In May of 2009, I started this blog to document my travels in the Airstream. 50 U.S. states, 10 Canadian provinces, and 100,000+ towed miles later, I have no immediate plans of stopping. But with social media changing the way many of us communicate, my focus will be on quick Instagram updates instead of long entries on my blog. Almost everything will still still filter back to here; just look for my latest location, tweets, and photos along the sidebar on the right. But if you really want to stay current, just follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr.
The Avalon Peninsula is home to over half of the island’s population of 500,000. St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, is near the tip of the northeast corner of the peninsula. It is the oldest English-founded city in North America and has the oldest street in North America. It also has some of the steepest streets I have ever seen.
Just a few minutes after arriving downtown, about to head up to Signal Hill, the oil pressure light in the Touareg went absolutely berserk. This isn’t the normal oil light with a gentle ding. It is the other light with a piercing alarm and warning to stop the engine immediately. The street was so steep that I temporarily lost oil pressure. Apparently I was a few quarts low on oil! After pouring in four quarts, I was good to go again. Note: keep a better eye on oil levels.
What country outside of Canada is the nearest neighbor to Newfoundland? Is it Greenland? Nope. The United States? Not even close. It is France! Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an archipelago of eight islands, is a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France. It is only 12 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. There is a daily ferry that runs from Fortune, Newfoundland to the capital city of Saint-Pierre. Unfortunately, it is a passenger-only ferry, so I couldn’t take the Airstream or the Touareg. Even so, it was an adventure!
Every once in a while, I turn around and decide to head right back to where I just left. I get a feeling when I think I have missed something worth seeing. And every once in a while it turns into something magical. It happened in Talkeetna, Alaska last summer and it happened this month in Bonavista, Newfoundland.
From my research, from the staff at the visitor center, from fellow travelers, it was clear the Bonavista Peninsula was a place to visit. The problem: it was a couple of hours from the TCH (Trans-Canada Highway), the one nearby provincial park was booked, and another private campground had less-than-stellar reviews. So I rolled through with the Airstream, trying to navigate the tight spaces of places like Trinity, Elliston, “The Dungeon,” Spillar’s Cove, and Bonavista Head. It just wasn’t working. I took a few photos, rushed through the area, and started to head back to the TCH – right past the campground that others had disliked.
So, Newfoundland. What an incredibly unique place! Officially part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland itself is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Most people with RVs take a ferry from Nova Scotia to reach the island. You could also take a ferry from the mainland part of Labrador. Or you could fly there. There are no roads or bridges to Newfoundland; there is simply too much open water surrounding the island.
I took the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. This is probably the most common crossing because it only takes about six hours and runs year round. Port aux Basques is only a few hours away from Gros Morne National Park, easily the most scenic area of the entire western half of the island. Back in the fall of 2010, I briefly visited Gros Morne, but vowed to return for a longer stay with better weather.
On my first visit to Nova Scotia back in 2010, I took the long way through New Brunswick. This time, I took a shortcut. A ferry across the Bay of Fundy to the town of Digby cut the day’s drive down to just a few hours. My plan was to check out the western part of Nova Scotia, most of which I missed the last time. Unfortunately, a low pressure weather system moved in about the same time I did.
In the fog and mist, I made my way to the Digby Neck, a peninsula made of two thick lava flows. Near the tip of the peninsula is “Balancing Rock,” a 30-foot-tall basalt column that has somehow balanced itself for over 200 years. The rock is on Long Island, a section only accessible by a 3.5-minute crossing aboard the Petit Princess ferry. Normally just a $5 round-trip toll, I had to pay a $1.50 surcharge to take the Airstream on the ferry. Not a bad deal! Once on the island, and after a quick drive through the small village of Tiverton, there is a gentle 1.5-mile hike down to St. Mary’s Bay. Then, there are 235 steep steps to get an eye-level view of the rock. Yes, 235 steps! It was quite literally breathtaking—at right around step number 460 on the way back up.
“O, Canada!” I can’t help but hum the national anthem every time I cross the border into the land of maple leaves, hockey, and never-ending politeness.
This time I decided to enter Canada via the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge to Campobello Island, New Brunswick. And, by “decided,” I mean that I drove past a sign for the bridge, made a U-turn, and figured I would see what it was like crossing the border at Lubec, Maine instead of my original plan of Calais, Maine. You may have heard of Campobello. The Roosevelt family had a house there and spent many summers on the island. In fact, this is the exact spot where FDR first developed paralysis in the summer of 1921. I did a quick tour of the house, but even though I was officially in Canada, I knew I needed to catch two different ferries to get back to the Canadian mainland.
“What’s your favorite place?” is the number one question I get asked on my travels. “But how much does it cost?” is usually the next one. Up until now, I’ve always been very vague because it is such a personal topic. I don’t just mean personal as in private, but personal as in individual and unique. Unlike a home mortgage or apartment rental, the costs of living in a house on wheels can vary drastically from month to month. And even when comparing my living costs with other fulltimers, it is easy to see how different expectations result in different monthly costs.
“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.
But the story really begins a few days earlier.
Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.
