An Ode To Trucks Stops & an RV How-To For Staying At Them

I sort of love truck stops. I love how they’re self-contained cities that come together and apart every day. I love that you can buy nearly everything you ever dreamed you might need or never knew you always needed at them. And when driving around the country in an RV, I just love that they exist.

When navigating life in an RV, you encounter all kinds of things that don’t come with instructions. I want everything to have a sign, all the time, telling me how it all works. But life isn’t like that. RV-centric places aren’t like that. And truck stops certainly aren’t like that.

So if you’re an RVer intimidated by truck stops, read on for instructions. At least according to what I’ve been able to figure out so far. And you too, can enjoy a sunrise over a truck stop.

flying j

Tips for Choosing a Truck Stop

You’ll see throughout this post that my best tip is to choose a Flying J or Pilot as I have found to them to be by far the most RV friendly, but you can get a lot of great info from the AllStays app. Entries look like this and tell you not only how a location has been rated (mostly by commercial drivers) but what amenities it has (probably don’t go to that second one):

allstays truck stop review truck stop review

Tips on Staying Overnight

truck stopYou can totally stay overnight. Especially if you stay at a Flying J or Pilot (which is now one company called Pilot Flying J, but their locations are still separately branded). They are totally friendly to RVers. The web site very explicitly confirms it:

“Had enough driving for one day? Pull in to one of our RV reserved parking spots or any other open parking space. Grab some dinner, stock up on supplies, and spend the night to get ready for that long drive ahead of you tomorrow.”

I love staying someplace I am explicitly welcomed.

I have found that other truck stops have signs stating parking limits of 4 hours or less. I pulled into a Love’s that had signage restricting parking to one hour. I called and the manager said I had to come in and get special approval to stay overnight. (She followed that by explaining she had to make sure I wasn’t going to block her handicapped parking in front on the store, although I’m not sure why I, or anyone else, would be in danger of doing that.) Which didn’t sound welcoming at all.

truck stopIf the truck stop you plan to stay at is not a Flying J or Pilot, you should probably call ahead or ask a desk clerk, just to be sure, unless you see signage or an online notation that RVs can park overnight.

I’ve stayed at lots other truck stops (including lots of Love’s and many independent places), and most of the time when I asked, they seemed confused I even asked first, but then there are those places that said I needed special permission, so you just never know.

It’s much easier for me to sleep if I’m not worried someone is going to bang on my door at any second yelling at me, and it only takes a minute to ask. (I tend to call vs. go in as you’ll see later in this post.)

truck stopDon’t park where a truck would park or block where trucks might need to drive through or in any way get in the way of the trucks. They get grumpy.

This isn’t really an issue for an RV like mine that can fit in any parking spot, but I often see larger RVs that can only park in the truck areas. If you ask inside, they’ll often steer you towards parking lengthwise in normal parking spots on the edges of the parking lot if it’s big enough, but this isn’t always an option, so depending on your length, you might not have a choice.

The AllStays app generally notes the number of (truck) parking spaces each truck stop. If you have a long rig, you might want to avoid truck stops with less than 50 spaces and the ones noted not to have much space. AllStays is used by commercial drivers as well as RVers so the truck stop comments have a lot of information about the lots that are stress-inducing. (To see this in action, just check out YouTube, where drivers love to post videos of crazy lot situations.)

truck stopIt might be noisy. As you’ll see from the next tip, I drive around a little and try to find a quiet spot, but I honestly have never been bothered by the truck noise. Mostly I have my fan or furnace on and the white noise totally blocks out the trucks. But even without that, the trucks are mostly white noise themselves.

Once, I stayed at a truck stop that played music on the outside speakers all night. I couldn’t make it through the entire night. (I even went inside to ask about it, and they said the music was just on all the time and there was nothing at all they could do about it.)

truck stopDrive around and scout the place out before settling on a space. I often have found quiet spots out of the way, on the edge between the car section and the trucks section. I try to back into a spot with a wall or hedge behind it so that people and cars aren’t coming and going right next to my bed while I’m sleeping.

