On September 10th, 2017, Category 3 Hurricane Irma with winds speeds of 115 mph hit landfall approximately 26 miles northwest of Chokoloskee Island, where our fifth wheel was parked at Outdoor Resorts (ORA). A few days later, we were taking pictures of our devastated rig that had experienced an 8-ft storm surge. It, along with every rig parked at ORA was totaled. On that day, Vivian and I revised our impending fulltime RV lifestyle with the decision to never leave our rig, be it a fifth wheel or otherwise on Chokoloskee Island during hurricane season. And if we have the misfortune of being in a location under hurricane watch, we would promptly leave.
Shortly after Irma, we bought our current fifth wheel, a Grand Design Reflection 303rls and have lived fulltime in it since June 2018. Because we travel with our home, we have mostly stayed a safe distance from hurricanes and tropical storms. This year, much of hurricane season was spent in the northern parts of the Midwest where our weather consciousness and vocabulary expanded thanks to polar vortexes and derechos. As we headed into the fall season, we bid Michigan adieu and moved on to Indiana for our yearly service to the RV suspension and to have a new pin box installed. After that, we were off to one of our favorites, White River Campground near Indianapolis to visit family. The nuts and bolts of traveling, RV maintenance and upgrade, and family – all these were in the foreground. But one faraway thing kept tugging at us – a storm brewing in the tropics and heading toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.
On September 25, 2022, we pulled out of White River Campground and drove to Columbus, Ohio, near which we parked at a KOA for three nights before heading further east to Erie, PA. The Ohio weather had turned cold and harsh with looming dark clouds, bitter winds and rain. For the past six days, we had fixated on a tropical wave east of the Caribbean that had strengthened into a tropical depression the day before we left White River.
On September 28th, the day we left the Columbus KOA, Category 4 Hurricane Ian made landfall on the Florida Gulf Coast with sustained winds of 150 mph. Facebook pages were buzzing, and one we kept close watch on was the ORA at Chokoloskee page. On the low side of a gulf island, ORA floods easily – an inevitable event about to happen. Until power was lost, owners gathered as much information as possible, the most reliable coming from the park cameras and a few people that stayed there and gave reports.
Watching what was going on in Florida while driving through Ohio felt surreal. The estimated storm surge level on the morning of Sep 28 was in the 12-18 ft range near the Fort Myers area, and 8-12 feet south of there to Chokoloskee Island. We knew the island would be greatly affected but it would fare much better than neighbors to the north. The highest observed water levels on record in Naples and Fort Myers occurred that day.
Ironically and quite fortunately, we were going to Erie to visit friends who also own an RV lot at ORA. The plan was to stay at Camp Eriez on Lake Erie where our friends live parttime in the summer. It is essentially a fish camp and while our visit was to give Vivian an opportunity to fish, the weather turned sour, leaving us way too much time to cogitate on Hurricane Ian. Mine and Vivian’s home on wheels was safe. On the other hand, our friends’ fifth wheel and boat were on the island and therefore, had additional damage to deal with. Calls to insurance agents, spotty communication with the park manager and getting updated posts on the Facebook page helped the four of us navigate through the post-hurricane confusion from a distance.
The damage was done, and at that point, there was little we could do because we had a few more weeks on the road before heading back to Chokoloskee. No point in getting there any time sooner, so we may as well enjoy the remains of our travels and take advantage of the cooler temperatures.
Our visit to West Virginia that included mostly the New River Gorge National Park and a few other locations can be summed up well with the following slideshow.
Following West Virginia, we at last arrived in Florida, with temperatures remaining cool. Here are a few images from our Florida leg that included two beautiful campgrounds.
Despite the clean up and dealing with a broken shed door and a shed full of water logged stuff that mostly had to be thrown away, things began to look up nicely on Chokoloskee Island. With that, we settle in for the winter in our tropical paradise – until next hurricane season.
One last note, if you enjoyed this blog and photos, check out this one I wrote about another hurricane that tried to spoil our travels in Arkansas, titled “Running from Laura“.
Michigan is full of beautiful places and almost entirely, they are associated with a Great Lake. After 10 days spent on Lake Huron near one of world’s largest cement plant and limestone quarry, going west to the Lake Michigan side was like traveling to another world. Parked on Lake Leelanau on Leelanau Peninsula between Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, we were surrounded by a hilly patchwork of orchards and vineyards and small lakeshore towns with yacht-filled marinas as large as the town itself.
While growing up in Gaylord Michigan, Lake Michigan was to me largely inaccessible. A scenic drive along its northern shorelines offers very few places to park the car and walk to the water. Mostly, private property separates the road from the lake, making the Great Lake nothing more than a glitter of blue between the trees and houses captured by a fleeting glimpse as you drive through a tunnel of trees which contributes the ‘scenic’ part of the drive.
The Lake Michigan side of the state is impressively beautiful. Relating to this is that Lake Michigan’s shoreline contains the largest freshwater sand dunes on the planet. The sand gives the clear turquoise water an iridescence. The coastal sand forests are unique and provide an ecosystem for a variety of animals and plants. But where there is unique beauty, there are buyers. The picturesque Glen Lake located a short distance from Lake Michigan is the perfect example of this. In the 1920s, an exclusive resort was planned to overlook the picturesque coastal lake. It was to include an 18-hole golf course, an airstrip, tennis courts, bridle paths, polo field, a ski jump and toboggan run, and more than 100 estates – all ‘ideally restricted’.
Fortunately, the stock market crashed and investors pulled their money. A decade or so later, residents began to imagine another use for the land. In 1970, Congress established the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with the intention of preserving Michigan’s outstanding natural features. Eventually, more of Michigan’s dunes became protected with the passage of the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act in 1976. Today, the state of Michigan along the entire expanse of Lake Michigan has several designated state parks where the dunes and water can be accessed by the public.