Just north of Anchorage is the town of Wasilla. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The former mayor, Sarah Palin, and her family still live in town. Thanks to Google, I noticed their house was just down the road from my campground. I had to go check it out! I drove up to the driveway expecting to find a gate, a security outpost, something. All I found were a few “No Trespassing” signs on a nondescript wooden fence just off the main nondescript highway full of chain restaurants and retail stores. The best word to describe everything would be–you guessed it–nondescript.
After politely answering all the customs officer’s questions, I entered Alaska again near the town of Tok. And, by “near,” I mean “almost 100 miles.” Other than the border crossing, there isn’t much at all going on in this part of the Alaska Highway. In fact, parts of it are actually a bit boring. At Tok, I turned off of the Alaska Highway with plans to head towards Anchorage. But, as usual, my plans changed.
While spending the night in Glennallen, I happened to notice the sign to Valdez. There is only one road into Valdez and it stops just on the other side of town; it would be a quick round trip. For the first hour or so–with nothing too interesting–I wondered if I had made a mistake. And then I turned the corner to head up Thompson Pass. With a bright blue sky and puffy white clouds, mountain peaks in every direction, waterfalls, glaciers, melting snow and ice, it was an arctic heaven reachable by automobile. Even other travelers I met (who had also driven several thousand miles to reach this place) were in awe of the scenery that day.
To get from Southeast Alaska to Southcentral Alaska, there is a little country called Canada that gets in the way. The Haines Highway (out of Haines, Alaska) and Klondike Highway (out of Skagway, Alaska) both pass through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. And to confuse things even more, there is a time zone change: the Yukon (on Pacific Time) is one hour ahead of the Alaska Time Zone.
To give you an idea of what it’s like to drive in the Yukon Territory, I took some photos as I was driving about 100 kilometers per hour up the Haines Highway. The scenery is incredible, but it is as desolate as the photos depict. Yes, I made sure to stop for gas in both “towns” I drove through. I had a little fog, a little rain, and a little sunshine. There were two 15-kilometer sections that were gravel. It is part of regular road maintenance to repair damage caused by the frost heaves. There were actually sections of the paved road that were in far worse shape than the gravel. You may have heard me yell a few times when the Touareg and Airstream caught some unintentional air.
At a very bright and very early 7 o’clock in the morning, I departed Juneau on the M/V Malaspina for the 92-mile, 4-hour sailing to Haines, my last stop on the Alaska Marine Highway System and Alaska’s Inside Passage. As usual, the sights were pretty amazing. But, since I had to wake up at 4:30, I admit I dozed off for about an hour about midway through the sailing.
I know I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating; go see the Inside Passage! It seemed to get better and better as the passage narrowed, the mountains grew, the animals appeared, and the skies cleared. With decent food and alcohol options, observation decks, bathrooms, showers, cabins, and recliners, it was an extremely comfortable ride. I wasn’t on a luxurious cruise ship, but for the price, the ferries were a great alternative. The price is even better if you don’t drive your home on board.
Did you know Juneau used to be called Harrisburg? Two gold prospectors named Harris and Juneau founded the town back in the late 1800s, but Harris “fell out of favor” with the locals and they changed the name.
As is the case with almost every single town in Southeast Alaska, Juneau has no roads leading into it. And it’s the state capital. It took almost eight hours to sail on the M/V Matanuska from Petersburg to Juneau. Finally, finally, finally the seas were calm and the skies were clear. In fact, it was so calm, we had glassy waters for several hours. With snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and icebergs all around, it almost felt as if we were gliding over ice.
Petersburg, nicknamed “Little Norway,” is the next stop on my journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Founded by a Norwegian, Peter Buschmann, back in 1910, the streets today are still filled with Nordic flags and decorative paintings called rosemaling. Imagine an island with snow-capped peaks, glaciers, inlets, bald eagles, longliners, seiners, trollers, gillnetters, crabbers, harbors, seaplanes, friendly people, and a road that ends just outside of town. It easily makes my top five list of best isolated towns in America.
If you’ve followed along at home, you know Alaska (the 49th state in the Union) is my 49th state in the Airstream. I think it technically counted when I passed through U.S. Customs and boarded the M/V Matanuska (a ferry owned by the state of Alaska) in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. But I didn’t count it until I rolled off the ferry into the port of Ketchikan, Alaska and onto dry land.
And I’m not even to the main part of Alaska yet. I’m in southeast Alaska, a part only accessible by sea or air. In fact, to get to the rest of Alaska, I will have to hop on another series of ferries, and then drive through another part of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory before reaching the main Alaskan border. From Ketchikan to Anchorage: 1,120 miles.
“So what’s your favorite state?” That’s the question I get asked all the time. My answer is always, “The states along the coast are pretty amazing!” Well, I spent the last three weeks in a pretty amazing state along the coast; it’s called Oregon.
I saw plenty of fog and clouds in Eugene, drove in a snowstorm over Santiam Pass, gazed at stars in the clear, cool nights of Bend, walked through snow on Mt. Hood, felt the wind and sideways rain along the Pacific coast, and even turned on the air conditioner in the surrounding countryside of Portland.
