.   One of the parking areas presented a challenge to Big Boomer—a very low canopy of tree covering.  We opted to park outside the lot—where no harm would come to Rat Patrol (our side-by-side utility vehicle) which sits on top of Big Boomer’s garage roof.

One of the low-lying, moss-covered trees that umbrellaed the parking lot.

We hiked along all the trails within the Perdue section of the Refuge, although the majority of Centennial Trail is no longer accessible due to storm damage.  We walked Pine Beach Trail, visited the sand dunes, and viewed Gator Lake.   I looked intently for an Alabama Beach Mouse, an endangered species that inhabits the coastal sand dune areas of Alabama.  Then I thought maybe I could pass myself off as one.  Like them, I am of the Rodentia order.  I am cute like them, with pink ears and a twitching nose.  I’ve got my swim trunks on, too.  How better to fit the description of a beach mouse!

A wonderful example of the circle of life.  A dead tree stump becomes "home" to pine seedlings.

We headed over to Fort Morgan with plans to tour the site before it closed for the day.  But we got side-tracked taking photos of pelicans and herons perched on the dock and people stopping to ask us the $6 million question regarding Rat Patrol (“how did you get that thing up there?”), so we missed the final tour.  Oh well, I glimpsed the Fort from afar. 

We headed to the Beach Pavilion to watch the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It was a full moon, though I did not capture it well in pictures (what else is new?).  But it is etched in the caverns of my mind as a cherished memory.  We returned home shortly thereafter, hoping a certain tabby cat wasn’t bewitched, bothered, or bewildered by the full moon.

Gotta run—I’ll talk to you again soon!

We would like to thank the following organizations for all the great service and support they offer to the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Our Quest for a DRV Mobile Suites--Mission Accomplished in Granbury, TX

As I mentioned in my previous posts, we have started researching a replacement for our current Keystone Montana which we purchased in 2014 as a 2015 model.  This is our second Keystone Montana, and we have been happy with both units’ layouts and amenities.  We were also fortunate that our units were built decently, with only minor blips when it came to workmanship and warranty issues.  In September, we attended the Montana Owners Club (MOC) National Rally in Elkhart, IN.  As a 2015 model, we were one of the older units at the rally.  Yet, we were horrified to hear the abundance of problems, many structural, that fellow MOC members have encountered with spanking-new rigs.  And then we did something Mom will never forgive Dad for—we attended the factory tour to see how the Montana is manufactured.  Had we not done so, we still may have considered purchasing a new Montana if they came out with a floor plan that we liked.  Instead, we were mortified to see some shoddy workmanship (Mom, who is not the least bit technical or mechanical, was able to spot deficiencies) and to learn the factory pumps out 18-20 units PER DAY!  Like most assembly lines, the unit goes from station to station for specific tasks to be done.  Each station gets a specified period of time to complete their work duties.  When the clock runs out on that period of time, the proverbial buzzer goes off, sending the unit to its next station—regardless of whether all the work got completed at the prior station!  Mind you, this system is not unique to Keystone Montana.  It is how most RVs are being manufactured these days to keep up with the high sales volume. 

Being in the RV Manufacturing Capital of the World, we decided to take plant tours of other manufacturers.  Taking price point into consideration, we were very impressed with DRV and its Mobile Suites line upon doing their plant tour.  Despite being acquired by Thor, DRV still has autonomy in its operation.   Many of the management team have been with the company since its inception in 2003.  While bells and whistles are impressive in any unit by any manufacturer, we care more about our home’s structural integrity, and that is where DRV shines.  The DRV consists of triple steel tube construction versus the drop forged I-beam of Montana.  The insulation R-value is comparable to that of a sticks and bricks home, and the units have 3 ¼” thick floors, walls and slides versus 2” in Montana.  DRV Mobile Suites come standard with Mor-Ryde independent suspension, H-rated Goodyear tires, and disk brakes, which are all after-market add-ons for Montana.  The walls in DRV are built similar to an aircraft wing--clipped, screwed and glued--rather than welded like in a Montana.  Most importantly, DRV does not mass produce.  Remember that 18-20 units PER DAY at Montana?  Well DRV manufactures only 12 units PER WEEK!  We also learned that when ordering a DRV, you can do quite a bit of customization.

