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Taking an off-grid break during the pandemic

By on December 28, 2020 in Travel with 1 Comment
Val Gilmour and Dave Toal dry camp in Goblin Valley, Utah, over Halloween. There was not another camper around for miles during their warm and sunny stay.

By Dominick Bonny

As the owners of Ravenous Catering located in Monitor, Valarie Gilmour and Dave Toal are usually very busy people, but in 2020 the lack of weddings and large gatherings gave them time to indulge their wanderlust. 

The couple has always loved traveling together, and frequently talk about retiring someday to spend at least half the year in Costa Rica. 

But with a pandemic raging and international travel a harrowing prospect they, like many Americans, looked to domestic travel. So they purchased a recreational vehicle and hit the open road, but not in a conventional way. 

“We did not want to stay at RV parks or crowded campgrounds. Anywhere where there’s a bunch of people,” Dave said. “That led us to exploring different styles of off-road RVs designed to go anywhere your truck can go.” 

They had been doing their research for months, even years, before the COVID-19 pandemic and knew what they wanted. They found that Australian companies make the best off-road travel trailers, Dave said, but the waiting lists are long for one of those brand new. They were looking at a six-month wait for a new trailer, at least. 

So when Val came across a gently-used Black Series HQ15 Caravan trailer for sale in Illinois, they jumped at the opportunity.

Roy’s Motel and Café is a motel, café, gas station and auto repair shop, defunct for many years but now being restored, on the National Trails Highway of U.S. Route 66 in the Mojave Desert town of Amboy, California.

A retired Illinois state trooper put the 15-foot camp trailer for sale because he and his wife decided it was too small for them and their grandkids. They had only used it three times, Val said. So they put down a deposit and prepared to hit the road.

The Black Series HQ15 is a 15-foot rugged yet luxurious travel trailer with custom designed and engineered trailing arms underneath that allows each wheel to move independently. Coupled with the custom suspension and high clearance, it can cope with some pretty rough off-road terrain. 

It has both an interior and exterior kitchen, a queen-sized bed as well as a convertible dining table bed, and a full-sized dry bathroom. Full-sized bathrooms in travel trailers are hard to come by. 

Inside the caravan trailer: The pink flamingo was a gift from family in Indiana.

“It’s like the coolest thing we’ve ever owned in our life,” Dave said. 

The whole trip took 33 days, starting on Oct. 12, but they made it from Cashmere to Pocahontas, Illinois, in just four. The route back home would be more circuitous, however. 

“Our goal was to not spend a bunch of money on campgrounds or RV parks,” he said. “And for the most part, we were able to use iOverlander and freecamp.com and do our research while we were driving. We found some epic spots for free.” 

In Missouri, they stayed at an Alpaca farm and bought socks that kept them warm for the entire trip, Val said. In Colorado and Utah, they found amazing, secluded spots off the grid. In Moab, they camped out in the sand dunes under the stars.

“There were plenty of times that we chose not to have any communication,” Val said, chuckling. “Like election night. We were off the grid for two days before we decided to go and find out what happened.” 

Because of COVID, they were hesitant to stop at wineries or breweries and go in for tastings, Dave said. During their 33 days on the road, they only ate out once, at a taco stand in Utah. They cooked for themselves, which is where their skills as professional caterers came in handy. The greatest challenge was actually the weather. 

Val climbed these huge rock, “and could see for miles away. I truly felt like I could reach out and grab the clouds from that high up,” she said. “The stars that night were magnificent.” This was in the Mojave National preserve.

“The weather was nuts!” Val said. “Heading into 60 mph winds while pulling a trailer was a new experience for me.” 

There were times when it was snowing, or raining heavily, or the wind was blowing 60 to 70 miles an hour. Those were the times they said they found the nearest RV site and hunkered down until the weather passed. 

They also made a conscious decision to stay off the interstate and stick to the back roads, because of an experience they had in Missouri. They stopped at a gas station and asked a couple of old-timers for directions. One of the men told him how to get to the interstate, but also told him about the route he would take. 

 “It took us maybe 25 minutes to go on this back road,” Dave said. “And in that 25 minutes we went through a couple of small towns and it was just so cool to go through slowly and look.” 

They made a lot of observations along the way. 

Taking more time and meandering through states gave them the opportunity to drink in the landscape and make observations. 

They learned in Kansas that the fences are made of limestone columns and not wood because there are no trees. 

In addition to the natural beauty of so much of the country, they also noticed how depressed some areas of the country are. 

“It’s pretty depressed out there. It’s pretty depressed all over,” Val said. “I wrote in my journal, ‘A lot of abandoned cars, garbage, dogs on chains…’” 

They also noticed the effects of climate change. Even though they were traveling in the winter, there were burn bans in almost every state they visited. They said they only made three open fires in 17 states. 

Dave grew up in Indiana and said he noticed a big change in the Wabash River. 

“I crossed the Wabash River and it was freaky. It was slow low. Apparently, the drought has been severe this summer,” he said. “I’d never seen the Wabash like that growing up. It was always this big huge muddy slow-moving river, but now there were sandbars and it was like this meandering creek.” 

Although they stayed mostly off the grid, only stopping at public places for groceries and gas, they still got to interact with many locals and learn about the communities they were passing through. 

The pandemic combined with the winter weather meant that some of the places they stopped to see were practically deserted. They said there was no one at the Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado when they stopped to view the Puebloan cliff dwellings. They practically had the whole place to themselves. 

They stopped frequently at post offices to send postcards to their grandchildren. And after 33 days on the road with their new trailer, they were back home in Monitor. 

They said the trip was a good test run for a future that might include living part of the year on the road in the U.S. and part of the year in warmer, more southern climates. 

For the time being, however, they are preparing for a 2021 work schedule that will include most of the catering gigs and weddings that were postponed in 2020. 

As they prepare for what is shaping up to be one of their busiest catering seasons in recent memory, they say they are grateful they were able to take advantage of what travel opportunity they had, and spend time together. 

Dominick Bonny is an entrepreneurial journalist who creates written word and video stories on a freelance basis, manages social media accounts and communication campaigns. He also hosts Common Sense with Dominick Bonny on NCWLIFE.

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  1. Debbie Yonaka says:

    Oh I would so love to do this…just hit the road! My 70 year old heart says heck yeah, but the brain says whoa there girlie! Guess I need to find a companion!

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