I was all set to spend another winter in southern California, but the Airstream gods had other plans. On my way through Vegas, the electrical system decided to stop working—as in: no solar, no batteries, no 12V, no 120V. A quick check on the “interwebs” found the closest authorized Airstream service center in a place called Apache Junction, Arizona. So I headed to Apache Junction, a town in the metropolitan Phoenix area. It turned out the electrical converter had stopped—well—converting. The guys at Dillon’s RV City replaced the converter, fixed a leak in the roof, and repacked the wheel bearings—in no time at all. After the repairs were done, they recommended I stay at Usery Mountain Regional Park, a Maricopa County campground just a few minutes away, so I did.
There are about 4 million miles of public roads in the United States. 120 of those public roads are considered National Scenic Byways. And 31 of those byways are considered All-American Roads because they have features not seen elsewhere in the U.S. With 20 million annual visitors, the most popular All-American Road is the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina.
It has no stop signs or traffic signals, no interchange ramps, no commercial vehicles. With no straight section–well, anywhere–and two lanes the entire length, the speed limit is 45mph. But no one is in a hurry. Around every corner is a turnout with panoramic vistas galore. Elevation is as low as 650 feet MSL and goes up to 6000 feet MSL. The roller coaster of a ride probably averages about 2000 feet MSL. The Touareg definitely got a workout pulling the Airstream all week.
On my way to Vermont, I stumbled upon a little place called upstate New York. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Niagara Falls, Finger Lakes, Thousand Islands, the Adirondacks. Waterfalls, vineyards, orchards. Mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, log cabins. Ballooning, soaring, skiing. Ivy leaguers and manufacturers. Who knew? I didn’t.
I spent the first several days in the Niagara Falls region. I think every kid in America has heard of Niagara Falls, so I figured it was probably worth checking out. The falls are on the Niagara River, part of the border between Ontario, Canada and the state of New York. On the U.S. side, Niagara Falls is a state park (actually the oldest state park in the United States). T-shirt stands, food trucks, gaudy signs, your run-of-the-mill tourist traps inundate the several blocks surrounding the state park, but once you make it into the park part of Niagara Falls, it is actually pretty impressive. The sheer power of the falls are hard to describe unless seen in person. It’s one of those places every person needs to see at least once.
So this is the last night of my three-week stay at Cushing Field, a grass airstrip on the outskirts of Chicago airspace. Why park the Airstream at a grass airstrip for three weeks? Well, they let me stay here as long as I rent an airplane every so often. I think I can handle that. Along with the obligatory refresher of take-offs and landings, and the scenic tours of the Illinois Valley with an occasional passenger, I did two pretty cool things during this stay at Cushing.
I have always wanted to take my golf clubs in the airplane and find an airport right next to a golf course. So I did it! Blackstone Golf Club is a course I have played several times. It just so happens to have a nearby private grass airstrip used mainly for gliders, appropriately named Sky Soaring Airport. Along with permission to land, I got the unlisted radio frequency and local flight rules in use at Sky Soaring. Water bottle, muffin, iPhone, iPad, golf shoes, golf bag, and flight bag in hand, I loaded up the SportCruiser and took off for a distant speck of grass. I can’t believe it, but I actually found the airstrip, entered left downwind at 45 degrees, and landed on Runway 27 just as my friend pulled up in his black SUV. I believe his first words to me went something like, “You just landed in some guy’s backyard, and left the airplane sitting there. You know you look like a total drug dealer.” It was pretty cool to land in “some guy’s backyard” and then immediately go golfing. And the woman at the pro shop thought it was pretty cool that I flew in for my tee time. As cool as that was, I think what I did tonight was even cooler.
Looking for a laid-back atmosphere in a frost-free climate with 1,700 islands of coral reef no more than 20 feet above sea level? Oh, and you want to drive there from the continental U.S.? Then head to the archipelago just a few hours south of Miami commonly known as the Florida Keys.
There is only one major road running the length of the Keys, and it is U.S. Route 1. The popular areas from northeast to southwest are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West. About 80,000 people call the Keys home, with a third from Key West alone. All landmarks are referenced by mile markers; Mile Marker 0 is at Key West and Key Largo is around Mile Marker 106.
Land Yacht Harbor of Melbourne (or LYH as the residents call it) is an RV park in the Orlando area of Florida. I use the term RV park loosely, as it is really more of a close-knit snowbird community built around RVers. Airstreamers built the park in the 1970s, and up until a few years ago, only Airstream brands were allowed to stay. They have since relaxed their rules and let in SOBs (Some Other Brands) — their words, not mine — but over 80% of units at LYH are Airstreams. There is another rule: the minimum age is 50. Well, some rules were meant to broken, and I was given special dispensation to spend some time with the “old folks.” I think it helped that I was mentioned in Airstream Life magazine and that I was, in fact, an Airstream owner. I’m so glad they let me in. Seriously, so glad.
Imagine a nine-year-old kid who, in 1984, was so fascinated with the first launch of the Discovery space shuttle, he painted it for a summer art class. Fast forward nearly 27 years and imagine that same kid watching the final launch of Discovery–in person–with his very own eyes.