Now that we determined DRV Mobile Suites was the brand we wanted, it was time to decide on floor plan.  We toured the 40KSSB model during our plant visit, but the unit was still a work in progress.  We went on-line, downloaded a 2019 brochure, and did virtual tours on several models.    My Dad, who is creative, conceptual, and excellent at visualization, knew right away the 40KSSB was the perfect layout for us.  Conversely, Mom is a “hands on” type.  She can look at floor plans and watch videos until her eyes pop out of her head, and still would be unable to conjure an image.   She needs to see things in person, open every drawer, cupboard, and closet, and examine every nook and cranny.  Hence our efforts to physically get into a unit.

Due to the lower production output, the network of DRV dealers is much smaller than those of Montana, as is dealer inventory.  But we located two dealers that we could access within a 2.5 hour drive of Quartzsite, AZ. We apprise the dealerships we visited personally that 1) We definitely want to purchase a new DRV, we are just narrowing down which specific model; 2) We would be in the Quartzsite area for several months, returning again in fall/winter as we have for the last 5 years.

I should also note that prior to visiting any dealerships in person, we researched on-line pricing.  We also requested pricing for a new 40KSSB with our wish list of options from Rolling Retreats (OK) and RVs for Less (TN), two dealers whose praises were sung to high heavens on Facebook by the DRV Owners Group (DOG).  Rolling Retreats was very helpful, even though we did not receive their price quotes until nearly 2 weeks after our initial request.  But they did answer our countless questions about options, customization, and costs involved.   They offered very competitive pricing, and their knowledge of the DRV product line is exceptional, which is attributable to the fact that DRV is the ONLY product line they sell.   Hence, they do not accept trade-ins of RVs by any manufacturer BUT DRV.  As much as we appreciated all their efforts and would have liked to do business with them, we considered this to be a deal breaker.  DOG members advised us to just sell our unit on our own or put it on consignment--it would be worth it to get the level of customer service offered by Rolling Retreats.  My parents considered the logistics carefully.  But as full-timers, pet-owners, and out-of-state residents, they determined dealing with Rolling Retreats would be problematic, creating extra steps to an already cumbersome process.  RVs for Less took a week to send a price quote for a 2019 40KSSB that included our options, which they noted was valid for only a few days because anything ordered after January 31 would be a 2020 model.  Gee, that’s pretty useless since it doesn’t account for any new model year price increase. They also low-balled us royally on the trade-in value of our Montana.  We never heard another word from them, not even to confirm that we received the requested quote.

We understand dealerships are busy.  But just because we are not standing in front of them personally, it doesn’t mean we are not serious buyers.  Especially in this day and age where people purchase everything from cars to houses through the internet, sight unseen. 

