Oct 1, 2018 – Small Town U.S.A.

Land Use in USA
Make note that urban areas makes up less than 4% of the total 48 contiguous states land use.

“City people. They may know how to street fight but they don’t know how to wade through manure.”  Melina Marchetta, On the Jellicoe Road

As we drove a backcountry road that led us to our home for the night, we passed yet another remnant from days long ago. It was an old barn barely standing with a caved in roof that might have been destroyed by a UFO landing, like out of some old B movie. It is one of many that we have passed during our maiden RV voyage through America’s rural Eastern Heartland. Logging almost 2000 miles on backcountry roads of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, we see a lot of evidence of days long past, and that has left a couple impressions.

Northern Indiana, Amish country.


My first impression was from witnessing the widespread blight and poverty in these rural areas. I realize this is not news, but as we drove through depressed areas, we wondered how it got to be like that and how it could exist along with obvious signs of relentless prosperity. Usually these signs were in the form of a large modern home sitting on several well-manicured acres of land on the outskirts of some little town. Quite often, small town neighborhoods were a mixture of occupied homes that were either well-kept or in total disrepair. Certainly, a large city has its pockets of wealth and poverty, but when you drive through a small town and its outskirts, the contrast is more obvious.

Love seeing a small town theatre still in use.

I know cities have had their share of economic hits as well. But big cities have the advantage of being big cities, which means they have resources such as people to make a comeback. Urban areas have the upper hand given that four in five Americans live there, which makes up only 3.6% of the total size of 48 contiguous states. In 2016, 40% of the GDP came from the 10 most productive metro areas. Meanwhile, rural populations are declining, while poverty levels increase. Add to that, problems such as crime and opioid abuse are increasingly rural phenomena.

Every small town has a bar, unless it’s in a dry county.

It wasn’t always like that. After WWII, small towns prospered by contributing to the industrial economy. But much of that prosperity has disappeared for several reasons, including automation and jobs moving overseas. Among the rumblings coming out of rural America these days, perhaps the loudest comes out of coal country. Coal production today is twice as high as it was in 1920. Yet, current employment is about 10% of what it was back then (80, 209 in 2013 vs 784,621 in 1920). You can’t totally blame clean energy for that – instead, it’s technological advances in coal mining that have decreased dramatically the need for manpower (Sourcewatch). Indeed, a once prosperous coal town, Beattyville, KY was given the dubious distinction of being America’s poorest white town from 2008 to 2012 according to Heather Long of CNN Business. It once boomed from coal, oil and tobacco industries and the county where it is located was the No. 1 oil producing county east of the Mississippi for much of the 1900s. Now, 57% of its population receive food stamps and 58% get disability payments from Social Security.

Our Harvest Host MOO-ville Creamery contributed to the Guiness World Book of Records for the town of Nashville, Michigan.

At first glance, it is easy to suggest that people from towns like Beattyville should just buck up and move to where there are opportunities, like cities. I don’t doubt that some have, but this is not easy or even possible for many, especially older workers. Plus, living in most cities is not cheap and housing costs continue to outprice the average person’s income. So, is this the final predicament of rural America? I am going to go out on a limb and say no, it does not have to be that way. While poverty seemed to prevail in many areas we drove through, what we also saw were many small towns that were doing quite well.

Cedar Key
There’s a lot of history in Cedar Key, Florida.

Which leads me to my second impression and that is, each little town has a rich history and stories to share. It seemed no matter where, each town had an interesting fact or person associated with it. And quite often, the history of a small town would include a period of booming industry of some kind. And what I also learned is that a rich history can be turned into an economic resource for a small town.

A little home spun philosophy from Eufaula, AL.

A great example of this is Eufaula, Alabama with a population of about 14,000. It was once a major shipping center on the Chattahoochee River and played a significant role during the Civil War. The City of Eufaula’s website describes its current economic base as a “healthy mix of tourism, light manufacturing, industry, service and agriculture. The city has enjoyed steady growth due to expansion of existing industries and recruitment of new industries. I can personally vouch for its tourism industry having spent time visiting its historic downtown area, museums and historic mansion district. The city has a fascinating history to share and it’s does a good job doing so.

Seeing small town poverty is unavoidable when driving through rural America.

Given that 96.4% of America’s land is not urban, it is no wonder that a large part of RV traveling is through rural and low-population areas. Cities offer a grand view of history, art and culture, but there is something very interesting out there in rural America. A small town can be much more than just that place you want to get through as quickly as possible and certainly don’t want to be stuck in with a repair. The freedom to travel leads us to any place we wish, but we have found good reasons to travel to small town U.S.A. Here are three; the satisfaction of an RV lifestyle that contributes to small town economies, small towns have entertained and enriched us with their histories and stories, and we visit small towns for the first time, but never feel like outsiders. Small town, U.S.A. – more than what meets the eye.

The little town where I spent the first 24 years of my life.

Sep 19, 2018 – We’re not in the tropics any more

Not what I wanted to see on a September morning!

“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.” Anne Bradstreet

Using the reclining chair heater for the first time, I sat huddled in a fetal position under a crocheted blanket that was given to us as a wedding present from a dear friend who has always lived in Michigan. I was so pleased to have something made by my talented friend that I put the thought of never having to use it way in the back of my mind. But now, I was struggling to get every inch of my body under its warmth. Feeling like a wimp, I drank my hot coffee as I stared in horror at my ipad screen. The weather app was telling me it was a frightening 37 degrees outside. This is going to be an interesting month in Michigan.

T-shirt weather.

