Driving 200 miles through open space on a straight westerly path void of most anything except cattle herds and Wall Drug billboards hypnotized us. As we passed one cattle field after another, I knew we were getting closer to something so severely different from this grass prairie landscape that it was difficult to imagine how it could be so hidden away from our highway view or how it could develop out of such flatness.
Finally, we turned onto exit 131. From there, highway 240 continued south through more open prairie. Everything looked the same except for the 12-ft, 6-ton concrete prairie dog that stands in front of the Ranch Store not far from the entrance to Badlands National Park.
At last, we arrived at the north east entrance to the park. Still, the prairie land prevailed as we continued driving, now officially within National Park. But then in a blink of the eye, we were transported to a completely different world; a landscape so strangely unique as to attract a million visitors each year. A land that compelled Frank Lloyd Wright to describe it as follows, “ “How is it that we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and so little of this, when this is so much more miraculous?” We were entering the ‘land of stone and light’.
With our 33-foot fifth wheel, we normally stay outside of national parks and enter one only after we unhitch and leave the home parked. This time, our campground (Badlands/White River KOA) location necessitated us to pull the RV through a portion of Badlands National Park. Thanks to the National Park Service that maintains a scenic highway, we were given a generous preview to the oddly formed rocks that radiate a mesmerizing beauty ever to behold. I witnessed this scene as Vivian drove the 11 miles from the park entrance to the campground. While pulling the RV slowly up and down grades through a dense outcropping of layered and jagged sandstone cliffs and pinnacles, my jaw remained dropped. Like a kid walking into a candy store, I became overwhelmed with anticipation of photographing those exquisite rock formations against a brilliant evening or morning light.
Our campground lays adjacent to the White River near the tiny community of Interior. Located within Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe, we are a short distance from the national park boundaries. The fact that we were surrounded by Indian land made it difficult to ignore history and the current state of affairs among the Oglala Lakota people. Pine Ridge encompasses one county in its entirety and partially two others, three of the poorest counties in the country. The reservation contains the southern portion of Badlands National Park and since the time of COVID, has been entirely shut down. I could not help but think of the tragic consequences of foreign viruses introduced to native Americans by Europeans immigrants. Indian tribes throughout the country were shutting down completely due to COVID and in the case of the Pine Ridge Reservation, this necessarily closed a large portion of the national park. But most of the park remained open.
Being inside the Badlands National Park requires all your senses and pondering the history of its native people rarely came into thought as I photographed and took in the scenes. I simply wanted to capture the moment. Later while staying in the nearby Black Hills, Native American history would come into focus for us. In the meantime, I simply wanted to capture the sand and light. And the park service makes it so easy to do so. The highway gives visitors unprecedented access to the Badlands with continuous sweeping views, opportunities to hike short distances easily through canyons and views of wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
The word “Badlands” comes from the Oglala Lakota description of the harsh landscape as ‘mako sica’ which translates to ‘land bad’. The 244,000 acres of national park use to be under water. When the water receded millions of years ago, perhaps as the Rockies were formed and forced it out, it left behind sediment deposits that comprise the rock formations. Basically, the Badlands terrain was shaped by water. On the Badlands scenic drive starting at the northeast entrance and driving west to the Pinnacles entrance, we witnessed dramatic change in landscape beginning with tall jagged pinnacles that look like castles to colorful rolling mounds of rock interspersed with grasses, to flat open grasslands pock marked by prairie dog holes.
And we saw wildlife. As with the Everglades, the crown jewels of the park are the wildlife. Instead of an alligator near the road, it was a bison. Herds of bighorn sheep grazed in large numbers on the grassy prairies instead of flocks of wading birds in the shallow waters. The elusive prairie dogs contained in large underground communities reminded me of the hermit crabs that populate the tidal zones of the gulf coast. Wildlife viewings are reminders that these wilderness areas are not ours alone. The Badlands is not just to photograph, it is home to much life. Check out this next slide show for some wildlife images.
The animals of course define much of the Badlands, but for me, it was the light and the exquisite power it has over the rocks. The rocks themselves have so much character and all one needs to do is drive through the park to witness how that character changes profoundly. Amazed at how bright it is outdoors well before sunrise, we drove a backroad from Interior into the park 45 minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon. We pulled off at a lookout point to view the magic as the sun eventually lit up the rocks. Meanwhile, beautiful clouds formed in the sky and soon they were painted with pastel blues and pinks. Eye candy everywhere, Vivian used her artistic eye to point out scenes to me so I would not miss out. With the changing light and clouds, we spent an hour in one location as I created several compositions while the clouds and sun did what they do best. Only one time did a car pass by. We had the Badlands to ourselves and it was extraordinary.
The early morning scene was a hard act to follow but as the day progressed, it just got better. Such is the Badlands. Just wait a second and it will change dramatically before your eyes. Drive a short distance and another world will appear. We left the pull-off site and continued west on the scenic drive. It was early enough in the day that cars were few and far between. Clouds remained prominent in the sky creating an everchanging show of light.
This is what the Badlands were to us. Yes, we did drive out of the park to see the infamous Wall Drugstore, but only from our truck. And we did visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site but our self-guided tour lasted only minutes. These were meager diversions eclipsed by stone and light. On day six, we left our campground and pulled the RV one last time through Badlands National Park before returning to I-90. Once on the interstate, the Badlands was again hidden away as if it never existed, somewhere beyond the grass prairie that lay out in front of us. Soon, we would enter yet another enchanting land. Black Hills, here we come.
Every state has its share of idiosyncratic attractions; some historically meaningful and others are just idiosyncratic – such as roadside art with no context. Seems quirky art installations are not all that uncommon across the open prairies and some of them have been installed along highways for the sole purpose of entertaining travelers passing through.
The best part of these attractions are the unique stories that come with them. Take for example, this one. Over fifty years ago in a small town of about 200 people somewhere in South Dakota, an inspired young boy created his first sculpture in his father’s blacksmith shop. Only 10 years old, he used a cutting torch to carve a small bull’s head from iron and drilled holes in it so he could wear it as a necklace. At the age of twelve, his father taught him how to weld which inspired the boy to create larger sculptures from metal scraps. After high school graduation, the young sculptor left home, earned a college degree (in political science and history, not art) and dropped out of law school. At which time, he returned to his hometown and became a vegetarian sheep farmer. In his spare time, he indulged in his art which evolved very large metal sculptures. Meet Wayne Porter, the sole creator of an unusual and intriguing roadside attraction, Porter Sculpture Park located next to I-90 about 30 miles west of Sioux Falls.
What intrigues me the most about art and makes me want to go see it is the variety of reactions it elicits from people. And if ever there was a venue for roadside art critics, it is Trip Advisor. Behold what the traveling art critics from around the world are saying about Wayne’s sculptures:
“Absolutely stunning large sculptures”
“Artwork ranging from the whimsical to the surreal”
“Definite sci-fi influence to the artist’s designs, but imaginative, creative, clever and quite good”
“I think it’s just some guy whose artistic impulse was uncontrollable”
“Quirky and fun, dark and introspective”
“It is nothing but a bunch of creepy statues on side of road”
“Some of the sculptures are very blatantly satanic and can creep out anyone even in broad daylight”
Wayne’s artistic vision is BIG, as in 60-ft tall metal sculpture big. At the beginning, he put his large art on display in his tiny hometown because there was no other place to put it. It was not well received – maybe not so much for their size, but because the sculptures appear to be inspired by cartoon fantasies with a dark surrealistic edge to them. Not everyone’s cup of tea. The town’s reaction to Wayne’s art most likely was more than lukewarm, it probably came with a certain amount of hysteria as Wayne has been quoted to say “You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve been called a satanic pornographer.” As a result, in 2000 Wayne moved his large sculptures to a family-owned large piece of cattle-grazing land. He gave up his sheep and devoted all his time to Porter Sculpture Park. Art critics now come in cars and RVs between Memorial Day and Labor Day to visit Wayne and his art.
