On the Road to Banff (June 3 – 13, 2018)

On Sunday morning, June 3rd, we left Rockford, IL with heavy hearts after learning of the death of Jan’s brother, Keith, the night before. Phil had only managed to get a few hours of sleep and Jan had gotten even less. As Phil drove the 252 miles to Pine Harbor Campground in Chippewa Falls, WI, Jan spent much of the trip discussing arrangements with family members.

When we arrived at the campground, the office was closed and we didn’t know where we should park. After sitting there a while, another camper came by and told us to just grab any open spot. The campground was laid out rather haphazardly due to the many mature trees and the sites were not clearly defined. We pulled into one spot that seemed like a campsite and proceeded to set up. After we were settled in, the owner came by to welcome us and collect the fee. The many trees made the use of our satellite dish impossible but we were too tired to care.

It was clearly critical for Jan to get to Tennessee but, with no idea how long she would need to be gone, we decided that we would drop Jan off at the Minneapolis airport for a flight to Nashville and Phil would continue the drive westward. Phil managed to find Jan a one-way ticket from Minneapolis to Nashville on United using some of our frequent flyer miles. On Monday morning, Jan had to give Phil a quick lesson on how to perform the tasks she normally handles in hitching and unhitching the fifth wheel. We drove 100 miles to the MSP airport. The tricky part was finding a way to get Jan to Terminal 1 while we were towing a 13 ½’ high fifth wheel. As we approached Terminal 1, Jan noticed that there was an upcoming tunnel with only a 10’ clearance. Fortunately, Phil was able to exit onto the truck route before we reached the tunnel. However, the truck route to Terminal 1 only had a 13’ clearance. Phil’s 17 years of living in the Twin Cities paid off and he knew the route to Terminal 2 without dealing with any low bridges. Jan took the shuttle to Terminal 1 and managed to catch her flight on time.

After dropping Jan off at MSP, Phil drove another 150 miles to Lazy Days Campground in Miltona, MN. Miltona is a very small town (pop. 434) about 20 miles from Alexandria, MN. Almost the entire drive from MSP was on I-94 and Phil was running low on fuel as he got close to Miltona. He was anticipating a service station at the interstate exit but there was none. The GPS showed another 30 miles to the campground but Phil was confident that he would find a gas station somewhere in that distance. Unfortunately, with each turn he made, all he found was more farmland. After driving 30 miles with the low fuel light on, he was so stressed over possibly running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere that he missed the final turn. Fortunately, he was able to pull into the driveway of a farmhouse and back out onto the highway without a collision. When he finally reached the campground, he knew he didn’t have enough fuel to make it any farther. He asked the campground owner if they might have some diesel and she said she thought her husband might. Sure enough, he came by after Phil got set up and gave him enough to reach the nearest service station. Even with the diesel from the campground owner, Phil only had ½ gallon left in the tank when he finally made it to the service station. This was an extremely stressful experience that Phil hoped to never have to deal with again (foreshadowing note – he will, within a week).

The campground in Miltona was virtually empty. They were scattered rigs that appeared to belong to seasonal campers but, since Phil was there on weekdays, these rigs were almost entirely unoccupied. The campground was largely an open field with many trees that were only 10-20 feet tall.

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The open issue at this point was where Jan would rejoin Phil. Phil had originally planned to spend two days in Miltona, MN and meet Jan in Fargo or Bismarck, ND. The options for airports before fewer are we headed farther west. As the week progressed, we determined that Jan wouldn’t be able to get back until early Friday morning. Phil stayed an extra night in Miltona and then spent Thursday night in West Fargo.

On Thursday morning Phil hitched up the rig by himself for the first time and drove 120 miles to the Red River Valley Fair Campground in West Fargo, ND. The online reviews of the campground were somewhat poor but there were very few other options in the area. The website indicated that the sites were first come, first serve but Phil was optimistic that, if he arrived by 1:30 pm, there would be sites available. After striking out in the first section, he did manage to spot a couple of back-in sites that were open. Backing our rig into a campsite is always a challenge, even with Jan’s guidance, so doing it alone proved to be even more of an adventure. He cut his first attempt too sharp and put an 18” deep gouge in the soft soil to the edge of the driveway. The second attempt was more successful after getting out of the truck numerous times to inspect the progress. Fortunately, the campground appeared to be filled with long-time campers who were at work so there were no spectators. After getting parked, Phil discovered that the site only had a 30 amp electrical hookup and had no water hookup. Fortunately, Phil was able to make this work overnight by not running the air conditioners and by conserving the water we had in our fresh water tank.

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Jan’s first flight on Friday morning left Nashville at 6:25 am. It arrived in Chicago on time but the connecting flight to Fargo was delayed by over an hour. So, instead of arriving in Fargo at 10:58 am, it was after noon by the time she landed in Fargo. Phil had decided not to repeat the adventure of driving a fifth wheel to the airport so, after picking up Jan, we returned to the fairgrounds, hitched up and got on the road.