Only three days ago it was Labor Day when we drove the RV into the northern Michigan campground that would be our home for 28 days. 70ish degree temperatures made camp set-up quite pleasant as we listened to the rowdy glee of several campers in the outdoor pool squeezing out as much summer as they could before winter preparations fell heavy on their minds. The amiable weather continued for the next couple days as we explored the outdoors in t-shirts and long pants. Fall can be so lovely in Michigan. But then reality caught up and it became clear as we watched the temperatures dip well below our comfort zone that we would have to buck up if we were going to do any kind of outdoor activity for the next four weeks.

Ahhh, the beach. That’s me off in the distance photographing Lake Superior. I don’t know what everyone else is doing!


When I left Michigan over 30 years ago, I moved to warmer climates and never looked back. My spouse Vivian is not from Michigan, she comes from a region about as far removed from the north woods as anything can be. Sixty years ago, she was born in Cuba, only 90 miles south of Miami where she has called home for the past 57 years. She is, for all intents and purposes, a tropical girl. To put her in the middle of northern Michigan is like planting a palm tree in a snowbank. As for me, I rarely miss the cold weather and am quite content sweating through a south Florida summer. When temperatures drop below 70, my body goes on alert. Get below 60 and it goes into defensive mode. Vivian, never having had a steady relationship with cold weather just doesn’t know how to respond, except to panic over how few articles of clothing she owns for such climates.

the falls
Well worth braving the cold temps, don’t you think?


During our visit to northern Michigan, the fall chill gradually became more consistent and during that final week up to October 1, we were completely covered in clothing while inside the RV and spending a good portion of each morning strategizing our wardrobe before braving the outdoors. Do I need my long johns? Do I need a hat? Which socks should I wear? Are you taking your Marmot jacket? But somewhere in there, a funny thing happened. Somehow, we began to embrace the cold.

the falls
You can tell who the Floridians are.

The turning point was at Whitefish Point and Tahquamenon Falls in the upper peninsula. I was so taken in with photographing Lake Superior and the falls that wearing four layers of clothing, hat and mittens just felt so right. I was really getting into the feel of the north winds whipping across my face as I set up the tripod on the beach of Superior. If I was going to photograph Lake Superior, I had to embrace the chill. In fact, I could have spent the entire day standing out in the cold, capturing that powerful great lake. I know from experience that as long as you can stay relatively comfortable while outside in 40-degree temperatures (wind chill well below that), you can be rewarded with warm inviting temperatures and hot beverages later on.

It looks cold, doesn’t it?

We spent the entire day in the frigid air of the upper peninsula with the exception of taking refuge at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. And when we got back to the RV, it was warm. And it was so cozy. That evening, I wore my flannels and cooked dinner while enjoying the warmth that seemed to accentuate the smells of garlic and spices in our closed-up RV. Instead of the usual loud blow of the AC, the gas furnace offered a comforting low hum. I was loving it. I began to remember what it was like a long time ago. Even in the winter, I always wanted to be outside doing something; running, skiing, shoveling snow, chopping wood. I thought of that sensation of cold wetness and the beautiful feeling of putting on dry, warm clothing afterwards. If you want to enjoy winter outdoors, it simply requires the right attire and you having the good fortune of a warm place to come home to. I was lucky back then and I was feeling lucky now, in my RV.

Fueling up for a day outdoors.

Two nights before our departure, I had one last opportunity to photograph Lake Michigan. One hour before sunset we drove west enjoying our view through farm lands. Once we got to the great lake shoreline, the temperature was no higher than 40 degrees. But I was prepared for it as I walked up and down the beach carrying the tripod and camera, looking for that final shot. Vivian stayed in the truck to keep warm having had her fill of the cold weather from fly fishing several hours that day in one of northern Michigan’s many rivers. We were both embracing Michigan’s great outdoors, she through fishing and me through photographing. That’s what you do; embrace the cold, one degree at a time. The evening sky over Lake Michigan was a beautiful scene unfolding and I was captivated once again by a great lake. It was so easy to ignore the cold. After the sun set and a few blue hour shots, I got back in the warm truck.

Great lake
Thank you Lake Michigan, you were a lovely, lovely subject.

On our drive home, we reminisced about our time in Michigan and believed that we had experienced it as much as we could. We never stopped, even when the weather tempted us to stay in. We began thinking about more trips to northern parts with our home on wheels. This little excursion was only a small taste of what’s to come. But that is all in the future. In the meantime, we had things to do. It was time to pack up, torque the wheels, blow the leaves off the slide outs, and so on. We were preparing to head south; you know, like any self-respecting Floridian would do at that time of year.

deer season
You know it’s time to leave Michigan when you see this.

Sep 12, 2018 – Has Anyone Seen the Bridge?

“When I was on top of a tower on a clear night, it was almost as if you could touch the stars. The sky was so beautiful.” Ron Zielke, Mackinac Bridge ironworker

The Mighty Mac
The bridge reflects on the calm Straits of Mackinac

When I was growing up in northern Michigan, my parents often drove us north on I-75 to Mackinaw City where our favorite aunt, uncle and cousins lived. The best memory I have of that hour-long drive was the exact moment when the Mackinac Bridge towers came into site. I can even remember my thoughts when I first saw the towers. My young brain did not comprehend a bridge because all I could think of was our car on the tower itself. “Are we driving on THAT bridge?” I would nervously ask my parents. The towers represented the bridge and that’s all I could see from a distance.

That exact moment.