As I pulled into the parking area (nothing more than a gravel lot with a rundown trailer on one end and a large shed on the other), I noticed a gentleman working in the shed. When the park is open, Wayne lives on the premises with his dog Bambino. I was the only visitor there (this did not last long), except for Wayne’s friend who were spending the night in a tent.
What makes Porter Sculpture Park special is that you get to meet the artist. In fact, you are obliged to meet him when he comes out of the shed to greet you and collect his admission fee. After that, you can spend as much time and take as many pictures as you like. You can also partake in a lively conversation with Wayne who loves to share his stories and insights and sprinkle them with his quirky sense of humor. For about an hour and a half, I walked around the field of art taking photographs, reading the poetry and watching the nesting meadowlarks guard their nest built inside a blue dragon’s mouth. I also spent about an hour talking with Wayne and his fellow artist friend. One impression I came away with is Wayne’s love for the prairie where his art has become a part of its landscape.
And he is beholden to no one, he creates whatever he wants. He built a 7-ton, 40-ft tall metal horse. But, what gets the attention of people passing by is the 60-ft tall bullhead weighing in at 25 tons. No engineers were involved with the development or installation of these pieces, just a group of friends and family. Because of the location of his park, Wayne has the unusual privilege of meeting thousands of people every year because they stop in to view his art. Funny thing, this South Dakotan has never been as far as the Black Hills or Badlands National Park. Yet you get the sense from talking to him that he has the best reason not to – the world comes to him. And there is nothing he enjoys more than sharing his whimsical creations with all that come to view them and if you ask, he will share his thoughtful yet whimsical philosophies on life and art.
Vivian and I parked the RV in a lovely campground in the middle of a corn field about 12 miles from Porter Sculpture Park. With one night only, I unhitched the truck from the RV and set out to visit the park. Glad I did, because I got to spend a couple hours wandering around Wayne’s sculpture dreamscape in the prairie and talk with him about art, current events, South Dakota and cows. A conversation with Wayne is almost like walking through his Sculpture Park – almost every sentence, like every sculpture entertains you with his beguiling imagination and sense of humor. You never know what will pop up. I talked to him about my enchantment with the prairie and desire to photograph it. He looked over at his cow pasture and recommended I should try to photograph cows. “Thanks Wayne, I think I will”.
The next morning, we hitched up and continued west on the flat I-90 to Badlands National Park. Geographically, South Dakota is split in two by the Missouri River that runs north to south. The difference between the west and east portions of the state go further than a time zone, upon crossing the river we enter country that contains several national parks and monuments, and Native American sacred land. Before that, we had one more piece of art to visit on the east side of the river.
Dignity of Earth and Sky is a 50-ft tall and 12-ton statue installed at the Chamberlain Interstate-90 Welcome Center overlooking the Missouri River. Compared to Wayne Porter’s bullhead, it is mediocre in size. Dignity is the creation of South Dakota’s artist laureate Dale Claude Lamphere. During its 2-yr construction, Lamphere called upon three Native American women ages 14, 29 and 55 to serve as models and perfect the face of Dignity that was designed to honor the cultures of the Lakota and Dakota people. During the building of Dignity, Lamphere had a group of expert metal fabricators working with him. In fact, he consulted with structural engineers, cultural advisors, material suppliers and electrical contractors to create his art. How did all this come to be? To celebrate South Dakota’s 125th anniversary into statehood, Norm and Eunabel McKie of Rapid City gifted the $1 million statue to all the people of South Dakota in 2014.
And if you want to know, here are what the roadside art critics are saying on Trip Advisor:
“The statue is amazing”
“The statue is huge and quite stunning”
“It is truly impressive and beautiful”
“A wonderful statue in a wonderful setting”
“She is beautiful”
“Magnificent can’t even describe how beautiful the sculpture is”
“The sculpture is superbly done”
Art comes in all forms. It may be inspired by “horses living in my head” or to “serve as a symbol of respect and promise for the future.” From wherever the inspiration comes, what makes it art is the artist. And somewhere along South Dakota’s highway is an artist’s gift to you, by way of a generous donor or a father’s blacksmith shop. On your journey, take the time and experience it. And if you are fortunate enough, you’ll get to meet the artist.
As we continue our travels toward the Badlands and the Black Hills, I’d like to leave you with these thoughts, written by Susan Claussen Bunger, Instructor of Native American social systems.
“As is evident through history, humans will ultimately disillusion and betray. As is such, I have a new role model who is solid and sturdy. She literally owns a spine of steel and reminds me of the injustice in the world, but also the strength, perseverance and survival. She signifies people who have prevailed through the centuries. She represents all who resist and strive forward. She portrays a rallying cry for those who wish to be heard and valued. She stands strong and proud, meeting the morning sun and bracing against the nighttime cold. She contemplates the world through a poise of conviction and fearlessness. Her name is “Dignity”.
The summer of 2020 was a strange time to travel through the red and blue United States. Beyond doing what a pandemic normally does, COVID-19 also managed to saturate those red and blue tones creating an even more distinct dichotomy within the United States. We became poignantly aware of the differences as we traveled through many states that did not impose state-wide mandates to mitigate the spread of the virus. This is not an endorsement of either side of the political spectrum; rather, it is only our observation. In much of these areas, people went about their normal lives, until of course they got sick. But, these states had something going for them – fewer people and plenty of wide open space. And that is where we wanted to be.
So, it was no surprise to see a hand-written sign stating “Masks not required” on the door of Onawa, Iowa’s only grocery store. Shortly after setting up our campsite at the Lewis and Clark State Park, we drove a few miles to the little town to pick up some groceries. Known for having the widest main street in the continental United States, Onawa was where the Eskimo Pie was created in 1920 by Chris Nelson who owned an ice cream shop. During World War II, Onawa was the site of a prisoner-of-war camp between 1944 and 46. I am not sure how that came to be, given that no more than 50 POWs lived there at any given time while a nearby town, Algona contained 10 times as many prisoners.
Despite its few distinctions, Onawa looks like most rural farm towns in Midwest America, run down with a modest amount of humble pride. Our impression of rural life was not improved after picking up the “Grapevine – Your Hometown Newspaper” where pictures of smiling Onawa High School graduates were displayed. Our thoughts on these young individuals’ futures were overshadowed by the ad pages that were not much more than a list of announcements for alcoholics, narcotics and emotions anonymous meetings, and free counseling for domestic violence or sexual assault victims.
Ranked #1 in soybean, corn, pork, and egg production, more than 85% of Iowa’s land is farmed. Iowa farms have had their share of bad times, not the least of which is COVID-19. If the virus was not bad enough, the August 2020 Derecho winds dealt another blow across the state destroying many homes and businesses. While the Great Depression left a lasting impression in Iowa including a major population decline, the farm crisis in 1983 was just as devastating. During that year, an average of 500 farms were auctioned per month. With all that, I can understand a little better why the only grocery store in Onawa, Iowa did not have a mask requirement. These people have survived worse times, so an invisible virus was not going to keep them from a normal life.
Iowa is the only state whose east and west borders are formed entirely by rivers, the Mississippi to the east and the Missouri comprising most of the west border. The Missouri River symbolizes the gateway to the Great Plains and Iowa was our introduction to what lay beyond the western banks of the longest river in the United States. Awaiting us were endless gentle slopes of green, speckled with cattle and interrupted by spectacular red buttes and canyons. But first, we had some exploring to do on the east side of the Missouri.
