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.
Balancing the tripod and camera on my shoulder, I carefully climbed along Lake Michigan’s steep and rugged shoreline searching for a rock ledge flat and wide enough to set up for a sunrise over the great lake. A continual onslaught of powerful waves violently crashed against the vertical expanse of rock several feet below me. Frequently, the water impact resulted in a tall fountain of spray that kept the rock surface wet where I knelt behind the tripod. As soon as I set up to shoot, kinetic energy released from a rogue wave brought a torrential splash over the ledge. My reflexes worked well to move the camera back fast enough to avoid drenching the electronics. This was the lake I wanted to photograph more than anything and it was not making it easy.
The day before, we drove over 300 miles from the northwest corner of Illinois to Baileys Grove Campground in Baileys Harbor, Door County. Door County comprises the upper region of Green Bay Peninsula that is surrounded by Green Bay on the west side and Lake Michigan on the east side. One year prior, we stayed in Michigan where I photographed from its eastern shoreline. This time on the Wisconsin side, if I could throw a rock far enough across the lake, it would have landed in almost the same spot where I photographed a year ago from a sandy beach.
Much of Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline within the state of Michigan is characterized by miles of gentle sand dunes that are created by the prevailing westerly winds. In stark contrast, Wisconsin’s western shoreline is characterized by tall rocky bluffs and rugged cliffs. It is the western portion of the Niagara Escarpment which is most prominent in Green Bay Peninsula. The escarpment rises from the shores of Lake Michigan and drops sharply into Green Bay. On a ledge, the peninsula benefits from the constant air movement from the surrounding waters which helps maintain moderate temperatures in the summer. Indeed, during our week-long stay in August, we enjoyed temperatures that never fell out of the 60 to 75 degree range. The warmer air also provides a longer growing season, perfect for the vineyards and vegetable farms, which we also enjoyed.
The challenging Lake Michigan shoreline cannot be described without mentioning how Door County got its name. Directly above the top of Door County lays Washington Island. Separating the island from the peninsula is a mere 7 miles of important navigational passage that connects Lake Michigan to Green Bay. Appropriately referred to as “Death’s Door”, it is littered with shipwrecks. In 1881, the dangers of this formidable, yet important shipping route led to the construction of a by-pass canal that cuts through the peninsula about 40 miles south of the point.
Door County has a rich Native American and European/French Canadian settlers’ history, but what caught our attention (thanks to the Ephraim Historical Foundation) was the charming bayside community of Ephraim. A few weeks earlier, we were introduced to the intriguing history of Moravian immigrants that settled in Winston-Salem, NC. While the southern community originated from Germany, Ephraim was founded in 1853 by a group of Norwegian Moravians led by the Reverend Andreas Iverson. On the shores of Green Bay, Ephraim soon became a busy shipping point as well as a tourist attraction. By the end of the 1800s, Ephraim’s main source of income was through tourism as hotels and businesses as well as the sale of summer homes attracted summer vacationers.
The Ephraim Historical Foundation has a wonderful walking tour of museums that can be visited within a day. It includes The Iverson House (the oldest framed house in Door County) and the Goodletson cabin which has an interesting history. The Goodletson home was built on Eagle (Now Horseshoe) Island in 1855 but in 1860, the family decided to move to Ephraim. Life was much more difficult back then compared to now, and consequently, people must have put a fair amount of time and energy into figuring out how to make life easier and affordable. Which got me asking the question, if you were living on an island and wanted to move to the mainland several miles away, which would be the most viable solution – wait until winter and drag the cabin across the ice or sail over to the mainland during summer and build a new cabin? Be it for the cost or the work involved in cabin building, the Goodletson family figured out that dragging their home across ice was the best solution. After setting it up in Ephraim, it remained in place for over a hundred years. Now, the original cabin can be visited on Moravia Street, next to the Pioneer Schoolhouse Museum.
When visiting a new place, some things must be experienced and quite often that experience involves food. Vivian and I tend to reserve our measly restaurant budget for exceptional places that represent a location’s unique culture. This time, it was the infamous Fish Boil which is much more than a meal – it is a show. Locals warned us to plan ahead and make our reservations several days in advance, so we reserved a spot at the White Gull Inn five days prior.