Driving across the bridge was even more of a thrill for several reasons. The most obvious one is the bridge itself. The design of Mackinac Bridge was inspired from mistakes learned when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed under high winds. The bridge that would cross the icy Straits of Mackinac would avoid that mishap by employing open-grids on the roadway to reduce wind resistance. Although the grids increase stability in winds up to 150 mph, it’s a little unnerving to drive over them.

It never loses its thrill.

It’s even more unnerving when you are walking the bridge. Each year since the opening dedication in 1958, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic so that thousands of people can walk it, a tradition held on Labor Day since 1959. While walking, you can’t avoid stepping on the open grids. If you dare and if the bridge sway doesn’t overcome you, the grid openings give you a bird’s eye view of the frigid straits water. This is the same water that is designated as a shipwreck preserve, dedicated to those who were lost on ships sunk in the dangerous shipping lanes.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of cars cross the bridge. For example, during the two busiest months of the year, over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge in July and again in August. As I researched the bridge, I learned a new word, gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges. A phobia condition has been identified for just about everything; like for instance, fear of ducks watching you or anatidaephobia. But gephyrophobia seems quite justifiable and even more likely to be common among people living in Michigan. Indeed, it is a very serious problem, so much so that the Mackinac Bridge Authority has a driver’s assistance program for individuals suffering from gephyrophobia. Over a thousand people each year employ this service.

Long exposure
A long exposure blurs the 1000-ft freighter passing under the bridge.

The fearful Mighty Mac has acquired several claims to fame over the years and perhaps the most notorious one came from a single event that happened in September 1989 when a 1987 Yugo driven by Leslie Ann Pluhar was blown off the bridge. The fact that it was a Yugo made it difficult for some folks to avoid a hint of humor when discussing the tragic event. But surprisingly, Pluhar’s tragic death is one of only two related to a vehicle falling off the bridge, the second of which was determined to be a suicide committed by Richard Alan Daraban in his 1996 Ford Bronco in March 1997. But these are not the only deaths associated with the bridge. I can remember talk about a man’s body forever sealed inside the concrete used to build the bridge during its construction. But this was an urban myth that just made the bridge appear sinister. In reality, five men did perish during the bridge construction and they are memorialized on a plaque in Bridge View Park, north side.

Aside from the tragedies blamed on the bridge, it is an inspiring piece of architecture. At night, it lights up with a stream of head and tail lights twinkling through the multi-color bridge lights arranged neatly along the trusses, catwalks and towers that are constantly being painted, repaired or maintained. The fact that the bridge connects mostly rural areas of the lower and upper peninsulas makes it look monumental with no interference from city lights. The towers stand boldly but also appear modest against the backdrop of the great lakes, especially in the winter when the straits become an icy plain. Those northern waters command respect and the bridge is a tribute to that fact.

The bridge never sleeps.

Vivian and I parked the RV in a campground about 30 miles south of the bridge in the month of September. During that time, a new moon offered the opportunity for me to capture the Milky Way scheduled to appear in much of its entirety in the southern skies. I had a vision; I wanted to capture it above the Mackinac Bridge, which meant I needed to be in the upper peninsula. So, Vivian and I decided to load our tent & camping gear into the truck and head north on I-75 toward the Mackinac Bridge, leaving our comfortable RV for the night.

At about 10 pm, a few hours after setting up our camp, we walked to the shoreline of Lake Huron, a hundred feet away from our campsite. We took in the uninterrupted view of the Mighty Mac while enjoying the cool, yet comfortable evening air. The bridge was rumbling with traffic that could be seen and heard. The colorful lights reflected playfully on the relatively calm waters. Below the bridge, freighters about the length of three football fields passed under and eventually disappeared into the abyss of the great lakes. The water seemed so peaceful lapping gently on the shoreline, while the bridge stood out in the distance all lit up with lights and activity. The entire scene was an interesting blend of wilderness and commerce. As the temperature dropped, I stood over my camera continuing to capture the bridge’s glory as best I could. Our cozy tent was nearby, but we stayed at the water’s edge for a couple hours, enjoying the Michigan night. “The towers touched the sky and it was so beautiful.”

Milky Way
Not exactly what I was hoping for, but still beautiful to see.

Aug 27, 2018 – The Rally

I meet people and they become chapters in my stories.” Avitjeet Das

Vivian and I are not the type of people to join a crowd or follow a trend; in fact, we typically avoid both. Nevertheless, by purchasing a fifth wheel and going full time, we automatically became members of several RV-related groups. Not only that, shortly after purchasing a Grand Design fifth wheel we signed on for a Grand Design rally.

Where the Grand Design Indiana rally took place.

According to the Meriam Webster dictionary, the noun ‘rally’ can be defined as a mass meeting intended to arouse group enthusiasm. Therefore, by definition, a rally is something we would feel utterly uncomfortable attending because of a group mentality that is fixated on one thing. It is true that we believe Grand Design RVs to be of quality, primarily because of their excellent service record. Thus, attending a rally would seem like a natural way to show our enthusiasm for the manufacturer of our home while locking arms with other owners and singing “Proud to be an American” (an actual rally activity).

Grand Design Poobah
During the opening ceremonies, 800+ rally attendees were cued to hold the cut out face of Grand Design’s VP of service operations, Jerry McCarthy as part of a joke.

The fact is, we attended the rally with ulterior motives, and those were to get as much service done on our RV as necessary, attend several workshops to acquire valuable knowledge, take advantage of the vendor deals, and bug the hell out of the technicians from all the manufacturers with a kazillion questions. We wanted to take advantage of having the experts literally within arm’s reach and be able to meet other Grand Design owners who might willingly share their lessons learned. Yep, that’s right, we were in it for ourselves. Being part of an aroused group of enthusiasts never crossed our minds. We were going because we own an RV that we call home, and well, things break often in an RV. And if you have ever attended a manufacturer’s rally, you can relate.

