We had two goals for our travels in the summer of 2022: get away from the heat and humidity of Florida, and explore a part of the country that was new to us. How did we do? So-so. Heading north from Florida in mid-June, we encountered a massive heat wave that kept us roasting in Montgomery, Nashville, and Springfield, IL, and we even ended up running the air conditioner on the normally-chilly Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our best weather came near the end of the trip, when we finally found cool conditions in the higher elevations of West Virginia and North Carolina. On the other hand, our explorations of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan introduced us to places with a history and a geography that’s very different from places we visited previously. Who knew that there could be vast, ocean-like lakes full of fresh water with the turquoise and azure colors of the Caribbean?
Facts and Figures
Even though our travels this year were far less extensive than the several years we spent living full-time in the Airstream, we still collected travel-related data and I think it’s interesting to compare and contrast the experiences. You can find our previous year-end summaries with travel details here:
Let’s not dwell on 2020 (the Year of Lockdown) or 2021 (the Year of Waiting for Vaccines and House Building). Instead let’s get started with where we went, where we stayed, and what we did this year. Our route from this summer is shown on the lower half of our 2022 travel map page; individual dots on the map are stops with blog posts. Here are the numbers that correspond to that journey to the Upper Midwest.
States Visited: 10
Not counting states that we only drove through, like Kentucky, our 10 states visited this summer were Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Of these, six were completely new to us, including the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan where we spent the vast majority of our time. We certainly achieved our goal of exploring new places. Not surprisingly, it took a bit of driving to get there:
|Total miles traveled:||6,444|
The mileage numbers tell two stories at once. One version is that our shorter stays and longer driving distances between stops tilted the balance toward “miles towing.” The other version is that we still had a large amount of local miles, so we weren’t able to execute our preferred camping style. We like to stay at well-situated campgrounds that are close to the attractions we wish to visit, so we don’t spend a lot of time driving back and forth from our campground once we get to a destination. But on this trip many of our destinations were cities that we needed to drive in to — campgrounds are rarely in a city center — and we had very few days that did not involve climbing into the truck.
Number of Campsites: 20
We spent 98 nights on the road in 20 different campsites, meaning our average stay per campsite was 4.9 nights. That’s comparable to our 2018 average stay length, and while we found that pace exhausting for full-time travel it worked well for this three-month tour.
|Type of Campsite||Nights||Percentage||Notes|
|Federal||15||15%||National Parks and Army Corps of Engineers|
|State Park||51||52%||These are usually really nice, but we had inconsistent experiences on this trip.|
|City/County Park||11||12%||Just two sites.|
|Private||21||21%||Generally the most expensive and least scenic, but sometimes the only option in a given location.|
We knew that the profile of our stays would be different from previous years spent mostly in the western US. Notably, we had zero stays in national or state forests, and zero stays on BLM land. The dense forests of the Upper Midwest are challenging for generating solar power, and the forest campgrounds generally weren’t in convenient locations for the places we wanted to visit. Plus, there is no BLM land east of the Mississippi. As we’ll see later, not having those affordable stays in the mix — together with the high cost of the state parks we visited — really drove up our costs.
NPS Sites Visited: 10
The National Park Service does an outstanding job of welcoming the public to the sites it manages. NPS interpretive centers are informative and engaging, and the sites themselves are well-designed for guests. We particularly like places of outstanding natural beauty, where the NPS offers a variety of hiking opportunities, and historical sites. On this trip we visited our 100th NPS unit and our tally now stands at 102. That’s still not even 25% of all the different NPS sites, but we’re making good progress. We’ve visited almost half of the national parks and preserves, for example. Here is our current chart of sites visited vs. remaining to be visited, by category.
When traveling full-time I shared our complete expense reports on the costs of RV living. You can find our 2018 and 2019 year-end cost summaries here and here. This was an abbreviated trip, so this is also an abbreviated summary of our costs. The primary expenses we incurred for the trip were:
|Item||Total Cost||Interval Cost||Notes|
|Camping fees||$3,723||$37.99 / night||Includes all reservation fees, taxes, and state annual passes|
|Gas||$2,182||We fuel the truck with premium, as recommended by the owner’s manual for towing, and paid an average of $4.85 per gallon. Over the course of the trip we averaged fuel economy of 14.4 miles per gallon.|
|Repairs / Maintenance||$40||Something is always breaking; this trip we could DIY all the fixes|
|Entertainment||$986||$10.06 / day||Admission fees, boat rides, souvenirs, restaurants, and breweries|
The headline here is the staggering 40% increase in our average nightly camping costs over 2019. Some of this is due to normal cost increases over time, but it’s mostly attributable to (i) the absence of free and low-cost camping and (ii) unusually high state park costs. The state parks in Wisconsin and Michigan charge around $40 per night, which is quite high compared to other state park systems around the country, and visitors are also required to purchase annual recreation passes on top of the camping fees. The costs feel even higher when considering that these state park campsites offer only electric service and the sites themselves are not that great. We have been spoiled by fantastic camping experiences (with electric + water or even full hookup sites) at far lower cost in states like Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon.
The other big difference is the entertainment category. Our travels in the west mostly involved free entertainment: hiking, wildlife viewing, and taking approximately 100 million digital photos. On this trip, it seemed like we were constantly buying tickets: museum tickets, ferry tickets, tickets to visit the Ford factory. Somewhat more discretionary was the purchase of the bunny pictured at the top of the post. Our travels this summer brought us encounters with a surprising amount of rabbit-themed art, so when we saw that whimsical little rabbit at the Folk Art Center in Asheville I knew it just had to come home with us.