One morning, I left the RV and drove to Empire Bluff, located within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The hike to the bluff is a mere .75 miles but it is a steady incline all the way. Soon, I was rewarded for the effort as I stood alone on top of the bluff gazing over Lake Michigan. Between me and the shoreline was a 450-foot nearly vertical drop. The Great Lake was breathtaking in the silence of the sandy ecosystem. I had a 180-degree view of Lake Michigan’s sparkling clear blue water gently disturbed by a slight breeze – to the left and to the right as far as my eyes could see were magnificent dunes and nothing else. I wandered around the sand and interrupted my views of the water to examine the wildflowers and grasses – a brilliant show of resilience in a stark environment. Such are the dunes, a wilderness of sand created by wind. Nature’s brilliance!
As I stood on the bluff looking at the endless horizon of Lake Michigan, I felt so lucky to be in an amazingly beautiful and unique place, like I have in so many others places Vivian and I have traveled to. Enjoy these photos from our time on ‘The Third Coast”.
And if you enjoy this blog, please check out some of these others about Michigan, one of our favorite states to explore – and we’ve done a lot of exploring there!
Imagine traveling the United States in an RV going places you’ve always wanted to see. Think about those places for a minute – do they include Wamego, Kansas or Natchitoches, Louisiana? What about Alpena, Michigan? None of these on your list? Too bad because your travel itinerary may be lacking in a genuine American tour.
Wamego, Kansas is home to the Oz Museum, and Natchitoches contains the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase and is the filming location for Steel Magnolias. This brings us to Alpena, Michigan – home to one of North America’s largest cement plants and near the world’s largest limestone quarry. I’ve never been to Alpena, located on the shores of Lake Huron despite spending the first 23 years of my life less than 90 miles away from it. The small city was not a popular destination for reasons I vaguely remember including a strange name ‘Abitibi’ sardonically mentioned in reference to the foul smells and blue collar drudgery that described the Lake Huron side of Michigan.
Abitibi is a Canadian pulp and paper company that, in 1957 erected a plant in Alpena on the banks of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay where the Thunder Bay River runs into the third largest freshwater lake on the planet. Abitibi became an important part of Alpena’s economy-but it was also once a Superfund site and still has its issues. Today, it is home of DPI (Decorative Panels International), which in recent years has received three smell violations.
Way back in time, the lumber industry dominated Northern Michigan. As a renewable source, trees take time to grow and eventually, the timber industry dwindled. Lumber barons turned to other natural resources including limestone. One of those barons, Herman Besser invested in Alpena Portland Cement in 1899 to create machinery to make cement blocks. In time, the company’s innovations made it an international leader in the cement industry, contributing to Alpena’s nickname ‘Cement City’.
Other industries came and went, including the Alpena Garment Factory and the Alpena Motor Car Company, one of the few automobile companies in northern Michigan that attempted (and failed) to compete with Detroit’s reign over the industry. Fletcher Paper Mill popped up in 1886 on the shores of Thunder Bay not far from Alpena Portland Cement and cranked out manila paper until it closed its doors in 2000. Several other businesses relating to lumber or cement came and went as well.
On one side of the empty Fletcher Paper mill is The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center and on the other side a marine diving business. It is here where the word ‘Maritime’ reminded us of why we visited Alpena. The limestone and lumber industries remain central to the area and difficult to ignore, but we came here to discover another piece of Americana that pops up frequently in our travels – a community that strives to attract visitors.
As far as places to visit in Michigan, Alpena is not on the short list. But there are plenty of reasons to, at least from mine and Vivian’s perspective. That is because we seek out natural areas especially those that include water, art & architecture, and anything with historical meaning. So, we saw potential in Alpena.
We’ve learned from our travels that many communities, small and large have at least one named natural area adjacent to its populated districts. Some of these plots of land are nature preserves, some are wildlife sanctuaries, and some are simply called ‘park’. Regardless, they are the result of some person or person’s generous contribution toward local conservation and improvement of their community’s quality of life.
Some nature preserves are just that – a piece of natural land set aside for nature itself, but most of the time, these are public spaces where residents and visitors may enjoy nature. They become sanctuaries for indigenous wildlife as well as non-wild humans. We seek these places out and although sometimes underwhelmed, especially given the national and state parks available to us, we always find joy and appreciate the great effort and generosity from members of a community for the sake of the community itself.
We enjoyed Alpena with its charming downtown full of historic landmarks and where we discovered an art gallery of local artists, we hiked Island Park that is within the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary, shopped at a wonderful farmers’ market on the shores of Lake Huron, learned local history at the Besser Historical Museum and learned some more at The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. Alpena is located on Thunder Bay which was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 2000, one of 15 in the United States and the first in the great lakes. The purpose of the 4300-acre sanctuary is to protect 100 shipwrecks in Lake Huron off the Michigan coast. As a result, Alpena has become a popular shipwreck diving and kayaking location.
Not bad Alpena. Glad we had some quality time to get to know you and the surrounding areas along Lake Huron. You don’t have the bucolic wine country or the grand dunes that attracts tourists to the Lake Michigan’s side of the state, but you have plenty.
“Up North – the magical land of cabins, fishing, beer, flannel shirts, and no cell phone service”. Anonymous
When Vivian and I are in the north country, we relish in its thick canopied isolation. Hiking among the tall trees somewhere near Lake Superior, we stopped to inspect a tree we could not identify. Just then, a couple walked past and stopped to look at the tree with us. It was from them we learned of the app “Seek” that uses the phone’s camera to identify plants and animals. From the one simple act of sharing a common interest in nature, Michigan’s north country became a playground of trees, wildflowers and insects for us. Good thing too as we had several weeks to explore the isolated north country woods and the great lake shoreline that borders them.
Days earlier as we pulled away from the Madison Campground in Wisconsin, it occurred to me that a month and a half would pass before a city with a population as great or greater than Madison’s would come into our view. We were heading in a northerly direction – up north where endless miles of dense forests take the place of open farmland. Communities populated with 30 or more people are scarce from the northeastern section of Wisconsin to the eastern portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) where we would spend the next three weeks.