Here’s an example of where I’ve parked just on the other side of the truckers. (Although this isn’t ideal; I should have backed in. But this was one of my earlier truck stops.)

truck stop parking

This is a much better parking place:

truck stop parking

And this spot is just about perfect:

truck stop parking

Look at how peaceful my view is:

truck stop parking

 Tips on Truck Stop Showers

As I have written about here before, I love truck stop showers. They are by far the cleanest, most luxurious showers I have found anywhere on the road, fancy RV parks included.

Truck stop showers, unlike a lot of RV park and campground showers, never have bugs or cold chills or only cold water or open pipes instead of shower heads or a rope that you have to hold down to keep the water on. Yes, that last thing only happened once, but still. I’m still bitter about it.

You get a huge, private bathroom with great water pressure and shower heads and plenty of hot water, and most even come with a towel! (Here’s a YouTube video someone made of a Flying J that begins with the shower.)

truck stopTruck stop showers are $12. Everywhere. $12. I happened upon a $6 shower at an independent truck stop once and I was completely in shock. Because no matter where you go, you’ll always pay $12. (Unless you buy more than $500 a month in gas at a Flying J/Pilot, which gives you free showers for a month, but as much gas as you might go through in an RV, that much gas is probably unlikely.) If you react to the price with “$12! That’s crazy! I’ll just go someplace else!”, the clerk will be highly entertained.

Bonus updated tip: During a discussion in the Roadtrek Facebook group, we started talking about whether a couple can take a shower together ($12 total) or not ($24 total). And generally, couples can shower together! (Which doesn’t mean they have to be in the actual shower together. They can just go into the room together.) You can ask for extra towels in that case and some truck stops have “team showers” (for instance a married commercial driving team), which are larger.

truck stopWear flip flops. This isn’t really a dis on truck stops. I recommend flip flops for showers at campgrounds and RV parks too. Always pack flip flops in your shower bag.

truck stopSpeaking of, have a shower bag! Again, this isn’t really truck stop-specific. I have a little travel toiletry bag (with duplicate items from my RV shower) so that I can just grab it and go and don’t have to pack and unpack anything every day just to take a shower. I keep it out of the way on my bathroom floor.

truck stopYou don’t need to bring in a towel, but you may as well, just in case. I’ve never encountered a truck stop shower that didn’t provide at least a bath towel (and sometimes a whole set of towels), but I always have a back up with me.

Most of the time, you can just leave the towels in the room when you leave, but one independent truck stop I stopped at had a towel drop near the front counter.truck stop shower

truck stop shower

truck stopYou probably need your own toiletries. Most truck stop showers provide soap, either as one of those little wrapped travel soaps you might get a hotel off the highway or in a bulk pump in the shower, but not always. I’ve gotten a little bottle of shampoo once (I still used my fancy shampoo instead) and I’ve never gotten conditioner.

truck stopThe private bathroom is really secure. Flying J/Pilot generally has a 4 digit code printed on your receipt that you use to unlock the door (you sometimes have to wait for your name to be called/displayed on a monitor that tells you which room number is yours), but other places just give you a key.

 Tips on Coffee

I dunno. I’m just not a coffee snob, especially in the morning. Sure, I can tell the difference between bad and good coffee, and one time, I stopped to get coffee at McDonald’s and they accidentally gave me someone else’s with 4 sugars in it (so said the side of the cup, I realized way too late) and I had to throw that right away (obviously, blech), but mostly I just need drinkable caffeine.

truck stopTruck stops always have tons of coffee choices, with names like “morning thunder” and “extra extra bold buzz this coffee will really keep you awake and bouncing around and can you tell we are drinking this coffee right now as we brainstorm coffee names”.

truck stopIf you use a travel mug (which I do anyway to keep my coffee hot and to keep the bugs out when I’m wandering around a campground in the morning), you get the refill price, which tends to vary in price (based on who is ringing you up and how large she decides your cup is) from $2 to 50 cents.

truck stopMany truck stop chains have loyalty cards (and Flying J/Pilots take Good Sam cards in lieu of theirs), which either give you a discount on each cup or build up to a free one.

truck stopMostly, you’re going to find powered creamer and maybe some weird pump-driven non-dairy creamer liquid. I try to keep milk in my refrigerator to add once I get back to my RV.

Tips On Getting Gas

I realize I’m sounding like a Flying J/Pilot commercial about now, but I promise I don’t know them and they are not paying me for this post. (Although, if anyone from their company is reading this, feel free to randomly send me money!) But you can use your Good Sam card at their pumps for a gas discount. Other chains give gas discounts with their loyalty cards, probably. But I’m loyal to them, so I wouldn’t know (ha!).