Never would I have imagined being a mere 45 minutes away from Cape Canaveral, home of so many launches to space, during a scheduled launch. Once I found out about the scheduled launch of STS-133 Discovery during my stay in the southeast, I had to see it in person. Little did I know my wait would be 111 days. It was scrubbed five separate times and continually delayed for various reasons. But that’s alright; it gave me time to get my act together.
I have always had this fascination with old and new, a vintage look in a contemporary world. Why do you think I chose an Airstream as my home? I have been lucky enough to visit historic cities like Montréal, Québec City, Williamsburg, St. Augustine, and Savannah. Add Charleston, South Carolina to that list and put it right near the top!
I don’t think I have ever seen so many restored, historic, livable (i.e. expensive) homes in one area. It was just one after another, after another, after another. I went up and down the streets of The Battery, on foot and on bike. I would have taken one of the many available horse and carriage had I not been–well–a single dude. Seriously, no way that was happening.
The Outer Banks (OBX), a strip of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, was my home for almost a week. It is most famous for Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, the area where the Wright brothers first took flight in their Wright Flyer back in 1903. As a pilot, it was pretty cool to stop at the Wright Brothers National Monument to see firsthand where this magical moment took place. The original rail used to launch the first flights is still in its exact spot. Plaques on stones mark the first distances flown by the brothers. Several exhibits and artifacts are available for your viewing pleasure. Overlooking it all is a massive memorial dedicated to the brothers. The only weird part is the original airplane is not there; it is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. But still, it is a must-see place for any aviation enthusiast!
Next golf stop on the Eastern Seaboard: the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Officially, I had been to these states before, but it was just traveling through on the interstates. This was a chance to knock three states off my golf list.
In Delaware, I played a decent course called The Rookery. The best part wasn’t the course itself; it was the people I met at the course. (There is probably some metaphor for life in that last statement.) I hope to see my new golf friends later this year down in Florida. I’d never pass up a free round of golf at a private club!
After 61 days, 24 campgrounds, 10 provinces, four Walmart parking lots, and one brief scolding at the U.S. border, I made it back to the United States by way of the great state of Maine. With no plan whatsoever, I ended up spending the night at a grocery store parking lot in Machias, where the overnight low dipped down to 28° (uh, that would be Fahrenheit).
After thawing myself out in the morning, I made my way to the scenic town of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Imagine a small college town, on the water, and next to a national park. Throw in some friendly people, an airport offering glider flights, some great restaurants, and placement on my Top Ten List is all but assured. It wasn’t just Bar Harbor; I loved Blue Hill, Bucksport, Wiscasset, Camden, Freeport–to name a few.
I’ll admit it. Until recently, I only had a vague junior high recollection of Newfoundland, and I couldn’t even really pronounce it correctly. For the record, the locals place an emphasis on the “new” and “land” parts of the name, and pronounce “found” like “fun”. But more on that later!
I wanted to spend a few weeks in Newfoundland, but the weather and marine gods wouldn’t have it. The main ferry from Cape Breton Island to Port aux Basques broke down, so I spent about a week hanging out in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Once ferry service was restored, there was simply no room for the Airstream. With barely enough room on board for the Touareg and me, I quickly booked my ticket before availability vanished. I felt like I was travelling in the mid-1960s, but Wi-Fi (albeit slow) was available, and the reclining seats were actually pretty comfortable. I ate two meals in the cafeteria, worked on my blog, listened to some tunes, talked with some of the passengers, and before I knew it, I had arrived in Newfoundland. I found affordable accommodations at the MacLellan Inn & Thackeray Suites in Doyles. It wasn’t anything special, but it was in a good location, it was better than a bland hotel room, and the hosts were warm and friendly.
The second province on my tour of the Canadian Maritimes is Nova Scotia. As much as I loved Prince Edward Island, I think Nova Scotia is my new favorite. Technically a peninsula, mainland Nova Scotia is nearly surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. As such, everything seems to revolve around the sea. (Hence, all the photos of boats!)
While PEI was incredibly rural, Nova Scotia has many more urban areas, particularly Halifax. I was pleasantly surprised by this capital city. The geographical location alone makes it noteworthy. Add the historical culture, the friendly people, and the vibrant downtown; I could easily become a Haligonian. (Yes, a Haligonian. I don’t make these things up!) Halifax is in the middle of the province, along the southern shores. This was probably my favorite section of mainland Nova Scotia. The southern shore is one non-stop Rorschach inkblot test full of bays and inlets with small fishing villages around every corner. Peggys Cove, Chester, and Lunenberg are ones that caught my eye. From there, I left mainland Nova Scotia to check out Cape Breton Island.
Raise your hand if you remembered–or even knew–Prince Edward Island is an actual province of Canada. Is your hand raised? Mine isn’t either. Prince Edward Island, or PEI, is about the land size of Delaware with no more than 150,000 full-time residents (tourists don’t count). And almost one-third of the people live in the capital of Charlottetown or the town of Summerside. The result: a pastoral landscape with a relaxed way of life that is hard to beat!