Towing the fifth wheel from northern Wisconsin through the UP consists of long stretches of two-lane roads where cell phone service or accessible gas stations do not exist. A long time would pass before the RV wheels met interstate highway pavement. Only three hundred miles north of Madison is a vastly different environment. If you are a hardy soul that wants to hide from something or someone, this is your country.
First stop – Iron River, Wisconsin. Never heard of it? Good! People here are quite content in their isolation and ownership of some of the wildest north country ever to be explored by ORVs. Southerners are not the only country people in the U.S. Those that live up north put country in “north country”. Northerners share a likeness with their southern counterparts; mostly pride in where their roots are from. But there is one big difference that stands out; while southerners offer charm and colorful dispositions, northerners are reticent – not unfriendly, but a tad hesitant to offer up any kind of enthusiastic display of emotion, be it just a friendly greeting to let you know they appreciate your business. It’s as if the locals had not yet thawed out from a long winter. But from what I can tell, most would give the shirt off their back to help a neighbor.
Just north of Iron River is the well visited Apostle Island National Lakeshore which is about as touristy as it gets in these parts of northern Wisconsin (check out a previous blog about that area). Lake Superior’s shoreline is a draw for many people, yet this is not a first choice location among more popular areas. What drew Vivian and I here was simply its isolated rivers, streams and lakes, the Great Lake shoreline and wooded areas. And there are waterfalls, lots of waterfalls. We explored a couple of them in state parks, one in Wisconsin, the other on the Minnesota side.
After a week in Iron River, we drove Highway 2 across the Wisconsin-Michigan border into the Upper Peninsula (dah U.P., eh). The U.P. comprises 29% of Michigan’s land and contains a declining population that is 3% of the state’s total. Sixty percent of its population lives in four of its 16 counties. No surprise, all four counties have a university or college. Given the sparse population throughout much of the U.P., staying near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore jolted us into tourism reality.
Despite the crowds, we avoided them using our strategy of getting on the trails early morning. In fact, the only crowd I experienced was on the boat tour of Pictured Rocks (Vivian passed on this as she had already seen those rocks from a kayak some years ago). Enjoy the following two slideshows from Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore which is best described visually. The first are scenes taken from our hikes on land overlooking Lake Superior. The second slideshow includes images taken from the tour boat along the shoreline overlooking the pictured rocks.
Between us, Vivian and I have 87 years of living near Florida’s coastline. Although I am from northern Michigan, visiting the U.S. outside of Florida is done through the filter of having lived a long time in a subtropical climate with easy access to endless miles of coastline from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Naturally, we view the north country as complete opposite of where we come from – except for one thing, Wisconsin and the U.P. have a lot of shoreline; more than 1200 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. All of Michigan’s freshwater coastline is 3288 miles – a little more than half of that is along the U.P., bounded by three Great Lakes.
All told, we spent three weeks near the shores of Lake Superior while parked at campgrounds in Iron River, WI, Christmas, MI and Brimley, MI. We hiked through many forests and wetlands, walked along miles of Lake Superior shoreline, climbed rocks around several waterfalls and simply enjoyed the sparsely populated up north. And we learned about up north trees and wildflowers. Enjoy these photos.
To help us plan our travels to each state, Vivian and I consult a book titled “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before you Die”. Guess what? Wisconsin contains 18 places! Not bad given Iowa, our previously visited state has only half that many places to see before you die. However, if you take your enthusiasm for visiting a state to an unequaled level of quirky attractions, 18 is quite conservative when compared to Atlas Obscura’s guide to Wisconsin which describes 146 “cool, hidden and unusual things” to do in Wisconsin. If you choose to go down a rabbit hole of hidden gems (or lumps of coal), you could spend a lot of time in Wisconsin.
Given that there are 50 states to visit before we die, we whittled the list down to a reasonable number. Following the driftless area, we went on a quest to see Wisconsin’s Cheese Country and the Dane County Farmers’ Market, among other things. We left our paradise campground in the driftless area to stay at another county park, William G. Lunney Lake Farm, only four miles from downtown Madison. Despite being so close to a city with a population over a quarter million, the natural surroundings we enjoyed at Esofea awaited us at this park, and we can owe all that to Dane County’s large and greatly numbered public spaces where people can recreate outside year round.
Each morning, I walked the bike and hike/ski trails, enjoyed the view of Lake Waubesa from the trail that includes a recently built boardwalk bridge, and was greeted by pairs of sandhill cranes, more white-tailed rabbits than I can count, and deer partially hidden in fog-veiled fields of colorful wildflowers (see the slideshow below). Temperatures fluctuated – one morning I was layered up, the next in a t-shirt and shorts. True to its urban location, our campground park is a busy place, serving those recreating on the Capital City State Trail with a pavilion rest area, water bottle fill station and restroom facilities. From our RV, we watched runners, cyclists, Nordic ski rollerbladers and paddlers on the lake, young and old alike coming and going – an atmosphere of clean energy and outdoor recreation.
Most of Dane County is comprised of Madison, once referred to as “77 square miles surrounded by reality” by a Republican running for governor in 1978. Think what you will about Madison, but Vivian and I anticipated a perfect place to get our progressive urban fix while continuing to frolic through Wisconsin’s rural areas. Parked at a campground close to it, we anticipated at least a couple days in the downtown area, which is dominated by the University of Wisconsin campus as well as the state capitol complex.
We’ve been having great luck lately parking our 21-ft truck in the city – Des Moines, Memphis, Montgomery, so I didn’t bother researching downtown parking in Madison. I would come to regret that. On the first day, we drove our 21-ft aluminum beast downtown to the Chazen Museum of Art which offered the following information on its website, “Located in the center of the UW campus, the Chazen is free and open to the public. Public parking lots are available nearby.” And within walking distance from the state capitol building, we were set for our first day in Madison. Being smitten with the thoughts of casual visits to a welcoming city, my disappointment rose to the top as Vivian and I drove up and down narrow one-way streets while detouring around road construction areas for 30 minutes passing one empty parking space after another with the following parking meter next to each:
At last, we found a 2-hr parking spot, which was enough time to tour the state capitol building and make the 15 minute walk there and back. Oh well Madison, we really wanted to love you, but you did not want to love us. Enjoy the slideshow of this magnificent state capitol building, our third on this trip and well worth the parking frustration.
