Get Along, Little Dogies

Free at Last!

After 13 days in OKC, we finally got back on the road Tuesday, October 27. Whew! The last week was spent trying to fix a glitch caused by an engine computer update, which they didn’t charge us for.  But it does cost to live in a motel and eat out every meal. And yes the repair bill was a Zooiinng, but Zane is working great and starts up right away now.

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Farewell, Oklahoma! 

Then we drove south to Aledo, Texas (near Dallas/Ft. Worth) and the Cowtown RV Park for one night, so we could go to dinner at a cajun restaurant with my brother Mark Walton and his wife, Christy who live in nearby Saginaw. It was lovely to see them and to have our rig back!

Wednesday, we scooted down to Abilene, Texas and Wally-Docked (boondocked overnight in a WalMart parking lot). We realized that staying for free in truck stops and rest areas meant we were using our generator for the entire time (15 hours) and that added up in diesel fuel costs. Maybe WalMart would be quiet enough to just leave the generator off and open the windows. It worked out fine. Cheaper boondocking. Oh yeah, now the expenses are coming down.

Thursday, the next morning, I was anxious to see the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature Museum, which Clay so graciously found on TripAdvisor.com (things to do in Abilene, Texas)- wasn’t that sweet of him?  I love, love, love children’s book art. So we found the museum, walked up to the door, and discovered it was closed due to ceiling repairs. Drats and disappointment.

The consolation prize was the Frontier Texas! Museum. Neat displays and hologram images of characters from the old west and the conflicts between the buffalo hunters who wiped out the herds and the Comanche horse culture that depended on the buffalo for their way of life.  We learned some things and had fun doing it.

On we rolled in the afternoon.  We passed endless fields of ripe cotton and bales the size of huge trucks, oil rigs and windmill farms on our way to Hobbs, New Mexico for another Wally-Dock.  Because we have a big fridge and great food, we never eat out for any meal. And the Hello Fresh recipes are amazing.  The grilled chicken breast with peach and spinach leaf salad and garlic/olive oil toasted baguette croutons was so tasty and refreshing after a long day.

Carlsbad For Now

Friday we arrived in Carlsbad, New Mexico, our stay put destination for the next few weeks to a month. So tickled to be out West!  I keep clapping my hands like a little kid.

We had looked on the ALLSTAYS app for BLM (Bureau of Land Management) places to boondock without fees or hook ups of any kind. Our goals for this first extended boondocking experience are to:

  1. Spend no money.
  2. See how long we can live on our 161 gallon water and dump tanks before we have to refill and dump.
  3. See how long we can live on our 6 massive AGM Lifeline batteries before we need to crank up our generator to replenish them.
  4. Be completely alone.

(We’ll let you know how it turns out in a later post.)

Being new to this BLM dispersed camping routine, we drove 20 miles down the road to the first option as it appeared on the app, unhooked our toad (Jeep) to investigate the road condition and any potential problems. These are not official campsites– just pull off areas alongside dirt roads people have used for years and then told others about.  Although it looked like the perfect camping spot on the satellite views, the Dark Canyon area had piles of gravel blocking every entrance. Curses, foiled again.

Plan B: Go to the BLM office in Carlsbad and see where else we could camp.  Mr. Goodbar of the BLM graciously spent time with us, marking a survey map with potential spots we could try.  He was very enthusiastic and helpful.  With some hope, but not much confidence, we set out again in our Jeep, 25 miles out of town, off the main road and over a cow guard onto an unmarked two track hard pack dirt road.  About a mile or so driving through the desert over a rise and down again, we found a parallel pull off that would work great, and then drove further until we found a well head (natural gas?) with a cleared out areas for large trucks to turn around. Should work for Zane!

We drove back to get the RV and a heavy duty brush clipper from the hardware store. I got into my long sleeve work shirt, pants, boots and gloves and drove the toad up the dirt track, with Clay following in Zane, stopping every thirty feet to cut back thorn bushes with 1 1/2 inch long wicked thorns that might stick to the tires or scratch the paint until we got to our site.  It took about five hours to get this all done from the time we arrived in Carlsbad.

This is a good spot!  The coach cockpit faces South, with sun rising at the East-facing head of our bed and the sun setting at the foot of our bed over the low ridge of Guadalupe Mountains out the West-facing living room window.  We placed our lawn chairs on a mat and sat down in the hot sunshine. Home Sweet Desert.

You cannot see the rig from the highway, which we like, and we are surrounded by low desert scrub and cacti as far as you can see in all directions.