What really brought us to this area was the Loess (pronounced ‘Luss’) Hills. Where northeastern Iowa is characterized by a landscape unaffected by the drift of glaciers, this western part of Iowa has much evidence of glacier-driven formation. Glacier movement grinds rock into silt. Over time, wind deposited the silt along the eastern edge of the Missouri River. The accumulation of wind-blown silt, or loess is what we see today as the Loess Hills, a rare and distinct landscape of flowing green and forested hills. We set out to explore the Loess Hills on the hiking trails within Preparation Canyon State Park. This park got its name from a former community called Preparation, established in the 1850s by Charles B Thompson and his band of followers. The Great Mormon Migration toward the Utah territory began in 1947 and lasted 20 years. Thompson’s group was a small one among the 60,000 Mormons who fled persecution in Illinois.
At some point along the way, Thompson received a message from the “Spirit”. Given the extreme hardships that came with westward migrations, I am guessing he was pretty much over it before arriving at the Great Plains and recognized the area as having good potential for farming. Indeed, the area was known as “Monona”, an Indian name for “Peaceful Valley. As a result of the spirit message received by Thompson, he and 50 or 60 families following him bailed from their wagon trains and organized the town called “Preparation”. This name was an easy one to come by because of their belief that existence in life was merely a preparation for the world to come.
Things were going quite well as the Mormons realized they settled in one of the richest farming valleys in the area. So Thompson did what any corrupt leader would do when in control of the town’s newspaper, he printed the following message written by his imaginary spirit he called ‘Beneemy’, “I appoint Charles B Thompson chief steward of my house to receive, hold, manage and direct all the treasures of my house to him.” Well, people believed Thompson’s fake news and consequently, turned over deeds and all possessions to their leader.
Not all was peaceful in Peaceful Valley. Thompson’s people eventually wised up and asked him to return their property. This led to a hot dispute which eventually ended in the Iowa Supreme Court. Before that though, angry people organized a lynch mob and when Thompson got wind of that, he fled the state. People got their property back and for a long time thereafter, Preparation flourished. It even had a skating rink at one time. But after the Thompson sham, many discouraged Mormons left the valley and headed out to Utah. By 1946 the town was pretty much deserted. Descendants of the original Mormons eventually sold the land to Iowa.
I remember the lovely green pastures, rolling forested hills and hidden ponds of the Loess Hills, but what stands out the most is the relentless daily temperatures above 90 degrees during our 4-day visit. On our last day, we got a reprieve from the heat by visiting the state park’s museum dedicated to the two explorers from which it is named. People find the most unlikely things to be passionate about, as was the case with the museum volunteer who is a self-proclaimed and self-made Lewis and Clark scholar. And I do mean scholar with the utmost respect. The man was a wealth of information, eager to share it with us. At the very least, the Lewis and Clark expedition has all the ingredients of a great adventure story. Among other insurmountable impasses including the unexpected Rocky Mountains, they traveled thousands of miles upstream on the great Missouri to its headwaters where the Columbia River begins its trek toward the Pacific Ocean.
The Lewis and Clark State Park was created on the Blue Lake, which is an oxbow (U-shaped body of water) formed by the Missouri River years ago. Oxbow lakes are created when a wide curvy part of a river (a meander) cuts off to find a shorter course leaving behind a free-standing body of water or an oxbow. Lewis and Clark’s expedition came through here on August 10, 1804. The explorers stayed awhile and recorded several geological and biological observations.
The significance of Lewis and Clark’s expedition can never be understated. The impact it had on the evolution of the newly formed United States can fill a countless number of American history books. The expedition led by two very different men assisted by a Shoshone Indian woman forever altered the U.S. government’s relationship with American Natives, opened up America’s westward expansion of white settlers, created accurate topographical maps of the northwest and contributed to scientific research with its contact with 70 American Native tribes, and detailed descriptions of the geography and more than 200 new plant and animal species.
From their 8000-mile and 2-yr expedition, Lewis and Clark gave the Great Plains a face, a vast and harsh territory between the Missouri River and the ominous Rocky Mountains. The Loess Hills brought the Great Plains into focus during our stay at Lewis and Clark State Park. After that, we began our trek north and eventually west, the beginning of our journey into the Great Plains. From the time we left the state park, it took another day and a half before we crossed the Missouri River on I-90 and entered Mountain time. But, before we made the crossing, we had some art to view. Stay tuned.
Lewis and Clark SP is one of many parks we have stayed for several days without water or sewer hook-up. We prefer not to travel with much water in our fresh tank and will fill up at the campground before setting up. A little research (or a phone call) will let you know if potable water is easily available. It is typically located near the dump station as a separate water source (not the same water that is designated for flushing!). Some parks have additional potable water spigets scattered about the campground as well.
It was June 26, 35 days after leaving Chokoloskee when we finally pulled our home on wheels off Grand Design’s service center lot. The RV was in much better shape than the day we drove it there on June 5. How did we get here? Let me pause and back up – I mean REALLY back up to December 2, 2017.
After carefully researching and negotiating a price, we arrived at Palm Beach RV Center to perform what every excited and anxious RV buyer does before signing the papers, the pre-delivery inspection (PDI). It was Vivian’s 59th birthday and on this day, we purchased our 2018 Grand Design Reflection 303rls fifth wheel. And we did it with the intention of it becoming our fulltime home.
PDIs are routine and some people call it a “walk-through”. And for many people, it is just that – a walk through and then out they go. Not so with Vivian and me. Our PDI was more akin to a squatter’s claim to real estate. We arrived promptly at 8 am (the earliest the service center would allow) with a tool kit, flashlight, lunch box and thermos of coffee in hand. As we were led to our future home, our first question was “When do you close?” And with that, we began our 7-hr long inspection. Sounds over the top – but keep reading.
How did we spend our time? We contorted ourselves to inspect under the rig, on the roof and every nook and cranny we could find. We ran the AC full blast, we ran the propane heater full blast, we used the microwave and fired up the gas oven and each of the stove burners. We tested the auto leveling system. We ran the slideouts and the awnings. We tightened every visible screw. We removed the side panel inside the cargo space so that we could inspect the water hoses and all the connections that are part of the self-contained plumbing and electrical systems. In short, we drove the service people crazy. When we at last hitched up and pulled our home off the lot with confidence, I swear I saw a large banner with “Good Riddance”. We have never been back.
Here is the reality – despite our OCD PDI, we can’t catch everything that could possibly go wrong with an RV. We learned that fact the hard way during last year’s travels when the kitchen slideout began to tear the vinyl floor as it was rolled in and out. We mitigated the damage by placing a thin sheet of plexiglass on the floor when bringing in the slide. That protected the vinyl, but it didn’t fix the problem. The kitchen slideout contains all the heavy appliances (electric fireplace, TV, microwave, gas stove & oven, and refrigerator). And not to mention a large pantry full of food. Hence, a lot of weight. And it was quite likely that the weight on the slideout floor had become our RV albatross.
Consequently, Vivian commenced to do what she does best, research and inquire. Turns out, the gouging to the floor was indeed, a minor symptom of a serious problem. If not for Vivian’s persistent research and dogged inquiries, things could have gone from bad to worse in a short period of time. Turns out, Grand Design recognized the issue and corrected it for their 2019 line of RVs. Too late for our 2018 model.
In late September 2019, only days after Vivian broke her ankle, we attended a Grand Design rally in Little Rock, Arkansas. While sitting in her wheelchair, Vivian had a little discussion with the attending factory representative about our slideout issue. Because of her incessant research, she was able to confront him with knowledge and place him between a rock and hard place. The result – he admitted the issue and set an appointment for us to come to Grand Design’s service center in Middlebury, Indiana to correct the mistake and make things all better. Scheduled to happen on June 8, 2020, the appointment with Grand Design marked the beginning of our travel itinerary for the year.