Meanwhile, we had rural areas to explore because there was cheese and beer to be had. Among the 18 places to see in Wisconsin before you die is Monroe, the cheese capital of the U.S. and where you’ll find the National Historic Cheesemaking Center that offers a history of the cheese country and can lead you to a cheese factory tour.
That sounded perfect; a visit there and later to a brewery would fulfill our mission to see cheese and beer making all in one day. To get there, we again drove through idyllic farm country, river valley scenes running through a green patchwork of corn fields and cattle pastures interrupted by barns and silos. According to Google Maps, our search for the National Historic Cheesemaking Center brought us to a modest building known as Green County Visitor Center. Expecting to get a tour of a cheese factory, we were instead greeted by the visitor center volunteer who explained that cheese tours were terminated due to – you guessed it – covid. Instead of an extravagant tour of cheeses being created by licensed professional cheesemakers and receiving samples along the way, we were given a brochure or two and recommended a cheese store.
After getting our fill of Wisconsin cheese, it was time for some afternoon beer tasting, brought to us by the New Glarus Brewery. Cold beer sounded delicious as the daytime temperatures had reached the upper-80s, shocking us after enjoying cool temperatures for the past couple weeks. New Glarus Brewery is named after the Swiss town near which it stands. On the sharply graded road leading to the brewery, you can see a field of hops, which lends itself to Wisconsin’s self-sustaining farm communities.
The New Glarus Brewery’s website describes itself as a “quaint little brewery”. Compared to Miller’s Milwaukee operation, it is small with 90 employees. But it is impressive and has a fine story attached to it. Founded in 1993 by Deborah Carey, New Glarus Brewery was a gift to her husband Daniel, an experienced master brewer.
Brewing began in an abandoned warehouse, and in 2006 ground was broke for a new $21 million facility on a hilltop near New Glarus. It has since become a popular tourist destination and a very popular Wisconsin beer including its most famous Spotted Cow.
Our last day in Madison was a Saturday when the famous Dane County Farmers’ Market is held each week in downtown Madison. Believing Madison to be unfriendly to visitors in large diesel-guzzling vehicles, we dreaded the thought of returning to its downtown where parking a truck for longer periods than it takes to deliver an Amazon package is discouraged at best. “If you want to go to the Farmer’s Market”, said our camp host, “you need to arrive at a specific parking lot near the capitol building no later than 6:30 am”. Most would gasp hearing such an unreasonable suggestion, but instead we smiled and nodded our heads in agreement because arriving insanely early to anything worth visiting is precedent on our trips. Consequently, we checked off another place to see in Wisconsin (see the slideshow below) before we die and brought home some beautiful produce. Thank you Wisconsin.
Interested in reading more about Wisconsin? Check out our previous blogs:
It was laundry day, which is why we stood in the County Seat Laundry in Viroqua, WI talking with one of the owners. Within the time of a normal wash cycle, we learned quite a few things about the people living in this area of Wisconsin. Up until that conversation, Vivian and I were so enamored with Wisconsin’s driftless area that we began to consider it for the long term. A week earlier, we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin which gave us reprieve from the dreaded heatwave that followed us for six weeks from Florida to Iowa. Comfortably set up at the Esofea/Rentz Memorial County Park, we basked in the fresh and cool summer air coming through the open windows of the RV, well shaded near the banks of the North Fork Bad Axe River within a beautiful backcountry valley.
It was a small campground and not a particularly easy one to drive to, given that most of the county roads in that area don’t make the Trucker’s route map and probably outnumber the ones that do 10 to 1. It is hilly country, a general characteristic of the driftless area. Rounding the curves up a steep grade, one must watch carefully for the slower horse and buggy. But we got there safely, set up easily, and within view of our campsite, I could watch Vivian stand in the Bad Axe River casting a line.
Here’s a few images from one morning in our campground, with the glowing fog over the trees. Imagine stepping out your front door to see all that.
This was a greatly anticipated week filled with the quietness of fly fishing and the friendly comradery with other fly fishermen and women. Each day began with coolish temperatures, early morning fog glowing above the scenic river and sounds of birds. Frequently we took casual drives on scenic country roads through bucolic farmlands looking for trout streams or photographic opportunities, made visits to charming small towns, and took an easygoing paddle down the Kickapoo River (enjoy the slideshow from our river paddle).
Among the appealing qualities of the driftless area are the small towns, some of which have embraced tourism. One of those is Viroqua which touts itself as ‘growing forward’. Surrounded by the highest density of organic farms in the country, Viroqua epitomizes the driftless area with its organic food co op and small businesses like the Driftless Café or the Driftless Angler.
Given its gentle beauty, you would never have guessed that this was once a region of lead mines. And yet another charming town brought that into perspective. Mineral Point was on our list of places to visit for two reasons – Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts and Pendarvis Historic Site, both of which give the old mining town an appeal to artists.
Founded in 1827, Mineral Point became a major lead mining center after large quantities of shallow lead ore deposits were discovered in the area. Over time, the easily accessible lead diminished, which is about when miners from Cornwall, England immigrated to the area. The newly arrived miners came with refined techniques for extracting ore from very deep mines. Over the years however, lead mining declined and with the discovery of gold in California, many miners left Mineral Point. This continued until the 1920s and by then, the mining industry was pretty much done.
Enter Edgar Hellum and his partner and local resident Robert Neal. In 1935, the two men set out to preserve the history of the Cornish miners from which Neal descended, through the restoration and preservation of some of the settlers’ stone structures. These buildings now make up the Pendarvis Historic Site. For several decades (until November 1971), Hellum and Neal ran the Pendarvis House Restaurant and lived in the Trelawny building where they entertained guests and friends. Both men had studied art, and their love of art and architecture began to attract many other artists to Mineral Point.