The cost figures above also understate the true cost of our travels. Not included: propane for the RV (we never needed to fill during the trip), unlimited data plan for our MyFi, Amazon Prime and PBS Passport (where we get most of our streaming entertainment), other digital subscriptions, laundromats, insurance and registration for vehicles, costs for Airstream refurbishment we did in the spring, and truck maintenance costs (we’re having it serviced next week). I’m also not calling out our costs for groceries, since we find that our food expense is pretty consistent no matter where we travel — and we would have eaten at home, too. Finally, I am not including any expenses that are year-round expenses, like health insurance, but they matter for RVers. We are too young for Medicare so we buy our insurance on the ACA marketplace. There are two health insurers on the marketplace in our area. One is an HMO that only has providers in the Florida Panhandle, and the other is Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Since we know we want to travel away from our home base every summer, we must get the national plan from BC/BS even though it’s much more expensive.
Random and Subjective Awards
This is the part of the post where I get to make up awards willy-nilly as a way to highlight parts of the trip that we found most memorable.
Best Campground: Platte River Campground at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We loved the large, well-spaced sites, clean modern bathroom facilities, close access to recreation (walking distance to hiking trails, lakefront beach access, and a boat launch), plus the rare treat of having power and internet service within a national park.
Runner Up: Lake Kegonsa State Park outside Madison offered extremely private sites, a variety of hiking options within the park, and easy access to Madison.
Looking at these photos of our two top picks — which I swear are actually two separate places — it seems we have a type. 🙂
Honorable Mention: We had a surprisingly great experience at Campfire Lodgings in Asheville. Sites were very well-spaced for a private campground, the mountain views from the campground were breathtaking, and getting to Asheville was a snap.
Best Hike: We found the hiking in the Upper Midwest to be underwhelming. Trails in both the state and national parks tended to be very short, in some cases just a short stroll to an overlook, the terrain is pretty flat, and at times it was hard to even get a good view from lakefront trails. Our favorite hike was at Babcock State Park in West Virginia, and if we had done any hiking in the Asheville area (instead of just looking at art) I think we would have loved that as well.
Runner Up: Probably our favorite hike in our main destination states was the hike out to the sea caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It had some variation in terrain, interesting views of sea caves, and clocked in at right around 5 miles.
Best Beer: 3 Sheeps in Sheboygan. I am still thinking about that perfect flight.
Runner Up: Great Dane Brewing in Madison. I wish more breweries in our area produced a Scotch Ale.
Most Impressive Offering of a Single Food Category: This is a tie between the cheese at Renard’s Cheese Shop in Wisconsin’s Door County and the frozen pizza aisle at the Super 1 in Duluth.
Runner Up: The Wisconsin Craft Beer aisle at Total Wine in Madison.
Best History Museum: The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama are probably the most memorable, gut-wrenching, immersive, and thought-provoking museums we have ever visited. The sites tell a powerful story about racism in America with a unique blend of data, data visualizations, first person accounts, historical documents, and art pieces.
Best Art Museum: The wild and wonderful Arts Preserve at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan gave us an unprecedented appreciation for folk art, especially the super-prolific amateurs who just make art for their own satisfaction.
Our 2022 summer travels were qualitatively different from our two years of western travel. We were never far from urbanized areas and we did no dry camping. Having consistent electricity service, along with mostly consistent internet and pretty frequent over-the-air TV, was a far cry from our long summer stays in the mountains of Colorado and Montana. While living a luxurious life on the road was nice, we also found our campgrounds to be much more crowded and less appealing. One thing was clear: we didn’t need to have an RV to comfortably visit these places. Every place we visited this summer had plenty of hotels, B&Bs, and vacation rental properties that could have served as a base for exploring the area. We’ve come to recognize the wisdom of what many RVers will tell you: “The West is best.” We’re still thinking through what that means for our future summer travels.
We like to travel because it’s fun and entertaining, but more importantly because it offers opportunities for learning and growth. Neither of us was familiar with the Upper Midwest, and it’s a somewhat insular destination. At our campgrounds in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, I would estimate that 85% of the other visitors had license plates from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. While we certainly don’t claim to be experts now, we know a lot more after spending a summer surrounded by the region’s distinctive accents, unpretentious neighborhoods, and German/Nordic-influenced cuisine. Although I was disappointed that many factories along our route still have not resumed tours post-pandemic, we had the chance to experience some of the gritty, industrial heart of America. I’m looking at you, Duluth.
The most challenging and memorable part of our summer was delving into our nation’s difficult history with race. I am a child of the south, with ancestors who served as Confederate soldiers as well as ancestors who enslaved other human beings. I’ve been working for a while on cleansing my brain of the Lost Cause ideology that I was taught in public school in Florida. Our visits that dealt with the history of American slavery, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement, as well as nonfiction reading that we did in connection with those visits, offered a variety of perspectives that helped us achieve a greater understanding of the utter dehumanization at the heart of American racism. With greater understanding comes greater compassion for those affected and also a greater commitment to help our country do better. While the scenery of our summer locales mostly lacked the WOW! factor of the great western parks, working toward this sort of personal growth is a priceless gift… and a summer well spent.