January 12, 2019

Tidbits - Including a Rant About Recreation.gov

Welcome to a compilation of random thoughts and tidbits.  Very random, so be prepared.  Please note that this post is not sponsored in any way.  I’m not affiliated with, recommending or receiving payment from any of the companies or organizations mentioned.  I’m just sharing what I consider to be interesting or useful bits of news with you – you know, the kind of stuff you might talk about around a campfire with fellow travelers.  Included in this post are a few photos taken on January 4th at the Hudson Valley RV and Boat Show in Troy, New York. 

Each day I set aside time for catching up on what’s going on in the world of travel, health, finance and retirement.  I’ll peruse the online newsletters I subscribe to, visit the blogs in my sidebar (and check out any new ones that sound intriguing) and try to catch up on the magazines that I read regularly.  This is usually done early in the morning with a wonderfully hot cup of coffee in my hand – a ritual that began when the kids were young and which has continued for more than twenty years.  Back in the day, the only time I could hear myself think was when everyone else was still in bed, and my morning “quiet time” provided the opportunity to get a good, solid grasp on the day ahead - before the invasion of the little people.

In addition to the tidbits I pick up when I’m reading, topics will often come to mind when I’m taking my daily walks, and I’ve been keeping a running list of random items to share with you.  None of them are worth a full blog post, but I can write at least one paragraph about just about anything, so here we go . . .

“Thanks a Thousand” – I had mentioned this book in an earlier post (link HERE).  At the time, I had the book in hand but had not yet read it.  Since I just recently finished it, I wanted to report back – even though this is bringing back really bad memories of all of the book reports I had to write in elementary school.  At least now I get to choose my own books.  But, I digress.  Back to the topic at hand . . . Thanks a Thousand was a really fast read for me.  I think if I had paid for the book, I would have been disappointed after shelling out the money for it.  But that refers more to the fact that I went through it so quickly, not that it was a bad book.  The list price is $16.99 and, at press time, it was selling for $14.23 on Amazon.  The Kindle edition is $7.99.  I borrowed the book through my local library system which made my frugal heart happy.  I often borrow first through the library and then order a book if I decide it’s a “keeper.”  In this case, I was happy to read and return.  That being said, I thought the book was excellent!  Since coffee is known as “the elixir of life” in our house, I found the entire coffee process (growing, selling, buying, roasting) fascinating and I liked that the author, A. J. Jacobs, scattered tips about the hows and whys of expressing gratitude throughout the book.  He made it feel like you were right there with him as he met and thanked the many people involved in the process of getting his beloved cup o’ joe into his hands each day.  I felt that this was definitely a worthwhile read, so do consider getting your hands a copy, especially if you can borrow it through your local library or get it free through your reading subscription service.  For anyone not into reading, there is a TED Talk featuring Mr. Jacobs online (link HERE).  Although his talk was good, I didn’t think it was great and I liked the book much better.  Of course, if I were to stand up in front of all of you, I’m pretty sure you’d tell me to stick with my day job, so far be it from me to cast any aspersions on Mr. Jacobs’ content or delivery.  There’s a reason why writers write and speakers speak.  If any of you read the book or watch the TED Talk, I’d love to know your thoughts, so please do come back to this post and leave a comment.

Santa left a surprise!  Over the past few days, I’ve started packing away our Christmas decorations.  I know - so sad!  When I removed the skirt from around the tree, I found a tiny wrapped package for our daughter, Kyra.  It turned out to be a small box of Russell Stover chocolates that you can find for a dollar or two around the holidays.  It seems that Santa has been leaving behind a tiny gift like this for our kids since they were little.  I think he realizes that it’s tough for little tykes to watch all the trappings of the holidays disappear and this little leftover is evidence of his empathy.  The tiny gifts have always brought a smile to the faces of our kids – yes, even this year despite the fact that Kyra is 19.  In fact, Ryan (who is five years older and no longer living at home), brought up the topic over the holidays and I was surprised he even remembered this tradition of Santa’s.  In any event, those of you with young children or grandchildren may want to put a bug in Santa’s ear next year, if you’d like to share one last spark of holiday magic with the little ones.  (I told you I can write a paragraph about almost anything.)

Virginia is for lovers . . . and hikers and history buffs and beach bums.  Alan and I have traveled to Virginia many times for both business and pleasure.  Plus we have friends and relatives who call the state Home.  From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the miles of gorgeous Atlantic coast beaches, there really is something for everyone in Virginia.  The slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers,” is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019 and the state is celebrating “50 Years of Love” with special experiences throughout the year.  Virginia recently released its 2019 Travel Guide so, if you’d like to receive a print copy or would simply like to explore the long list of things to do online, hop on over to the state’s web site and join the love fest (link HERE).