I will say that among all the trailer and fifth wheel manufacturer’s, Grand Design is reputed to have one of the best, if not THE best customer service. And I am one of the many who will defend that reputation because over the long haul, Grand Design has been good to us. But had it not been for Vivian’s tenacity, nothing would have happened, until IT happened. Here is another reality check – there are many pitfalls in RV manufacturing regardless of the brand. Problems with an RV are a given – it is a matter of when, not if. Therefore, service reputation was the most valued criteria guiding us in our decision to purchase our Grand Design fifth wheel.
And with that, our 2020 travels to the Great Plains would not begin until we drove our repaired home off Grand Design’s service center. And that we did on June 26. But let me digress one last time. If you have been following, you would have read about our suspension debacle back in November, at the end of our 2019 travels. The seriousness of that issue led us to begin our 2020 travels by carefully driving 1600 miles to Goshen, Indiana to deliver the RV and its questionable suspension repair job to the manufacturer of the suspension – Lippert Components, Inc. We avoided sharp back ups and rough roads to arrive safely at their service center at 7:00 am on Friday, June 5. Six hours later, we drove off with an upgraded suspension and properly welded hanger brackets. Not only was the suspension repaired, but it was improved beyond expectations. Following that repair, we drove a short distance to Grand Design’s service center where we spent the weekend before leaving the rig with them on Monday.
As it were, three weeks passed from the day we arrived at Lippert to the day we drove away from Grand Design. The slideout issue was worse than Grand Design expected; however, the massive repairs resulted in a better slideout floor, improved frame support and all new vinyl flooring, among a few smaller and unrelated repairs. All told, our Grand Design home with Lippert suspension was better than ever on June 26, 2020.
To that end, our travels to the Great Plains officially began as we drove away from Indiana. The feeling of security and relief was stark as we drove on an unforgiving I-80 past Chicago. Not far from the city, the road finally led us into wide open space, Illinois’s farmland and eventually Iowa’s. To infinity and beyond.
The next day, we backed into our lakeside campsite at the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa. We had left Chokoloskee approximately 36 days earlier. That evening, we sat outside enjoying an uninterrupted view of a lake. It was a pleasant and peaceful evening left over from a hot day. We were free of crowds, free of noise, and free of concrete and fences. We were home. We turned to each other and offered a toast to officially kick off our 2020 travels through the Great Plains.
A side note about our RV repair
Grand Design’s repair included replacing the 3/4” thick slideout floor with a 1” thick floor that is more suitable to support the weight of the kitchen and living room appliances. In addition, outriggers were welded to the frame supporting both slideouts. Two interior rollers were added to the repaired slideout, bringing the total to five. Along the way during the repair after having removed both slideouts, kitchen island and furniture, it was discovered that the floor below the slideout had crowned. The main floor was removed, at which point it was realized that the aluminum tubings attached to the chassis were not welded correctly. Consequently, all of them were rewelded and 24 cross-members were added to the aluminum frame. Additionally, the seal tubing in both slideouts were replaced as was the entire vinyl flooring. All that and a few other unrelated minor repairs. What did it cost us? Only three weeks of time (which we spent staying with my sister and friends). Thank you Grand Design for making it right.
On July 7, 1983, 20 federal and local officers descended upon the tiny remote gulf coast fishing village of Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island bringing “Operation Everglades” to a head. Leading up to that event a year earlier, the Drug Enforcement Association planted undercover agents within the tight knit community of families whose ancestors fished those gulf waters long before they became a national park. Beginning on that hot summer day in 1983 and ending sometime in 1990, the largest pot smuggling operation in the United States was dismantled. Between 1983 and 1984, 87% of adult males living in Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island were arrested.
Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island are the gateway to the gulf coast section of Everglades National Park – or more specifically, the Ten Thousand Islands. The mangrove islands spread about 40 miles along Florida’s southwest gulf coast (from Cape Romano to the mouth of Lostmans River). Nowhere along the coast of the United States is there another convoluted and extensive array of mangrove islands such as this – in short, the unique saltwater ecosystem is a navigational nightmare. Years ago, the “saltwater cowboys” fled and hid from the law among the labyrinth of islands until the law finally learned its way around. One can easily paddle or motor a boat into the Ten Thousand Islands and never be seen again. If you want to self-isolate, there is no better place.
Chokoloskee Island, the only inhabited island in the Ten Thousand Islands watery wilderness is our home. Some refer to the bridge that joins the shell mound of an island with the mainland as the “bridge to nowhere” because not much is waiting for you there. Being surrounded by federally regulated wilderness, Chokoloskee island is about as remote as you can get. And that is one of the many reasons we made it our home base, an outpost where we can isolate between travels.
After completing our second round of RV traveling, Vivian and I felt a joyful anticipation driving our home on wheels across the bridge to nowhere on November 3, 2019. Surrounding us was Chokoloskee Bay and we were back in the ‘Glades! Beginning in 2018, it has been our routine to leave Chokoloskee before peak hurricane season and not return until the tropical weather brouhaha settled down.
By the time we arrived, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all that is the Everglades – self-isolation wilderness style. Following the first couple weeks or so of cleaning the rig and truck, catching up with neighbors and gradually getting back to a routine, most days include Vivian fishing on the bay from her kayak, me wandering around the Big Cypress swamp looking to photograph something, and both of us paddling out to the remote islands to camp for several days. We come down from our travel high and get high on the Everglades.
But as the winter months wear on, the mood begins to change with the eagerness for the Everglades being replaced with the preoccupation of travel plans and preparations. Spring enters in with higher daily temperatures, businesses closing for the season and our snowbird neighbors leaving the island to head back north. These are signals that soon Chokoloskee would become an inhospitable place to live and it was almost time for us to hit the road. This year, a little twist was added to our spring preparations.
In March of 2020, we discovered that living on Chokoloskee had yet another perk. When the pandemic swept over the land, our daily routine never changed – we were already self-isolating. Vivian and I hunkered down and were OK with that. But it was not exactly a fun time. Most of our neighbors had homes to return to and they were scared. We worried about our families living in the city, especially Miami. The fear of the pandemic was real as the winter season prematurely screeched to a halt. Our Canadian friends left the island in a panic and others who live in northern states made the long trek home without stopping for the night. We worried about all of them. And we were a little anxious about our upcoming travel plans that were to include visiting several popular national parks.
COVID knocked the wind out of our travel sails. The itinerary morphed into a strange balancing act between our desire to experience as much as possible on a road trip and sickness avoidance. It was a confusing outlook, but we were clear about one thing – the self-containment of an RV was our ace in the hole. We would have the coveted ability to travel and isolate at the same time. We decided to stay within the least populated areas, namely the Great Plains states. Reserved campsites remained on our itinerary – no one turned us away. While avoiding crowds and public facilities, there were plenty of wilderness areas for us to explore and stay out of the way of the virus. Our island self-isolation would somehow continue into our travels.
On May 21, 2020 we pulled out of our park and crossed the bridge, officially beginning our travels. For the third time we left our island home to hit the road and fill the next five months with everything new. Chokoloskee comes with a rich and colorful history that we proudly share to anyone willing to listen. But driving our home on wheels across that bridge, the preoccupation of experiencing new places that have their own compelling stories finally emerged after hours of planning and researching into a gleeful anticipation. The excitement of what laid ahead of us was palpable – the history and stories of the Great Plains, the wilderness areas wide open to explore, and of course all that comes with traveling in an RV to unfamiliar territories. Stocked up with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, we were ready. But before we get to the Great Plains, we had some business to attend to.
By the time we got to Mississippi, we were road weary. And Mississippi didn’t help that either, it just seemed as weary as we were. It was a sad place in many ways with remnants of tragic history made mostly during the Civil War. We came to Vicksburg to continue our casual studies in American history and this year, most of our lessons were on the Civil War. They began in Florida, continued to Fort Sumter, then Gettysburg, and now Vicksburg.