With the unexpected loss of four days in our schedule, we were faced with having to drive six straight days to arrive in Banff, Alberta in time for the reservation we had booked months earlier. After leaving West Fargo, we drove 283 miles to North Park Campground in Dickinson, ND. Fortunately, the entire drive was on I-94 and we gained an hour when we crossed into the Mountain time zone. We managed to arrive at the campground right before the office closed at 5:30 pm.

On Saturday morning, we drove on another 137 miles. The drive took us through the southern section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and we stopped at a rest area that had a view of some of the park’s badlands.

We stayed overnight at the Small Towne RV Campground in the very small town of Terry, MT. We would have preferred to drive farther but there were no other campgrounds between Terry and our next stop. As it was, Small Towne RV Campground wasn’t really much of a campground. In reality, it was a field on the edge of a somewhat rundown neighborhood where the landowner had put in hookups for 10 RVs. Terry is such a small town that it only had one restaurant listed on Trip Advisor and Jan discovered that it had gone out of business. The closest neighboring town was 39 miles away and we decided against driving that far for a meal. We finally discovered that there was a small café open in town, the Hog and Jog, so we got take-out burgers for dinner. After dinner, the owner dropped by to collect his payment and provided us with a binder of things to do and see in the Terry, MT area. All we really wanted to do at that point was to get some sleep so we went to bed early.

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After our first good night’s sleep in a while, we got on the road again on Sunday by 10 am. Unlike the previous few travel days, none of this day’s journey was on the interstate. We drove 231 miles to Lewistown, MT on back roads that had continual steep hills and valleys. Phil uses an online app called Trucker Path to plan his routes so he was aware that there were no truck stops along the entire route. In normal conditions, our 32 gallon tank of diesel would take us about 275 miles so that should not have been a problem. However, in addition to the hills, we drove the entire day into very strong headwinds. Both of these factors caused our fuel consumption to be much higher than usual. With 110 miles left to go, Phil started to worry that we might not have enough fuel to make it to Lewistown. We continued to drive on mile after mile but never did find a gas station. We tried to find fuel on our smartphones but were so far away from civilization that we had no service. We drove another 30 miles after the low fuel light came on but we were still another 30 miles from Lewistown and we could see nothing but farmland. Finally, Phil pulled into a ranch driveway and went and knocked on the door. The owner was very helpful and, although he had no diesel, he gave Phil directions to the closest town that was less than two miles away. Phil drove to the town but we couldn’t find the gas station. Jan walked up to a house to ask for directions but no one was home. Then she walked down to the laundromat and got directions. As it was, we were only two blocks away. We managed to make it to the station and were relieved when they had diesel. We then continued on another 30 miles to Lewistown and never did pass another gas station until we reached the city limits.

We arrived at Mountain Acres Campground at 2 pm but the office was closed until 4 pm. Fortunately they had our name and site number on a board by the office. We found the site and managed to get set up before returning to the office later to check in.

Our stays in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota this Spring brought us up to 37 states in less than three years. We will hit #38 when we enter Alaska on July 2nd.

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On Monday, June 11th, we drove 192 miles to Shelby, MT where we stayed overnight at the Shelby RV Park. Shelby is only 40 miles from the Canadian border and was our last stop before crossing the border. The campground was on a hill adjacent to the Comfort Inn. The wind had been blowing 20-30 mph all day as we drove but seemed even stronger as we set up at the campground. When Phil registered at the hotel desk, he was given one of the lower pull-through sites to minimize the wind but it was of little help. We struggled to even get our door open and, when Jan walked up the hill to check out the laundry room, she struggled against the wind to even walk back to our site. When Phil went to refuel the truck, he discovered that, once again, the strong headwinds had dropped our fuel economy to 7 mpg. Our rig rocked all night and the winds were still very strong when we packed up the following morning.

On Tuesday we drove 207 miles to Okotoks, Alberta where we spent the night at the Lions Sheep River Campground. We got through the border crossing fairly easily, after answering just a few questions. We had been prepared for the worst after reading lots of stories about Texans having their rigs search thoroughly due to the suspicion that all Texans would be carrying firearms. Although the drive was much less hilly than the previous two days, the strong headwinds continued to hurt our fuel mileage. We had to stop for fuel after only 175 miles.

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The town of Okotoks is a modern suburban community, about 30 miles south of Calgary. The Okotoks campground, managed by the local Lions Club, was connected to a popular city park and was quite nice. The only downside was that the electrical hookup was only 30 amp. Fortunately, we didn’t need the air conditioners so this was never a factor. We had a very nice dinner at Original Joe’s before heading to the Walmart Supercenter to stock up on groceries for the coming week. As this was our first shopping trip in Canada, we were quite disappointed by the lack of variety of groceries. Our experience at Walmart, and a follow-up trip to Safeway, left us unable to find many items on our grocery list. After getting through the border checkpoint with only questions, we regretted not loading our refrigerator when we were still in the U.S.

On Wednesday morning, we took it easy. Checkout time was noon and, since Banff National Park was only 106 miles away and didn’t allow check-in until 2 pm, we waited until the last minute to leave. Phil visited the NAPA Auto Parts store and the local Dodge dealer to load up on various fluids for the truck that might be hard to locate during our drive.

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