Pssst.  Wanna save a few bucks?  An article called “10 Big Chain Stores That Will Secretly Match Amazon’s Low Prices” ran in the October 2018 issue of Money magazine.  Although the stores’ policies vary slightly, all of them will, allegedly, match a price on Amazon if you can prove Amazon’s advertised price and you’re buying the exact same item in their store.  Which stores, you ask?  (I knew that was coming.)  Here’s the list in alphabetical order:  Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Fry’s, Home Depot, J.C. Penney, Joann, Lowe’s, Nordstrom, Staples and Target.  When I was looking for the link to the article so that I could share it with you, I came across another article entitled “10 Brick-and-Mortar Stores That Will Match Lower Prices Found on Amazon” on the CNBC web site.  That article (from July 2018) included Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Advance Auto Parts, but did not include Home Depot, Joann or Staples.  CNBC didn’t alphabetize their list – thought you should know in case that’s important to you.  (Don’t criticize.  I’m just trying to cover all the bases here.)  I’m a big fan of Amazon and I’d bet that many of you are, too.  But I wanted to bring this to your attention because sometimes, especially when you’re on the road, you want or need something and a delivery won’t work either due to timing or location.  But, no matter what your situation, it’s always nice to save a few bucks if you can, so here are the links to both the Money article (link HERE) and the CNBC article (link HERE) if you’re interested in more details.  You’re welcome.

Hallmark is at Dollar Tree!  Those who know me well would definitely call me frugal.  My kids have both called me cheap, but they’re the first ones to come running to share the news when they make a great purchase using the excellent consumer skills this cheapskate taught them.  I know that, with the advent of social media, greeting cards are no longer the top sellers they once were.  But I’m not a big social media person and I enjoy the process of selecting greeting cards.  I’m delighted when I can match the perfect card to a special person and occasion.  Besides, there’s something about finding a personal item in your mailbox amid all the junk mail from GEICO, credit card providers and extended warranty companies that just makes your day a little brighter.  While I love sending out greeting cards, at full price the cost can be prohibitive.  I discovered that our local Dollar Tree now carries a LOVELY line of Hallmark cards called “heartline.”  The selection of cards for both everyday occasions and holidays is fairly large and the cards themselves are attractive and well written.  At 2 for $1.00, I can indulge without feeling guilty about the cost.  Add a stamp into the equation and for around a buck I can let a family member or friend know that they’re in my thoughts and close to my heart.  I believe that Dollar Tree is a national chain, so skip on over to one near you to find a distinctive Valentine’s Day card for your sweetie.  Just don’t blame me if you wait until the last minute and find a dismal selection.  Not.  My.  Fault.  

Mr. Murphy is VERY popular!  Last year around this time, Alan and I drove to Edison, New Jersey, for the New Jersey RV and Camping Show (link HERE for that post).  Last weekend, we ventured out to Troy, New York, for the Hudson Valley RV and Boat Show, just to see what was new in the boat and RV markets.  No, we’re not in the market for another boat or RV - we really do love the ones we have.  We just enjoy window shopping and a day out and about.  Here’s what we found out . . .

The Hudson Valley RV and Boat Show in Troy, New York . . .

. . . was an indoor-outdoor event.

Cuddy cabins like the one on our Chaparral 215SSI are nowhere to be had.  What’s popular now in the smaller size segment of the boating market (at least based on this show and the last one we attended) are deck boats and pontoon boats.  Apparently, more people entertain than actually travel and sleep on boats in that size range.  I understand the appeal of the former, but we truly like having the option of traveling and sleeping on our boat.  It seems that boating design departments (I’m sure there must be a more official name than that, I just don’t know what it is) are focused on seating and cup holders.  I’m not sure who needs enough seating for a small wedding reception or 14 cup holders on one small boat, but there you have it.

Lots of pontoon boats on display - one even had a collapsible changing room!

The RV market, too, is apparently working hard to get rid of beds, and we learned that Mr. Murphy is heading up the design team in that industry.  For a smaller show, there were a fair number of Murphy beds incorporated into the floorplans of smaller RVs – and that makes perfect sense.  If one space can be used for both a sleeping area and a seating area simply by making the bed disappear into a wall or ceiling, that makes a huge difference in how livable the unit is.  As soon as someone in the boating industry figures out how to make a berth temporarily disappear, they’ll be all over that concept, too.

"Mr. Murphy's bed" with a sofa underneath!

Tucked away in an interior corner of the show was a Winnebago Travato.  I don't know if it's new to the market or just new to me, but I really liked the innovative design.  As I recall, most Class B's have the kitchen area up front, the bathroom mid-ship and the sleeping quarters in the back.  The Travato was designed with the sleeping quarters in the middle and a rear wet bath.  The beds provide a daytime seating area with a removable dinette table.  Locating the bathroom in the rear of the unit really opened up the living space in the middle.  I don't ever see us buying a Class B due to Alan's dislike of tight spaces, but if we were shopping for one, the Travato would be first in line for a serious look.

