My solution: hit the road.
Since returning from our Big Trip in 2008, the girls and I have talked about the "other states." There were loads we missed - Alaska, Hawaii and everything east of the Mighty Mississipp - and the girls are particularly keen on visiting the colonies about which they've already heard so much. (We don't follow the state's history standards, so they're a bit ahead of the curve in their knowledge of U.S. history.) As I watch their interest wane in early-childhood things, I see more clearly than ever the need to grab these moments when we can. I suspect it won't be long before our girls will be involved in so many things here at home that they'll lose interest in seeing the world. In 2012, for instance, the oldest plans to try out for The Nutcracker Ballet. She can only take part if we're home Thanksgiving week (thanks to a crazy rehearsal schedule...really, folks? These are KIDS!), and 2012 will be our Home For Thanksgiving Year. Then come those teen years.
So I've been putting out feelers, reading up on options, perusing maps (OK, studying maps...I love maps), and querying everyone who may ever have stepped foot across that big river. Where should we go? What should we see? What's NOT to be missed and, more importantly, which local secrets, byways and greasy spoons are key to this adventure? And where are the good camping spots?
An interesting thing happens when you leave "good camping spots" undefined. I first discovered this in college while camping with my boyfriend. He'd said his family camped a lot when he was a kid, so I assumed they camped like we did - in a tent, in the woods, around a campfire, in all that Nature had to offer. But well after midnight on our first night out, as thunder cracked overhead and lightening lit up the tent, as the trees swayed overhead and the wind shook the tent, I learned that my brawny college man had, indeed, never camped as I had. His idea of camping involved RVs in a well-developed park.
A couple of years later, I joined another college friend and her family on a road trip to Canada. They were going to camp all the way north. After several KOA nights and city campground experiences, it was my turn to share with them my idea of camping. The experience in the wooded Yukon campground on the banks of a quiet lake far from highway and city noise opened a whole new world of travel to them.
All this said, it'll be no surprise to hear that I'm not a fan of RV parks in general for three reasons: they're expensive; they're generally crowded; and too many RV folks can be pretty darned inconsiderate with their generators. Until 2008, we camped in a tent. Setting up on an asphalt parking space is hardly comfortable, and even good dirt/grass buffer areas in most RV parks we've visited were hardly worth the expense; they just resulted in our door being located even closer to the aforementioned generators. These days, we hit the road with trailer, so the hard ground is no excuse. But our upgrade is little more than a glorified tent (fiberglass and on wheels, sure, but still no bathroom). Its walls are thin, and we spend most of our time outside.
We have, however, found a few pretty nice parks. In Kansas City, we stayed in a beautiful campground which was, essentially, an exclusive RV park. Had they known our trailer didn't have a bathroom, we wouldn't have been allowed in, though there were nice (hot showers, flush toilets and clean) bathrooms throughout the park. There was lots of grass, lots of shade, friendly people and a couple of playgrounds. Plus the camping spots were well spaced and generator rules apparently rigidly enforced.
The worst RV Park experience we had was in East St. Louis, Illinois. Sure, it's just across the river from St. Louis and there's a metrolink there, and there's nowhere near the heart of the city that can beat the price. Still, the neighborhood was clearly dangerous - there's razor wire surrounding the park to keep campers safe from locals. I'm pretty sure I was within seconds of being robbed on our walk back from the metrolink. The park also had its management issues, not the least was its decision to close its restrooms entirely for three days (rather than, say, do the work on half the restroom, then the other half). That's a serious issue for campers with no pits in their rigs. The shop only carried microwavable food (great, I guess, if you're in one of those big rigs, but not so great for the rest of us), and the only dining nearby was in a casino - no children allowed, even for a simple meal, and with no grocery stores nearby, our dinner was nearly a PB&J special complete with the last heels of the bread. But THAT'S when the park's highlights shone through - a neighboring camper in one of those behemoth mansions on wheels saw me making the sandwiches and invited us to join them for dinner - they'd been expecting their grandchildren, but a change in family plans meant just Grandma and Grandpa and all that food. They were Southern, and they weren't taking "no" for an answer - thank HEAVENS! Their dinner, and company, were the beacon that saved this RV park from the pit of despair.
So where will be staying on this trip as we take history and geography lessons back onto the road?Of course we'll be budget camping it. Chances are you won't find us in many RV parks, but I won't count them out altogether. After all, access to hot showers, pools, game rooms and lodges now and again is sometimes just what the camper ordered.
To read about other travelers' takes on RV Parks, check out this month's blogging carnival at Families On The Road.