Instead of tobacco farms and lead mines constituting the driftless environment, it is comprised largely of corn, soy and wheat, as well as consolidated dairy farms. Tourism is very much linked to the organic agriculture and indeed, ‘food tourism’ has business credibility in these parts. And if the food and art are not enough to attract you, the fishing and outdoor recreation will. All that during peak summer season, where artists, foodies and outdoor recreationalists come together in the driftless.
Put the tourism aside and what’s left are the farmers and small business owners that live here year round. Which brings me back to County Seat Laundry, founded in 2018 by Laura and Andy Patten. Upon opening, it did not take long for the new business owners to be put to the test. In the area, heavy rains in August 2019 unleashed flooding that destroyed bridges, roads, and buildings causing many to evacuate Viroqua and nearby communities. Flooding is not unusual in this area, but this was the mother of all floods. Laura described how they were able to stay open as many community residents wandered into the laundromat in shock and covered in mud, seeking shelter and clean clothes. They opened their washing machine doors to all residents with no other means to wash their bedding and clothing. Early the next year, Covid came and added an additional challenge of maintaining a new business.
But that was nothing compared to the winter of 2001 that brought the polar vortex to the driftless area. Laura told us of the temperatures 10 degrees below zero lasting for a couple weeks and at times getting as low as negative 60 for days on end. She motioned to one of her customers who lives in the area, “Isn’t that right, temperatures got as low as 60 below?” In a matter-of-fact way, her neighbor nodded and answered, “Oh yeah”, and went about her business of folding clothes as if that event was nothing more than a typical cold day. During the polar vortex, County Seat Laundry was able to stay open. It was warm and inviting, so many people struggling to stay warm at home took refuge there. Horrified, we listened to Laura’s story of a neighbor that watched a wild turkey in her back yard walking and then instantly froze in place.
Thoughts of living long term in the driftless area quickly dissolved in our heads. Vivian and I are hardy people, but how hardy do we want to be? The best part of RV traveling is this – it allows us to enjoy the driftless area with its moderate temperatures, easy going rural life, fields of wild flowers interrupted by trout streams, and lots of fresh organic produce. And then after awhile, we move on to the next idyllic location. RV life – the best of all worlds.
Sidenote: You wouldn’t know it from the title but there is a lot to see here in this blog. There are many photos, including several slideshows of art work and Iowa’s state capitol building. At the end of this blog, you’ll find several links to previous ones. Take your time here and enjoy Iowa through mine and Vivian’s eyes.
It isn’t easy cramming three vowels with no two alike into a four-letter word, but the state of Iowa managed to do it. Because it is common for names of places in the United States to be derived from Native American words, it is no surprise that Iowa comes from the indigenous people known as Ioway who once occupied the area that is now a state. ‘Ioway’ is a wonderful word, and as someone who recently got addicted to Wordle, I can’t help but think that it would be a good starter for the daily puzzle, although doubtful it would appear in the English dictionary which the New York Times relies on to create its daily puzzle.
At any rate, why Iowa? We’ve been here before, twice in fact (check out the blog links at the end of this one). And for some reason, we keep coming back. I write this blog while in Wisconsin and think of those places in Iowa we have yet to visit and would like to one day. Take Iowa City for instance, known as the ‘City of Literature’ because of its prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop that has churned out many well-known writers such as Flannery O’Conner and Kurt Vonnegut. I am sure that city has many coffee shops where creativity can be stimulated. And then there is Cedar Rapids, home to American Gothic artist Grant Wood’s studio, which can be toured. Or how about Capt James T Kirk’s future birthplace in Riverside or the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville? And what’s up with the small town named ‘What Cheer’? Almost makes you want to go see it. By the way, we have yet to see any of the above-mentioned places.
To most, Iowa is a fly over state or at best, a drive through state. Miles of corn and soybean fields along I-80 fail to draw people in (although Iowa does boast the words largest truck stop near Walcott). But that is one of Iowa’s appealing qualities to us, it is totally unassuming and far from being braggadocious, unlike Texas for instance. And on this trip, we had the pleasure of getting acquainted with two of Iowa’s unassuming cities, Davenport and Des Moines.
We begin on the Mississippi River which by the way, runs along the entire eastern border of Iowa. Parked on the river at an Army Corp of Engineers campground on the Illinois side, we could see Davenport across the river. On this trip, Davenport would be the third of three Mississippi River cities we visit (see our previous blogs about St Louis and Memphis). If these three cities were sisters, Davenport would be the one that stays home to knit a sweater on a Friday evening while her two sisters go out on the town. But that crafty sister has an interesting past and once you get to know her a little, you want to spend more time with her.
Here’s a fun story relating to Davenport. The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River was built from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport in 1856. This was a great boom for the area as commercial transportation to and from Chicago improved greatly. With other nearby railroads, Davenport became a significant railroad hub. Naturally, steamboat companies saw railroads as a threat and weeks before the Rock Island bridge was completed, the captain of Effie Afton, one of those steamboats, crashed his boat on purpose into the bridge. That did not end well for the captain and his steamboat company. The lead defense lawyer for the railroad companies, Abraham Lincoln took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court where the right to bridge navigable streams was upheld. The bridge remained, following some repairs of course.
Later on, Davenport like so many other medium-sized towns, struggled through hard times, including the Great Depression and the farm crisis of the 1980s. And as with many other cities, Davenport came back to life with a resurgence in the 1990s and has been enjoying a steady increase in population and a cost of living lower than the national average. With many walk and bike paths, parks and of course the river, the quality of life that the Davenport area offers to attract young and energetic types was obvious. That and the relative ease of getting around the urban areas placed Davenport on our short list of cities in which we could spend more time.
One Saturday morning, we enjoyed the Freight House Farmers Market on the water’s edge in downtown Davenport, a weekly summer event. After a couple samples of cheeses and baked goods, a little wine tasting and purchasing a few veggies and a dozen fresh farm eggs, we walked a short distance to the Figge Museum where we spent a couple hours in what was surprisingly one of the best art museums visited during our travels (and we have visited many). And just to show you, I have a couple slideshow exhibits from the museum.