RV weight
We were eager to get our rig and tow vehicle weighed. Feel free to examine the numbers.

At the rally, we parked our little 303rls Reflection along side several others in the middle of a field on the Elkhart County fairgrounds for five nights. Ours was a Reflection fifth wheel in a sea of Reflection fifth wheels. Solitudes tended to have their own place, as did the Momentums and Imagines. But we were all there as Grand Designers. And we even have the t-shirts to prove it. I’m not one to wear a t-shirt that advertises, especially when it displays a hackneyed phrase such as “It’s a Grand Design thing, you wouldn’t understand”. But, being retired on a fixed income, I looked beyond the advertising and saw only a free article of clothing.

The rally’s opening ceremony.

Our view was a corn field on one side and the back of another Reflection on the other. Water and electricity were provided, and I ensured our full comfort by signing up for two mobile dump services. We considered our selves lucky not having to join several dozen RVs that were relegated to the middle of the horse track. Races were not deterred because 400 plus RVs were strewn about the fairgrounds. The races prevailed and rally attendees were aptly warned to cross the track carefully at certain times of the day. And then there were the trains. Not one, but two train tracks ran very close to the fairgrounds and this is no exaggeration, a train passed by at least every 2 minutes, 24 hours a day. Amazing to me how collectively, hundreds of people train themselves (no pun intended) to ignore the loud sounds of a train. Within the first day, it became nothing more than background noise.

Fairground Row
Reflection row, ours in the foreground to the right of the silver Ford.
Race track
A rare moment when horses were not running on the track.

But I digress. We didn’t come for the ambiance, we came to get things fixed and to learn how to fix things. We especially wanted our brakes serviced, so we made an appointment for a mobile tech to come to our campsite. He did, he removed the wheels and immediately said, “You don’t have any brakes, you need to contact Lippert.” Please go back to our first blog for explanation, but in short, we burned out our brakes during the first five miles of our maiden voyage because the break-away switch had broken away, unbeknownst to us. So, Lippert came to us ready to replace the brakes, no questions asked. However, they also offered an exceptional deal on their disc brakes, so guess what? Not capable of passing up a great deal, we upgraded.

The “brakes”, or what was left of them.

Although we accomplished our rally mission (fix it and learn how to fix it), we unexpectedly acquired something much more valuable than new disk brakes. While camped near Indianapolis days before the rally, we watched several Grand Design RVs come and go, and we reckoned some of them were heading to the rally only 100 miles away. One of those RVs going to the rally belonged to Lorraine and Spencer, full time travelers in their 337 Reflection fifth wheel. It wasn’t until we struck up a conversation with the two fellow Grand Design owners that we realized having an RV manufacturer in common with someone can lead to more than just a knowing glance and a friendly wave, or an occasional high five. In this case, common ownership became the impetus for a meaningful and lasting friendship. And that is the best reason to attend a rally. But then again, if you have ever attended a rally, you already knew that. Oh, and please check out Spencer’s funny and well written travel blog, “Friends along the Way“.

The best thing that came out of the rally, our friends Lorraine and Spencer.

Aug 21, 2018 – It’s the Little Things that Count

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

What could I possibly photograph in an Indiana field?
Back lighting
Maybe this?

If you follow Instagram travel posts, you will be inundated with beautiful photos from iconic locations, primarily those we enjoy within our national parks here in the United States. Photographs of Delicate Arches, Maroon Bells, Horseshoe Bend and Haystack rocks of the Oregon coast are the eye candy that make us pause for a second or two and hit “Like” before scrolling to the next photo. It is no surprise that these iconic locations are among the most photographed and that people plan their travels around them.

More Indiana
A trail behind our Indiana campground

As a nature photographer and more recently an RV traveler, I must admit that chasing icon photos is not on my radar screen when it comes to planning our travels. In fact, just the opposite is true. I rather relish in the challenge of exploring the nature of a non-iconic location and attempting to create art from it with my camera. This approach to photography started fifteen years ago in the Everglades where there are no grand waterfalls or majestic mountains to photograph. It is in the subtleness of the Everglades that I learned how to connect photography with my wilderness experience. Through my relentless pursuit of capturing nature intimately, I learned to be fully immersed and take the time to get to know the place. By doing so, I notice the little things and discover something new to photograph all the time.

The subtlety of the Everglades

Far away from the Everglades, it was in the middle of Indiana farm country that I came to appreciate the little things that we encounter on our travels. And it was all because family comes first in our travels, meaning our routes are designed to include quality time in and around Indianapolis. During our first family visit, we stayed two weeks at White River campground in Hamilton County, about 30 miles north of Indianapolis. Open fields of wild foliage and farm land dominate this area. And the muddy White River cuts through it. The prospects of catching fish or photographing spectacular nature seemed awfully dim to Vivian and me; after all, there is nothing iconic about this location. Or is there?

Yellow flower
Nothing iconic about a yellow flower, but it sure is beautiful.

Spending time in Indiana surprisingly piqued my photography interest. But mostly, it helped me to connect my approach to photography with our approach to RV traveling. As we traveled and observed through our RV window, we began to devote more time to researching a location and learning its most fascinating stories as we traveled through it. And when we stopped at a location for a short time, we tried to immerse ourselves in the area’s history and ecology. Our favorite on-the-road pastime while the other one drove was iphone-research when passing through a small town. We learned that each of those obscure little towns has a compelling story to tell and it is so much fun to read about it while driving through it. Our RV travels are about discovering these unknown stories and the people that make this country what it is. In a way, I do the same with my camera by taking the time to discover nature’s story, even when there is nothing iconic to photograph.

