We try to adhere to the 2-2-2 rule when we travel – no more than 200 miles, stop by 2:00pm and stay at least two days. Note the phrase – stay at least two days. The reason for staying at least two days is to get to know a little something about the place. Yes, sometimes you just want a stopover spot to get to the next place (if you are in a hurry), which could be a Walmart parking lot or a rest stop on the freeway. But generally, and especially if you are retired or on no particular time schedule, EVERY place has something unique to offer about why people live there and what keeps them there. For me, that is the most interesting part about traveling – the people- and half the fun is the planning.
What we have found is the longer we stay in a place, and the more we learn about it, the more we find we have developed an attachment to it. The memories are more clear and the place is more ingrained in our brains than those places we stop for only a night or two. What I am saying is obviously not rocket science, I am stating the obvious, but I want to share a pattern that has seemed to form when we get to know a place.
Whether we stay for a week or two, or a month or four, the same pattern develops. When a place is brand new to us, we need to learn what there is to do and see, the best places to eat, where the grocery store and post office are, and where to get propane. Here is how we do it.
Research online the place you plan to visit
Before we even pick a place to visit, we learn what we can on the internet. We use the Google Maps app to see how far a place we are looking at visiting is from where we start out. This is one of the best apps ever invented. I have it on my phone and consult it any time we are going someplace we haven’t been before. It will tell you how many miles the place is away from where you are, the fastest and alternative routes to get there, and how long it should take to drive. Then you have to decide, if the distance is longer than 200 miles, are you are going to break up the trip or push it a few more miles? If you don’t use some sort of mapping app when you travel, consider using this one. It’s FREE. It will also give you verbal directions with all the turns, traffic closures, detours, and more. Thank you, Siri (or whatever your name is on Android).
In choosing a place to visit, usually somewhere we have read about or has been suggested to us by other travelers, I will try to find out what there is to do in the area. ( I keep an ongoing bucket list of interesting places I would like to visit someday.) Trip Advisor is a great resource. If I Google “top 10 things to do in __________”, usually one of the results will be from Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor is a website where people are able to write reviews of attractions, lodging and restaurants by people who have actually tried. Trip Advisor will then rank the subjects by more favorable reviews, but also offer you the reviews to read for yourself. I find these extremely helpful. While the number of excellent ratings vs the number of terrible ratings is helpful as a visual, be sure you read the terrible reviews to see if they are written by someone with a legitimate complaint or someone who has an ax to grind. Same with excellent ratings. They might have been written by the owner of property from a friend’s computer. The most helpful reviews give extra tips (ie: not good for children, hike is mostly uphill so weigh your abilities, dogs allowed off-leash). Not all of the places have 10 interesting things to do, but they really dig to name 10. But even if there are only one or two, it might be worth the visit. Take the Marfa Lights, for instance.
If you are RVing, there is an extremely helpful website to find camping spots throughout the country, AllStays.com. They also do hotels and places for truckers, but we only use the RV part of the app. This website also has a phone app that is very helpful if you need to make a quick decision. (You have to download it to your computer and/or phone). AllStays breaks the country down by states, then by cities, so you know how many options you have for staying in any community. You can click on each park, for basic information, but also to a link to their website, if they have one. There is a map to show where each is located within the community if you have a preference on location. To further check out campgrounds, once you have a general idea, there is another app to use called RVParkReviews. Similar to All Stays, it has a different methodology. I use them both.
Once you get to a place…
A stop at a visitor’s center or the Chamber of Commerce is usually a good place to start, to pick up any literature, maps, and tips the staff may have. Websites also help, but talking to an actual person seems so much more fulfilling. They always throw in more informative tips than are available on a website. By stopping at the Visitors’ Center in Bandera, TX, our most recent month-long stay, we learned about steak night (bring your own steak to cook at a weekly cookout with live music and dancing at one of the local bars – very fun), an event that was on the hand-out calendar they give you, but it was the staff that let us know resorts bus people in from other nearby communities for this event. People drive from all over the county to participate regularly. I don’t know that we would have tried it if they hadn’t given the event such an enthusiastic recommendation. We picked up a great map of the area, along with a visitors’ guide with the annual calendar of events, some basic articles about points of interest in the area, and some brochures from different attractions we thought would be interesting. This was enough to get us started.
