June 26, 2020 – The Grand Design

The day we drove our new home of the dealer’s lot.

It was June 26, 35 days after leaving Chokoloskee when we finally pulled our home on wheels off Grand Design’s service center lot. The RV was in much better shape than the day we drove it there on June 5. How did we get here? Let me pause and back up – I mean REALLY back up to December 2, 2017.

After carefully researching and negotiating a price, we arrived at Palm Beach RV Center to perform what every excited and anxious RV buyer does before signing the papers, the pre-delivery inspection (PDI). It was Vivian’s 59th birthday and on this day, we purchased our 2018 Grand Design Reflection 303rls fifth wheel. And we did it with the intention of it becoming our fulltime home.

PDIs are routine and some people call it a “walk-through”. And for many people, it is just that – a walk through and then out they go. Not so with Vivian and me. Our PDI was more akin to a squatter’s claim to real estate. We arrived promptly at 8 am (the earliest the service center would allow) with a tool kit, flashlight, lunch box and thermos of coffee in hand. As we were led to our future home, our first question was “When do you close?” And with that, we began our 7-hr long inspection. Sounds over the top – but keep reading.

How did we spend our time? We contorted ourselves to inspect under the rig, on the roof and every nook and cranny we could find. We ran the AC full blast, we ran the propane heater full blast, we used the microwave and fired up the gas oven and each of the stove burners. We tested the auto leveling system. We ran the slideouts and the awnings. We tightened every visible screw. We removed the side panel inside the cargo space so that we could inspect the water hoses and all the connections that are part of the self-contained plumbing and electrical systems. In short, we drove the service people crazy. When we at last hitched up and pulled our home off the lot with confidence, I swear I saw a large banner with “Good Riddance”. We have never been back.

If you look hard enough, you’ll see it, small tears in the vinyl from the slideout rolling against the floor. This does not appear to be nothing more than a cosmetic problem. To the contrary, it was a symptom of a very serious problem. Par for the course in RV living.

Here is the reality – despite our OCD PDI, we can’t catch everything that could possibly go wrong with an RV. We learned that fact the hard way during last year’s travels when the kitchen slideout began to tear the vinyl floor as it was rolled in and out. We mitigated the damage by placing a thin sheet of plexiglass on the floor when bringing in the slide. That protected the vinyl, but it didn’t fix the problem. The kitchen slideout contains all the heavy appliances (electric fireplace, TV, microwave, gas stove & oven, and refrigerator). And not to mention a large pantry full of food. Hence, a lot of weight. And it was quite likely that the weight on the slideout floor had become our RV albatross.

Consequently, Vivian commenced to do what she does best, research and inquire. Turns out, the gouging to the floor was indeed, a minor symptom of a serious problem. If not for Vivian’s persistent research and dogged inquiries, things could have gone from bad to worse in a short period of time. Turns out, Grand Design recognized the issue and corrected it for their 2019 line of RVs. Too late for our 2018 model.

In late September 2019, only days after Vivian broke her ankle, we attended a Grand Design rally in Little Rock, Arkansas. While sitting in her wheelchair, Vivian had a little discussion with the attending factory representative about our slideout issue. Because of her incessant research, she was able to confront him with knowledge and place him between a rock and hard place. The result – he admitted the issue and set an appointment for us to come to Grand Design’s service center in Middlebury, Indiana to correct the mistake and make things all better. Scheduled to happen on June 8, 2020, the appointment with Grand Design marked the beginning of our travel itinerary for the year.

Before leaving our rig with Grand Design, we spent a week at one of our favorite campgrounds, White River County Park north of Indianapolis. Having family there, we stay in this park at least once each year.

I will say that among all the trailer and fifth wheel manufacturer’s, Grand Design is reputed to have one of the best, if not THE best customer service. And I am one of the many who will defend that reputation because over the long haul, Grand Design has been good to us. But had it not been for Vivian’s tenacity, nothing would have happened, until IT happened. Here is another reality check – there are many pitfalls in RV manufacturing regardless of the brand. Problems with an RV are a given – it is a matter of when, not if. Therefore, service reputation was the most valued criteria guiding us in our decision to purchase our Grand Design fifth wheel.

At Grand Design’s service center’s campground where they put us up a few nights before and a couple nights after the 3-week repair job.
The Grand Design campground is located outside of the fenced-in service area. Over the weekend, it is quiet. By 5 am Monday morning, quiet is replaced by the loud sounds of RV manufacturing.
One of our fine view’s from the campground.

And with that, our 2020 travels to the Great Plains would not begin until we drove our repaired home off Grand Design’s service center. And that we did on June 26. But let me digress one last time. If you have been following, you would have read about our suspension debacle back in November, at the end of our 2019 travels. The seriousness of that issue led us to begin our 2020 travels by carefully driving 1600 miles to Goshen, Indiana to deliver the RV and its questionable suspension repair job to the manufacturer of the suspension – Lippert Components, Inc. We avoided sharp back ups and rough roads to arrive safely at their service center at 7:00 am on Friday, June 5. Six hours later, we drove off with an upgraded suspension and properly welded hanger brackets. Not only was the suspension repaired, but it was improved beyond expectations. Following that repair, we drove a short distance to Grand Design’s service center where we spent the weekend before leaving the rig with them on Monday.