Honey bee
I spent several hours looking for bees to photograph.

Walking the hiking trails through the fields of Indiana where yellow wildflowers had seen better days, I became focused on the small things and thoroughly enjoyed it. Instead of resenting my two weeks spent near Indianapolis rather than a more beautiful and iconic location, I took it all in and made plans for future visits. So, thank you Indiana for helping me confirm that our RV travels are not about racking up icon points and “getting the epic shot” that so many others have done in the past; but rather, they are about enriching our lives through the discovery of the unknown and taking the time to notice the small things along the way. Perhaps icons can be found most anywhere if we choose to see it that way.

Intentional blur
When hard pressed to find something to photograph, there’s always the abstract intentional blur shot!
cow parsnip
Not sure, but this might be cow parsnip. Regardless, I thought it was quite interesting.

Aug 15, 2018 – Potholes

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” Babs Hoffman

Indy cartoon
Cartoonist Gary Varvel: Indianapolis potholes

Traveling through the United States in an RV makes one keenly aware of road conditions. Every slope, grade, rut, low-hanging tree, covered bridge, soft shoulder, sheer drop off, crack and pothole is experienced with a heightened awareness. And with a good amount of mileage covered, it becomes quite evident that each state and each county within a state has its own governance when it comes to road maintenance. How many times have you crossed a state or county line and encountered the most dramatic change in road conditions? Depending on which direction the conditions go, your body goes into passive or defensive mode. I understand that each state or county has its issues; but Indiana, or more specifically Marion County has a very serious pothole problem.

They do try.

My family, including my 91-yr old mother is the reason Indianapolis is always a destination in our travels. Not that Indianapolis is a bad city but every time I visit, I ask myself why couldn’t my family, all originally from northern Michigan, have gravitated toward Seattle or Austin? I would be just as happy had everyone stayed in beautiful northern Michigan! But no, they ended up in Indianapolis, one family member after another. Having visited Indy more times than I can remember over the past forty years, I can genuinely tell you that it has been a struggle to find redeeming qualities to this city and this is largely because I am not a fan of race cars or basketball. But to be fair, it is the home town of Kurt Vonnegut, author to one of my favorite books.

indy road
My daily commute to mom’s house.

The state of Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America and Indianapolis contributes well to this with six interstate highways crossing through town. Which brings me to the topic of the blog, potholes. I repeat, Marion County has a serious pothole problem. Don’t believe me? Check out the pothole map below. I totally understand that northern cities are subjected to snow and ice, and consequently have challenges that cities like Miami do not. Knowing a little bit about physics, I also understand that cold temperatures cause water to freeze and expand, and warm temperatures do the opposite. It’s during the spring when freezing and thawing oscillate more frequently. This in turn places the greatest stress on roads and makes them vulnerable to pothole formation. Apparently, this year has been one of the worst pothole seasons for Indianapolis.

Pothole map
Commuters swerving to miss a pothole are also on their phones to report the pothole.
Pothole Data
And this is one reason Miami does not have a serious pothole problem.

No doubt, Indianapolis is not the only city challenged by potholes. Nevertheless, it is a good example of a city that does not address its road maintenance budget adequately. It has tried, more recently with a 10 cent increase on top of the 18 cent gas tax, and a hefty vehicle registration fee. And for a long time, Marion County has considered imposing a commuter tax. This would affect those suburbanites from surrounding counties who travel into the city to work. To some Indianapolis officials, it seems only fair that people who use Indianapolis streets and infrastructures should contribute to its maintenance. Just to get poor roads elevated to fair status, Indianapolis requires almost three quarters of a billion dollars and twice its current annual funding to maintain fair status. Many folks believe a commuter tax would bring in the needed funds. But, unfortunately for the city, a commuter tax requires approval from the surrounding counties and guess what? They are not approving. Does the phrase, “Taxation without representation ring a bell?

Open Source Roads
Mike Warren and Chris Lang taking matters into their own hands.

Why can’t the people of Indianapolis have good roads? There is no clear answer here, which must frustrate many Indianapolis residents. So much so that a handful have taken it upon themselves to fix the potholes. Take for instance Mike Warren and Chris Lang, who created Open Source Roads and a GoFundMe campaign to repair Indianapolis’s roads, one pothole at a time. And then there is Quinn Daily who used red spray paint to draw lines around the potholes. Soon after, he noticed that drivers slowed down and avoided the spray-painted potholes. “I was doing this just as a joke, said Daily, “I’m actually doing good!” But, even with good intentions, Open Source Roads can barely scratch the pavement surface.

The artist learned that his city could be embarrassed into fixing the potholes.

So, where does this leave Indianapolis’s pothole dilemma? Maybe Indy citizens can learn from an anonymous man from Manchester, England who took to drawing penises around potholes out of frustration over the number of them in the streets. The artist, who calls himself “Wanksy” says the drawings fade within a week or two and are just a creative way of getting something done. Apparently, the city was embarrassed enough to fix those potholes.

Pothole art
The good side of potholes, inspired art.

In the meantime RV travelers, if you visit or drive around Indianapolis, be extra mindful of those road craters. And if you see a couple of young guys filling potholes or another one spraying red paint around them, give a honk and a wave; but please, don’t take your eyes of the road for a second, even if you see a pothole with a penis drawn around it.