The following slideshow exhibit is Iowa-worthy – it’s all about corn. Michael Meilahn (farmer and glass blower) and Nick Nebel (video and sound artist) collaborated to create ‘Corn Zone‘ in 2007, a mixed media installation of glass, polyester rope with sound and video projections. I never thought corn could be so visually stimulating.
And yet another Iowa-related theme was water, as presented by artist Anne Lindberg and poet Ginny Threefoot. Lindberg expanded her 2-dimensional linear drawings to 3 dimensions for an immersive “drawings in space” experience. This installation is titled “think like a river”, also a title of one of Threefoot’s poems. “…you have come to row the body through this floating world…”
After a few days near Davenport, we drove west on I-80 past the world’s largest truck stop to our next stay, another Army Corp of Engineer campground on Lake Saylorville near Des Moines. We had a few reasons to visit the area, friends of ours live there and insisted we stay at Prairie Flower, their favorite campground, a cousin I have not seen in several decades lives in nearby Ames with her husband surrounded by children and grandchildren, and last, we wanted to see Iowa’s State Capitol and the High Trestle Bridge.
As with Davenport, Des Moines offered lots of art and is casual and low key. Along with the High Trestle Bridge, the highlight was our tour of the majestic state capitol building, which is far from low key. Enjoy the slideshow of the capitol. I could not get enough of it!
We topped off our Iowa tour by spending two days at one of our favorite places, Elkader, in the heart of Iowa’s driftless area. We’ve stayed there before and were absolutely charmed by the small town. It was only fitting to come back again as it was on our way to Wisconsin. Until then, enjoy the photographs of what we like about Iowa.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been to Iowa before. Check out these previous blogs to see more photos.
See the charming side of Iowa as we explore Elkader and the driftless area in this blog from 2019.
In this blog, we visit the western side of Iowa and explore the Loess Hills, from 2020.
And last, from this current trip of 2022, check out our blogs on Memphis and St Louis.
The Interstate system lived up to its name on I-55 and-57 as we passed through five states – Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois within 300 miles. Our destination was Coles Creek Campground located on Carlyle Lake, yet another Corp of Engineer Campground that would be home for two days (see slideshow below). This gave us one full day to ride the MetroLink into downtown St Louis where we would stand in awe of the Gateway Arch. After that, we drove north to Springfield, Illinois where we stayed for a few days in a campground a short distance from the capital city.
By 8 am, we arrived in St Louis to see the city’s recovery from the 4th of July festivities. Scattered about the streets and avenues of the central downtown area was much evidence from the previous night’s celebration where hundreds of people viewed the fireworks over the 630-ft tall Arch while consuming adult beverages and assorted food truck munchies. City workers were busily cleaning up the grounds and tearing down the bandstands as we walked from the 6th & Pine Metrolink station through Kiener Plaza to the Old Courthouse that stands stately yet eclipsed by very tall modern buildings. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but this was National Park territory. Unfortunately, the courthouse was under renovation and all we could do was watch a Park Ranger enter the building.
As part of the Gateway Arch National Park, the Old Courthouse has historical significance that cannot be overstated. It is where court decisions were made in Missouri that eventually led up to the dreadful and what many constitutional scholars refer to as “the worse decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court”.
In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott, both born into slavery and among several hundred other enslaved people had the courage to come to the Old Courthouse and file a petition for their freedom. After a mistrial, a win and a loss, the couple filed a suit in Federal Court that was eventually considered by the Supreme Court in 1856. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B Taney read the opinion that the suit for freedom should be dismissed for two reasons which can be summed up as follows:
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, African Americans were not considered to be citizens, therefore, the Scotts had no right to sue in court, and secondly, the Missouri Compromise was invalid, thus no territory has the power to pass laws that limit slavery because, get this, the right of property of a slave was guaranteed by the Constitution.
How’s that for originalism? To avoid going off on a political tangent, I’ll overlook the ‘originalist’ concept which has reached the American conscious as of late and instead talk about one of the most profound consequences of traveling through the United States, and that is how we have come to see that one place can be tightly connected to another despite the great distance between them or obvious differences in appearance. With that, I’d like to describe the Dred Scott decision and how it is connected to our perceptions gained from our visit to the Gateway Arch and later, Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Museum in Springfield, Il.
Most people will visit the Gateway Arch to marvel at a magnificent feat of architectural design and engineering – and to take a thrill ride on the tram that runs up one of the legs of the arch to its top while noting the exceptional precision of less than one inch required to connect the two legs at the top. They’ll ponder the “caternary curve” that is as wide on the ground as it is high. But I wonder how many give greater thought to the reason it was built in the first place. And not just as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and to give a great bow to the city of St Louis, but for its meaning as it was envisioned by the designer, Eero Saarinen.
The Gateway Arch is a tribute to the country’s Manifest Destiny, that which inspired westward expansion. Despite it being built a century or more beyond the peak of westward expansion, the Arch was built in St Louis out of recognition of the river city that was once the capital and gateway to the new territory back in the day – the Dred Scott day. Enjoy the slideshow below of my photos of the Arch.
The United States as we know it today, including all the interstate highways that connect them would not exist without the vision of Thomas Jefferson. By his ambition and leadership, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition that embarked from St Louis, a new world opened itself to hundreds of thousands of immigrants that populated it from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. But what can’t be ignored is the fact that much of the westward expansion that came out of the Louisiana Purchase and later from the acquisition of Mexican territory was, at the very least, burdened with political controversy. In a nutshell, the south wanted westward expansion of slavery, the north wanted free states. The fight between free and slave territories and for the creation of free vs slave states to join the union went from state-level conflicts to a full blown Civil War.
Which brings us to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, to be exact. Because it is Lincoln who led the Union through the Civil War and proclaimed emancipation so that African Americans could become Union soldiers and help win the war, the United States would not be 50 in number without the leadership and vision of Abraham Lincoln.