Since it is an island surrounded by salt water, much of the economy revolves around seafood: mostly lobster, mussels, oysters, and tuna. I sampled some of the local lobster and mussels. This time of year, yards were littered with giant fishing boats up on blocks. With its rolling hills of red soil, and clean air and water, the island is also home to many forms of agriculture: grain, dairy, potatoes. Potatoes? Yes, they are everywhere! A third of Canada’s potato production is on PEI. Blue waters, red soil, green vegetation, sandy beaches–the island is practically a giant golf course. In fact, there are 34 golf courses on the island–many of them world-class. How have I not been here before?! I got in a couple of rounds of golf on the island (one round with a great Airstreamer couple I met at Prince Edward Island National Park).
Not only is French an official language of Canada, it is the only official language in the province of Québec. As such, French is extremely prevalent in Ottawa (Canada’s capital city), Montréal, and Québec City; three of my favorite cities in all of Canada. The many dialects of Canadian French are different from traditional Metropolitan French in France, but it all sounds the same to me! With my rediscovery of the French language, I understand much of the written word, but it is next to impossible for me to speak it or understand the spoken dialogue. No matter, for the Québécois–in fine Canadian fashion–are equally friendly to anglophones.
OK, so I know what I said about Yosemite, and I know what I said about Yellowstone, and I know what I said about Glacier. Forget it all! None of them can really compare to the unparalleled size and beauty of the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
I spent most of my time in the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is a trendy town about an hour west of Calgary, Alberta. Why is it called Banff? It comes from Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of one of the major financiers of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lake Louise (named after the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta) is about another hour up the Trans-Canada Highway. Downtown Banff is full of energy, while Lake Louise is more tranquil and serene. Both have absolutely stunning scenery in every direction. Both are on my “Top Ten” list. From Lake Louise, I took the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefield. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the entire world. I agree!
Last updated on June 11, 2015
I often get asked for tips and tricks to live full time in an Airstream–and still live a half-way normal life. Now that it has been several years on the road, I guess it is time I write about everything that helps me live that half-way normal life. Who knows? Maybe you will learn something! Even you full-time RVers.
My 2008 23-foot Airstream International CCD weighs around 5,500 pounds full of all of my stuff. With a tow capacity of 7,700 pounds, the Volkswagen Touareg is an outstanding tow vehicle for me. From 2009 to 2014, I towed over 100,000 miles with a 2009 Volkswagen Touareg V6. Then I upgraded to a 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Clean Diesel. With diesel, I get about a 30% increase in fuel economy, and I don’t have to put in the more expensive premium gasoline that the V6 craved. I also notice the increased torque and decreased number of shifts while climbing the steep mountain passes. While descending, I can manually shift to one of eight gears to reduce braking. While every single Touareg offers the same tow capacity, the benefits of diesel would make it tough for me to ever go back to gasoline. Oh, and to get just a bit more storage capacity, I have an Inno Low Profile 15 Cubic Foot Shadow Cargo Box on the roof.
I finally got a chance to try out that new pilot’s license at a hidden gem of an airport just outside Chicago. The locals call it Cushing Field; I call it heaven. It doesn’t have a control tower. It doesn’t have jets waiting in line. It isn’t surrounded by congested airspace. It doesn’t even have pavement. It is just a grass airstrip out in the country with genuine pilots hanging out there each and every day. I loved it! In fact, I loved it so much, I parked right next to the runway, plugged in to the flight school electricity, and stayed a couple weeks. In those two weeks, I took several people up for airplane rides (15 people to be exact), logged about 10 hours of flight time, and made over 30 landings (about 28 of them were good — don’t ask about those other few). It was an experience I will never, ever forget. Oh, and for those wondering about Six-Zero-One Charlie Foxtrot, it is the tail number of the airplane I flew. Most of the airplanes at Cushing Field have a tail number that ends in “CF”. Pretty cool!
I grew up in Montana, but spent the latter half of my life in the Chicago area. Apparently I had forgotten the vast rawness of the western part of the US. Seriously, other than the highway itself, it felt like man had never stepped foot into many of the scenic byways of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.
As I drove through the eastern side of Yellowstone in Wyoming, the steam from geysers melted the snow-covered timbers burned from a previous wildfire, boulders tumbled down the sheer granite cliffs, bison and elk grazed steps away. I spent several nights on public land, boondocking miles away from modern civilization. I went up and over so many rugged mountain passes, I felt like a sherpa. It was a climate-controlled, leather-bound, front-row seat to an unforgettable experience!
So I meet a lot of interesting people on the road. Every so often, some of these people let me into their own lives. While waiting for some repairs in Long Beach, I met a couple who has lived full-time on Catalina Island for the past 20 years. They invited me on a personal tour of the island, and I quickly accepted.
Part of the Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island (people just call it Catalina) is about 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. I opted to take the hour-long ferry ride to get to the island, but one day I will fly to the Catalina Airport myself — one day. It was a pretty choppy day across the channel; in fact, the previous ferry was cancelled due to high winds. It was about as uncomfortable a boat ride as I would have preferred, but so well worth the ride!
Anyone following my journey for the last year has probably noticed my lack of traveling the past few months. Well, that is about to change! The reason for my stationary status was due to one reason, and one reason alone: flying lessons. On my 35th birthday, I passed my check ride and officially became a licensed pilot. Legally it is a certificate and not a license, but I won’t get into semantics. Anyway, with my flying lessons complete, I will finally be leaving the San Diego area to explore the rest of the US and Canada. Before I get back on the road, I thought I would share my experience of learning to fly.