Aug 13, 2018 – A Cave, a Woman and a Camera

I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow!” Frances Benjamin Johnston

Cave Exit
Coming out of the cave into the light.

One thing I have learned during our RV travels thus far, is that no matter what place we visit, there is a story of a fascinating person connected to it. Who would have thought that by visiting a cave in Kentucky, I would become immersed in the unlikely story of an accomplished Victorian-era photographer.

Self Portrait
A self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston.

It all began when we spent two nights in Kentucky at Lake Nolin State Park near Mammoth Cave National Park. It was a nice enough campground on a pleasant enough lake. But we didn’t come for the water this time; instead, we came for the cave. Thus, we signed up for a couple tours and spent a day underground in the longest cave in the world.

Inside the Cave
Without the use of flash, I used the artificial lighting provided by the park to create some images.

While I was fascinated with the possibility of photographing inside the cave (without use of flash, which is not allowed by the way), my interest did more than produce a few photos; it also got me intrigued with an obscure history of Mammoth Cave. In the visitor center’s museum, there hangs a large placard about a woman who photographed inside the cave over a 125 years ago. As soon as I saw the large print title “A Woman, a Cave, and a Camera”, I immediately ran over and began reading about Frances Benjamin Johnston.

The park’s display about Frances Benjamin Johnston.

What I read about Johnston was intriguing enough, but upon doing some research, I became more intrigued. Outside the cave, she accomplished many great things during her long life (1864-1952). From the library of Congress, I learned that Johnston had a 60-yr photography career that began when she studied art in Paris in the 1880s. Granted, she was born into wealth which gave her the leverage to pursue her photography career. Not only that, her parents had great social standing and connected her with highly influential people including Teddy Roosevelt and several other presidents whom she photographed inside the White House. Some of her most famous studio portrait subjects included Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony. And her first camera was given to her by a close family friend and inventor of the Eastman Kodak camera, George Eastman.

The Photographer
Johnston on the balcony of the Treasury building.

She may have been born into privilege which helped launch her career, but her parents could as easily forbade her from pursuing her passion. When I read about Johnston’s work, there is no doubt in my mind that her success came entirely from her exceptional drive and motivation, tireless ability to work hard, and keen artistic vision. This woman, unleashed in a Victorian era was a remarkably creative and cutting edge photographer.

Cave 1
Johnston’s photo of a cave guide.

Johnston was one of the first photojournalists in the country (1890s) and wrote articles for several magazines. Her photos were regularly shown at world’s fairs and international photo exhibits. She took an interest in progressive education and documented schools created for black and Indian students throughout the states. In the 1910s, she began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography. For her research and her lectures on gardens, she traveled all over the United States and Europe. Later, she focused more on the documentation of historic buildings in the south by traveling thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South with the intention of preserving its history through her art. In addition to all that, she sold prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Johnston earned several commissions and grants that provided her the resources to do the work. According to Wikipedia, her collection of photographs given to the Library of Congress is a significant resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.

Cave 2
Victorian Era Ecotourism, photo by Johnston.

Through my research, I could not determine what got Johnston interested in photographing Mammoth Cave, so I came up with my own idea. In her time, the cave was a privately owned tourist attraction with international acclaim. It was normal for high society tourists to set up a proper picnic lunch in the cave and eat by gas light. I compare this to the current ecotourism industry in that people who were able to pay for it visited the cave for a unique adventure. I suspect Johnston went into the cave not because her wealth gave her access to it or that it supplemented her Bohemian lifestyle; no, I think she was attracted to the cave for the challenge of photographing it. Her interest was great enough that she wrote a book titled “Mammoth Cave by Flash Light”. And we are not talking LED flash, we are talking dangerous explosive flash powder. Being an unconventional woman, she used unconventional methods to light the cave, all for creative and technical experimentation.


Clearly, women’s place in society has greatly evolved since the Victorian era. To that end, successful women leaders are a dime a dozen these days; whereas over one hundred years ago, Johnston was a radical. But even today, women still lag behind in leadership positions compared to men. For this reason and despite being from a century past, Johnston serves as an excellent role model for contemporary girls and young women. Not only that, it is these unconventional, crazy-motivated women like Johnston who help pave the way for so many women to pursue their passion. And it is so critical to women’s progress that these stories be told in public.

Indeed, in 1893, Johnston  told a reporter,  “It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work.” It’s doubtful that all visitors to Mammoth Cave will grasp all this, but maybe a young girl loving her camera just might.

Low lighting in the cave created interesting shadows.

Aug 9, 2018 – Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

When you come to a fork in the road … take it.” Yogi Berra

Empty Road
The day started out so easily. We all wish our drive could be like this all the time, right?

Railroad crossings in Alabama do not often come with a signal. Following a near miss, we were told that you must roll down the window and use your ears. As Vivian drove through a small back road to an intersection, we were so frazzled from the day’s drive that it did not occur to us that our rig would be standing over a railroad track as the truck came to a stop. Nor did it occur to us that an actual train would be whizzing down the tracks not so far from said intersection. In the nick of time, Vivian pulled out of the way but not before we both saw the whites of the engineer’s eyes. A railroad track only 15 feet from a stop sign makes you think.

Driving in Rain
Unfortunately, most of the day looked like this.

