“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.
Unfortunately the popular (and what I thought was the only) campground was full by the time I rolled through town, so I turned back towards the main highway in search of a place to sleep–at 11 o’clock at night. Knowing I really should snap some photos of what little I had seen of Talkeetna and thinking I may never get back, something made me turn around in the middle of the road after I had completely left town. On my way back to town, I saw people parked–cameras and binoculars in hand–next to a “Scenic View” sign. With nothing but a big sun beginning to set behind the clouds, some gentle rain falling, and trees for miles and miles, I didn’t see anything that remotely resembled a scenic view, but I parked anyway. An older couple pointed out at the horizon, and asked me, “Do you see it?”. They sensed my confusion and said, “Denali. It’s right in front of us, 60 miles away, once the clouds disappear.” Excited to see the famed mountain in person for the first time, I asked the old man how long he had waited here to see it. He responded, “40 years, son, 40 years.”
It’s true. Denali is so big that it creates its own weather. Even if the surrounding area has clear skies, there is generally a cloud layer obscuring the actual mountain. In fact, the guide books say that only 25-30% of visitors actually get to see Denali appear. So, yes, I was pretty excited when–about 30 minutes later–the sun went behind the Alaska Range, the clouds parted, and there stood the 20,320-foot Denali flanked by the 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker and the 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. The other peaks–many over 10,000 feet–look like tiny hills compared to Denali and the other two “big” peaks.
After talking with some of the others who had stopped to get a glimpse of Denali, I still had to find a place to sleep. At this point, it was well past midnight, so I took a chance and drove into town one more time, hoping to find a spot on the street to park and sleep. By chance, I found a not-so-published campground back in the woods, put my money in the honor box, and stumbled into bed. Little did I know I would spend the next two days in Talkeetna.
The next day, I ended up finding a spot at the main campground that was full the night before. And my campsite happened to back up directly against the Alaska Railroad Depot for the Hurricane Turn train. It is one of the last true flag stop trains in America. Instead of scheduled station stops, passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch simply flag down the train as it approaches. And passengers already on the train let the conductor know they want to detrain because their cabin, or lean-to, or fishing hole, or campsite is near. There are no other ways to reach these incredibly remote places. There are no roads, and the Alaskan Bush is too thick for airplanes in this part.
Since I was literally staying only a few yards from the depot, I bought a ticket impromptu, and stepped back in time for a six-hour roundtrip journey by rail. It was an experience! Honestly, the scenery itself started to look the same after a while, but the people I saw and stories I heard were priceless. Of course the train was full of tourists just like me, but it was also full of locals on their way to their property. In some cases, they were heading back to their childhood home. Some brought supplies: like two-by-fours and tools, beer and water, rifles and fishing rods. Some got off right away, did some fishing, and then got back on when we returned a few hours later on the inbound leg. There were two passenger cars with comfy seats and big windows, but there was a third car–a cargo car with doors wide open and a safety net strung across the bottom. In Alaska fashion, we would stick our heads out the open door as the train raced along the tracks–at speeds up to 60 mph! We even passed Alaska’s smallest town, population two. And at one point, the train stopped at a rail crossing so we could all get out to see a grizzly bear that had just been shot a few hours earlier. It was a crazy, crazy ride!
The conductor kept track of everything and everyone, yet still found time to share stories and answer questions:
“So why have I been saying Denali and what happened to Mt. McKinley?”, he asked. “Well, they are the same thing. Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning ‘The High One,’ is the official Alaskan name for the mountain. But nationally, Mt. McKinley is named in honor of President McKinley, a man who never even visited Alaska.” As he politely explained, “If you call it Mt. McKinley, we know you’re a tourist. If you call it Denali, we know you are a true Alaskan.”
So, from now on, I’m calling it Denali. Oh, and by the way, most of the locals pronounce it with a hard “a” sound: as in, rhymes with “alley”, and not “Molly.”
And that brings be back to ”Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” As everyone was packing up to depart by the ubiquitous 11AM campground checkout time, my next door neighbors mentioned they were on their way to take a flightseeing trip to see Denali from above. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the co-pilot seat of a Piper Navajo, about to depart on a 90-minute adventure of a lifetime.