Although by this time we came here with a respectable level of Civil War knowledge, Vicksburg opened our eyes wider. Our visit to Vicksburg National Military Park was a sharp reminder that the Civil War was not a war of soldiers that fought on battlefields isolated from the American way of life. Rather, it was a war fought (mostly on southern soil) where American towns and cities existed, where American women and children lived, where American farmers grew crops and raised livestock, and where human beings were bought and sold by Americans.
It wasn’t as much the National Park that reminded of this fact; instead it was Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum that sits atop a high hill. It was well worth the struggle to push Vivian’s wheelchair up the very long and steep handicap ramp leading to the entrance. The museum is cluttered with artifacts of antebellum life, including a confederate flag that was never surrendered and the tie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as Confederate President. This is also where a first edition copy of the 1864 book titled “My Cave Life” written “by a lady”.
After a few days in Vicksburg, our morose spirits needed lifting and I thought I knew exactly how to do that. As it were, the most anticipated part of our itinerary was yet to come; and besides, we were not about to limp back home feeling defeated. Let me put this into context. We live in the far southern region of Florida’s gulf coast and before retirement we lived in Miami, equally as far south. We love south Florida’s Everglades, Biscayne Bay and Big Cypress and spend as much time as we can in the wilderness. But there are areas north of us that are equally as appealing to us. We dream of spending quality time up there because there are some drop-dead gorgeous rivers, salt marshes, pine forests and pristine beaches including the Emerald Coast. That’s a problem for us because it takes an entire day to drive to the panhandle and northern regions of this long state. Consequently, northern Florida has eluded us. But not anymore! Now that we are retired and full time RV’ers, we finally have the wherewithal to get to these places. And I had every intention of doing that as a finale to our 2019 travels.
If you understood how insanely difficult it is to reserve a campsite in Florida, you will understand why an ankle break was not going to stop us from reaping the benefits of our hard-earned campground acquisitions. Like how a marathon runner gets a second burst of energy at mile 25, the final three weeks of our 4-month travels were planned ambitiously to include five Florida campgrounds in these hard-to-get places. Several months prior, in an act that can only be described as a coup, I fought my way through ReserveAmerica.com and Recreaction.gov to secure reservations at Fort Pickens campground and four Florida State Parks (including the highly coveted St George Island).
Fort Pickens campground is on the Gulf Shore Islands National Seashore. From a photography perspective, it is one of Florida’s prized beachy waterscape locations. And naturally, it is fishing paradise for Vivian, so much so that her longtime fishing buddy Jimmy planned to drive all the way from south Florida to stay with us a few days so that the two could do some serious fishing together. This highly anticipated event was the icing on our travel cake.
But it was NOT going to be easy. There was after all, this nagging inconvenience of a broken ankle. Vivian’s friend Jimmy would help overcome this. Our super idea was that he would help Vivian access the water and the two could fish together while I ran off into photographic bliss knowing Vivian was well taken care of. But alas, Florida had other things in store for us.
To begin, getting into our campsite at Fort Pickens was nothing short of a comedy of errors and quite possibly the turning point of our travels. I was not expecting a narrowly paved campsite with significant drop offs along its entire edge, but that is what we got. The severe lack of space for maneuvering the 21-ft truck with a 33-ft fifth wheel attached and the fact that Vivian (the driver) could not get out to assess the situation made it all too easy for me to relinquish to strangers’ willingness to offer help, which ultimately made things worse. A series of unfortunate events resulted in me waking our neighbor to ask him to move his truck which was unavoidably in the way. All that and a growing line of cars waiting to get past and the increasing number of neighbors coming out of their campers to share their unsolicited 2 cents made 30 minutes seem like an eternity.
At one point, Vivian had no choice but to back the RV over the pavement drop off and into the sand to allow cars with honking horns and impatient drivers to go by. I cringed as I heard the tell-tale noises emanating from the suspension that was straining under the weight of 12,000 lb while the driver-side wheels rolled off the pavement. It was not pretty. That compromising move was the price paid to get the truck and RV lined up suitably to pull forward and successfully back-in with about 1-inch of pavement to spare on either side of the wheels. Later, we learned it probably cost us much more than that.
The backing-in debacle ended just in time for a hefty afternoon storm to pour down on me as I connected the electric and water. By then, the dark mood had already set in, so I didn’t care anymore. There was some bad juju going on and it did not help that I was feeling guilt for wanting to be here so badly while Vivian would not enjoy this place as much as I would.
There was another dark cloud coming for us and it was tropical storm Nestor. We anticipated Nestor before we arrived, and shortly thereafter we were almost certain it would necessitate our leaving this hard-earned campsite earlier than planned. That ball was already set in motion as Vivian’s friend Jimmy cancelled his plans to visit because of the impending storm. On our second day, we fully expected the park to evacuate its campers before the weekend and we did not want to be there when that time came. We planned our exit strategy.
After only two days and three nights at Fort Pickens, we cancelled our remaining three nights and pulled away from the crowded campground. Everyone seemed oblivious to what was brewing in the gulf and I could only imagine the scene on evacuation day when reality finally hit. And they did evacuate because Nestor came right toward Pensacola. Meanwhile, we headed for safer ground inland, which eventually led us to the Suwannee River.
Nestor resulted in nowhere near the level of destruction that this coast suffered from Hurricane Michael last year, not even close. But still, it was strong enough that our moves were justified, and we took bittersweet comfort in knowing we did the right thing. The coastal campgrounds would soon be back to normal, but our plans were already altered and there was no going back at this point. Instead, we found ourselves betting on pigeon races and playing chicken poo bingo at the Suwannee River Rendezvous RV Park, a charming out-of-the-way river park.
After the Suwannee River, Paynes Prairie Preserve and Colt Creek were our final Florida State Park destinations and luckily, the weather did not force us to cancel them. Vivian missed out on long hikes through Florida’s savannah and a climb up to the lookout tower to view the wild bison and horses that make Paynes Prairie a unique Florida park. But not all was lost, we both enjoyed the Florida Museum of Natural History in nearby Gainesville.
Our final three days were spent at the remote Colt Creek State Park, Florida’s newest. It is so new that the washing machine and dryer are still in good working condition! Doing laundry while traveling in an RV is no picnic but when the primary laundress in the group has a broken ankle, this task becomes insurmountable. So thank you Colt Creek State Park for making that task a bearable one.
Did I mention something was wrong in paradise? Did I also mention that the Fort Pickens back-in spectacle was a turning point in this story? Well, here is how it ends. After our first night at Colt Creek, I noticed something terribly out of place as I walked around the RV. As part of the suspension, the equalizers hang between the front and back wheels and are normally shaped like a ‘W’. This time, the driver’s side equalizers resembled a ‘J’. This could not be good. We were both perplexed because the RV was perfectly level. The Fort Pickens nightmare suddenly came back to haunt us.
The first call to Lippert Components (manufacturer of the suspension and frame) was short and not so sweet. “Check the hanger bracket” was the technician’s immediate advice. We did, and in horror discovered the culprit that caused the equalizer to lose its form. The hanger bracket, which attaches to a leaf spring which attaches to the equalizer had sheered off at the weld. And God only knows how many miles were driven in that condition.
Let me pause the story for a second and mention once again how inconvenienced Vivian has been since breaking her ankle and how critical it is that both partners at least understand each other’s respective RV duties. On Vivian’s OCD routine checklist are inspections of the suspension at every stop as we move down the road. Among other things, she looks for loose bolts and cracks. Would she have noticed a crack in the hanger bracket before it broke off? Perhaps, but we’ll never know because in her state of disrepair, she was unable to perform her routine inspection. I could have stepped up and done her work, but too late for that now.