Presumably truck stops have lower gas prices because they buy in some serious bulk to cater to all those trucks. I don’t know if that’s true, but at the very least, they tend to be a lot easier to get in and out of since they’re a lot bigger than regular gas stations.

Propane and Dump Stations

Many truck stops have these! I use the AllStays app to find out. Again, some chains have loyalty cards that give you discounts on the dump station. I’ve paid as little as $5.

Wifi

I have a monthly plan with Flying J/Pilot, which typically works great (and often five or more different wifi points are available to accommodate the traffic). Many trucks stops have fast food restaurants (like McDonald’s or Denny’s) attached to them with free wifi. Of course, I sometimes just use the hotspot on my phone.

Laundry

I’ve never done my laundry at a truck stop (I generally do that once a week or so at a campground or RV park) but most trucks stops have laundry facilities.

Business Services

Many trucks stops have printing/scanning/faxing and mail services, along with services like Western Union and ATMs.

Gyms/Game Rooms/Haircuts/Lounges/Etc.

Yeah, some have massage services that I’m not too clear on. And I’m too vain to get a haircut at a truck stop. I saw a post about one truck stop with a dentist! But mostly, I’d suggest asking the staff about use of things like the gym. At times I’ve seen notations on AllStays for particular locations that certain facilities are for commercial drivers only.

Shopping

This is the best. I love wandering around and checking out all the random stuff for sale. It’s like walking around Amazon.com.

truck stop shoppping

truck stop shopping

Tips On Being A Woman Alone At a Truck Stop

Not long ago, a guy said to me that surely all the commercial drivers who saw me at truck stops just assumed I was a prostitute. Um, thanks? But seriously, I have never gotten that vibe at all. (Although I see a few YouTube videos show some places that do have that vibe.)

I mean, be careful, sure, just as you would anywhere.

I will often pull into a place late at night and not get out of my RV at all. That way, I know for sure there’s no random serial killer or axe murderer hanging out who has seen that I’m a woman alone and has followed me back to my RV, waiting for me to fall asleep. I wait until morning to get gas and stock up on groceries.

But I feel safer staying at a truck stop than I feel staying most places. It’s open 24 hours a day. It’s well lit and well staffed. I don’t park in the middle of the trucks — I park on the non-commercial side — so I’m never alone and hidden away. Mostly the showers are right off the main store area, but even the few times I’ve had to walk through the TV lounge area to get to them, no one has paid any attention to me. Everyone is watching the game, or getting food, or doing whatever in the little time they have before they have to get back on the road.

There’s no reason commercial drivers would be more dangerous than anyone else we might encounter in the world. My grandpa was a truck driver and he was just about the awesomest.

Bonus Tip!

Bobtails are trucks without trailers. So you can totally park where you see these signs.

bob tail parking

 

But What About Power in a RoadTrek? Don’t You Run Out?

Today, a reader question! Michael asks how I get power when I’m not plugged in.

roadtrek power

I do have to manage the process but it’s way easier than you might think. Since I have the littlest Roadtrek, I also have the least amount of power to work with. (Well, some older models may have even less — for instance, they may not have generators.) A model like the E-Trek is amazing: huge solar panels, 8 batteries, 5000 watt inverter. You basically never have to plug that thing in.

But back to my littlest Roadtrek.

First, spoiler alert: I’ve never run out of power!

My Roadtrek has two sources of power: electricity (in varying forms) and propane. Propane is the simplest. I just get the tank filled when I’m running low and it powers the furnace, stove, hot water heater, and refrigerator,which switches to propane automatically when another power source isn’t available.

The refrigerator has little status lights that tell me what type of power it’s using:

refrigerator power roadtrek

Electricity is available in several forms, which boil down to high power mode and low power mode.

In high power mode, I can run everything: air conditioner, microwave, my Nespresso machine (Mmmm, coffee….).

I’m in high power mode when I’m running the generator (which runs on gas from my fuel tank) or when I’m plugged in. My electrical system is 30 amps, so I can plug directly into a 30 amp outlet, or I can use an adapter to go plug into 50 amps (at some RV parks and campgrounds to accommodate larger RVs) or the 15 or 20 amp outlets you might have at your house.