Since Denali is just over 20,000 feet in elevation, we would have to climb to just under 21,000 feet to see it from above. And since oxygen starts disappearing at around 12,500 feet, we would need supplemental oxygen and masks. I am pretty certain that it was my first flight in a twin-engine general aviation airplane, and it was certainly my first flight in a non-pressurized cabin in Class A airspace. The other passengers just heard white noise, but I could hear all communication with air traffic control in my headset. It was reassuring to hear “visibility greater than 10 miles, ceiling greater than 10,000 feet” when the pilot got the weather report from ATIS and verified with the Flight Service Station he had listened to the most recent report tagged “H”–as in “Hotel.”
Within 15 minutes after takeoff, the Alaska Range appeared below the horizon. And because it was such a great weather day, other airplanes and helicopters started to appear, too. There were close to a dozen aircraft in our airspace, and I got to help the pilot spot them as their positions squawked over the radio. We flew over some glaciers that had carved a river of snow, dirt, and ice out of the landscape. We flew over what looked like little tiny peaks of a massive meringue pie. And in just a few more minutes, with a cotton candy-like covering of clouds, we were staring at the South Summit of Denali, almost four miles above the surface of the Earth. We were five miles out, but it looked like we were just a few feet away. After circling the summits a few times, we started our descent to get a better look at some of the other buttresses and glaciers, like the Ruth and the Kahiltna. We flew through jagged black and white canyons, over bright blue water surrounded by white ice, over brown sandy glacial deposits, and along lush green vegetation. I took some 200 photos of that flight; it was like something out of a children’s storybook.
Almost 90 minutes later, we landed, the pilot closed his flight plan, and I shook my head at what I had just seen. And then I waited for my ears to pop.Read More
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.
The next morning I waved goodbye to the Palins as I drove by again, starting my trek down to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway, rated one of the best drives in all of America, follows the ocean inlet and turns inland over a series of gentle mountain passes. Well, at least I think it does, because all I saw were clouds, fog, and sideways rain. For the next three days, I had some of the worst Alaskan summer weather yet.
I eventually rolled into Homer with plans to stay on the Homer Spit. Sticking out into the ocean on a skinny piece of land only a few hundred yards wide and a few miles in length, I finally reached the famed spit–only to find Alaska’s dirtiest tourist trap. Needless to say, after a long drive in horrible weather, I wasn’t too happy when I saw the overcrowded, overpriced, and entirely overrated campgrounds on the spit. I took a deep breath, did some quick internet research, and found a decent campground with a great view back on the mainland part of Homer. And when the weather did turn better for a few hours, I did have some incredible views of the surrounding seaside mountains. The town of Homer definitely grew on me as I stayed longer, but I still think the actual Homer Spit isn’t worth the high prices–at all.
With continued bad weather in all the forecasts, I made a quick decision to retreat and head back up north to a town I had read about in my travel research. This town would end up as one of my absolute favorite towns in all of Alaska.Read More
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.
Just on the other side of Thompson Pass, and right on the Prince William Sound, Valdez is sometimes called the Switzerland of Alaska. I now know why. The mountains surrounding town rise from sea level to 7,000 feet, making them some of the tallest coastal mountains in the world. They offer a backdrop for the downtown harbor, full of fishing boats heading back and forth from the sea. I found a campsite with views of the mountains out every window and within walking distance of the busy harbor. It was a pretty good day!Read More
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.
Overall, it was a great travel day. I even saw some grizzlies on the side of the road. Busy eating grass, the bears were not at all bothered by me–this time.Read More
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.
Now that I’m back on the Alaska mainland, my journey to Southcentral Alaska continues by highway. But before I can get there, I have to get through Canadian Customs to drive through B.C. and the Yukon Territory. And then it’s a drive on the Top of the World Highway to get back into the United States.Read More
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.
The occasional humpback whale, orca, or porpoise would briefly break the surface and cause all kinds of commotion on the ship. I found the best way to get one to come up for air was to turn my back and head inside. I couldn’t believe the several times I missed seeing one. Eventually I saw a couple of whale tails in the air, even if none of them completely breached their entire body. We passed Admiralty Island, home to some 1,600 brown bears, but I didn’t see a single one. I am slowly learning it takes special (i.e. pricey) tours to get some of those “NatGeo-worthy” photos. Nevertheless, it was an incredible sailing through an amazing part of the U.S., and to a pretty scenic capital city.