We can thank the Scandinavian immigrants for fish boil. Back in the day, it was an economical way to feed large groups of fishermen and lumberjack. Today, the fish boil is more than just a meal, it’s a spectacle. You are asked to arrive 30 minutes prior to being served so that you can experience the show of cooking the meal. It goes something like this. You and about 30 others stand around a large black kettle hanging over a fire behind the restaurant waiting for the water to boil. As soon as the water begins to boil, the fish boiler lowers wire baskets filled with potatoes into the water. Shortly after that, small cuts of whitefish are added. The only seasoning is salt and for every 3 gallons of water, there is a pound of salt in the boiling water. After about 10 minutes, the oils boil to the top. At that moment, the short-lived spectacle begins as the fish boiler pours kerosene onto the fire. With huge flames engulfing the kettle, water quickly boils over leaving behind the salted and cooked potatoes and fish. The fish chunks remain firm and believe it or not, they are tasty. It’s an all-you-can-eat meal topped with homemade cherry pie. Classic Door County cuisine.
Aside from the fish boil, small town charm, farmers markets and history museums, Door County has a variety of wilderness areas to explore – coastal wetlands, forests, meadows and rock ridges. Consequently, we filled our time with hiking and kayaking. Although the temperatures were ideal for outdoor activities, unusual northeasterly winds made the original idea of kayaking along the cliffs of Lake Michigan less appealing. Instead, we opted to take our inflatable kayak up to the Mink River, protected waters off Rowley Bay. A calm and casual day of paddling through a marshy area made us feel like we were back in Florida. Only a few hours earlier, I was standing on a precarious rock ledge trying to protect myself from the cold wet spray of great lake water. Tomorrow, we would hike through maple and birch forests in search of wild turkeys and a lone white pine. Door County packs it all in during the summer months.
As with the driftless area of Iowa, we did not want to leave Door County. As time goes on, we look back on the places we have visited and a few of them, like Door County have left deep impressions on us. I will always remember Door County for the peacefulness we experienced through its charming coastal towns, small farms, lack of noise (no trains!), lack of traffic (driving miles on a back road without seeing another vehicle), and near perfect weather conditions. In our short time, Door County was on its best behavior.
On the final morning of our visit, I walked back to the Cave Point parking lot after two hours of negotiating water spray and rocky ledges to photograph Door County’s “most iconic natural landscape” one last time. For the past week, it was only during my photo shoots at Cave Point that I felt the discomforts of cold wetness that reminded me of the harsh winters that come soon after the fair-weather tourists leave. I wondered if we would ever see this place in the winter. On second thought, I prefer my current impression of Door County to last a very long time.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
Specific to Wisconsin, prepare to pay for a yearly state park pass. We made reservations at Harrington Beach State Park near Milwaukee and paid for it online. Upon arrival, we learned that out-of-state visitors must pay a daily park fee of $11 ($44 for our 4-day camping stay). So, we opted to buy the yearly pass with the intention of staying at another state park. The take-home message here is, research each state and budget accordingly, and not only for camping at state parks but for day visits as well.
We drove north on Illinois’ scenic state road 84 along the eastern edge of the upper Mississippi River where we arrived at our home base for four days, Mississippi Palisades State Park. It was our introduction to the driftless area. When I think of the Mississippi River, I have visions of low country deltas. The area here is nothing like that with its rock cliffs standing 1000 feet above the river. When I did learn about the driftless area, it became clear that the upper Mississippi River is a completely different one from its southern counterpart.
The driftless area is a geologically unique territory represented by Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota and if not for Vivian’s fly fishing research, we would never have known it exists. How the driftless came to be has to do with the absence of glaciers. Glaciers are known to flatten things and when they retreat, they leave behind drift (clay, gravel, silt). Because this area escaped the leveling effects of glaciers during the last ice age, its landscape is characterized by ridges, deep river valleys, spring-fed waterfalls, caves and cold-water trout streams. Without drift. This unassumingly beautiful area is like a combination of Florida and New England. It is similar to Florida because of its karst geology comprised of soluble rock (i.e., limestone) and for its underground drainage system of sinkholes and caves. But the large cliffs, ravines and forested areas are more akin to New England. There are very few lakes in these parts, but the upper Mississippi River passes right through it. And it is fly fishing’s best kept secret.
Even better, the driftless contains one of the top ten charming small towns in America, according to TripAdvisor. What’s not to love when you put charm and small town together? Consequently, we spent a day walking the downtown streets of historic Galena. The town is named for the main ore in lead which formed the basis of the region’s early mining economy. Although native Americans had been mining this area for over a thousand years, European settlers turned it into the first major mineral rush in America. By 1828, Galena was the largest city in Illinois. By the beginning of the 21st century, lead demand had declined dramatically, and Galena became a rural farming community. Later, Galena was listed on the National Register of Historic Places with 85% of its structures within the historic district.