When I’m plugged into 50 amps, I still only have 30 amps available. When I plug into 15 or 20 amps, well, I only have those 15 or 20. The outlet you plug into at a campground or RV park has a circuit breaker and you also have them inside the RV so if you overload the system, you’ll flip a breaker (or both the outside and inside breaker, like that one time I was running the air conditioner and the microwave at the same time).

roadtrek 170 breaker

But 15 amps is plenty to run the air conditioner.

I almost never use the generator. Mostly because I don’t need to, and also, noise. There are exceptions:

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No services for 100 miles? No problem. I’ll just fire up the generator and make some coffee.

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To turn on the generator, I just flip the switch:

roadtrek 170 generator

Unless I need the air conditioner because it’s thousands of degrees outside, I don’t ever really need to plug in. That is, I don’t need to plug in from a “do I have enough power to run this” perspective. If I’m staying in one place for several days, I likely will want to plug in because I’m otherwise on battery, which doesn’t last forever.

So let’s talk about the battery!

The battery is low power mode. On battery, I can’t run the microwave, the air conditioner, or my Nespresso machine. Low power mode runs off of the house battery (which is different from the engine battery). The battery charges when I’m driving, when I’m plugged into power, when I’m running the generator, and from my solar panels.

I mostly keep it charged from driving since I don’t tend to stay in one place too long. If I was out in the woods for a week, for instance, the solar panels would probably not be enough since they only charge the battery a little. In that case, I’d probably run the generator for a while to charge back up.

But if I drive a couple of hours (which I tend to do most days), the battery gets charged back up no problem.

With battery alone, I can run all the 12 volt stuff: the water pump (to flush the toilet or turn on the faucet at the sink), the roof fan, the hot water heater, the refrigerator, the interior lights, the LP gas and CO detectors).

I can also flip on the inverter (which turns battery (DC) power to AC) in order to use two of the outlets (the one for the TV/DVD player and the one above the kitchen counter).

The inverter only provides about 750 watts of power though. (Which is why the Nespresso machine, at 1500 watts, is out.) With the inverter, I can run the TV and DVD player (and hence have music through the speakers), charge my laptop and phone, and power things like my curling iron or a small fan.

But how long can I do those things? For that, we look at amp hours. How many does my battery hold and how quickly do my solar panels replenish the battery? How much power does everything take? It’s math, people. Math! No one told me there would be math.

I have one 12 volt battery, which gives me 95 amp hours. Under optimal conditions, my solar panels recharge the battery with 3.5 amp hours (and the conditions are never optimal). An overhead light is maybe 2 amps, the fan is around 4.

When I’m parked even for a couple of days, I’m probably only going to use the fan and charge up my laptop and phone. Sure, I’ll need the water pump every so often, but I’m not really using that much power. Turning something on generally takes more power than keeping it running too (I tried using a lower wattage coffee maker once and the instant I turned it on, it sucked up half my battery).

But the point is, I really don’t have to do math. If I were out in the woods for a week, maybe. Parked in a Walmart parking lot all night and then parked by the ocean all day, not really. I find that I’m not using much power and the solar panels do OK to keep the battery from dipping too low.

I can monitor everything on a handy panel. The battery status is on the far right. Right now, it’s just below fully charged. The propane, however, is almost empty (it’s the status on the far left). (The second set of lights is the fresh water tank and the third and fourth set are the black and grey water tanks, respectively.)

roadtrek 170 power monitor

On mornings when I’m not plugged in, I generally heat water in a kettle on the stove and make coffee via Aeropress or Starbucks Via.

When I’m driving, I charge my phone, iPad, and laptop (I use an inverter I plug into the cigarette lighter).

See Michael? No sacrifices needed. And I have coffee available no matter the circumstance. And that’s really the most important thing.

Inside My Roadtrek 170 Popular: The Non-Cartoon Transformer

When people hear I’m traveling the country in an RV, they generally think I’m navigating windy roads and low clearance bridges in a huge monster-truck size vehicle, which doesn’t sound relaxing and peaceful at all. Then they see my Roadtrek. And well. They think I’m living in a van.

Seattle

But friends, I am NOT living in a van. (Well, OK, it’s a van, but it is an ENTIRE house in the inside!) Shall I bring you inside for a tour?