Let me back up. Vivian had driven on various roads and highways that day before the train incident and much of it was done in white-out rain conditions. We had left White Oak River Campground on Lake Eufaula early in the morning with intentions of driving approximately 240 miles; so we figured about five hours at the most. It started out nicely, very little traffic on a four-lane highway and no grades. But then things started to change. More traffic, more hills and lots and lots of rain. At one point we were heading up a very steep wet road and cars coming toward us were flashing their lights. Our lights were on, so we had no idea why they were flashing us, that is until we crested the steep hill and could see an accident scene straight ahead of us through the torrential rain interrupted by the rapid movement of the windshield wipers. Thankfully, the truck brakes worked well (if you are wondering about the trailer brakes, go to my first blog, more on that later) and we avoided disaster within inches.

The day was not quite over as we bypassed the town of Gadsen, only a short 50 miles from our destination, Lake Guntersville State Park. By then, we had been on the road about six hours. Going 55 mph, we rounded a corner and encountered a moment of panic as we approached a covered bridge. No time or place to stop, we drove under and thankfully, no sounds of metal scraping were heard.

That moment when you try to remember the height of your RV.

According to my research prior to our trip, the worse part of the route was ahead of us as I knew we would have to do some serious climbing on narrow winding roads to get to Lake Guntersville. Previously, I inquired on an RV forum if anyone knew the best way to get to the park as it appeared there were two ways to enter from Highway 227. Someone very familiar with the routes highly suggested we avoid coming in from the south and instead, enter from the north. His description of the drive is the following, “White knuckle would be coming in from Guntersville on 227 up and down a long winding grade with one turn about 90 degrees and a few places with nearly sheer drops.” In order to avoid that, we would drive about 20 miles out of the way and enter from the north side.

Driving Rives Rd
That moment you realize you made the wrong turn.

Seven hours of driving later, we approached a critical moment where we could continue to the “out of the way, but safer” route, or take the more “direct, but not recommended” route. Road weary, we decided to take the direct route. This led us to make a left turn onto Rives Rd. Soon, we realized that we were on a road that was barely wide enough for our truck and RV. It led us through private farms and ranches, all of which I am sure were equipped with a respectable arsenal of firearms. At least there were no dogs running out to the road. But there were chickens, the free roaming kind and at one point, we had to stop several times as the chickens played chicken with us. The horses in the field looked up at us with bewilderment, probably thinking we were coming for them. Driving on a road barely wider than a bicycle path made us cringe thinking about what was going on inside the RV with every bump and pothole. 1.2 miles later, we laughed with such relief as we arrived at a stop sign and turned onto a respectable road.

Rives Rd
The infamous Rives Rd from Google maps.

Vivian, having driven all day was glued to the steering wheel. A few more miles on some easy sloping roads led us toward the dreaded highway 227. We would do exactly the opposite of what was recommended to us. All my painstaking efforts to route us safely to the state park all went out the window. Soon, Vivian was testing our truck’s exhaust brakes up and down a 8% grade that went on for miles. Slowly driving, we accumulated several cars behind us, until we reached a straight-away and everyone quickly abandoned our convoy before the next sharp turn up a grade. Soon after, we arrived at beautiful Lake Guntersville feeling so much love for our diesel full ton.

A view of Lake Guntersville. The drive was well worth it.

It was a three-cocktail night for Vivian whose fingers had to be peeled off the steering wheel. Soon after hooking up and dealing with an unlevel campsite, we walked to the edge of Lake Guntersville while passing several deer grazing in a grassy area of the campground. The sun was still high as it began its evening descent over the water. Toasting once again, we, the RV traveling newbies, made it to yet another beautiful location. Roll with the tide, cheers Alabama.

Aug 10, 2018 – For the Greater Good

The fact is, they’re floodin’ this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole darn state. Yessir, the south is gonna change.” Ethan and Joel Coen.

At the entrance of the Guntersville Museum.

Having three days to spend at Lake Guntersville State Park, we decided to use one of them to visit the “city”. We drove the infamous Highway 227 down into a valley to the small town of Guntersville of which 40% is comprised of water. We found ourselves in the Guntersville Museum for a couple hours and it is there that I learned how the Tennessee Valley Authority changed the south.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created in 1933 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It had three goals – improve agriculture practices, provide electricity to much of the rural south and tame the Tennessee River. Essentially, the TVA changed both the economic and ecologic face of the Tennessee River Valley that included Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

The recorded narration in the museum’s display described the bold construction of 16 dams and a steam plant. To achieve its goals, as the narration goes on to describe, the TVA was given the power to remove families from their homes and relocate them. Ultimately, the dams provided access to electricity for the first time to a vast area of the south and the TVA continues to be the largest public utility and power supplier in the United States.


This got me thinking about the greater good. There was great distrust and cynicism toward the government when Roosevelt created the New Deal as there was (is) distrust toward the Affordable Healthcare Act. I suppose part of that has to do with the fact that when there are effective wide spread changes, there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers. But in theory, these changes are created to minimize the losing side and over time, lead to a greater good. But, the seemingly biggest losers appear to have the loudest voice of opposition. Case in point, the TVA’s most vocal critic was Wendell Willkie, president of the largest utility company, the Commonwealth and Southern. Despite his opposition, Willkie negotiated with TVA and eventually ceded – “We accept the inevitable with good spirit and are selling our properties at as good a price as we can get the government to pay.”

TVA ad
An advertisement for the TVA’s program for improving agricultural practices.

Despite opposition, the TVA moved forward and transformed the south, providing thousands of families and farms with a higher standard of living. But of course, there were losers. A more recent example of the losing end was in 2008, when the TVA, being one of the largest coal industry customers created the country’s largest coal ash spill, smothering over 300 acres of land and several houses.