We left the eastern banks of the Mississippi to go north, but a couple weeks later came back down to the driftless, this time to a small town in northeast Iowa. If Galena is the flamboyant city-wannabe country girl, Elkader is Galena’s hardworking but quirky never-leave-the-farm sister.
Elkader is unassuming in all its qualities (except for the gigantic grain mill that hovers over the downtown area) and full of delightful surprises. I so enjoyed walking the empty streets of the tiny town one early Saturday morning as the sun rose above the hills overlooking main street. While walking down the main street sidewalks, the smell of baking bread from Pedretti’s bakery, the one-room city hall building, the movie theatre, the lack of traffic and other reminders of smalltown life made me want to live there. Our home on wheels was parked less than one mile away, so in reality we were living there.
During our 10 days at the Deer Run RV Resort on the outskirts of town, we experienced Elkader’s wonderfulness; pumping then paying at the gas station, buying fresh eggs, vegetables and homemade pastries from local women, tasting various brews at Deb’s Brewtopia where Deb grows her own hops in the backyard, crossing the historic Keystone bridge many times, perusing the 3-story Turkey River Mall antique store, and enjoying a pleasant dinner at Elkader’s only gay-owned Algerian restaurant, Schera’s. All this while a river runs through it.
We took in the town of Elkader as often as we could, but only in between our driftless area explorations, which was why we were there in the first place. Vivian researched the numerous trout streams and had her heart set on practicing her new flyfishing skills in as many of them as possible. I tagged along looking to photograph the uniqueness of the driftless area. When we explain to people that we spent time in Iowa (and not just to drive through it!) while enjoying every minute of it, they were perplexed. We tell them, the driftless area of Iowa is very different from the rest of the state. And it has some impressive places to see, such as Pikes Peak State Park where the bluffs reach their maximum height of over 1000 feet or the unique Effigy Mounds. Rolling farmland goes on for miles, interrupted by country roads with minimal traffic and farms with barns and silos. The tariffs were in full force when we were there, so we talked about that with the campground owner, Doris. The locals, mostly farmers seem to take it all in stride; the recent floods, the current drought, lack of sales to China, and so on. What else can you do?
Almost every day, we got out before first light and drove to a remote trout stream where Vivian could fish. Water levels were extremely low, which seemed strange given the severe flooding four months earlier. The waterfall at Pikes Peak was nothing more than a trickle. But I photographed water whenever I could. The enchanting farmland kept calling me and I really wanted to capture it under the right conditions.
On the last morning of our stay, I sat inside the RV drinking coffee with darkness outside. I rolled the window shade up and peered out. Through the darkness, I could see heavy fog. Opportunity finally arrived. I quickly gathered up the camera and equipment, got dressed and drove off into the dark abyss to a lookout point I had discovered earlier. Conveniently, it was only 2 miles away, so that by the time I arrived the sun had yet to peer over the horizon.
What a glorious site that unfolded before me. For miles, I could see green undulating hills veiled in long folds of fog waving across the land like flowing scarves. The sky awakened in color as the sun appeared and the illuminated fog kept a fluidity that created an ever-changing view. Facing the sun, I worked the scene only to get more excited when I turned around and saw an equally beautiful front lit view. For well over an hour, I ran back and forth between my designated spots and captured the morning as it brightened the sweeping farmland. I got what I came for and not a day too soon.
We left Iowa on Labor Day to head south with anticipation for what was to come. As is always the case when RV traveling, some places try to pull us back as we leave them for the next adventure that pulls us forward even stronger. But that is the beauty of RV life, we can come back.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
We pull a fifth wheel, therefore we drive a big diesel truck which requires maintenance now and then. If you are traveling extensively, you must plan for some maintenance. In our case, the F350 Ford needs an oil change every 5000 miles or so, filters need replacing, tires need rotating, etc. We keep a record of these things and can anticipate when and where we will need to visit a Ford dealer. Fortunately, Ford dealers are just about everywhere. The point it, when planning your trip, account for the maintenance schedule and be sure you have access to service wherever you plan to be. Not only that, consider that you will probably have to devote at least a half day to get these things done.
Following Gettysburg, we headed west into the heart of America’s rust belt. And of all the places we could see, we wanted to visit Pittsburgh and Cleveland. As we planned our trip, we told many people this fact and their curt response, “Why?” along with their looks of dismay are still burned into my conscious. Visiting Cleveland was excusable – but Pittsburgh? As we drove west on I-76, certainly there must have been more to see than these two cities made from steel and oil.