I loved this Winnebago Travato!

The "kitchen" is situated up front,

the sleeping/sitting area is mid-ship (as seen from the front),

and the wet bath is located in the rear.  Make sure that door is locked!

The Travato even came with a built-in bike rack!

Very light colored walls seemed to be as popular this year as they were last year, and we saw both dark and light wood cabinets and trim in the RVs at this show.  Several units on display had very light colored sofa and dinette cushions.  They looked lovely and did much to brighten up the interiors, but I’m not sure how well they’d hold up with kids and pets or on camping trips to the dusty or muddy back of beyond.  I would imagine that they're easily cleaned, but I'd be a little reluctant to go with such light furnishings myself, considering how much dirt we track in from our outdoor adventures.  I’ll go ask Mr. Murphy what he thinks . . . 

Overhead cabinets with tricky, hidden latches and a very light colored dinette

Recreation.gov REALLY ticked me off!  I know you really wanted to hear what I was going to say about Recreation.gov and I cleverly placed my rant at the bottom of the post so you would read all the way through the rest of it.  Next time, I know you’re going to go right to the end, so I’ll put my main point at the beginning – or in the middle – just to throw you off.  But, I digress.  Again.  So, back to my rant . . .

For those of you who may not be aware, the Recreation.gov camping reservation system is not run by the federal government (despite the “.gov” at the end), but by a private company under a long term contract.  In October of 2018, Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), a Virginia based company, took over the operation of Recreaton.gov from Aspira, the parent company of ReserveAmerica.  (See?  Virginia is for big business, too!)  BAH will manage approximately 100,000 campsites spread throughout the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service via its reservation system.  While I liked the old system, apparently it was becoming a bit antiquated when it came to interfacing with new technology.

My sister-in-law, Joan, sent me an article called “Reserving Campsites Is About to Get So Much Easier."  (Thank you, Joan!)  The article (link HERE) covered the transition to BAH and was published in August 2018 by Outside Online.  According to Marc Peruzzi, the article’s author, as part of its contract BAH agreed to “provide real-time updates on campsite availability through something known as an application programming interface (API)” and to “make good-faith efforts to negotiate business relationships with third parties that create campsite-reservation applications.”  In all fairness, I believe the title of the article was referring to the increased opportunities for a camping enthusiast to make reservations once the third parties had reservation applications up and running and connected to Recreation.gov.  In reality, all I can say is BAH!

I’ve made reservations via Recreation.gov on the new system and I find it to be awkward to use and just generally less user friendly than the former system.  Although I can’t recall what campground I was reserving at the time, I do know that the same photo was posted for every site on the main list of campsites.  That ticked me off, and made it necessary to stop what I was doing and go elsewhere to find photos of the sites in that campground.  Thank heaven for Greg at CampsitePhotos.com (see the link on my sidebar).  He saved the day.  But what REALLY ticked me off is that every single one of my Past Reservations prior to 2017 was DELETED.  More than ten years of reservation records gone in the blink of an eye with no notification that this was going to happen – despite the fact that Recreation.gov had all of my contact information on file and could have easily emailed me (and all of its other clients) to suggest that we capture the information before it was lost forever.  What added insult to injury is that they carried all the Current Reservations to the new system, so you know they could have carried forward the Past Reservations, too.  Obviously, nobody cared enough about their clients to do that which I think is deplorable.  Since I had a great deal of trouble navigating the new system, I considered the fact that the problem might be me and my record of Past Reservations might actually be there and I just couldn’t figure out how to get to it.  So, I contacted the staff at Recreation.gov.  The gentleman who responded (promptly) to my email was courteously sympathetic but confirmed that my long list of Past Reservations prior to 2017 was gone for good.  Since I had already done an enormous amount of work to identify the best site for us in the campgrounds we had stayed in by scouring numerous web sites and reading countless reviews, I can only hope that I can reclaim that information through some of my other travel records.  If not, it will be back to square one the next time we return to a favorite National Park or other federal campground.  Since my Mama didn’t raise no fool, I quickly scampered over to ReserveAmerica and took screen shots of every single page of my Past Reservations - because Aspira’s contracts for State Park reservations will eventually come up for renegotiation and we all know what’s going to happen to our list of Past Reservations if the contracts go to Booz Allen Hamilton.  Yup, BAH!  That’s all I’m going to say because it would not be polite to print what I’m thinking.

Thanks for checking in today!  I hope my random thoughts provided you with something of use or interest.  If any of you have made reservations via Recreation.gov on the new system, I’d really like to know what you think of the new interface - please do share in the comment section below!

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