By signing the Homestead Act during the Civil War, Lincoln added support to federal resources used to ramp up westward expansion with the intention of gaining a Union foothold west of the Mississippi River. Expansion became very much part of the Civil War as Union volunteers fought to gain free states as well as remove slavery from the southern states. Given this, I suspect Jefferson and Lincoln would approve of Gateway Arch and the fact it is a National Park employed by a union of 50 states.
Although it came at a great price to so many people, the fact that we can travel 3000 miles in our home from one coast to the other without a passport and visit dozens of national parks and monuments and 48 state capitals if we like while doing so, is simply an amazing thing. Red or blue, north or south, rich or poor- every state is sticker-worthy in our minds and we are fortunate to be able to travel through each of them.
One last thing, while visiting Springfield the capital of Illinois, we toured the State Capitol which was a highlight for us. See for yourself with this slideshow.
After loitering in Florida for two weeks, we made our way to Mississippi with a short stopover in Alabama. As we pulled out of our green sanctuary that is the Gunter Hill Corp of Engineers campground outside of Montgomery, we braced ourselves for a long bumpy ride. The angry Interstate highway pavement through Alabama and Mississippi shakes our home on wheels with Richter Scale strength. Safely past the worst of it (through Birmingham), we headed northwest on I-22 toward Memphis where the road became more subdued but still mustered a frequent jab or punch just to let us know it could turn mean at any time.
As always, when we cross the state line into Mississippi, we are reminded of its burden. It would be our home over the fourth of July holiday weekend, but there seemed to be sparse indication of celebration anywhere. Nestled within the lackadaisical rural area of northern Mississippi is another Corp of Engineer campground, Hernando Point on Lake Arkabutla that we became quite fond of. Two years ago, it was destroyed by an unexpected tornado in the month of February that “came outta nowhere” according to one RV’er we met there. After the cleanup, the campground received a major facelift as all sites were upgraded with full hookup.
But enough of Mississippi, we came here for Memphis, a city full of stories. Before the brutality of the heat forced us to seek refuge indoors in downtown Memphis, we took a walking tour (without blue suede shoes). It became evident as our tour guide Shannon told one story after another that Memphis is a survivor. It survived the Civil War, an earthquake or two or three and a couple bouts with yellow fever. The ancient Pyramids of Giza that have been around for some time now come to mind – after all, Memphis is named after an ancient Egyptian capitol. Founded in 1819, Memphis is not nearly as old as the pyramids, but it has survived horrible things while growing into one of the largest cities in the antebellum south once having a world market for cotton and lumber.
Memphis is not a cosmopolitan city by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it was difficult to avoid comparisons to Nashville, where we also took a walking tour a couple years ago. Both cities have reputations built on music. While Nashville, although a bit pretentious, has a “je ne sais quoi” that generates a celebratory atmosphere, Memphis in contrast sings the blues like it has truly suffered through it. And I think much of what Memphis is today can be attributed to an event that occurred on August 13, 1878.
Back in 1878, the connection between mosquitoes and the spread of deadly viruses was largely unknown. By that time, yellow fever outbreaks were not unusual in the south. Quarantined steamboats along the Mississippi River were common when a man escaped one that was docked on the river near Memphis. Seems the man still had an appetite when he entered Kate Bionda’s restaurant for a meal. Several days later, on August 13th to be exact, Kate Bionda died of yellow fever, the first casualty of over 5000 Memphis residents to die of the fast spreading virus from Aug 13 until Oct 28 when the first frost appeared.
Within days of Bionda’s death, over 25,000 people fled Memphis. Those remaining were either too poor or infirmed to get out. Poor sanitation conditions caused the virus to spread quickly in the city that had a reputation of being sickly and filthy. The devastating epidemic received national attention (mainly because no one wanted the refugees in their cities) and various charitable groups came to Memphis to offer help. Residents that remained rallied and helped each other out. The famous Peabody Hotel stayed open to house doctors and nurses. Quarantined refugee camps were set up and Blacks were allowed to serve as policemen and firefighters. Everyone was in it together.
The subsequent loss of over 30,000 people bankrupted the city and caused the state of Tennessee to revoke its city charter. But there is a silver lining somewhere in this tragedy. The next year as another threat of yellow fever bared down on Memphis, efforts to clean up the city accelerated with the help of a national sanitary reform. This led to an innovative and perhaps revolutionary waterworks system. Designed by the same man who designed the Central Park drainage system, Memphis’s upgraded sanitation system was cutting edge and serves as a model for several other cities. Consequently, Memphis regained its city status and between 1900-1950 increased its population from 100,000 to 400,000.
Which brings me to the Memphis sanitation strike that took place in 1968, another event that put Memphis on the map. Most of the workers were Black, working for a segregated city run by a mayor with ties to the KKK and a penchant for maintaining Jim Crow. Non-unionized, the sanitation employees had little opportunity to improve working conditions, which became tragically clear with the lack of response from the city when two workers were crushed to death by a garbage compactor.
Their deaths led to a massive strike. It was a bad scene all around and eventually Martin Luther King Jr came to Memphis in support of the strike. Dr King was offered a room at the “whites only” Peabody Hotel. He refused it and instead stayed at the Black-owned Lorraine Motel. During the days of segregation, Black people traveling the USA relied on “The Green Book” (the Negro Motorist Green Book) to find lodging and restaurants. Owned and operated by Walter and Loree Bailey, the Lorraine Motel was listed in the book. It would be King’s final stop.
It is from the corner of Mulberry and Butler where the Lorraine Motel stands that we received an unexpected lesson in our Civil Rights tour of the USA. Following King’s death, it was Walter Bailey’s wish to turn the Lorraine Motel into a memorial to Dr King. A few months prior to Bailey’s death in 1988, the motel closed and plans to build a civil rights museum on site began. Unfortunately, the tenants in the Lorraine Motel were evicted, the last of them being Jacqueline Smith who did not leave without a fight and 34 years later, she is still fighting. Her protest began with these words:
“You people are making a mistake. If I can’t live at The Lorraine, I’ll camp out on the sidewalk out front.”