Dubbed “America’s Finest City,” San Diego has always been on my list of cities to visit. And since the rest of the country seems to be permanently frozen, now is a perfect time to stay warm in “America’s Finest City.”
San Diego (and the surrounding area) definitely has my attention. The geographic diversity and climate changes of the beaches, valleys, mountains, and desert are refreshing. So far, I have checked out downtown, Point Loma, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, Torrey Pines, East County, and Julian. And there is still more to see!
After two and a half years of full-timing it in the Airstream, I have compiled quite a list of “less than stellar” moments. As you can see, I tend to do something at least once a month that makes me just shake my head in amazement.
Do you like apples? Do you like apple cider? Do you like apple cider donuts? Do you like small towns? Do you like friendly people? Do you like small towns full of friendly people? Do you like rolling hills, mountains, and change in elevation? Do you like?… yeah, yeah, yeah, you get the point!
Vermont is an interesting state. It is the second least-populated state; it has the smallest capital city; and no other state has its largest city as small as Burlington (around 40,000 people). This small town atmosphere is refreshing. Vermonters are just some of the nicest people I have ever met.
On my way from the West Coast to the East Coast, I stopped in Jackson Center, Ohio for a visit to the Airstream factory. What a cool place! I went to get some repair work done, but I have to admit, I also wanted to tour the assembly line and meet some of the people that made my traveling home. The people could not have been nicer; everyone from the front desk to the technicians doing the dirty work. It truly was a productive (albeit expensive) couple of days.
It all starts at 7AM sharp when a guy with a John Deere tractor picks up the Airstream at the Terra Port (a free campground for Airstreams needing service) and tows it in to the Service Center. Then, one of the technicians comes out to talk over the list – the list of stupid things I have done while on the road: oh, things like a bent step, a hole in the underbelly, a broken shower rod. And then there are the minor annoyances: a sticky dead bolt, missing rivets, a bad battery, a broken black water sensor. That’s what happens after 20,000 miles in five months! After two days, we were able to cross off all 12 items on my list.
I am writing this near the shores of the Pacific Ocean — in front of a campfire — at Harris Beach State Park, easily my favorite of all the campgrounds in Oregon. It is a fitting way to end my exploration of the great state of Oregon.
Oregon, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First, one of the best movies of the ’80s, “The Goonies,” was filmed in Astoria and Cannon Beach. Who doesn’t love that movie? Second, fresh, local, incredible food is available from undiscovered vendors at farmers’ markets in downtown Portland. Pair it with a bottle of wine from any one of the hundreds of vineyards and wineries in Oregon, like Yamhill Valley Vineyards. So good! Third, the same temperate climate that makes great wine is the same temperate climate perfect for lush, green golf courses playable year-round. The best one I played was Langdon Farms Golf Club in Aurora. Finally, Howard Hughes’ famous airplane, the “Spruce Goose,” is at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville. I was so happy to stumble upon this museum — like “kid in a candy store” happy!
It has been a crazy busy last few weeks. I left the Airstream at Elwha Dam RV Park (just outside Port Angeles, Washington) and flew back to Chicago. I was relieved to return a week later with everything just as I had left it: in the middle of the woods — unhooked — just running off the solar panel. During my stay in Port Angeles, I was able to see a little bit of Olympic National Park. It is very scenic, but just doesn’t compare to Glacier or Yosemite.
Inching my way closer to Seattle, my next stop was Port Ludlow, Washington. A sleepy little town west of Seattle, it has a golf course (which I had to play), a marina, an excellent pizza place (Cucina Pizza), a surprisingly well-stocked convenience store, and, well, not much else. It is pretty quiet there; a perfect place to spend the work week! Yearning for some culture, I drove over to Bainbridge Island, caught the ferry, and met some friends in downtown Seattle. Overall, I loved my short stay in the Emerald City. Growing up in northwest Montana, I have been there several times, but it was nice to be back and look at it from a “possible place to live” point of view. I am happy to say, it is definitely on the list!
I just spent the last week in British Columbia, Canada, and absolutely loved it! With the metric units, a little of the French language, “loonies”, “toonies”, and “.ca” web addresses galore, it was an exciting adventure. It all started with a checkpoint at the U.S./Canada border in Douglas, B.C., just north of Seattle on I-5.
According to the “real-time” digital sign, the wait was supposed to be “up to 5 minutes”. Clearly, the sign lied. I waited in line with hundreds of other motorists for almost half an hour until reaching a pair of border patrol officers ready to ask me dozens of questions like, “Where did you stay last night? Where were you before that? How long have you been on the road? How much money do you have in the bank? How much money do you have in your wallet? How do work out of an Airstream? Why are you coming to Canada? Do you mind pulling over there and emptying the contents of your pockets on the hood of your car?” You know, the usual. Obviously, I had absolutely nothing to hide, but I must have looked suspicious, so they asked me to wait inside with the other “degenerate failures” while they searched every square inch of the Touareg and the Airstream – for an hour. They apparently took everything out of the back of the Touareg because the gate wouldn’t shut correctly when I finally got back from my “time out” corner. I noticed they also looked at the photos on my digital camera and even looked under my mattress. And, get this, someone from the border patrol looked up my blog, read a few of the posts, and browsed through a few photo slideshows! I only realized this after I noticed several server log entries from “The Government of Canada” at the exact time I crossed the border. So, in a way, this blog totally helped prove my legitimacy. The officers were very official the entire time, but for the rest of the day I was annoyed that I had somehow “failed” a test. That annoyance soon subsided, because the rest of my time in Canada was awesome!