I suppose I could focus on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater where we spent a morning after a short drive from our campground. I could talk about the history we learned about Wright’s most famous and arguably his most beautiful piece of work within an exquisite wilderness area. I could also talk about Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley that is adjacent to Cleveland. We spent a morning exploring its grand waterfalls and walking through lovely marshes. I could talk about the peaceful lakeside campsites that we enjoyed coming home to each afternoon. Instead, let me take you on a post-industrial tour.
Pittsburgh is a river city having been built at the confluence of not two, but three rivers – Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. Consequently, it became an industrial city following the American Revolution. And it was the starting point of the Lewis and Clark expedition which was one of the draws for us. Later, it became a major steel producing city, accounting for almost half of the national steel output in the early 1900s. Production sky rocketed during WWII and as a result, Pittsburgh suffered the highest levels of air pollution after almost 100 years of industry, described once as “hell with the lid off”.
Finally, Pittsburgh initiated a “Renaissance” to help clean up its air and rivers. By the 1980s, the steel and electronic industries crumbled with massive layoffs from mill and plant closures. Later, the economic base, like in so many other post-industrial cities shifted toward healthcare, technology and tourism. The success of the revitalized city and the remnants of industrial days long past were both quite evident as we walked the many downtown streets, including the bustling Market Square. We enjoy visiting cities that include art and culture as part of their draw and Pittsburgh drew us in. As with Winston-Salem that had the Hanes family, Pittsburgh has Heinz, as in ketchup. It also has Andy Warhol and Mr. Rogers. Where else can you see a bridge dedicated to America’s quirky artist near a baseball stadium, a history museum with a display dedicated to pre-school children’s favorite neighbor and a beautiful outdoor park at the point where three major rivers join.
Up next, Ohio (try to contain the excitement). I had a good reason to spend a few nights in Ohio and I have very fond memories to blame for that. One of my favorite ways to spend money as a teenager and young adult in the 70s was buying record albums. And I enjoyed looking at the album covers just as much as I enjoyed listening to the music, for which I spent thousands of hours from the time I bought my first record to the very last (mind boggling to think how productive I might have been otherwise!).
Feelings of nostalgia convinced me to visit Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and drag Vivian along with me (and now I am going to drag you along too!). She doesn’t share the same warm and fuzzy feelings I have for rock and roll, but the museum has enough for everyone, and I was certain she would enjoy parts of it. She did like being inside Johnny Cash’s old tour bus and I believe it is the only thing she remembers from our visit, probably because it had more to do with RVing than rock & rolling.
My entire impression of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be summed up as follows – it was like the experience of listening to a new album for the first time. Lots of anticipation, really digging the first and second songs and then the excitement dwindles with each subsequent song. Yep, expectations kind of went to the wayside as I worked my way through the crowded dark hallways, one exhibit after another.
But I am glad I went. My eclectic taste in music was represented well at the Hall of Fame. It reminded me of a couple things, like how I loved looking through albums at a record store. It also reminded me of spending time perusing my 6-ft long album collection. Even better was when someone else went through my records as rock and roll was always a great conversation starter. I would eagerly wait to see which albums they pulled out and ask me if we could listen to one. Within the RR Hall of Fame, it was interesting to see some displays crowded with several people, while other displays got passed over quickly by most. But it was a nostalgic feast and besides, where else are you going to see a fan of Black Sabbath standing next to a fan of Madonna for all the same reasons.
Visiting cities have been a happy part of our RV travels, even if their sordid pasts include a burning polluted river. As I write this, COVID has already affected the entire world. In our little world, it caused us to make changes to our 2020 travels, including avoiding cities. As I reminiscence about Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I am so glad that we spent a little time in each as we wonder when we will visit another American city in the future.
RV Issues and Travel Tips.
Tip 1: Cost of going to the city and nearby attractions does not have to be expensive. We visited both cities for under $100 (not including cost of diesel). In Pittsburgh we visited the Heinz History Center, Fort Pitt Museum, and Market Square area. We spent a total of $23, $7 for parking, $16 for Fort Pitt. We got into Heinz for free because a nice couple standing in line with us had coupons to share. In Cleveland, we spent $72; $10 for RR Hall of Fame parking, $52 for RR Hall of Fame and $10 for parking at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Tip 2: Owning a big truck (and we don’t have a dually!) gives city parking a whole new meaning. But don’t let that keep you from visiting a city. With a little research, you can find relatively inexpensive parking lots with enough room to park. The key is to do the research, make a phone call or two, view the Google satellite image of the area, be flexible with your time and find the best route in. We chose to drive into Pittsburgh on a Saturday morning, which meant less traffic, cheaper parking and more parking spaces available. All that despite a Pirates home game later in the day. By then, we were leaving anyway. Which brings up another tip; check the schedule for hometown sporting events. Away games are a bonus, unless of course you are going there to see a game.