Juneau sits right on the Gastineau Channel, surrounded by massive mountains and glaciers. I stayed at a campground just a few minutes from the famous Mendenhall Glacier, about 15 minutes from downtown. Downtown can be a little touristy, especially when the cruise ships are in town, but it has a charm about it. I did some whale watching at the Shrine of St. Therese (actually I should say “I watched for whales, but didn’t see any”), rode the Mount Roberts Tramway, did some hiking overlooking the city, ate at the Red Dog Saloon, and saw the Alaska Governor’s Mansion. If you ever find yourself in Southeast Alaska, be sure to make it to Juneau. But–and this is a big one–there isn’t a single 18-hole regulation golf course around! So, golfing in Alaska waits for yet another day.Read More
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.
With a stopover in Wrangell, it’s an all-day ferry ride from Ketchikan to Petersburg. I was able to book another daytime sailing (because who wants to look out at total darkness) on the larger M/V Columbia. The crew clearly had different loading methods, because this time they made me back in to my parking stall. With a line of cars waiting to board, I managed to squeeze in between a wall, some motorcycles, and a cargo container. I didn’t realize it before, but the ferry terminal in Ketchikan is right near the famed “Bridge to Nowhere,” Alaska’s failed attempt to build a bridge from downtown to the airport/seaplane base. So, as we were waiting in port, dozens of seaplanes were taking off, landing, and circling overhead.
For everyone on board, it’s all about the view. And with a couple hundred eyeballs, it’s pretty easy to know when someone finds something worth looking at. It’s just hard to capture that quick moment on camera. I saw lots of mountains, some rain, several humpback whales, some porpoises, but no bears. The ferries are in much of the same waters that the cruise lines take, and get to see the same sights. In fact, because the ferries are much smaller, they get to take a special shortcut through the Wrangell Narrows. Without question, that was the highlight of the day. The locals call this narrow passage of shallow waters ”Christmas Tree Lane.” Why? For a little more than an hour, we “slalomed” through the 70 red and green navigational markers. For this part of the sailing, I hung out in the heated solarium outside, running like a dog back and forth, checking out the sights on both port and starboard sides. Dotted along the shore were makeshift shacks, cabins, homes, and hunting lodges–some with the orange-colored glow of light and smoky chimneys as we passed by in the foggy dusk. It was something I will always remember.
Just before the end of Wrangell Narrows we passed by my eventual campground and successfully docked in Petersburg. I backtracked a couple of miles on the highway, found a campsite right on the water, and quickly went to bed after a pretty long travel day.Read More
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.
Originally wanting to take the Airstream on a ferry (or even a barge) through the entire Inside Passage starting in Washington state, I reluctantly decided to drive the entire way because of insane ticket prices. I got delayed in some pretty wet weather in the middle of B.C., and to find some sunshine, headed completely out of my way to the coastal city of Prince Rupert. Bt the way, if you’re ever in Prince Rupert, be sure to head down to Cow Bay, a few square blocks of shops and restaurants right on the water. After seeing all the ships in Prince Rupert heading to Alaska, I decided to research the Alaska Marine Highway System and the Inside Passage again. I was happy to find the prices much more reasonable for just the Alaskan part of the Inside Passage, so I booked a spot on the next ferry heading north. With something called the See Alaska Pass, I can stop off at a few cities along the route, stay for a few days, and board the ferry again without having to endure the almost 30-hour journey from Prince Rupert to Haines in one sitting.
The ferry itself was pretty comfortable; I had a really good meal in the cafeteria, walked around outside taking photos, and spent most of my sitting time in the forward observation lounge. I had intermittent cellular internet service, but unfortunately no Wi-Fi on the ferry itself. Because it was only a 5-6 hour crossing, I chose not to get a private cabin, but that could be an option for the next trip–at least 18 hours if I choose to go straight to Juneau. Unfortunately, passengers are not allowed to go down to the auto deck (and sleep in comfortable beds) while the ferry is moving.