Long story short, by the grace of God or pure damn luck the worst-case scenario did not happen. We found a hanger bracket at an RV parts store and bought two. The next day a mobile welder was on site by 9 am to remove the broken one and weld on the new one. We had a spare leaf spring and had him put that on as well. A flat tire on the weld truck and a welding machine that decided to die before the weld began delayed the repair to well past 9 pm. Welding in the dark is not ideal. We had only one thought and that was to cross our fingers during the 220-mile drive back home.
We did make it home safely on November 3 after leaving Colt Creek. Once set up on our lot in Chokoloskee, the RV would not move for 6-7 months. Nevertheless, plans to resolve the hanger bracket issue began. Not only that, we had another RV issue that needed to be addressed. Both would lead us back to the RV capital of the world in Indiana where our Grand Design home and Lippert suspension were born – the room where it happened. We had some serious repairs and a few upgrades to be made and with that, our 2020 travels began to form as we settled in for a winter in the Everglades.
RV Tips and Issues. We pull a 12,000 lb fifth wheel. That fifth wheel contains most of our possessions. Supporting all that weight are the tires, frame and suspension. Things can go bad when any one of those is compromised. Therefore, frequent inspection is essential. Occasional bolt-torquing and moving parts – lubing, as well as annual bearing maintenance are essential. And don’t wait to do your inspections after you’ve driven down the road, start at the RV center where you are purchasing your new rig. Inspect, inspect, inspect. Don’t know what to look for? Educate yourself. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about that rig, especially if it’s going to be your home. If you don’t take the time to learn, then you have two choices – don’t live in one or plan to spend a lot of money and a lot of wasted time dealing with repairs and hoping the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen. Always remember, the road is unforgiving.
To most, accessibility is taken for granted. The word “inaccessible” has no context to an able-bodied person. Like discrimination, you really don’t get it until you’ve experienced it. The short of it was, Vivian had only one good leg while the other was basically a useless appendage for two months following the break. Because of a minor misstep on wet grass, her ankle bent underweight and within an instant, many things became inaccessible to her. Accessibility soon became the new standard by which we measured everything. Accessibility, or lack thereof, became the lens through which we viewed RV travels.
Why bore you with the details of how we acquired medical equipment, negotiated post-surgery follow-up visits, and all the research on bimalleolar fracture recovery, when instead, I can describe the remarkable places we visited in Arkansas during the few weeks following the surgery. I was not comfortable leaving Vivian alone during that time after her surgery; consequently, my photography plans were mostly scrapped. And of course, fishing was no longer on Vivian’s itinerary. More to the point, Vivian could not do anything without my assistance, so whatever fun things we did would be casual sightseeing that a) we both enjoyed, and b) offer a certain level of that precious commodity – accessibility. As we crossed off our respective itinerary plans, we were left with one item intact – casual sightseeing.
This ironically led us to Eureka Springs. I say ironic because this historic Ozark mountain town is also known as the ‘stairstep town’ because of its mountainous terrain through which streets and walkways wind. A visit to Eureka Springs for able-bodied persons would require a respectable amount of effort walking those steep walkways perusing quirky shops, visiting the cave grottos, touring the museums, taking in the historical Victorian architecture and so on. We had to find an alternative which was a tram tour and one that accommodated the wheelchair.
The essence of Eureka Springs revolves around the healing powers of the spring water that were known to the Native American long before European Americans discovered it. Among those European Americans was Dr. Alvah Jackson, credited for discovering the springs which he claimed to have cured his eye ailments. He wanted to share that so during the Civil War he set up a hospital in a local cave to treat soldiers. Afterwards, Eureka Springs became a popular tourist destination and was once promoted as a retirement community for the wealthy.
Because of the famed healing powers of the spring water, you can imagine that Eureka Springs attracted many colorful characters including Norman G. Baker, who was run out of Iowa in 1937 for practicing medicine without a license (his story is well worth the read). At that time, Eureka Springs was a depressed town following the stock market crash. Millionaire pseudo-doc Baker moved to Eureka Springs with his cancer patients, reopened the Crescent Hotel that had fallen into disrepair and turned it into a cancer-curing hospital. As Baker commenced in promoting his cure which was to drink the area’s natural spring water, the spa and resort mountain town enjoyed renewed vitality (the hospital apparently cleared ½ million dollars in one year). But alas, federal charges against Baker for mail fraud in 1940 sent him to prison for four years.
Two weeks following Vivian’s accident, we land in the American Spa, Hot Springs where we stayed for 10 days. There was much to see and do, so we wasted no time getting to The National Park where we could partake in accessible park ranger tours.
And we weren’t going to let inaccessibility keep us from enjoying lunch at the famous McClard’s Bar-B-Q restaurant. I think what put McClard’s on the map besides its food are the prominent people who visited it, including Bill Clinton who is the only person whose reservation is accepted and the only one for whom a change to the menu was made (after Clinton’s by-pass surgery, they added an item that did not include bread or added sugar). Clinton enjoyed eating at McClard’s while growing up in Hot Springs and as president, continued to do so.
Speaking of Bill Clinton, we drove to Little Rock to visit the William J Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Think whatever you want of the Clinton’s, but this museum was well worth it, and on an accessibility scale of “don’t bother” to “I can enjoy this 100%”, Vivian enjoyed our visit thoroughly throughout this modern building with wide open spaces. The library also houses temporary exhibits and during our visit, we had the great pleasure to see Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea. A non-profit art project founded by Angela Haseltine Pozzi in 2010, tons of plastic pollution from Pacific beaches are used to create monumental art installations.
Following that, we stopped in to pay homage to nine brave children at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. It was a solemn visit to the small visitor center built across the street from the infamous school where those children walked the cruel gauntlet that led them to integrated education.
My memory of these places is somewhat tainted by the degree of inaccessibility we experienced. As I write this, Vivian has had full mobility for several months (11 months have passed since the break). Despite the inconveniences of struggling to push the wheelchair up a steep path or hoist it into the truck for the umpteenth time, or entering a campground bathroom with “handicapped accessible” signs only to discover there were no rails in the stalls or not being able to move the wheels on a gravelly uneven ground, we never forgot that this was a temporary inconvenience and nothing more. So yes, our final weeks of our 2019 travels got disrupted in a big way; but we had good times and we got over the bad times.
RV Tips and Issues. I highly recommend that both of you (if you are two) feel comfortable with every aspect of moving your rig; dumping, unhooking, hitching, driving, backing up, unhitching, hooking up -repeat cycle. If one of you goes down for the count, the other needs to step in. I will admit, I was relieved Vivian was able to drive the fifth wheel, which meant she could do the backing-in because that has been her designated job from the start and she is much better at it than I am. Of course you can also rely on the kindness of strangers.
This part of our trip began with great anticipation and much preparation building up to one thing, the White River in Bull Shoals Arkansas. But that all ended just as quickly as it began. Let me start by describing how the preparation played out.
Much of Vivian’s spare time (when not actually fishing) is to prepare for and learn about different fish species she will encounter on our travels & how to fish for them. And she is learning how to tie flys. In addition to watching an inordinate number of YouTube videos narrated by slow talking fishermen who are willing to share every last infinite details of their fly tying skills, Vivian collects animal parts and tries to make them look like insects, just like the big boys do in their videos. And often as she is hunched over the table with said animal parts and lots of shiny twine, I can hear mumbling words like “I am going to need new eyeglasses”.
Her skills go beyond the challenges of manual dexterity. Vivian, who speaks fluent Spanish and English has picked up a third language. And through guilt by association in a very small living space for the past year, I have necessarily expanded my vocabulary as well, although many of the words seem nonsensical, like “wooly bugger”, “Chernobyl ant”, “hippie stomper”, and “the hunchback scud”. This is the language of fly fishing and it is spoken often in our RV.