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Zane in her native habitat

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No neighbors

 

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There is no noise, no wind, no sound except the other night, about 3 in the morning, cool air through the open windows carried the spooky call of a coyote very close to the RV. Aaawwwwoooooooooooooo.

Next up: Carlsbad Caverns and Bats!

Wendy

Frigid Water and Sunshine Sandwich

There is a children’s book by Remy Charlip called “Fortunately”. It starts out:

Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute…

So, our week has kind of been like that.

Fortunately

On Monday, October 12, we woke up bright and early at our parking spot outside the Newell Factory for a 6:30 am appointment.

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After the beast was brought into the bay, it only took them 50 minutes to get most of the work done, then another few hours for the only guy who knows how to restring the old style motorized window blind to get it completed. By 12:30 pm, they were done and ready for us to leave.

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Then we loaded in our fresh groceries and headed down the road to Oklahoma City for our first routine inspection of the 515 hp Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine. We want them to fix a few things as well: it takes a long time to finally turn over from a cold start and there is some stray exhaust leaking out by the muffler. We just want to be safe on the road.

Unfortunately

And then it got interesting.

Fortunately, the engine repair shop was on our way out west. Unfortunately, they don’t take appointments.

Fortunately, when we arrived on Wednesday morning, they said we could stay on their front parking pad until they could get us in. Unfortunately, it might be two days from now.

Fortunately, a few hours later, they came and said, Hey we have a spot for you inside! Unfortunately, you cannot stay in the RV, so you have 10 minutes to gather your stuff and find a motel.

Fortunately, we have no place to be. Unfortunately, the coach will take a long time to fix.  The engine shop didn’t call Newell Factory until Friday to find out how to get into the engine from the hatch in the floor of the rear bathroom. So, 3 days wasted. Then no parts available until next week. Worst case scenario, lots of time and money to fix the injectors and manifold. Some dollar figure between Ouch and Zoooiiiiiiinnnggggg.

Fortunately, we found a lovely, inexpensive little motel with a pool, microwave, fridge and free full breakfast. Unfortunately, all the non-smoking rooms in the city were completely booked for a national horse show, no matter what the Hotels.com online reservation showed me.

Fortunately, the kind desk clerk worked some magic and gave us a non-smoking lovely patio room facing the pool, which was still open in October! Unfortunately, the water was FRIGID.

Fortunately, the sun was blazing hot.

So the combination of icy cold on the bottom of my wonderful floaty thingy with roasting sun on top, idling around the pool (with no one else crazy enough to swim in an outdoor pool in Oklahoma City in October), soothed by the drifting current and bright blue sky – it was a bliss, contentment and zen sandwich.

For the foreseeable future, we are living in a Howard Johnson motel in OKC. We went to an RV show yesterday and there is a professional rodeo finals event tonight in Duncan. I haven’t been to a rodeo in decades- really looking forward to it.

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So, Yeehaw, Oklahoma- looks like we’re staying a while.

Wendy

The Mighty Mississippi

The Long Way to Wisconsin

When you start out from Crestview, Florida and intend to wind up in Wisconsin, the shortest route is through Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois.  But nay, nay, my friend. Been there, done that.

It was one of Clay’s dreams to watch the barges slowly make their way up and down the Mississippi River and not be in a hurry.  Just sit on the bank and contemplate one’s navel.

So, we left Crestview and drove due east, making it to Vidalia, Louisiana on the first day.  The AllStays app is amazing- showing us both real time location on a map, then you can flip to a satellite view to make sure the beast will fit (65 feet with toad attached). This works well for rest areas and truck stops as well. Since we boondock (stay overnight without hookups and live off our generator, batteries, water and dump tanks) on the way to longer stays, we need to know if truck stops have pull-through parking, as we cannot back up in the RV with the toad (towed vehicle) attached.  Not all truck stops are created equal, but you need to know this ahead of time.

Riverview RV Park, Vidalia, Louisiana

 

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We stayed at the Riverview RV Park on the Mississippi River.  The GPS voice pronounced it “Muh SISS a pee”. Being a word nerd, I giggled at that and kept repeating the mispronunciation. Clay has to put up with a lot.

The RV park is smack dab next to the river. You have to cross the levee to get to it, and sometimes it is closed due to river flooding.

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Sideways tug blocking part of the Mississippi River– I wonder if they ever got it turned around?

We got situated and then walked along the river.  I also floated in the pool on my super duper Swimways Spring Float ($15 from Target online). A delightful floaty thingy with a small blow up rim and pillow and a mesh bed. Folds up into a small circle. Small is good in an RV basement (the bay doors you see under a rig).