First, let’s hang out for a while in the living room. Lovely, no?

roadtrek living room

You are looking for the dining room? Here you go. Also, the dining room can be the office.

living room office

And just like that, one room has become three. But I’m more ambitious than that.

The living room can also become the bedroom with a push of a button. OK, sure, a push of a button + the addition of a tempur-pedic mattress pad, soft sheets, comfy pillows, and a warm comforter. But still, that’s five minutes well spent.

roadtrek bed

Where is all that stuff the rest of the time? The mattress pad and comforter stuff right down behind the couch and the rest fits nicely in the cabinet above, with space left over for a little bookcase (the temper-pedic pillows are on the left, the sheets are in the packing cube in the middle labeled “sweaters” (however, my sheets are not made of sweaters), my books are on the right — mostly books not available on Kindle, like the autobiographies of John Madden and Ken “Snake” Stabler, which yes, I am currently reading right now).

Roadtrek storage

But let’s say I’ve gotten ready for bed, but I still have some work to do. I just head over to my second office (with bonus skylights). Both chairs in front swivel around and a table pops up from nowhere! (Actually, in between the closet and the kitchen, but as though from nowhere!)

Front Office Roadtrek

Here’s my kitchen, complete with two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator, and microwave.

roadtrek 170 popular kitchen

And then my amazing, transforming bathroom. By day, just a regular bathroom. By.. well, also day, I just open the door, roll up my rug and remove the drain cover, pull the shower curtain around the hall, and I’ve got a roomy shower.

Here you can see the bathroom with the door open and the curtain rail:

bathroom

A closer look at the shower controls:

roadtrek shower

And here’s what it looks like inside the shower:

roadtrek 170 shower

Except in that photo the door on the left is closed so you can see inside. This is what it would actually look like if I were inside the shower and not outside taking the photo. You can’t really tell, but the door is open and the curtain is pulled around it:

roadtrek 170 popular shower

I also have a TV, DVD player, and surround sound system that includes speakers throughout the RV so I can rock out whether I’m hanging out in the living room or the front office. Normally, I listen to music by plugging my iPhone into the DVD player, but sometimes I connect my laptop to the TV and watch TV from bed (yes, I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy; so do you):

roadtrek tv

I could hoist up the antenna and watch TV over the air and at most RV parks and campgrounds I could also plug into cable, but I’m more a stream over the internet whenever I want kind of girl, so I haven’t done either of those.

But what about storage?

I’ve got a closet just to the right of the kitchen (behind the driver side door) to hang up my clothes up in (I keep my shoes in a bin at the bottom):

roadtrek wardrobe

Above that is a little shelf where I keep tools and things.

The Roadtrek used to have a third seat, but I removed it and put in lightweight drawers. There’s also storage in the cabinet underneath (I keep a bunch of shoes and nice clothes that I don’t need every day in that section).

roadtrek storage

In the bathroom, I’ve added a few containers (held in place by Command velcro) to keep everything in place.

bathroom storage

You’ve seen the storage for my bedding to the right of the air conditioner (er, also there’s a couple of bottles of gin and tonic back there). The cabinet on the left has a box of electronics and other various items like my curling iron and window screens.

I’ve also got storage above the front seats. And I keep coffee and other vital essentials in bags in the upper shelving on both sides.

I keep kitchen stuff (plates, cups, pots, and pans, whatever) in bins under the sink. I have a little pantry with stuff like peanut butter above the stove. And I keep towels and first aid kit and odds and ends in the cabinet above the counter. (Yes, I have 6 bath size towels in there! They are magic towels!)

kitchen storage

And then there’s all the storage under the couch (that I get to from the back doors) for things like my lawn chairs.

Of course, I spiffed it all up a little too. Here’s a few before and after photos:

2014-07-12 06.42.38

roadtrek afterYes, I can even light the vanilla candles for even more peace and relaxation. Well, as long as I take the battery out of the smoke detector first. Otherwise, that’s a path to less peace and relaxation for everyone.

This One is About the Septic System, In Case You Want to Skip It

I know what you’re thinking. What about the septic system? You’re driving around with an entire plumbing system, including a toilet, in your car. And at some point, the tanks fill up. No. Surely there’s a way to outsource taking care of that?