Then comes “drive around reconnaissance”. We take note of interesting restaurants (to research), stores that attract our attention, and find out where the grocery store(s), drug store, and liquor store (if drugs and alcohol are not available in grocery stores – every state’s laws are different) are. Depending on the size of the community, you may need to drive a pretty long way to get what you want. (Bandera only has 934 people, so it has only one grocery store, which has the basics, but not the selections we are used to. We now keep a list of “desirables” – like hearty, crusty bread and heirloom tomatoes, to pick up when we go to Kerrville or San Antonio.) DAR continues the entire time you are in a place. It took us three weeks to find that Bandera has a bakery with homemade bread. In Bandera we are able to ride our scooters, so we do a lot of recon out on the “farm to market” roads, where we have found lots of guest ranches, B&Bs, antique stores, a great cemetery with grave markers from the 1880’s, and one of the best quilt shops ever.
Our next steps are usually to find out more of the history of the place, why people settled where they did, and why it is called whatever it is called. We visit museums, read historical markers, and talk with the locals. Architecture can also tell a story about common materials and styles used in the area, heritage of the settlers, and some things about the culture of the community. Is it rural or urban? Wealthy or struggling? You get the idea.
Once all these “get acquainted” steps are taken, we just start to enjoy the community. We talk to as many locals as we can (hopefully without being obnoxious). They always have tips for things not to miss, events coming up, why they chose to live in the area, and what to avoid. And they always have opinions on restaurants. We have enjoyed many wonderful meals based on the recommendations of others, often at places we wouldn’t have considered on first glance. Travelers staying in the RV park also have stories about things they have seen and we can share our stories as well.
Now you get to know the area..
Using Bandera, our current location, as an example, we have learned that this area of Texas is a BIG hunting and fishing area. Deer and birds seem to be most prominent, but there may be other things as well. They sell “deer corn” to try to train the deer where to be when hunting season comes around. Kind of like feeding birds in your backyard. Every hardware store and feed store has all kinds of hunter’s blinds for sale. There are meat markets /game processing operations (usually right next to taxidermy shops – ewww!) everywhere.
Everyone in Bandera is very helpful, offering nuggets of information that have enhanced our stay. I was having trouble with my arm going to sleep (pinched nerve) from driving long hours. The woman in the front office at the RV park gave me the name of a chiropractor that is only about a half mile away. I can get there on my scooter. I was able to get an appointment within an hour, and he was wonderful. His wife is a quilter and let me know about an event that was taking place in town that weekend. It was called a Shop and Hop, a tour of many of the quilt shops spread from Kerrville to San Antonio, all through Hill Country. It turns out quilting is HUGE in Hill Country and hundreds moved from shop to shop getting a “passport” stamped to win prize baskets of quilt supplies. She also let me know she and her husband (the chiropractor) had decided to downsize and moved into their mother-in-law apartment to turn their home into a quilting retreat center. She was going to be showcasing the retreat center at her booth located in the Gone Quiltin’ shop in Bandera. She got 9 bookings for quilt groups out of that weekend booth!
I have been knitting a baby blanket during our time on the road and I finished the knitting part, but still needed to sew the silky blanket binding on the edges of the blanket. I went to the quilt shop and asked if they might rent me time on one of their sewing machines so I could get it done. Not only did they let me use the machine for free, I was there during one of their quilting bee sessions (bunch of ladies sitting around making quilts and mostly socializing ), so I got to listen in on local gossip. I also learned that they make quilted throws with hearts for women going through cancer therapy.
While going through what is called the Mall of Bandera (kind of a cross between an artisans’ market and an antique mall – artists have their own stall), I discovered a woman here who sells, dyes, and spins wool. I am a primitive rughooker and a knitter so good yarn and wool yardage is important to me. I was thrilled. (She also has wool at the quilt shop.) The owner at the Mall of Bandera saw me looking at the wool and yarn in her store, and let me know that Jennifer, the woman who does the wool, would be doing a demo on Saturday, spinning her hand dyed fleece into yarn. Again, I wouldn’t have known that if someone hadn’t shared it with me verbally. I went down to the mall on Saturday and ended up spending more than an hour with Jennifer of The SheepWalk. She sells her products all over the country and attends hundreds of craft shows across the country. I am all charged up to get going on my rughooking again.
The longer you can stay in one place, the more you can learn and the deeper you can get into the community. It works in some communities, but not necessarily in others. Every community has a culture as does every RV park. Some are welcoming. Some are closed and cliche-y. I really appreciate being able to take the time to get to know a place, whether it is only for a couple of days, for a month, or for four months as we did in Tucson. So far we have enjoyed every park (but we hear stories about others to avoid) and every community we have visited. And half the fun of going to a new place is doing the research ahead of time.