I left the Flathead Valley of Montana, and headed west up through the panhandle of Idaho. This was done entirely to cross “State #31” off my “Golf 50 States” list with a round at an unassuming course in Priest River. It was just me, carrying my own bag, in flip-flops, khaki shorts, and a t-shirt. It was awesome!
After feeding my addiction, I crossed the border into the state of Washington, following the curvy, mountainous highway through towns with names like Tonasket, Omak, and Okanogan. With the record-setting hot weather, wildfires kept popping up all over the region. In fact, the haze was so thick, I couldn’t get much of a charge from the solar panel. I pretty much drained the batteries, and spent one night in an uncomfortably hot Wal-Mart parking lot, irritated that I hadn’t chosen a campground with electricity.
There is nothing quite like going home, especially when it is as beautiful as the Flathead Valley in northwest Montana. I grew up just outside the town of Bigfork, a “picturesque and charming place”–Chamber of Commerce words, not mine–on the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi. With well over 10,000 miles logged in the last three months, it was time for some much needed rest and relaxation, time off the highways, and time away from the “ExxonMobils/BPs/Shells/Flying Js” of the world. I have filled up with gas exactly once since I got here over two weeks ago!
Pacific. Coast. Highway. Drive it. Seriously, it has to be the most scenic highway in all of America. My plan is to eventually drive all of Highway 1 from Canada to Mexico, but that is for another time. For now, I found plenty to do and see along the P.C.H. from Big Sur up to Sonoma. I had an outdoor dinner with impressive views at Big Sur, hung out with great friends in Carmel and Monterey, golfed at the famous Poppy Hills Golf Course along 17-Mile Drive, made it over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, drank some of the wonderful local wine in Napa Valley, and took in the natural beauty of the Sonoma Coast. Not a bad way to spend a week!
So, remember when I said Lake Tahoe had the most impressive scenery and extreme driving requirements to match? Scratch that, because Yosemite National Park now takes home top honors. I think I spent the entire weekend with my eyes wide open, grasping for a description of the sights. The one word that came to mind was “grandeur”.
The first part of Yosemite actually started out a little rough. I left Tahoe with a full tank of gas, a gung-ho attitude, and a campground reservation just on the other side of the park. By the end of the day, all three were in short supply. After a relatively easy drive through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as I got close to the entrance of the park, one particular mountain peak caught my eye. I kept thinking, “I really hope I don’t have to go up that. I really hope I don’t have to go up that.” But it kept getting closer, and closer, and closer, until I found myself going right on up it. With the engine revved almost to the max I didn’t even stop for a photo, fearful I wouldn’t be able to climb from a complete stop. I maintained a pretty steady 45mph on the straightaways, and finally reached the friendly ranger at the Tioga Pass Entrance to Yosemite with an elevation of 9,945 feet! It is apparently the highest mountain pass in the entire state of California. I drove the length of the park and then began my descent back down towards my campground. With the endless curves, cliffs, and cars, by the time I got down to the other side, I was absolutely 100% spent. All I could think of was a nice spot to relax and spend the night.
After months of anticipation, I finally got to test out the Touareg and the Airstream in the mountains. Admittedly, I still haven’t done the tallest peaks on my itinerary, but I got up over 7,500 feet with some serious ascents and descents.
My first mountain stop was in Park City, Utah. I actually had forgotten it was on my route, and had no plans to stay there until I rolled through on I-80. I pulled up Google Maps, picked the first campground on the list (Park City RV Resort), and ended up staying a couple of days. I toured Olympic Park, visited the trendy downtown, and even drove to some of the surrounding towns. Park City definitely made my Top 10 list!
The last week was generally spent avoiding wind shears, rain storms, tornadoes, hail; you name it. Serious storms moved through the Great Plains, and I was lucky enough to drive my home right through the middle of it all! I keep a close eye on the weather with my iPhone, pay attention to weather reports, and ask the local campgrounds. So far, so good!
I slept in one state park, one Good Sam’s, one KOA, two private campgrounds, a driveway, a basement, and one Wal-Mart parking lot! I had some great barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas (yes, the Kansas side) and bought the new iPhone 3G S in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Apparently I missed Nebraska City, Nebraska. I nearly ran out of gas while searching for an open gas station in the middle of Kansas. Seriously, who closes at 8PM? I spent some time with friends in Ogallala, Nebraska and found an absolutely incredible golf course, Bayside Golf Course, just outside of town. And, finally, I spent a few days in Fort Collins, Colorado to hang out with my sister, brother-in-law, and adorable niece. Overall, I covered five Great Plains states in nine days.