The White River in Bull Shoals Arkansas is famous for its trout fishing and would be our greatly anticipated next destination following Bennett Spring. And with a ridiculous spike in luck, Vivian secured a one-week reservation for a riverside campsite at the Bull Shoals State Park. In the afternoon, we arrived at our campsite, one of the premier spots on the river. But something was wrong in paradise. The water level was extremely high and the current was wicked fast. We watched drift boats motor against the current past our campsite and then minutes later drift downstream as their fishing occupants attempted to catch a fish. Boats repeated this pattern several times as the evening set in. There were no fishermen wading these waters.
This presented a problem for Vivian who has been anticipating wearing her waders and boots to walk into the White River from our campsite. Her dream of doing this was dissolving quickly. It also became evident that any quality fishing Vivian was going to do would be from a boat, possibly her kayak. With sheer resolve in her heart, Vivian would try her luck casting a line from the shores of the White River. After Bull Shoals, we had three more fishing locations, so if the White River did not work out, there would be plenty of opportunity for Vivian to quench her flyfishing thirst. Both of us had much to look forward to during the next few weeks in Arkansas.
The next morning, I hiked briskly up a rocky path through a steep forested ledge. Coming from the Everglades, I was not use to this kind of terrain and so I used extra precaution negotiating rocks and inclines. Like any other RV traveler, Vivian and I have thought about worse case scenarios and how we would manage them. One of those scenarios is getting injured while enjoying the great outdoors. So, I walked carefully through the woods and periodically checked my phone for assurance of a signal. Eventually, I hiked back to the campsite to grab my bike and explore the rest of the park.
My phone rang as I was putting on my helmet. It was Vivian. I couldn’t think of any good reason why she was calling me since she was out fishing. I answered and immediately knew something was wrong. “I need you to come help me, I think I might have broke something”.
Vivian is probably the most careful person I know when it comes to any form of physical activity, so I could not imagine what had happened. As I drove the truck to her location, I reckoned the worst case scenario was a strained muscle and with some RICE, she would be fine in a few days. When I saw her sitting on the steep steps that led down to the watery banks of the river, I saw it was a bit more serious, most likely an ankle sprain since her left ankle was clearly swollen. “Must be a sprain, broken bones don’t cause that much swelling, do they?” My attempt at rationalizing that it was not as bad as it looks was not getting us anywhere because it became very clear that Vivian could not walk. I had to get her up those stairs and into the behemoth truck.
Luck is a mysterious thing. Of course, breaking one’s ankle in two locations is not lucky, but what happened next can only be construed as pure luck. At best guess, Vivian broke her ankle at about 7:30 am. With the help from strangers, I got Vivian in the truck and we arrived at the Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home by 8:30 am. By this time, visions of small town health care inadequacies and insurance denials danced through my head. But we had to do what we had to do.
By 8:45 am, we were in an examining room after having completed the necessary paperwork. And I was relieved that our insurance covered this facility. Vivian was doing well so far and later we read the doctor’s report which included the following description of his patient, “She is a pleasant and positive female”. I never saw her wince in pain.
By 9:00 am, Vivian was wheeled to X-ray and by 10 am, we were getting the report from the on-call physician. Expecting to hear the word “sprain”, we were harshly jolted into reality when told Vivian had two breaks, a bimalleolar break. Vivian attempted to reconstruct the event in her head and seriously could not remember what happened. She remembered walking slowly on the grass near the river and then laying on the ground. She heard a snap and figured it was her rod which had broken during the fall. After getting the X-ray report, her first thought was that snap was not her fishing rod after all.
Without skipping a beat, the doctor told us Vivian would need surgery. Oh, this just keeps getting better! Now, I was thinking about our living and traveling situation. Staying on at the state park was not an option, we would have to move to another campground after our 1-week reservation ended and I would have to do the moving. But before we get to that part, back to the surgery. We are thinking that surgery meant at best, later in the week (this was a Tuesday), at least a few days away. Instead, what we got from the doctor was a most sincere apology, “I apologize that we can’t schedule your surgery until 1 pm today because you’ve eaten earlier this morning.” Both feeling bemused and relieved, Vivian was whisked away for surgery preparation. During that time, we met the orthopedic surgeon who by reputation is one of the best surgeons in the area. Did I mention having luck? The surgery went well, plates and screws inserted with no problem. I had Vivian back home by 4:30 pm.
We were faced with the spectacular task of getting Vivian out of the truck to the RV door, up the RV steps and up the steps to the bedroom. This was going to be interesting. All I wanted was to get her comfortable and not moving for the next couple days while I would frantically figure out what needed to be done, where to go next, make phone calls, cancel upcoming reservations and make new ones, acquire necessary medical equipment, etc. As luck would have it, Vivian was not in pain. But she was incapacitated. And as she lay in bed after overcoming the challenges of using the tiny bathroom, it was at that point we were hit with the reality of how dramatically our RV travels had changed.
RV Tips and Issues
The obvious tip here is be prepared for anything, especially if you are full time living in an RV. You may be an optimist but you do have to consider the possibilities and be ready to deal with them. As you prepare for travel, begin your sentences with “What if…?”, and then think through how you would deal with it. This may require putting certain things in place ahead of time, like purchasing insurance that will cover you if you need to have the RV transported back home. Of course, health insurance is a big deal and not having consistent coverage state to state can be a huge problem. In short get your belongings, finances, insurance, family members, etc on board to help anticipate and minimize the fall out from any event that might happen.
Our reasons for traveling the United States are much like everyone else’s – seeing and experiencing new places, learning its history and meeting people with varying experiences and perspectives. These are inherent to our travels and I could say the foundation of most anyone’s RV travel plans. But of course, each traveler has his or her own interests and as well, Vivian and I each have our agenda. If it were totally up to me, our travels would revolve around one thing, photography. But alas, Vivian is not a photographer and has other interests. Or should I say – she has a fishing obsession.
We left the driftless area of Iowa on Labor Day, spent one night at a Harvest Host (beautiful place, delicious Meads), and arrived the next day at Bennett Spring State Park in southern Missouri. When planning, I am quite often the one who finds potential campgrounds. When I discovered Bennett Spring, I got excited because not only is it on water, but it is a very popular fishing location. While I always consider Vivian’s interests, I am not senseless enough to think I can choose the perfect fishing location. So, I ran my idea past her.
Bennet Spring is described as “a place of peace and recreation that has welcomed generations of enthusiastic anglers”. The spring runs through the state park and is stocked daily with rainbow trout “waiting for lucky fishermen”. On the state park’s website are several pictures of fishermen standing in the water, lined up, side-by-side casting their lines. If you like to fish, what could possibly be wrong with this place? But alas, after researching it awhile Vivian concluded with much derision, “It’s the Disney World of fishing”. Because both of us have a disdain for Disney vacations, I winced knowing exactly what she meant. Having spent much of her life fishing in the vast Everglades wilderness from a solo kayak, standing in well-stocked waters with dozens of other fishermen was not Vivian’s idea of ideal fishing.
In frustration, I went back to the drawing board to find a more suitable location. But then, Vivian gave it more thought because she had a clear goal in mind. Bennett Spring could very well be useful and serve as an important step toward a goal which, in theory was to be achieved at our next destination. More on that later.
Consequently, I booked us five nights at Bennett Spring State Park. When we arrived there, I was coming down from a euphoric photography high that began on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and ended in Iowa’s idyllic farm country. In short, I had hundreds of photos to process. I could not think of a more perfect location to do that than a fisherman’s trout fishing paradise; Vivian would keep busy with her goal attainments while I would enjoy a rare treat, fast and free wifi service at our campsite. The weather was fabulous and each morning, dense fog hung over the beautiful spring that was a few hundred feet from our campsite. This became an irresistible photo subject. In between morning shoots on the river, a day in Springfield (more on that later), extensive bike rides and strenuous hikes through the very large (3216 acres) state park, I worked on my photos.