And then there is the story of Jim and Mattie Randolph and their seven children, one cow, one pig and sixty chickens back in 1936. To accommodate the hydroelectric dam projects, the Randolphs were one of thousands of families forced out of their home and relocated. The story of “plain stubborn” Mattie Randolph is a popular one because she refused to the bitter end to leave her two-room log cabin and 14-acres of land as the Norris Dam reservoir was being created. The TVA personnel that were charged with evicting the Randolphs could not understand why the family wished to remain in their home rather than live elsewhere in better conditions. A caseworker wrote, “The six children seemed happy, but why or how is the question – [The Randolphs] have very limited experiences, do not want a better place to live, or electric lights, or a bath room, or any other high-falutin thing.” The Randolphs had no understanding of the TVA and what it was all about. That is because the Randolph’s world did not reach beyond their 14 acres, that was all they knew or cared to know.


Currently, American citizens are waging a war against each other all in the name of government politics. It seems “the greater good” has two very different interpretations, depending on which side you’re on. I think of the New Deal, the Great Society and the Affordable Healthcare Act and wonder why so many resisted these government-mandated changes. Is it simply because we don’t take kindly to our government imposing social experiments that disrupt our own personal world? It probably is not as simple as that, but then again, maybe it is. At least for Mattie Randolph who lost her entire world, it was.

Lewis Hines Photograph 1
If I can inject photography into a story, I certainly will. Lewis Hines was hired to do a photographic survey of the TVA as it was constructing its dams. What came out of that project is more than a survey, it became art. This photo is one of his pieces.
Pickwick Damresized
Another Lewis Hines photograph.

Aug 7, 2018 – Sweet Home Alabama

Hey Stan, you’re in Ala-F***in-Bama.” Vinny Gambini

In Phenix City, AL, the tombstone of a bridge-builder and slave owner reads the following, “John Godwin Born Oct. 17, 1798. Died Feb 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.

Horace King’s monument to his friend and master, John Godwin.

I first learned about Horace King at the Shorter Mansion museum in Eufaula, Alabama. While camped on Lake Eufaula, Vivian and I drove to town on a persistently rainy day and found refuge at this beautiful mansion and museum. Although the history of Eufaula and its surrounding area are deserving of attention, what I keep thinking about is the story of Horace King. I read it with interest from a placard that was within three steps of a display about Governor George Wallace. Most Americans have heard of Wallace, but few would recognize King, so the paradox of the two coming together in a historical museum would go entirely unnoticed by most.

Shorter Museum
The large columns of the classical-revival Shorter Mansion stand majestically.

Horace King was born a slave in 1807 and became the property of John Godwin in 1829. Godwin was a bridge builder who saw great opportunity in Alabama with all its waterways. Bridges and roads needed to be built. King’s relationship to Godwin was more partner than slave as King played a significant role in designing and building bridges. He supervised many of Godwin’s projects, which in the day were considered superior workmanship. King’s reputation as a builder and his fortunes grew over time and eventually, he became an elected Alabama state representative. In 1846, Horace King became a free man when Godwin’s family released him. In honor of his previous owner and friend, he purchased a Masonic monument and erected it on Godwin’s grave, where the inscription above can be read.

Horace King’s official emancipation notice.

A few steps further, I read about Governor George Wallace. The museum’s display tells us about Wallace’s positive contributions to the state of Alabama, barely eluding to what made Wallace most famous in the United States. Wallace’s inaugural speech in 1963 (which was nowhere in the museum’s tribute to him) sums it up quite well – “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

I must admit, when I think of Alabama I think of segregation and intolerance. This may not be a fair assessment give how little I know about the state, but then there are so many accounts, from long past and more current that make it difficult to believe otherwise. Voting rights are still being suppressed in more predominantly black counties, it is the only state in the U.S. where the majority of residents oppose same-sex marriage, it passed the harshest anti-immigration law in 2011 (it was overturned federally), recently passed the most restrictive law affecting women’s access to healthcare, and holds a city (Gadsen) that was ranked the worst place to be a woman by 24/7 Wall Street.

No words.

Alabama, you are a complicated state of citizens ranging between the two extremes, anti-everything-that-is-not-white-male-or-straight policy makers and the people who overcome their policies in great ways. You were born from cotton where black slaves worked and died, but you are the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Someone once wrote that Alabama is proud of its divisive past, as well as its reputation for being at the forefront of equality.

A window display in downtown Eufaula.

I am a Caucasian and Vivian is a white-looking Latina, so clearly, we will never experience racism in Alabama. On the other hand, we are two women, married to each other. Ironically, I felt a sense of belonging when the Shorter Mansion museum host described the yearly Antebellum pilgrimage where visitors can tour several historical homes in Eufaula. One of those homes is a grand Victorian-style house owned by two men, a couple as she described them. She was proud to share with us the rich history of Eufaula and its historic mansions, and she let us know in a matter-of-fact way, that the couple being gay was simply an inconsequential part of that richness.

Despite the brouhaha of ‘us vs them’ politics, within a community people must get along. It doesn’t matter what the community is, an RV park, a state, a small southern antebellum town, a fishing village or a large metropolis, we are all in this together and quite often, we depend on each other. Vivian and I are members of several communities, one of which is Chokoloskee Islanders and another, fulltime RV’ers. We know from experience that when it comes to neighbors, who a person loves, their gender or their race matters not in comparison to how we treat each other. George Wallace the governor of Alabama did not understand that, perhaps John Godwin the slave owner did, and certainly, the Shorter Mansion Museum host does.

Horace King
Horace King was a bridge builder in more than one way.