Anyway, back to our quest to tour DRV units in person.  We visited Robert Crist RVs in Mesa, AZ.  Our sales rep was supposedly the most knowledgeable about DRVs among his peers at the dealership.  He did not have a 40KSSB in stock.  Rats!   But we could get into 2 of the 3 other models he had on the lot (one unit is sold and off-limits for touring).  OK, let’s get in those so Mom can see cabinet finishes, flooring colors, and fabric designs.  We asked the same questions we asked of Rolling Retreats, but this sales rep could not provide answers.  He was willing to call his regional rep down at the plant, who provided answers to our questions.  It is interesting, however, that this area plant rep was not agreeable to several of the customizations that Rolling Retreats said are possible to do.  The Sales rep now wanted to talk numbers and asked which model did we want?  Mom still was not able to make a decision.  She asked for pricing on two models, the 40KSSB and the Memphis, which she didn’t even consider from just viewing the floor plans (particularly since it is 45 feet in length!) but fell in love with it after a walk through.  (It has a HUGE kitchen with tons of counter tops for her to do all her cooking and baking!)  The sales rep claimed he couldn’t give us pricing on multiple units, we would have to pick one.  What a bunch of cheez-whiz that is!  Mom explained she could not make a choice because 1) she had yet to see the interior of a completed 40KSSB and 2) pricing is a factor in her decision.  Mr. Sales Rep was annoyed, but he complied with her request and provided pricing on 2 models.  However, he claimed he could not give us any indication of trade-in value for our Montana because all the computers with licensing rights to NADA were in use.  He didn’t even bother to take down our name and contact info to follow up with us.  Truthfully, we wouldn’t have bought here even if the price was right.  They only allow a customer about 2 hours to do their Pre-Delivery Inspection (PDI).  Furthermore, all sales are subjected to a 1.75% Mesa city sales tax, even for out-of-state purchasers who can bypass paying Arizona state sales tax.

We all were disappointed, and Mom was getting more confused than ever about model preference.  So we took another day trip, visiting Holland RV in Palm City, CA.  In addition to 2 other models, they had a 40KSSB on the lot!  Its sale was pending, but they were amicable to letting us inside to view the interior as long as we took our shoes off.  (I think Mom would have taken ALL her clothes off if they asked just to get into this unit.)  Once inside, Mom knew this was the most functional unit for our family, taking into account the needs of our tabbycat and fish as well as providing us the most storage.  And this model is only a foot longer than our current Montana.  We asked the sales rep the same questions we asked the prior dealerships. The sales rep did not have answers for us, but like his counterpart at Robert Crist RVs, he called his area plant rep to get us answers—the same area plant rep with which we conversed at Robert Crist.  I got a bit turned off by this plant rep—he noted as he answered the phone that his town was encountering a major snowstorm and he needed to get to the food store.  Now I may only be a stuffed rat, but that translates to me as “make this call snappy—I’ve got more important business.”  Nice exhibit of customer service to potential buyers!  We did not indicate that we spoke with him at the other dealership, and we posed the same questions as we did previously regarding options and customization.  Ironically, he gave us some different answers from what he provided on the call at the last dealership.  Hmm, another turnoff—strike 2!  Now its numbers time.  Long story short, the sales rep proposed MSRP minus our trade in.  What!!!!!  Who taught him the art of the deal?    Even this stuffed rat with cotton balls for brains knows NO ONE PAYS MSRP!  OK, he throws out another number, which is still over-priced by $15,000+.  Needless to say, we found this unacceptable and walked out.  Wouldn’t you think we’d here back from the dealer a few days later with another offer?  But no, despite this dealership taking all our contact info, we never heard a peep from them again.

Now, is it just me or do you see a pattern here?  Is the RV industry still so hot that dealerships don’t need to follow up on potential deals?  Here we are serious buyers, we have option lists all detailed, we are recording answers to our specific questions, and heck, we are even taking cabinet measurements and actively discussing what would fit in certain areas.  We are a red, hot, live, lead!  No having to “sell” a product—we are already sold on DRV and stated that at each dealership we visited.  It is my understanding that most sales reps work strictly on commission.  How do they make a living if they don’t negotiate a sale?  In my humble opinion, Rolling Retreats was the only dealership thus far who had exhibited customer service and salesmanship.

We departed Quartzsite no closer to ordering a new RV than where we started back in January.    We routed ourselves home to Livingston through Granbury, TX, home of Bennett’s RV, in one last effort to finalize a purchase.  Bennett’s scores big in my book:  It is family owned and operated (in fact, you will see a toddler busying herself with items on the store shelves, representing the 4th generation of family); It has a good reputation, having conducted business for nearly 50 years; It has been selling Mobile Suites since DRV’s inception in 2003.   Furthermore, Dad has spoken to the area plant rep that services this dealership, who is much more accommodating and customer service oriented than his counterpart that we dealt with for the western region dealerships.