Needing to be at Lippert Components by 7 am, we spent the night boondocking at the RV Museum and Hall of Fame parking lot.
Our home pulled into Lippert Components, Inc promptly at 7 am.
Among many repairs, the equalizer and shackle bolts were removed and replaced…
…with an upgraded and more durable version.
Each hanger bracket was rewelded (blue X). The yellow arrow points to the V bracket that was welded into the hanger bracket for added support. A cross beam was added above each axle (green line and arrow).

As it were, three weeks passed from the day we arrived at Lippert to the day we drove away from Grand Design. The slideout issue was worse than Grand Design expected; however, the massive repairs resulted in a better slideout floor, improved frame support and all new vinyl flooring, among a few smaller and unrelated repairs. All told, our Grand Design home with Lippert suspension was better than ever on June 26, 2020.

While waiting for the repairs, our time was spent visiting family, including my mom. COVID kept us from entering her assisted living home, but we did get some window visits.
Most evenings were spend in my sister’s beautiful backyard.
And we got to visit some of Indiana’s parks, including Turkey Run. That’s my sis, Cindy.

To that end, our travels to the Great Plains officially began as we drove away from Indiana. The feeling of security and relief was stark as we drove on an unforgiving I-80 past Chicago. Not far from the city, the road finally led us into wide open space, Illinois’s farmland and eventually Iowa’s. To infinity and beyond.

Go west!

The next day, we backed into our lakeside campsite at the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa. We had left Chokoloskee approximately 36 days earlier. That evening, we sat outside enjoying an uninterrupted view of a lake. It was a pleasant and peaceful evening left over from a hot day. We were free of crowds, free of noise, and free of concrete and fences. We were home. We turned to each other and offered a toast to officially kick off our 2020 travels through the Great Plains.

A side note about our RV repair

Grand Design’s repair included replacing the 3/4” thick slideout floor with a 1” thick floor that is more suitable to support the weight of the kitchen and living room appliances. In addition, outriggers were welded to the frame supporting both slideouts. Two interior rollers were added to the repaired slideout, bringing the total to five. Along the way during the repair after having removed both slideouts, kitchen island and furniture, it was discovered that the floor below the slideout had crowned. The main floor was removed, at which point it was realized that the aluminum tubings attached to the chassis were not welded correctly. Consequently, all of them were rewelded and 24 cross-members were added to the aluminum frame. Additionally, the seal tubing in both slideouts were replaced as was the entire vinyl flooring. All that and a few other unrelated minor repairs. What did it cost us? Only three weeks of time (which we spent staying with my sister and friends). Thank you Grand Design for making it right.

The chassis supports the aluminum frame. The aluminum tubing that run across the chassis needed rewelding and additional cross bars and outriggers were added during the repair.

Nov 4, 2019 – The Bridge to Nowhere

Chokoloskee Island, our home is the only inhabited Ten Thousand Islands in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The Ten Thousand Islands comprise a large portion of Florida’s southern gulf coast region. Chokoloskee Island is the only one connected to the mainland by bridge.
We decided three years ago to live fulltime in the RV and park it through the winter months on Chokoloskee Island.

On July 7, 1983, 20 federal and local officers descended upon the tiny remote gulf coast fishing village of Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island bringing “Operation Everglades” to a head. Leading up to that event a year earlier, the Drug Enforcement Association planted undercover agents within the tight knit community of families whose ancestors fished those gulf waters long before they became a national park. Beginning on that hot summer day in 1983 and ending sometime in 1990, the largest pot smuggling operation in the United States was dismantled. Between 1983 and 1984, 87% of adult males living in Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island were arrested.

Every street but one is a dead end on Chokoloskee Island.
Survivors of hurricanes proudly stand on Chokoloskee Island.

Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island are the gateway to the gulf coast section of Everglades National Park – or more specifically, the Ten Thousand Islands. The mangrove islands spread about 40 miles along Florida’s southwest gulf coast (from Cape Romano to the mouth of Lostmans River). Nowhere along the coast of the United States is there another convoluted and extensive array of mangrove islands such as this – in short, the unique saltwater ecosystem is a navigational nightmare. Years ago, the “saltwater cowboys” fled and hid from the law among the labyrinth of islands until the law finally learned its way around. One can easily paddle or motor a boat into the Ten Thousand Islands and never be seen again. If you want to self-isolate, there is no better place.

The Gulf Coast entrance of Everglades National Park is along the road that leads to the bridge to nowhere.
At the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you can purchase a book to help you plan a paddling trip through Everglades National Park. See the book titled “A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park”? One of the two paddlers on the front is Vivian, the other is our friend Fred. Yes, I took that photo from my canoe!

Chokoloskee Island, the only inhabited island in the Ten Thousand Islands watery wilderness is our home. Some refer to the bridge that joins the shell mound of an island with the mainland as the “bridge to nowhere” because not much is waiting for you there. Being surrounded by federally regulated wilderness, Chokoloskee island is about as remote as you can get. And that is one of the many reasons we made it our home base, an outpost where we can isolate between travels.

We call Chokoloskee’s Outdoor Resorts our home, except when we’re traveling.
The first time I came to Chokoloskee, Vivian brought me to JTs for dinner back when it was a restaurant. Now, this historic building belongs to Everglades Area Tours, a local outfitter.
Chokoloskee Island’s famous Havana Cafe. People drive from Miami for Carlo’s omelet or a fresh grouper sandwich.

After completing our second round of RV traveling, Vivian and I felt a joyful anticipation driving our home on wheels across the bridge to nowhere on November 3, 2019. Surrounding us was Chokoloskee Bay and we were back in the ‘Glades! Beginning in 2018, it has been our routine to leave Chokoloskee before peak hurricane season and not return until the tropical weather brouhaha settled down.

Chokoloskee Bay surrounds the island. At low tide, numerous oyster shells are revealed. Imagine attempting to get your boat across the bay with those sharp shells everywhere you look. Many a boat have been left high and dry at low tide and this is what leaves Chokoloskee only to those not faint of heart.

By the time we arrived, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all that is the Everglades – self-isolation wilderness style. Following the first couple weeks or so of cleaning the rig and truck, catching up with neighbors and gradually getting back to a routine, most days include Vivian fishing on the bay from her kayak, me wandering around the Big Cypress swamp looking to photograph something, and both of us paddling out to the remote islands to camp for several days. We come down from our travel high and get high on the Everglades.

From the marina, Vivian and I can paddle our canoes to Chokoloskee Bay. The island is surrounded by national park wilderness.
Self isolation on one of the remote and wild Ten Thousand Islands. From our marina, we can paddle easily out to the islands where we spend several days at a time.
And I can self isolate in the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve. The Preserve is adjacent to Everglades National Park.

But as the winter months wear on, the mood begins to change with the eagerness for the Everglades being replaced with the preoccupation of travel plans and preparations. Spring enters in with higher daily temperatures, businesses closing for the season and our snowbird neighbors leaving the island to head back north. These are signals that soon Chokoloskee would become an inhospitable place to live and it was almost time for us to hit the road. This year, a little twist was added to our spring preparations.

Our friends Pete and Marie enjoying a sunset from Chokoloskee’s “beach”.

In March of 2020, we discovered that living on Chokoloskee had yet another perk. When the pandemic swept over the land, our daily routine never changed – we were already self-isolating. Vivian and I hunkered down and were OK with that. But it was not exactly a fun time. Most of our neighbors had homes to return to and they were scared. We worried about our families living in the city, especially Miami. The fear of the pandemic was real as the winter season prematurely screeched to a halt. Our Canadian friends left the island in a panic and others who live in northern states made the long trek home without stopping for the night. We worried about all of them. And we were a little anxious about our upcoming travel plans that were to include visiting several popular national parks.

True, summers are sometimes intolerable due to the heat and bugs, but I love those amazing storm cloud views that come through most days.

COVID knocked the wind out of our travel sails. The itinerary morphed into a strange balancing act between our desire to experience as much as possible on a road trip and sickness avoidance. It was a confusing outlook, but we were clear about one thing – the self-containment of an RV was our ace in the hole. We would have the coveted ability to travel and isolate at the same time. We decided to stay within the least populated areas, namely the Great Plains states. Reserved campsites remained on our itinerary – no one turned us away. While avoiding crowds and public facilities, there were plenty of wilderness areas for us to explore and stay out of the way of the virus. Our island self-isolation would somehow continue into our travels.

A clear spring evening as viewed from our window. Spring marks the time when we prepare for traveling.

On May 21, 2020 we pulled out of our park and crossed the bridge, officially beginning our travels. For the third time we left our island home to hit the road and fill the next five months with everything new. Chokoloskee comes with a rich and colorful history that we proudly share to anyone willing to listen. But driving our home on wheels across that bridge, the preoccupation of experiencing new places that have their own compelling stories finally emerged after hours of planning and researching into a gleeful anticipation. The excitement of what laid ahead of us was palpable – the history and stories of the Great Plains, the wilderness areas wide open to explore, and of course all that comes with traveling in an RV to unfamiliar territories. Stocked up with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, we were ready. But before we get to the Great Plains, we had some business to attend to.

These storm clouds that mark the beginning of south Florida’s summer reminded us that our self-isolation on Chokoloskee Island was done and it was time put our self-contained home on the road.
On the bridge to nowhere, but in the direction of somewhere. Bye bye Chokoloskee, see you in November.