Natchez, MS

The next day, we crossed back over the river and toured Natchez, MS- the start of the Natchez Trace, an overland route which ran from the river through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Flatboatmen would sell their goods and boats (as lumber) in New Orleans or Natchez then make their way back by cart or on foot over the Trace. Plantations shipped their cotton south to New Orleans or upriver to St. Louis or Cincinnati.

Industrial progress sometimes has unintended consequences. The cotton gin (a simple machine used to separate the fluffy cotton from the prickly seed) allowed an increase in speed of processing cotton which then caused the planting of more cotton to keep up with the mill’s need for product. But this meant buying more slaves to do the unmechanized planting and picking.

Before the civil war, Natchez had more millionaires than any other city in the U.S and most of the antebellum mansions were spared during the war.

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Stanton Hall

Longwood was an interesting octagonal mansion that was started right when the Civil War began and never completed inside. The succeeding generations of owners lived in the basement level and the rest of the top four floors were left open and unfinished.

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Longwood

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Four stories of unfinished faded glory- looking up through the central gallery

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Longwood – bare bones

Vicksburg, MS

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Vicksburg National Military Park

After a few days, it was time to head upriver to Vicksburg, the site of one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War- where the Union Army staged a brutal siege of the town and finally captured control of the Mississippi River, dividing the Confederacy in two parts: east and west eliminating their ability to re-provision over the river.

But, we didn’t want to spend the night in Vicksburg, and didn’t want to leave Zane unattended in a WalMart or rest area, so we got a satellite view of the Vicksburg National Military Park and saw there was bus parking. We’re as big as a bus, right? No problema.  I was driving and, as you enter the parking area, there is a sharp right turn, then a guard shack on the driver’s side and a stop sign planted in the center of the two lane road on the left. About 10 feet apart.  Eight foot wide Zane towered over the guard shack as I crept past it, trying not to bump my mirrors on the shack’s roof, and trying to keep that pesky stop sign in mind. It was a tight squeeze. Then an immediate sharp left turn into the parking lot, where we slid into the first spot we could find.

Whew.  Yay for satellite views and nerves of steel (or at least really tough nylon cord).

A guy walked up to Clay later and said, “How in the world did you get that huge RV in here?”  Clay replied, “I didn’t. My wife did.”

We took a quiet drive in Squirrel (our toad) through the battlefield. The signs of where each regiment was stationed along the battle lines (blue for the Union, Red for the Confederacy) as well as marble monuments at each state regiment’s position illustrated the tragic story of the long and dreadful battle.  One child born in the caves the residents of Vicksburg lived in during the bombings was named Siege.

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Union cannons

We also saw the ironclad boat, USS Cairo, which had sunk during another part of the war, and was dredged up in the 1960’s and reconstructed. It was a feat of engineering and its ironclad sister ships were responsible for securing the river for the Union.

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USS Cairo Ironclad

Heading North to West Memphis, Arkansas

Then it was back on the road, part of the way driving on the Natchez Trace, a lovely two lane road through quiet woods and cotton fields.


Across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, we found another cool riverside camping spot called Tom Sawyer RV Park. Watched mighty tug boats with huge engines, smoke billowing out the exhaust pipes, fighting the current and sandbars going upstream, pushing 24 barges lashed together. At one point, they were probably only moving 2 miles per hour. Awesome to watch.

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Tug boat barge

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Tug boat barge struggling up river

I quickly got groceries and rushed back to Zane to get ready to attend the Friday night session at the Memphis LDS temple. We drove about 40 minutes and noticed: no cars in the temple parking lot. What?? I checked the schedule on line and everything. What??

Oops. It was Saturday, not Friday. Temple closed at 1pm.

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So, I guess I am officially retired. Cannot keep track of the days.  My phone gets misplaced too now.  For over 20 years, it has been constantly at my side, no matter where I was (and yes, it was near the shower, too) because I was on call for the hospital and my patients.

No longer. My phone is now just a great way to talk to family and text friends and check the internet. How wonderful is that?

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Peace on the river

Wendy

That Doesn’t Sound Good….

We rolled out of bed to a sunny, beautiful day after an overnight at a truck stop in Tulsa, OK. It’s my turn to drive and I’m going through my pre-flight checklist (as any good pilot would do). Everything checks out so I release brake and start rolling forward between semi trucks to the sound of grinding and screeching and not much forward movement.