Conveniently, Bennett’s has a small RV Park right behind the dealership, at which we reserved a site for 2 nights.   (We extended our stay for a 3rd night when Dad’s eagle eye inspection noted we had a broken leafspring on our Montana.  Bennett’s has an extensive parts/service area too, and it had the correct leafspring in stock.  We are all fixed up by Dad within 45 minutes.)

We immediately took a liking to Sales Rep Scott.  He was attentive, friendly, and well versed on the DRV product line, and had unending patience as we toured the 5 models on the lot (although none of them was a 40KSSB!) and finalized our options/customization list.  Long story short:  Third time is a charm!  Offering competitive, all-inclusive pricing AND fair trade-in value with no haggling required on our part, Bennett’s knows how to sell RVs, earning themselves a coveted Rambling RV Rat 5-cheese award.  Our new (now a 2020 model) 40KSSB Mobile Suites will be delivered in September.  And since the dealership is located in our home state of TX, they will handle license, registration, and inspection, eliminating the need for us to perform these tasks ourselves had we purchased out-of-state.  We are confident that Bennett’s will continue their exceptional service throughout the delivery process, but will keep you apprised of any issues that arise.

Now that business was out of the way, it was time to do some exploring!  We started our adventure hiking at the Acton Nature Center.  Its prairie lands were once home to roaming bison, who enjoyed grazing on the four types of grasses native to this area.  My parents watched stealthily from a blind as cardinals enjoyed their brunch at bird feeders.  Meanwhile, I found no inhabitants residing in the bat houses.  Mom refers to bats as “rats with wings”.  As a stuffed rat, I considered this description quite insulting initially.  Then I learned how important bats are to the environment and how invaluable they are to farmers.  You see, some bats eat 5,000 harmful insects/day, sparing farmers from crop loss and us consumers from resulting higher prices.  Way to go “rats with wings”!  The sweet, fragrant scent of a Mexican Plum Tree lead me to a butterfly garden.  Not many butterflies to be found, but I did enjoy some colorful blooms.

Granbury is a quaint town with a rich history.  Founded in 1887, it is named for Hiram Granbury, a Confederate General during the Civil War.   Elizabeth Crocket (widow of Davy, one of the heroes of the Alamo and Texas Independence), settled and farmed in this area on lands granted to her from the Republic of TX.  Descendants of the Crocketts still reside in the Granbury area.  We visited Elizabeth’s gravesite in Acton Cemetery, which is considered the smallest state park within TX.

Along with taking mini tours at Granbury’s Railroad Depot Museum and the Yates-Duke 1858 Working Museum, we visited the Hood County Jail.   Built in 1885, it was equipped with indoor gallows.  Back in the day in this neck of the woods, cattle rustling, horse thievery, and murder all warranted the death penalty by hanging, and individual counties handled all executions.  These gallows never saw action, although the jail remained in active use until 1978. 

Yours truly acting as ticket master at the train depot

Yates-Duke 1858 Working Museum.  Check out that quilt!

The backyard view from the Yates Duke Museum

1885 Jail and Museum

Quite a cute criminal, ain't I?

Granbury’s town square has its own historic Opera House.  Built in 1886, it received major renovations in 2012.  It is now a venue for Broadway productions.  We tried to get tickets to Momma Mia during our short visit, but the show was a sell-out.  At least I was enriched with a history lesson!

We viewed beautiful Granbury Lake, formed by the damming of the Brazos River, and we watched the water fountains dance as we traversed the Travel Through Time Bike/Hike Trail.

Granbury Lake

Fountains along the Travel Through Time Hike/Bike Trail

Turtles napping on a log

Our visit to Granbury was a trifecta for me:  exciting, productive, and entertaining! 

We would like to thank the following organizations for all the great service and support they offer to the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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RV Dreams

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