The first leg from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan was in somewhat open waters. The scenery was good, but honestly, I’m expecting it to get better as the passage narrows. That is, if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, the forecast calls for more rain in this part of the state. For now, I’m happy in Ketchikan, where there just might be a floatplane for every person on the island, and where bald eagles are as plentiful as pigeons in Chicago. I’ll hang out in Ketchikan, try to find some good weather in the forecast, and then I’m off…exact port unknown.Read More
“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.
Oregon has some diverse climates because it is such a geographically diverse state. It has the rocky coastline, it has the more temperate rolling hills with vineyards, it has the snow-capped volcanic peaks, it has the high desert, it has the vast forests. Think of it as a smaller version of California, but without the smog, congestion, and high prices. And the people of Oregon love their beverages. I have never seen so many craft breweries, wineries, distilleries, coffee shops, and roadside espresso stands. It’s pretty much heaven.
But what’s the best part of Oregon? It’s the people. I met so many great people who instantly took me in as their adopted vagabond. Thank you, Rhonda; Scott and Kathy; Eric, Heidi, and the girls; Jill, Danny, and the boys; Ed and Meredith. And a special thank you to Laura and Kevin. They made me a birthday dinner, took me wine tasting, made me countless meals (and libations), took me on a mini-tour of Portland, and took me flying in their very own Cirrus! To all of you, thank you for making Oregon such a memorable place on my journey.Read More
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.
Other than in a couple of places, there aren’t really any businesses on the Parkway itself. There are park service buildings, and various art and music centers, museums, and rest areas. The many overpasses, guard rails, and 26 tunnels (yes, 26 of them!) are all made of stone, concrete, and wood. Scattered throughout the drive are Appalachian homesteads, farm houses, log cabins, and mills. It really is a step back in time.
I would hop on the Parkway in the morning, drive a bit, stop at a scenic turnout to eat lunch and code for a few hours, drive some more, exit the Parkway, find a nearby campground for the night, and do it all again the next day. I loved every minute of it!Read More
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.
I thought I would be leaving the state right away, so I made sure to get my golfing in at a great new course (Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course) just a few miles from Niagara Falls. I can now check “State #42″ off the “Golf 50 States” list! For anyone looking for a golf course in that area, it is a tough track and well worth the price. I played from the tips with a Canadian that used to play semi-pro. Canadians-1, Americans-0. But I had fun!
From Niagara Falls, I followed the Seaway Trail along the lakeshore of Lake Ontario, around Rochester, over to the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. The drive along Lake Ontario was spectacular. I had no idea there would be so many family owned orchards and vineyards lining the hills. And from the looks of it, this was the good side of town. It reminded me of Chicago’s north shore…but with acres and acres of farms surrounding the mansions. Nice!
Next on my tour of upstate New York was a place full of log cabins, canoes, fishing, and its namesake chairs overlooking tiny lakes–the Adirondack Mountains. I dry camped just outside of Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The downtown area really reminded me of downtown Banff, Alberta, Canada. It would probably be a pretty cool place on a snowy, winter night. I stayed at the base of Whiteface Mountain, a venue for many Olympic events. It also is home to Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, a tollway with views of New York, Vermont, and even Canada. If you’re looking for a pretty easy mountain drive, and a moderate hike at the end, this memorial is pretty memorable.
My original plan was to follow the U.S./Canadian border into Vermont, but a woman named Irene had other plans. Once it became clear that Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was going to wreak havoc in the area, I made a big U-turn and headed over to the Finger Lakes region. I am so glad I did, for two reasons: 1) the Finger Lakes area is impressive, and 2) the area I left was almost wiped out. I didn’t know how narrowly I escaped until I saw the news in the coming weeks. I missed flooded roads by mere hours, and my intended campground in eastern New York was completely washed away–trailers and all.
Anyway, back to the Finger Lakes. Officially, there are eleven lakes, spread out to look like the fingers of hands. Each lake is in a geographical depression, generally surrounded by rolling hills (or even mountains). On these hills are some 100 vineyards and wineries–a mini-Napa valley of the east. Of these, Bully Hill Vineyards was one of my favorites!