“Woah!” We both said in unison, “That doesn’t sound good!”

How suddenly our world can go from trouble-free fun to …. the other thing. We had just left the Newell Coach factory the day before. What bad timing!!

So what was that sound? Maybe it will go away if we pretend it didn’t happen and try again. So I push the accelerator and again we get an agonizing noise. Nuts!

So what could it be? Well, remember last night when we rolled in here and Wendy had a difficult time getting the parking brake to engage? (The parking brake on this beast is a rectangular yellow knob which you pull to engage. When engaged, it releases all the air from the disk brakes and their springs put the jaws of life clamps on the brakes).

So maybe we have a locked brake? Wendy goes out to investigate and hears a constant hissing sound by the main/tag tires. Hmmm. Maybe we have an air leak. But I’m checking the gauges and am showing full pressure on all the air systems. (We sound pretty sophisticated at this point, right? Well, just wait.)

So I call the factory and they ask a bunch of questions and get a specialist on the phone who asks a bunch of questions, which culminates in a suggestion that I look into the belly of the beast (behind and above the main and tag axles) to see if a brake line has come loose.

The ground at truck stops is filthy. The underbelly of Zane is nasty and it’s a really tight space, with 56,000 pounds of beast on top of you and only air bag suspension to protect you from getting squashed. I’m not enthused about getting in there to have a look-see. So the next question is: Do we call CoachNet (for emergency services) or do we see if the small mechanics shop at this truck stop can resolve our problem? We opt for the mechanics shop and meet Luis. (There are people in this world who love to solve problems of this nature and do it with a smile. And Luis is one of them.) He crawls under and around and in and out. I don’t know who cleans his uniform, but, wow!

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Luis hard at work– overshadowed by worried RV owners

Two hours later Luis has jacked up the coach, removed the tag wheel and …. “Ohhh, he says, “I see what the problem is!” I’m thinking, hmmm. What is it: An air leak? Is the brake caliper shot? Who has parts for these things? Luis says, “Let me show you. Do you see the skid marks on the bottom of your coach? You’re dragging bottom! You see this big mounded hump in the asphalt? You’re just in a low spot.”

I had mixed feelings about the diagnosis. On the one hand, Yay! A simple problem with a simple solution! On the other hand, Duh.

But as we looked around the truck parking lot, which is in really bad shape, there was a pot hole that could have swallowed a Smart car, and a trio of trucks hauling 70,000 pound rectangular metal structures: one had tried to get out of lot and his rig slipped its king pin, leaving the huge trailer dropped to the ground, with no jacks to get it back up. It took them as long to solve their problem as it did ours. When they finally got their rig back together, they gave me a thumbs up.

We’re learning all the time. So what do I take away from this? My world is filled with good people who are ready to help me. The Newell factory was right there on the line ready to help me troubleshoot. And there are people like Luis who are ready, willing and able to crawl around in the belly of the beast to discover and solve problems.

What was the bill for this adventure? Would you believe our 2-hours of Luis’s time and equipment cost us only $53?

So how did we solve the problem of bottoming out? Usually, when we arrive at a campsite (or truck stop) we push a little button and the suspension goes from travel mode through a processes of filling and removing air from the corners of the suspension to find level.

It’s pretty cool to hearing little hissing bursts and see the world sway as it finds level. This system also allows you to raise or lower the entire coach. So I simply manually raised the suspension and we s-l-o-w-l-y rolled on out, with the high air suspension alert pinging, found a flat spot a few feet down the road, then put it back into travel mode suspension. No muss, no fuss- just 2 hours of fun and games to start our day. And we got to meet Luis, a really awesome guy.

Clay

Maiden Voyage: North Georgia – NOLA – Gulf Shores – RTB

2004 Newell #671

Zane (Our 2004 Newell Coach)

The Plan

Our first great adventure with our 2004 Newell coach (Zane) was to be a trip from our home in the mountains of North Georgia to spend 4 days in New Orleans and 2 days at Gulf Shores State Park, then RTB (that’s military talk — Return to Base).  Start date Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014.  RTB January 3, 2015.

Given that this was our first trip together in our new coach, the first time Wendy would be driving with a toad (our Jeep Grand Cherokee attached at the tail), and the first time she had slept in it away from home (although we live in Zane full time) this was a big deal.  And so began the questions.

What if?