After several years of camping out across the street, Smith was provided by the city a small house to live in. However, this has not stopped her protests. Every day without fail, she resides over a small booth of sorts on the corner of Mulberry and Butler (check it out on Google Maps), keeping vigil and ready to spread her message to anyone that will listen. While camped at Hernando Point, I learned about Jacqueline Smith from fellow RV’ers. Vivian and I wanted to meet her.
Adorned in a colorful scarf and dark sunglasses, the diminutive Jacqueline Smith held up a tattered copy of Dr King’s “A Testament of Hope” and implored us to “read his words, not those written by white people who glorify King’s death and negativity with a multi-million dollar purchase of the rooming house from where Dr King was shot“. She spoke to us of the ill effects of gentrification, interracial marriages and wealthy Black people spending their money on things other than to help other Black people. But mostly, it was about the lack of support for the homeless and disadvantaged, healthcare and help for the old and infirm. “Those are the issues that mattered most to Dr. King and they still matter today”, says Smith. And when I asked her if she had met King, she promptly rapped my knuckles with these words, “That question is not relevant to the conversation”.
We were taken aback by Ms. Smith’s words. Walking toward Central BBQ a block away from the Lorraine, Vivian and I pondered those words and while we agree with the message about support for the disadvantaged, there were other things we could not see eye to eye. According to Ms Smith, “They wanted King to marry a white woman”. I am not sure who ‘they’ is, but we couldn’t help think, what if Dr. King fell in love with a white woman? Who are we to dictate who he, or anyone for that matter can or cannot marry? At any rate, I must thank Jacqueline Smith for her tenacity of keeping the fires stoked and for inspiring the young Black man who sat talking with her and taking notes in his copy of King’s book. I thank her for adding a fresh perspective to our Civil Rights education and making our visit to Memphis more memorable than usual.
Lastly, before we left Memphis, we had to see the 322-ft tall “Memphis Pyramid”, or what our tour guide referred to as “The Redneck Disney”. The Pyramid was built to serve as an arena as Memphis tried to lure pro teams to its city. After losing money with the opening of the Fedex Forum, it was bought out by Bass Pro Shops in 2015. Enjoy the visual delights of a Bass Pro Shop on decorative steroids.
According to our original plans, this day, June 11 would have ended week-5 of our 2022 travels and the final day at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado. Instead, we found ourselves on Chokoloskee Island preparing to hitch up on a steamy morning hungover from a hard rain. Drenched in sweat, I performed the regimen of disconnecting water, sewer and electric for the first time in seven months. Instead of the sparsely oxygenated dry air of the mountains, air heavy with water vapor filled my lungs. Just a tad nervous with being a bit travel rusty, I gave Vivian the AOK to back the truck into the exact spot where the open jaw of the hitch receives the king pin. And if we both did our jobs correctly, the powerful thick metal claws will lock the kingpin in place so that the 8000-lb truck may pull our 12,000-lb home.
A couple hours later, we began setting up at our first campground minutes before, and like clockwork a midafternoon storm over the interior of Florida engulfed us. Only 78 miles north of Chokoloskee, the Army Corp of Engineers Ortona South campground would serve as home for the next two nights. It felt like we had gone no further than the end of our block, but it was a decent start to a pared down travel itinerary.
Over the next couple weeks, we lingered – like the high price of diesel, like the heat and humidity. Lack of wifi and spotty cell signals kept the news of the world at arm’s length, which was fine because it seems lately the news is coming off like those dark clouds that form every afternoon and threaten us with storms. And more now than ever, current events feel like one gut punch after another.
Don’t abandon me yet because I am going to put all negativity aside and show you what it is that motivates us to travel. Not one moment goes by without Vivian and I feeling grateful to be doing what we are doing, more so now with the high cost of living. So with that, let me share with you the two things that bring us great joy on our travels – art and nature, Florida style.
Following Ortona, we drove 159 miles north to Colt Creek State Park near Lakeland, one of our favorite campgrounds in Florida. With three nights, we dedicated one full day to simply staying within the park to do a little hiking in the early morning before the oppression of heat and humidity chased us back to our AC’ed home.
After a few nights near Apopka, we headed to another Florida State Park, Lake Louisa. Nestled between two small lakes, the campgrounds was quiet and moderately in use. Within a heavily populated area of Florida, this state park is a refuge among out-of-control development. A 3-mile road from the entrance gate to the campground winds through rolling wilderness of open pastures and pine forests. Similar to Colt Creek, the park’s land was once privately owned. Orange groves and a cattle ranch dominated the scenery back then.
Ten days since leaving Chokoloskee and less than 50 miles away from Lake Louisa State Park, we pulled into the Silver Lake Campground in the Withlacootchee State Forest. Since the beginning, the heat has been relentless and challenging to no end. It forced us into a rhythm of activity; that is to enjoy the beautiful wilderness areas we visit by getting out by 7 am and finishing a hike well before lunch. Consequently, afternoons were spent mostly inside reading and writing. Having scored well shaded campsites, evenings invited us back outside to our ‘front patio’. And while at Silver Lake, diesel was conserved as the truck would not move until we hitched up again to head north 3 days later.
Between Lake Louisa State Park and Silver Lake Campground, we spent a few days in Apopka, at an Orange County Park by the name of Magnolia. Which meant we were going urban for awhile. But, we wanted to see Mt Dora, a charming little town known for its art festivals and antiques. Why is it called Mount Dora? At an elevation of 184′, it is Florida’s mountain town.
Although Mt Dora’s small town charm attracted us, what we really came to see was Bowie.
And last but not least, while staying at Colt Creek State Park, we spent the morning at the Florida Southern College campus taking a walking tour of its Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus.
When people think of Florida, what often comes to mind are sunshine, palm trees, beaches and Disney. But Florida is full of surprises and lots of art and nature. You just have to linger long enough to discover them.