I wondered about that too. Before I set out, I read all kinds of warnings about keeping a box of latex gloves handy and the chemicals needed and the indignity of it all. Also that it’s a two person process, which seemed problematic for me as a one person team.

Turns out, like nearly everything else, I’ve discovered that it’s easier than I expected. (Also, when you’re traveling around the country, it’s sort of awesome to always have a bathroom with you.)

The Roadtrek (like all RVs) has two tanks: the grey tank (for the sink and shower) and the black or holding tank (for the toilet). Since I have the littlest Roadtrek, I also have the littlest tanks, but since I’m only one person, I only need to find a dump station about once a week or so (a very unreliable status indicator keeps track of when the tanks are full).

This is one time I can’t steal ideas from watching RVers around me. Many RV septic systems operate by way of gravity. You put the hose in the right place and open the tanks, and as long as gravity is on your site, everything empties as it should. There’s all kinds of little feet you can buy that make the sewer hoses look like oversized millipedes to get the hose to just the right angle.

See? Millipede feet!

RV sewer hose feet

This set up means that when most RVs pull into a site with full hookups, they just hook up the sewer hose and leave it open the whole time they’re stopped.

My Roadtrek has a macerator, which is like a garbage disposal for the septic system. So the tanks only empty when the macerator is on (and it’s only on when I’m pressing the button). Which means I never really need a site with full hookups. Lots of times I get one, just because it’s easy or because that’s what’s available, but a site with only electric and water works just as well for me. I can use the park’s dump station on my way out just as easily as I could a hookup at my site.

septic hookupDump stations are everywhere. Rest areas, truck stops, RV service shops. You can stop by a campground or RV park you aren’t staying at and use their dump station for a fee.

I had read about long wait times at dump stations (which I can definitely see happening since it’s a 10-15 minute process), but so far, I’ve never encountered anyone else at one.

See that little square on the left with the black cap (in the photo on the right)? That’s the septic hookup.

The process goes like this:

  1. Pull out the long sewer hose and open the nozzle.Roadtrek sewer hose
  2. Unscrew the cap to the hole in the ground and push the end of the hose into the hole. There’s a rubber end that keeps a tight fit. If the rubber end is too small, add the rubber donut adapter. Here’s what that looks like:septic hookup
  3. Open the hose by turning the black knob/handle near the hose opening.
  4. Pull out the black water valve.
  5. Press the red button and just keep pressing it until you don’t see anything going through the little see through part of the nozzle.
  6. Pull out the grey water valve. (Controversy alert! Some people say to close the black water valve first to avoid contamination. Some people say not to close it so that the soapy water helps clean out the black water. Do what feels right in your heart.)
  7. Press the red button again and repeat. Supposedly the macerator noise changes when the tanks are empty. I don’t know anyone who has found this to be the case.
  8. Close both valves and close the nozzle. Put everything away. This is the hardest part because the hose barely fits and even though it’s likely all still dry, no one likes the idea of getting too close to the sewer hose.
  9. Grab a septic chemical pod, which looks exactly like those Tide laundry pods, and drop it into the toilet. Pour or run some water into the toilet (the tank should never be totally dry).
  10. The end.

I mean, yes, you might want to wear the gloves just in case. And probably you want to wash your hands now. But honestly the worst part is holding down that red button for ten minutes. You’re like, really? I have to keep pressing this very inconveniently located button? And yes, yes you do. I guess I could put some duct tape over it instead of pressing it? I’ll try that out and let you know how it goes.

Another problem? Sometimes you can’t see the clear part of the hose so you can see if the tank is still emptying (I guess this is where the second person comes in handy.

hidden rv septic

I really thought I had gotten the hang of things. And then I got to Tenkiller Lake. I pulled up to the dump station. And had no idea what to do next. I saw this big square metal hole. And a sign telling me to turn on the water. I looked around. What now? The guy in the RV behind the dump station noticed the perplexed look on my face. Just put your hose into the hole and turn the water on, he told me. What?

So I did. If you look closely (which I realize perhaps you don’t want to do), you’ll see that water is pouring from the sides of the square hole, filling it with water and wooshing everything out into the unknown. No, I don’t know what the barrel is for either.

tenkiller lake rv dump station

So I guess sometimes that’s how an RV dump station works, but so far only that one time.