  • What if she breaks down? Well, we’ll unhitch the toad (Jeep) and Wendy will drive home while Clay sees to the repairs in Timbuktu.
  • What if we get off the freeway and find ourselves in a “too tight to turn” scenario? Well, we’ll unhitch the toad and back out, then re-hitch the toad.
  • What if we get mugged? Everyone I talked to about going to New Orleans looked at me with the bug eye and then proceeded to tell me of their experience of a mugging or smack down while in NOLA. Hmm. OK. We’ve been in some dicey places outside the U.S. and managed to use our heads to stay out of trouble. So we’ll just go with our eyes wide open, watch our backs, and avoid walking alone at night.

OK, worst fears dealt with because we have a plan. So let’s do this thing. New Orleans French Quarter — Gulf Shores Alabama — RTB.

We left the mountains of North Georgia on Christmas Eve with Wendy at the helm. Her first time driving our 45′ 7″ behemoth with our Jeep attached to the tail. No problema. The RV driver training we got in November paid off in spades.

So what do you do when you’re not driving?

Co-Pilot

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The co-pilot’s job is to put their feet up on the dash and look calm.

Additional duties may include:

    • scouting ahead on Google Maps to see satellite views of the next stop (truck stop, rest area or RV resort) to strategize the approach plan. Driving something this big requires fairly detailed planning for turns.
    • answering navigational questions that may occur. Our Garmin GPS (for RV’s) gives us warning “dings” when there’s upcoming heavy traffic, a speed limit change, a curving road, etc., usually 1/2 mile before the event. So the usual pilot question is “What was that ding?”
    • starting and stopping the audio book (Audible.com, Overdrive.com) playing on Clay’s i-phone, which is connected to the whole house stereo. How much fun to hear a great story while you’re tooling down the road.  Overdrive is a digital download of books and audiobooks attached to your local library card downloaded to your phone. We like free.
    • wander around in the kitchen, bring up snacks, use the facilities, take a nap in bed. Goof off.

As you can imagine, the co-pilot job rocks!

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Captain Clay at the helm of the good ship Zane

Travel Attitude

Wendy and I made it a point to set very low expectations. We never got up until we wanted to on this trip (there were some epic sleep ins!). We planned it out so we drove only 4 hours a day, max. Some days we traveled only 1.5 hours. We changed drivers every 1 to 1.5 hours. We love this relaxed attitude. We typically had the wheels rolling between 10 and 2pm. And we typically parked for the day between 1 and 4pm.

Yes, there were some anxious moments. Even with the best laid plans, we missed our turns twice. Once with Clay at the helm and once with Wendy. The result? Some very tight turns with nary a foot to spare. The lesson? As we got more comfortable and confident, we got more relaxed with our planning. Not good!

New plan? Be vigilant about every detail of the satellite map when planning our entry and exit from stops (truck stops, rest areas, and RV resorts). Planning is not hard or unpleasant. It’s fun. The electronic tools we have for planning our trips are amazing. So don’t get lazy. Use them to their fullest.  AllStays is our favorite app for where we are now.

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French Quarter, New Orleans at Christmastime

Damage Assessment

How far did we go and what did it cost? 1240 miles in 26 hours of driving. We used 177 gallons of diesel at $2.71 for a total cost of $480 at 7.1 mpg. Hmm. We couldn’t have flown two people on that 3 legged trip as cheaply, either commercially or in my small plane. And if we had driven our car we would have had much higher expenses with hotels and meals. As I look at what we typically have done on a 10-day trip, this was by far the cheapest vacation we have had in a good long while.  (Of course, there’s the cost of the motorhome, but let’s pretend that budget-buster away for our little financial fantasy.)

 

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The condo might not be haunted, but the St. Louis 1 Cemetery is hauntingly beautiful

There’s just something amazing about sleeping in your own bed and eating out of your own fridge at all these places, whether you’re in the French Quarter of New Orleans or a rest area or a sandy campground on the Gulf. This bed of ours is by far the most comfortable bed of our lives. And waking up and opening the blinds to see a new view is amazing.

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Gulf Shores, Alabama

And driving in Zane is fun. Unlike all the new RVs we test-drove at dealerships which squeaked and groaned in their joints with every bend in the road, this 2004 Newell, which is built of aluminum around a massive steel chassis that looks like it belongs under a locomotive, this thing is quiet. The Series 60 Detroit Diesel is some 40 feet behind you in the back. You can hardly hear it humming away. And the view out the massive front windows is — shazaam!

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Bridge to Nowhere

So this first trip gets a big thumbs up.  And we love Zane.

What did we see and experience on our trip? That will need to wait for another post. Soon.

Clay

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RTB- Crossing Creeks RV Resort, Blairsville, Georgia