The bucolic farm scene spread out before me as I hustled to set up the camera and tripod in predawn darkness. The unfamiliar crisp air added to my thrill of being surrounded by uninhabited hallowed grounds that make this place so special. Behind me, another scene was unfolding, a brilliant pink sky illuminating a swath of light fog across the green pastures. Rustic criss-crossed fences served as the perfect foreground for the scene and there were no utility poles or lines to rudely interrupt it. This was photographic heaven to me; no people, no cars, no noise, only beautiful farmland. My only opportunity to photograph a landscape here, my mind was focused on the technical and aesthetics of creating an image worthy of Gettysburg National Military Park. I wasn’t exactly thinking about the history of my photo subject as I hit the shutter button. My primary thoughts were on creating a good composition that included the full moon before it set over the bright red barn and the brilliant pink sky before the colors and fog disappeared into daylight.
As I framed a farm scene through my camera’s viewfinder, I wasn’t thinking about the Sherfy family that were forced to give their farm to confederate soldiers who in turn made a hospital from the large barn. Nor was I thinking about the union soldiers who stormed the farm and burned everything in sight, including the barn. As I took one shot after another, I gave no thought to the Sherfy family who fled their home and then returned after the battle to rotting corpses and charred fields. It was only later in the day that I gave serious thought to the Sherfys and many other citizens of Gettysburg. Now, every farm on the national park battlefield is a replica or a monument built for the park.
Ever since leaving the low country and working our way north along the Appalachian Mountains, I had fallen in love with the rolling farm country that comprised much of our route. Gettysburg would be a special display of that idyllic countryside with its cannon replicas and numerous monuments to soldiers and their commanders. And I wanted to photograph it. But of course, our primary reasons for being here was to immerse ourselves in the history of the Civil War and enjoy our national park service at its best.
Recently coming from Fort Sumter, we were primed for Gettysburg. Our campground, Artillery Ridge was conveniently located a very short distance from the national park’s visitor center. Having only two days to take it all in, we opted for the combination bus tour and cyclorama film on one day and then the next, we attended a ranger-led tour and drove around on our own through the park. The entire park experience was intense, and we spent a lot of time listening and reading. As I learned more, I realized why Civil War reenactments are a big deal here. But it also became clearer to me why these grounds are a national park. These things cannot be forgotten and although the battle of Gettysburg took place over 150 years ago, the park brought it back to life in such a breathtaking way.
I was taken in at how such a profound and horrific event in American history could be presented in a way that satisfied both the casual tourist and the Civil War history fanatic. It’s all there, entertainment as well as in-depth history lessons and battlefield analyses. The park lays it out for us to interpret and feel on our own. I wonder if visitors, like myself who never experienced Civil War firsthand or do not have ancestors who did, leave there with a piece of humanity they did not have before. I feel I did.
There I stood with tripod and camera standing on the very ground where tens of thousands of men lost their lives fighting their neighbors and where commanders made good and bad decisions that ultimately led to the defeat of the confederate rebellion. I left Gettysburg with a few good images and a deeper understanding of the Civil War, but I also came away with a sense of hope for our country that seems to be steering off course. We are in a time when cavalier mention of “starting a civil war” does not cause dismay but instead is shrugged off as the divisiveness among Americans cuts deeper each day. We all need a history lesson now more than ever.
RV and travel issues, concerns and tips
Issue 1: If your rig is wired for 50 AMP, opt for 50 AMP spaces even if they cost you more than a 30 AMP space. When temperatures outside rise above 90 degrees like they did when we were in Gettysburg, that 50 AMP can make all the difference in AC comfort. We reserved a 30 AMP site to save a few bucks, but immediately upgraded to 50AMP once we arrived. Well worth having when you want that AC running smoothly.
Tip 1: If you plan to visit Gettysburg, these are my recommendations. First, stay at Artillery Ridge Campground; it’s expensive but well worth it for the location. Second, I highly recommend you spend at least two full days. We had 2 days for the park and I wanted at least one more day. The ranger-led tours are numerous and well worth it to plan your days around them. Third, I also highly recommend you reserve a personal tour guide by car or a take the less expensive bus tour. We opted for the bus tour and although we were two among 50 or so people, the tour guide was outstanding. Guides are typically locals that know the Gettysburg battle inside and out. You can ask them any question and they will have an answer. And last, you MUST see the cyclorama painting, that was a highlight of our visit.