While I settled into a routine of exercise, image processing and blog writing, Vivian set out to make the most of her stay on the river. Fishing at Bennet Spring is an orchestrated event. You can’t just go in there and start fishing willy nilly. Oh no, there is a rhyme and a reason, and you better know the rules of the game. First, you must get the lay of the land. The river is divided into three zones as follows: Zone 1 permits flies only, Zone 2 permits flies and artificial lures only, and Zone 3, permits only soft unscented plastic bait & natural and scented bait.
Second, you must acquire a 1-day license. The day before, you go to the park office and stand in line after 7:00 pm to purchase a 1-day license. Repeat as needed. The license must be clearly displayed on your hat while fishing. Third, you can only fish within a specific time frame. Like clockwork, a loud horn sounds off at 7:30 am, signaling the fishermen (who are already lined up along the banks of the spring) that they can enter the water and cast their lines. Then at 7:15 pm, the same horn blows again, warning the fishermen to promptly get their casts out of the water. All that just to catch a little trout.
I’ll hark back to my glory days in Iowa and Wisconsin. As far as photography is concerned, these locations were worlds apart and each one very different from what I am use to. Traveling with a camera has been a great learning experience. Likewise, Vivian approached Bennett Spring much the same way. Despite the Disney quality of it all, she observed other fishermen and gathered information from those willing to share their knowledge (she has a knack for getting people to open up to her). She learned about correct tippet size, fly presentation, flying to proper depth, casting correctly into the current, and so on. Fishing is a strange culture to me, but I believe it when she says it was well worth the time and money spent. Because after Bennett Spring, she would be fishing one of her dream locations, or at least in theory (more on that later).
Meanwhile, we left the park for a day to visit Missouri’s number one tourist destination. No, not the Gateway Arch National Park in St Louis; but the “granddaddy” of all outdoor stores, the place that attracts four million families, sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts every year, the mecca as Vivian describes it – Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters. Your read that correctly, the original Bass Pro Shop that began in 1972 as a small bait shop and has since added restaurants, museums and aquariums. It is the Disney World of the outdoor recreation industry.
I knew when we got there I would be spending the entire day in this place while Vivian immersed herself in the aisles of lures and other fishing-related gadgets and widgets. I spent my time looking at the fish in the aquarium and walking around taking in the visual overload that fill the store to the brim. It is a gawdy, over-the-top display of the commercialized great outdoors. But we had to go there; and that’s all there is to it.
Our stay at Bennett Spring State Park, although not a true wilderness experience was a building crescendo for our next destination in Arkansas, only a short 100 miles away. In short, it was a perfect stop over for what was to come, the crème de la crème of fishing destinations and one of Vivian’s top bucket list fishing destinations. At last, we would arrive there soon after leaving Bennett Spring.
RV Issues and TipsWater weight is a big deal to us. We did the math and can’t travel safely with much water in the gray, fresh or black tanks. Not only that, we were told by the people who built our RV’s frame and suspension (Lippert) that ideally, there should be no water in the fresh tank or no more than 4-5 gal if necessary when traveling. We heed their advice and here is our approach to that issue. First, we boondock with no hook ups occasionally but only for one night at a time (usually at a Harvest Host). When we know we are going to do that, we add no more than 5 gal to the freshwater tank and another 4-5 gal in a hard-sided container while at our full-hook up site. As we use the water from the freshwater tank, it is transferred into the two gray tanks and the black tank, distributed in a way that the weight is no longer an issue. Second, if we know we are going from one full hook-up site to another, we make sure the freshwater tank is empty and carry a gallon container of water for toilet flushing when stopping along the way. Third, we frequently stay in parks that do not offer water hook-up on site. In those cases, we travel empty and fill up the freshwater tank once we arrive at the campground. At the dump station, we empty the freshwater tank along with the gray and black tanks. With little water left in the fresh take, I open the drain valve and let it run out onto the road. Fourth, if we ever travel without knowing where we will be staying next, we fill the 7-gal hard-sided container and have it ready for the chance we may need to transfer the water into the fresh tank.
One last thing, even if you think you may never need your freshwater tank because you camp with full hook-up all the time, you should be prepared to use it. This means sanitizing it and occasionally putting water in it and exercising the water pump. It’s one of those things that when you need it, you don’t want to be without it. Indeed, you may find yourself with full hook-up and the water gets shut off for some reason. It has happened to us! Or worse, you may find yourself boondocking unexpectedly. Be a Scout and be prepared.
Somewhere in our travel research, I read that Harrington Beach State Park is one of the best state parks in the state of Wisconsin being located on Lake Michigan. I figured after spending a week photographing Lake Michigan from Door County, it couldn’t hurt to spend a few more days doing the same from another vantage point.
Ironically, while staying 3 nights at Harrington, I spent the least amount of time on the shores of the great lake; instead there was much more to this park. Good thing because the lake’s water levels are so high, there was no beach! Enjoy the photos from this beautiful and historical park.
There was another draw to staying at Harrington Beach and that was to visit yet another post-industrial city, Milwaukee. Yes, the city that has or had the following distinct and I might add, diverse characteristics:
the German Athens of America
the largest Polish settlement in the U.S.
the distinction with New York City of having the largest percentage of immigrant residents in the U.S.
the major city in which for years the Socialist Party of America earned the highest votes
a street named after Al Capone because he owned a home in a Milwaukee suburb
avoided the severe declines that other rust belt cities could not because of its large immigrant population and historic neighborhoods
nicknames “the cream city” because of the prominent cream-colored brick used to build many buildings
once the home of the world’s largest beer breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst and Miller) and number one beer producing city in the world
home to America’s Black Holocaust museum
home to Laverne and Shirley
With only a short time for a visit, we came to admire some of the historic architecture of Downtown Milwaukee, added steps to the FitBit while enjoying the Riverwalk, stood in awe inside the iconic Milwaukee Museum of Art and ate an authentic Mexican lunch in the Historic Third Ward. We didn’t experience enough of this city but enjoy these photos from what we can share with you. Also, to get a slightly different perspective of the city, check out our friends’ Spencer and Lorraine Saint’s travel blog about their visit to Milwaukee.
RV Tips and Issues
We have learned the hard way to research campsites before we reserve one. That is, we spend a good amount of time studying Google satellite images. And it isn’t just that anymore, now we use the measurement tool in Google Earth to evaluate campground road and campsite widths. If we are lucky, we can get a street view of the campground as well. And sometimes, we find someone’s video of campsites at specific campgrounds. All of this information available to us has made our life easier and has helped us avoid further problems. We are convinced that some of our previous campsites (because we didn’t know any better) were the reason for having serious suspension issues (more on that later). My advice is if you have a moderate-sized trailer, class A motorhome or a fifth wheel is the following:
Know the full length of your rig (this includes tow vehicle connected to trailer or fifth wheel). Ours is 49.5 feet (truck connected to fifth wheel). Therefore, we DO NOT reserve campsites that are shorter than 50 ft.
For back-ins, look for campsites that are on a straight-away and not on a curved portion of the campground road. Look at the first image at the top and notice the curved road. Vivian got in with no great problems, but the curve made it more difficult. Thankfully, there was no obstacle on the other side of the road.
With satellite views, look for objects that will interfere with backing in. This is where knowing the width of the campground road comes in handy.
When in doubt about a campground, search YouTube videos, you might get lucky and find images of the campground. Check out this YouTube channel titled Campsite Photos.