The gentle, green hills and valleys, and the many lakes of the region not only make great grapes; they make great thermals–as in thermals for soaring gliders. In a little town of Elmira is the National Soaring Museum and the soaring capital of the United States. I waited for a good weather day and drove over to the Harris Hill Soaring Center to do some soaring in a Schleicher ASK-21 glider. Comfortable with flying an airplane with a perfectly capable engine and propeller, I was incredibly curious about being at the mercy of the winds thousands of feet up in the sky–with no viable go-around option once we got close to the ground. I sat in the front seat, and the official glider pilot-in-command sat in the back. With a quick thumbs up by the pilot, the Piper Pawnee tow plane began its roll down the runway, and over the edge of the 500-foot hill/cliff. After 5-10 minutes of being towed up to altitude, we released the cable, and just like that, we were free. The noise of the airplane disappeared, with only the rush of the wind on our massive 55-foot wingspan. We soared for a good 45 minutes, got up to about 5200′, and would have kept going had it not been for other passengers waiting patiently on the ground. Pretty cool. Hmmm, glider license anyone?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in New York, particularly the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes. And if I were the type of person to violate the Airstream with stickers, I would definitely have put the official New York state tourism “ILOVENY” one in the back window. But somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew there was something even better awaiting me…Vermont.Read More
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.
Cushing Field is way out in the middle of the corn fields, surrounded by farms that are also way out in the middle of corn fields. It’s what makes it so appealing. But as you head east, those corn fields soon turn into skyscrapers. Along with the acres of steel and concrete are two major airports, O’Hare and Midway. You may have heard of them. I wanted to fly over downtown Chicago, but from the southwest there is only a 5-mile wide by 300-or-so foot high corridor to stay out of restricted airspace. (Side note: as I was showing my planed route to another pilot, he told me of his nice F-16 escort he got when he busted some restricted airspace. Yeah, always so nice to hear!) Anyway, I did my due diligence and knew that I had to either skirt around the airspace or get some help. I chose to get some help, or “flight following”, as they call it. Anyone familiar with the ’80s movie “Airplane!” knows the quote, “We have clearance, Clarence. Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” That’s basically what I did tonight. I flew right along with the big boys of Southwest, and United, and American. As I transitioned from one sector to the next, radar services would pass me off to the next controller, and tell me to switch frequencies. They had given me a special squawk code and watched me like a hawk as I flew past Midway, over I-55, next to the White Sox, below the height of the Sears (sorry, Willis) Tower, along the lakeshore, past Wrigley Field, over the Baha’i Temple, around Chicago Executive and O’Hare, and finally back to Cushing Field. In fact, I knew the system was working when I couldn’t find the nearby airplane in the sky and heard in my headset, “Traffic 12 o’clock, same altitude, one mile. Take evasive action!” I rolled to my right as a Cessna went past my left wingtip a few hundred feet away. The rest of the flight was not nearly as eventful. But, was it scenic! As a kid, I remember flying over the Rockies with my dad. And, with my flight instructor, I flew down the coast of southern California. But, as a solo pilot in command, I can’t think of a more spectacular flight than my flight over Chicago tonight. I tried to get a few photos, but as you might imagine, I had my hands full.Read More
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.
There wasn’t always a highway running right through the middle of the Keys. In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame extended his Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West. Spend any time in Florida, and you soon realize the influence of Flagler. Considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Overseas Railway was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1935. The railway was abandoned, but the existing infrastructure was used to build today’s Overseas Highway. Some of the old railway can still be seen today, especially near the famous Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.
Bridges are everywhere in the Keys, and it can make for some slow going traffic. It can take three to four hours to drive from Key Largo to Key West. Some portions are wide enough to feel like a regular part of the mainland, but some portions are narrow enough to have views of the Straits of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. In fact, at my campsite at Long Key State Park, my back window looked out to the Atlantic and my front window looked out to the Gulf.
For all but two nights of my monthlong stay, I found availability at state parks. I started at Curry Hammock State Park, a newly developed campground just outside of Marathon. Some of the campsites are right on the ocean, and all are within a 30-second walk to the ocean. The best part of Curry Hammock is a sandbar in the bright blue waters just off the shoreline. I paddled my kayak over there several times to see rays, seastars, crabs, fish, sand dollars, birds, and all kinds of ocean life. The quiet nights, awesome scenery, and friendly vibe at Curry Hammock makes it an easy choice for a return visit.
From there, I moved over to Long Key State Park. Every single campsite is right on the ocean, but the kayaking didn’t seem to be as exciting from my campsite. And, for some reason, it just didn’t seem quite as friendly as Curry Hammock. I enjoyed Long Key mostly because of its close proximity to Islamorada. The tarpon feeding at Robbies and the complex at Islamorada Fish Company are not to be missed. I have never seen such massive fish just hanging around for a quick meal. Robbies was also a great place to launch the kayak and paddle over to Lignumvitae State Park. If you’re looking for a good place to stay near Islamorada, then I recommend Long Key State Park, but if you want to be closer to Key West, I say keep driving down the road to Bahia Honda.
Of the three state parks I visited with the Airstream, I think my favorite was Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key. If I had been able to grab one of the secluded waterfront sites, it would have been my favorite, hands down. I just had a regular campsite with no view to speak of, but it didn’t diminish the overall appeal of the place. Bahia Honda (pronounced BAY-ah HON-da by the locals) is sprawling. Some of the campsites are on the Atlantic and some are on the Gulf side. There is a day use area which is packed full of visitors each day. Food, drinks, and supplies are available at the concession store. Boats for snorkel trips to Looe Key depart from the marina if the weather is calm. (The snorkeling out at Looe Key is pretty impressive, too!) There is also a smaller marina just for the campers. The beach is a sandy beach (actually unusual for the Keys) with great sunset views. And the rangers accepted all my mail deliveries! I now see why it is next to impossible to find a campsite at Bahia Honda State Park. They are completely booked 11 months in advance, and almost no one cancels it seems. (I relied upon one last-minute cancellation to get my spot.) The campground itself is about ten minutes into town, and about 40 minutes down to Key West.
Any visit to the Keys wouldn’t be complete without a few days in Key West. I had absolutely no desire to pay the ridiculous, outrageous, and idiotic $135 nightly rates for some of the campgrounds right in and around Key West, so I left the Airstream behind and made day trips instead. Parts of it (especially Mallory Square) are a little “touristy”, and parts of it (Old Town) have old, narrow streets lined with beautifully restored homes. The center of town, Duval Street, is packed with bars, restaurants, and shopping of all kinds. I was shocked at just how urban Key West felt. I had pictured a sleepy little village on the beach, but it is really a thriving metropolis on the beach. To me, it is a small (but less refined) version of Charleston, South Carolina. It even has an international airport. And I took advantage of that airport for the absolute highlight of my entire stay in the Keys.
At the far end of the airport is a charter company with several daily flights to Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least accessible national parks in the U.S. The flight isn’t just any ol’ flight. It is in a 1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter seaplane that takes off from a paved runway in Key West, and lands right on the waters surrounding Dry Tortugas. Normally a three-hour ferry ride, the seaplane cuts the 70-mile trip down to 35 minutes. Other than a few minutes up at 2,500 feet because of a wildlife refuge, the flight is just 500 feet above the water. It is close enough to see sharks, porpoises, birds, and hundreds of sea turtles. Our flight happened to be on the day of a full moon and it was just the start of sea turtle nesting season. The crystal clear water also makes it easy to see various shipwrecks along the way. Flying above the calm waters definitely gives a unique perspective to what lies below. And, of course, it was pretty impressive to land right next to some sailboats–basically in the middle of the ocean–and then taxi up to the beach.
Before it was classified as a national park, Dry Tortugas (and its Fort Jefferson) was a military outpost built in the mid-1800s to defend the United States from attack. Today, it makes a great place to snorkel. I did the obligatory guided tour, but I really just wanted to get in the water and explore. There is a tent campground that would be an absolute blast to try someday. There is no internet, no cell phone service, no nearby coffee shop. As far as I know, there isn’t even a place to grab a snack. It is truly out in the middle of nowhere, with water in every direction as far as the eye can see. It was such an awesome experience! Next on my list: take seaplane lessons.
As you may have noticed, I really enjoyed my time in the Keys. I didn’t even mention Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach, or Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, or No Name Pub near No Name Key, or Knight’s Key Campground, or Key deer, or key lime pie. To be perfectly honest, at a quick glance it can look a little rundown and dingy in places, but that is just the feel of the Keys–laid-back and casual. