Got an RV to sell?

There’s no disputing 2020 was a terrible year for businesses in general – and for the thousands of workers who either lost their jobs or had their hours cut.

But there are exceptions. Many homeowners are remodeling, helped by very low interest rates. That spurs construction jobs and appliance sales. Bicycles have been hard to come by. So, it turns out, have been RVs.

Reports of the sharp increase in demand for RVs hit us dramatically in mid-August, when we drove onto the lot of the RV dealer not far from our Wisconsin property. A lot normally full of vehicles for sale was two thirds empty!

As we checked in, Gary the service manager, assured us they were not going out of business. To the contrary, demand far exceeded the supply of RVs available. In years past, they might have 40 trailers of a specific model on the lot. They had two. When the sales staff got word of a delivery, the vehicles were often sold by the time they arrived.

They were not alone. An RV dealer in Pennsylvania that normally sold 10 units a week was closing sales on 300.

Two things converged to create this boom. First, trailer and motorhome manufactures shut down for about four months when the pandemic hit in March. So, no supply. About the same time, more and more families, decided RV camping was a safe way to get away from home but keep their pod safe from the pandemic – much better than flying or moteling. Hence, a big surge in demand.

A classic example of supply/demand economics.

IMG_0136                                                       At Pelican Lake, near Orr, MN, Sept. 13, 2020

We were very happy we had decided to upgrade to a newer used RV last December.

Years ago, we started taking an extended fall tour beginning in late August. The weather is still good and family trips are over because kids are back in school. With schools – elementary to college closed--RV parks – private and public – were still busy. The family-owned campground in Two Harbors, MN, on Lake Superior, we stayed in filled up every night. So did the municipal campground in Grand Marais, also on Lake Superior.

Minnesota was no exception. Across the country, according to industry news stories, demand for campsites jumped dramatically in 2o2o.

Wife Elaine, who does our trip booking, said next year she will have to start sooner to book the reservations we want.

Is this the start of trend or a fluke?

For couples who had been thinking of buying a camper and hitching it behind their pickup and decided to take the plunge, all may go well. Over time, they may even move up to a larger trailer or try a motorhome.

On the other hand, it takes time and, especially initially, a bit of patience to learn the ins and outs of RV life. Like a boat, it seems something always needs maintenance. Keeping one in tiptop shape is not cheap. How many will realize, while it may have been an option to get away from home in 2020, it’s not their cup of tea.

Will there be a glut of used RVs on the market next year or in 2022?


Summer of Covid

The combination of our getaway property and RV was a godsend this Summer of Covid.

Our 13 acres in Wisconsin’s North Kettle Moraine area always provide a peaceful respite from Chicago’s urban density.

Our first challenge was getting the RV to Moraine Elaine from winter storage in Southern Indiana.

Starting in mid-March, Wisconsin told Illinois residents to stay away – unless they planned to move to their summer homes and remain long term. (Not us.)

We carefully watched the situation develop through April. Finally, in May we decided, travel advisories or not, it was time to move the RV. We arrived at Moraine Elaine May 20, a month later than normal.

How pleasant to wake up in the morning and check if Luke, our friendly barn cat, was waiting for us on the steps to the RV – ready to tell the first person out the door he’d like a serving of canned food. This year we were joined by the neighbors' two young cats.

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How pleasant to check the bird feeder for the arrival of a new species, some just stopping by on a northerly migration, others hanging around for the summer: Indigo buntings, various woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals.

How pleasant to once again bicycle our favorite county roads, walk familiar routes and, for Elaine, bird favorite spots.

How pleasant to light logs in the fire pit and watch the skies darken, revealing bright stars.

Once in Wisconsin, we took steps to minimize risk. At our favorite restaurant, we found the patio open with appropriately distanced tables, but were disappointed to discover servers were not wearing masks. (At the time Wisconsin was one of four states that did not require waitstaff to wear facial covering.) We did not go back.

The local Pick n’ Save (a Kroger property) enforced a corporate mask mandate. We took satisfaction watching an employee turn away a couple who refused to wear ones. Walking away the husband grumbled, “I guess we’ll go hungry tonight.” We thanked the young woman for standing up to them. Over the summer customers got the message, and Elaine compared compliance in line with our local Jewel-Osco.

In contrast, the local Fleet Farm also had a corporate mask mandate posted on every door, but no enforcement and wide disregard by customers and employees alike. We tried very hard to avoid the place and to plan ahead and buy supplies at our local Menards, where a mask mandate was vigorously enforced.

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With infections trending down, we felt comfortable inviting a group of socially responsible friends to join us  over the Labor Day weekend. They brought their own sleeping accommodations -- two tents and a pop-up trailer. We spaced out around the firepit. For our friends it was it was a welcome “mini-vacation” from the city.

 

 

(Kris, who took these pictures, brought along Soji to keep an eye on us.)

 

 

When they headed south toward Chicago, we headed north toward Upper Michigan and the Arrowhead Country of Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we returned to Moraine Elaine, the fall surge in infections was well underway in rural Wisconsin (and wide swaths of the Upper Midwest). We still traveled to Moraine Elaine, but now made a point of avoiding contact with local residents.

We were not all that upset that, due to a commitment that had nothing to do with the pandemic, we left out getaway property for the season two weeks earlier than planned. We hugged Luke one last time (he will be in good hands over the winter) and fired up the RV.

During this Summer of Covid, we were at Moraine Elaine 50 days over a 150-day (five month) span. It was so pleasant. Helped us keep our sanity.

 


Fall Color 2020

We encounter the best fall color we have ever seen -- anywhere -- this fall in the Arrowhead Country of Minnesota.

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Arrowhead Country is along the north shore of Lake Superior, from Duluth north to the Canadian border. These pictures were taken near Grand Marais, MN Sept. 22 and 23.
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Red maples along a ridge cap yellow and green trees below.
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Sandhill Cranes vs. Corona Shutdowns

Our trip to witness the spring wonder of thousands of Sandhill Cranes flocking to Central Nebraska turned out to be akin to keeping an eye on a wall of tornado-threatening black clouds rolling across the plains toward us.

Based on guidance on March 15, we decided we were comfortable traveling 650 miles, most of it on I-80, from Chicago to Kearney, Nebraska, to see an annual marvel of nature that had been on our bucket list for years. When we left, the only Corona Virus advisory was to avoid large groups. That soon changed.

On Sunday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, upset at St. Patrick's Day weekend revelers, order a closing of Illinois bars and restaurants. No problem, Illinois was in our rearview mirror.

On Monday, at our destination in Kearney, restaurants were open. Viewing the Sandhills did not require social distancing. It was easy enough to keep distance from other birders. We grabbed an early dinner, splitting a slab of ribs, at Skeeter Barns. Little did we know it would be our last sit-down meal in a restaurant.

Tuesday morning, after watching the Sandhills depart their overnight roosts at sunrise, we decided to head home. The Nebraska rest stops were open as usual. The next day most were closed. People were stealing the toilet paper.

Tuesday afternoon, we learned Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had order the closing of all bars and restaurants at Noon. Where would we eat tonight in Iowa City? Time to be creative, and rely a bit of knowledge of the area, thanks to ties to the University of Iowa. Monica's, a popular Italian restaurant in Coralville, was not far from our hotel. Elaine upgraded our hotel reservation to include a table and sofa and we did pickup at Monica's. Good dinner, with wine and beer, in a comfortable setting. We were still ahead of the wave of shutdowns.

Wednesday, home, ahead of the next round of even greater restrictions. Those threatening clouds never quite caught up to us.

 


Scotts Bluff: how the West was really won

Scotts Bluff towers 500 feet above the surrounding plains of the Nebraska Panhandle, just east of the Wyoming border.

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For scientists, it's a natural marvel. The cap rock at the top dates back 22 million years, revealing millennials of years of history for geologists to study.

For pioneers heading west in the 19th Century, it was a milestone on their trek west along the Oregon Trail.

 

 

 

 

Between 1841 and 1869 an estimated 350,000 people joined wagon trains formed along the Missouri River. They followed the North Platte across Nebraska in search of a better life (homesteaders in Oregon), religious freedom (Mormons in Utah) or fortune (gold in California). Scotts Bluff was milepost 500 -- one third of the way to their destination.

At the Scotts Bluff National Monument, visitors can get a glimpse of the Oregon Trail (paved in the photo, it was little more than ruts worn into the dirt). Displays dispel at least four myths about how the West was won.

1.    No horses. The wagons, loaded with a ton or more of family possessions and food supplies, required the far sturdier oxen who could survive eating poor quality grass.

2.    No Conestogas. Eight feet wide, they were freight wagons pulled by six animals. The typical wagon used by settlers, sometimes called a Prairie Schooner, was only four feet wide by 11 feet long. Imagine putting all your possessions in a half bath.

3.    No passengers. Everyone walked to lighten the load and make room for precious possessions.

4.    No serious Indian threat. In fact, some actually helped the settlers by offering food and working as guides. An Indian killing a pioneer was extremely rare. Most deaths were accidental, at the hands of another member of the wagon train.

Scotts Bluff, sometimes called Nebraska's Gibraltar, offers great views of the Western Plains and what settlers endured looking for a better way of life.


At 91, Doc’s Trumpet Still Inspires

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Doc Serverinsen, readers of a certain age will remember, was the music director of NBC's Tonight Show Band for 25 years. Some may remember him as much for his often-outlandish dress as his amazing musicianship.

In Knoxville, TN, on our annual spring RV, Elaine caught a mention on the morning news that Doc was going to perform that night on the University of Tennessee campus.

Too great an opportunity to miss.

Since we had never set foot on the campus, finding the James R. Cox Auditorium was an adventure. We found our way to a back door used by the student-musicians. As we exited a stairwell, there he was. Doc, dressed in colorful shirt and jeans, just standing there all alone.

I couldn't resist stating a conversation that took us back 55 years – when he was 36 and I was 21 – to a cold February night in Moorhead, MN (a twin city with Fargo, ND).

I was a member of the University of Iowa Symphony Band (principal bass clarinet) and Doc, principal trumpet of the Tonight Show Band but not yet its director, was Iowa's guest soloist.

The occasion was the annual Northwest Band Clinic, organized by Nels Vogel, a big promotor of bands and music education who owned a music store. To be invited to perform at his clinics was a high honor for any band.

The performance is seared in my mind as the highlight of my college playing days: 8000 people, including band members and their leaders, packed a venue on the Moorhead State campus. When they turned down the house lights, I could no see the back wall. And then there was the honor of accompanying Doc in his usual awe-inspiring performance.

Doc remembered the extreme cold. He told the story a one of his visits to Moorhead – there was more than one – when the temperature was 38 degrees below zero. He was tempted to step outside the hotel to experience the extreme cold. Maybe a bit head strong, he decided to ignore suggestions it was not a good idea and opened a door. He retreated after one step outside.

Doc also paid tribute to Fred Ebbs, the director of bands at Iowa, for his stellar reputation for molding a group of musicians – us – into an outstanding ensemble.

Doc teams with his partner, Cathy Leach, professor of trumpet at the University of Tennessee. With his nickname and her doctorate in music, they call themselves "Pair-A-Docs" and feature a wide-ranging repertoire: classical, jazz, Tonight Show standards.

When they entered the stage, the finale to a three-band concert, Doc, had changed to a UT orange blazer, and black leather pants – true to his flare of colorful outfits.

At 91 one, Doc can still hit the high note and play an expressive trumpet. The two played off each other and at one point the eight trumpeters in the UT Wind Ensemble joined in fill the auditorium – to the delight of the audience. Their encore, the schools fight song, brought the house down. It had special meaning because the day before their popular basketball coach had decided to stay.

In a way, Doc hasn't changed. Just like 55 years ago, he is dedicated to his trumpet and spends the hours of practice it takes to play at the top of his game. He also performs regularly, an ambassador for great band music and an inspiration for students with a passion for music.


Want to See Cuba Before It’s Discovered?

Too late. You've missed the plane.

A short list of visitors traveling to Cuba during this first quarter of 2016 is impressive:

The Pope.

The President.

Diplo.

The Committee on Illinois.

The Pontiff made a brief stopover in early February to confer with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a strong presence in Cuba. It was a historic meeting of leaders two sides of Christianity that split nearly 1000 years ago and have struggled to start a dialogue.

President Obama announced in mid-February plans to visit Cuba March 21-22. He has re-established diplomatic relations and re-opened the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Cubans are delighted. He will become the first American president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

Diplo, the DJ and producer of electronic dance music, delighted perhaps a half million Cuban youths jammed into the plaza outside the U.S. Embassy and adjacent to the entrance to Havana's harbor entrance.

The Committee on Illinois? That would be us. The "committee" is the license that allows Scott Schwar, of Oak Park (a Chicago suburb), to operate tours to Cuba. Ironically, wife Elaine and I were the only tourists from Illinois. The other 10, in what proved to be a delightful group, were from the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, area.

We were not alone.

Tour buses – all made in China – were everywhere. A backup of buses overflowed onto a main drag leading to the home of the late author Earnest Hemingway. Scott said he had never experienced a similar delay in more than 15 years.

Cruise ships from other countries – but not the U.S. – dock at the Havana port, which can berth three ocean-going liners. Friend Mike Lynch, who happened to be in Havana at the same time as part of sailing exchange, observed a fourth ship one day docked in the harbor and shuttling passengers back and forth on tenders.

Another sign of change: Many, if not most, of the restaurants we dined in were privately owned businesses, blessed by relaxed government rules. (One night Elaine and I enjoyed excellent chateaubriand for two for $35.)

To our surprise, our Verizon service did allow us to connect with U.S. destinations. Voice and data were on the expensive side, like we have experienced in other foreign countries. But texts to and from the U.S. cost a nickel.

Cuba opened up its internet last summer. It's expensive and slow due a lack of infrastructure.

And those old cars? Many of them are taxis catering to tourists. Under the hood a 1948 Chevy may have an old Toyota carbureted motor, or a 1952 Chrysler a diesel in place of the original gas. We rode in a 1956 Chey updated with a Hyundai engine.

Tourists looking to go back in time may be disappointed. That Cuba is almost gone.

The new Cuba? It was evident on the faces of the youth that cheered Diplo.

Change is coming. Buckle your seatbelt.


An RV Owners Worst Fear

For any RV owners there’s always at least a nagging fear of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere – like along the Alaska Highway 2013 -- with nothing to do or see, no cellphone or wifi service while waiting a week for parts to arrive. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

 

But our luck ran out in late September on a Friday afternoon in New Hampshire, when an engine warning light forced us to pull over and call our roadside assistance service. The nearest truck center that would take care of us was 45 miles away – did we want a tow truck? – and it was closing down for the weekend.

A three night, two day delay. How unfortunate!

 

Not so fast.

 

Instead of waiting it out at a half-abandoned roadside, we found our way to a pleasant campground near North Conway, N.H. with a nice view of the White Mountains.

 

Instead of nothing to do, we had choices:IMG_2990

 

 

On Day 1, we drove a 150-year-old private road, built for horse-drawn carriages, to the top of Mount Washington. At just shy of 6300 feet, it’s the tallest peak in the Northeast and is legendary for wind, cold and clouds. But on this day, we enjoyed spectacular views on a cloudless day, seasonally breezy and cool.

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On Day 2, we drove the Kancamagus Highway (112), designated an American Scenic Byway, through the White Mountains. Thanks to an overnight frost (28 degrees at the campsite), the leaves seemed to change into their fall brilliance before our very eyes. That night, we enjoyed a clear sky for watching the Blood Moon eclipse.

 

On Day 3, keeping an eye on the oil pressure readings, we made it to the truck center – no tow needed -- where they quickly diagnosed and replaced a defective gauge. Excellent service, friendly people.

 

Our bad luck turned into a great experience. No complaints.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Canada: One Visitor’s Random Observations

For our fall vacation this year we explored Eastern Canada. After five weeks living amongst our neighbors to the north, here are a few impressions.

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In Quebec, it was easy to identify which women were locals and which were tourists.

The visitors, my wife included, had blond hair. Quebeckers appear quite content to keep the natural dark hair associated with their French ancestry.

Canada is officially bilingual. But most residents are just like we Americans: They speak one language.

The closest we came to a bilingual community was in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, an Acadian (French) fishing village at the western entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In the grocery/hardware store, residents moved easily between French and English.

Fortunately, most Quebec residents who have frequent contact with tourists speak some English.

Like most of the modern world, Canada uses coinage instead of paper for smaller denominations. A “toonie” is worth two dollars and a “loonie” a buck. The U.S. could save $185 million a year by using only a dollar coin. Canadians can be forgiven if they think its southern neighbors are a bit loony for sticking with the paper bill.

Like most of the world, Canada has long required credit cards with embedded chips, and the use of hand-held terminals that require the customer to enter a PIN. Much more secure.

Only after the security of millions of Target users was compromised in 2013, were U.S. retailers pressured to spend the money needed to join the modern world. Beginning this month, larger retailers who don’t have chip readers are liable for fraudulent transactions in their stores.

I almost shouted a cheer when, for the first time, I was instructed to chip instead of swipe in the U.S. It was in a Home Depot in North Conway, New Hampshire, on Sept. 26, ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline. Way to go!

As our trip through Canada came to an end, we saw a marked increase in the number of campaign signs ahead of the Oct. 19 election. The Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, jumped from a distant third to a clear majority. The Conservatives were swept out of power and the New Democratic Party fell from second to third.

I’ve always admired Canada, England and Germany for having three or four significant political parties. The parliamentary system is so much more democratic.

It would be great if the U.S. had a healthy third party – no matter its position on the political system.

Only in my dreams.

 

 


Steve’s Canada Adventure

What a great time!

 

My People took me on a trip through Eastern Canada, where I got to check out all sorts of wildlife I can’t see from my windows in Chicago – or even the big front window of the RV when it’s parked in the Wisconsin woods.IMG_2914

 

In Nova Scotia, I saw really big black birds – My People called them Ravens. I got so excited I started to chatter. But for the windshield, I was ready to attack.

 

On Prince Edward Island, one morning the campground was full of large white birds with black or gray wings which I don’t see in Chicago. My People called them seagulls. I got really excited. Damn that windshield.

 

But I had the most fun in Fundy, a national park in New Brunswick. Our campsite was deep in the woods. There were a lot of small read squirrels scurrying around. Much more active than the ones I see back home. Even more exciting, there were these big rabbits – My People called them snowshoe hares – twice as large as Chicago bunnies.

 

I was so busy in Fundy, I forgot to sleep when My People went to bed.

 

Since it was a long trip – seven weeks – I had time to explore new perches and hiding places in the RV. I got very good at jumping from the couches into the cabinets above. But my favorite was a discovery in the back bathroom. If My People left a door open, I could slip into the back of a deep shelf and hide. The first night I was so comfortable I forgot to wake My People for breakfast.

 

 

Now I’m happily back home. No big birds or large bunnies, but I can run up a down stairs at will. At night I can curl up with My People on our favorite bed – and, maybe, dream about my great Canadian adventure.