Alright, boys and girls, time for a quick history lesson. In the early 1700s, two men with Lutheran backgrounds traveled throughout Germany and Switzerland forming small congregations of followers. They believed in a peaceful, quiet way of life and strictly followed scripture. By 1855, this growing community had over 1200 members, and was forced to find land in America. A group found attractively priced farmland in eastern Iowa and built a village. They chose to call it Amana, which means “to remain true”. The village (and six other villages in the surrounding area) were all part of a communal way of life. The community owned the shops, mills, and farmlands in common and individual needs were provided by the community. There were simply no wages whatsoever. This self-sufficient, communal way of life lasted until 1932 when Amana officially abandoned the idea.
After logging 1600 miles around the state in the last two weeks, I can safely say I have seen all Michigan has to offer! And, yes, I will miss it. Instead of leaving Michigan last week as originally planned, I decided to stay and use my brand new annual vehicle permit for Michigan state parks. After leaving the Battle Creek area, I cut back across the state through Ann Arbor. I see why they call it “The Big House”. No, I didn’t get thrown in prison. The University of Michigan football stadium; that place is enormous!
I must have passed a dozen signs in the Upper Peninsula for these things called “pasties” (no, not those kind) before I finally stopped to try one for myself. It turns out a pastie (rhymes with “nasty” but is oh, so good) is a folded pastry filled with meat and vegetables. Somewhat of a tourist attraction in the U.P. these days, it was originally a convenient staple for the miners in the 19th century. Mmmm, tasty!
After my hearty lunch, I crossed over the magnificent Mackinac Bridge to spend a few days in northern Michigan. My favorite towns were easily Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Traverse City. Somehow I managed to navigate the tiny streets of Petoskey, fed two meters to park the Airstream, and played tourist for a few hours. What a cool little town! Next, it was off to Traverse City for a few nights at the KOA outside of town. I will have to go back when the cherries are in season. Thanks to a great recommendation, I stumbled upon a little dunes area near Mears on my way to the southern part of Michigan. That is a hidden gem, indeed!
Right on the cliffs of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore definitely ranks as the most scenic–and remote–spot on my journey thus far. To get there, I drove from Chicago, up through Wisconsin (thanks for the fine amenities, Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Ray), through Cedar River, Escanaba, and Manistique in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and into the national park near Grand Marais.
Once in the park, the first 11 miles or so were a nice and easy jaunt along a paved highway. Simple, right? Then, out of nowhere, the pavement suddenly turned into a one-lane dirt road cut right through the middle of the forest. Even if I had wanted to turn around, there was simply no where to do it. I finally made it to the Hurricane River Campground and found a spot just a couple hundred feet from Lake Superior.
Spending last night in a Wal-Mart parking lot was actually great. It was quiet, paved, level, and free! And in the morning I stocked up the Airstream with some groceries. [Mental note: I am spending way too much time at Wal-Mart.] I will definitely do it again; however, tonight is something completely different. I found a sweet place in western Pennsylvania that has one rule – Airstreams only. I love it! I counted around 25 different Airstreams on the 60 acres here at Penn Wood Airstream Park. The scenery is absolutely beautiful! Goodbye flatland of Illinois/Indiana/Ohio, and hello rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I will spend the work week here at Penn Wood. They have Wi-Fi, laundry, cable TV, full hookups – the works.
Talk about a crazy place to spend the night. I am writing this from a Wal-Mart parking lot just outside Toledo, Ohio. This afternoon I left Chicago for my first solo cross-country trip to New Haven, CT. The plan is to take my time, spend most of the work week in northwest Pennsylvania, and eventually roll into the New Haven area later in the week. I have a few places in mind, but if anyone has any suggestions for local attractions along the way, send me an email. I am always on the look out for local diners, drive-ins, and dives that serve good eats!
The beauty of this whole adventure is the ability to change plans on the fly. With the weather in St. Louis not cooperating at all, we changed our destination to Galena, IL. After a late start from Chicago and surprisingly bad traffic, we didn’t pull into Galena until well after dark. And, with all the pull-through spots taken, I was forced to back into our spot (without scaring too many of the neighbors). Thank you, Kim and Max, for acting as human guideposts! Other than an embarrassingly noisy hitch, everything has gone rather smoothly. Seriously, I have to do something about that hitch; people were staring for all the wrong reasons! Here are some photos of the trip to Galena and Palace Campground (the oldest campground in the state of Illinois).
It is getting close to my departure date, so I figured it was about time to actually spend some trial time in the Airstream. I successfully made it through two days and one stormy night in my new aluminum home; parked in a campground just outside Joliet, IL. I didn’t think it would ever stop raining, but everything (and everyone) held up just fine. Talk about crazy weather for my first night in it!
Even the Touareg is all wired up and ready to go. Steve at US Adventure RV is the man! I got the chance to hook it up myself and take everything out for a test drive (with adult supervision, of course). For the first time ever towing anything, it went pretty well. (Remind me to share the story of the flying blender!) We took the Touareg/Airstream on some side roads, out on I-80, and back to a parking lot to practice backing up. And, yes, backing up is confusing, but I think I have the hang of it!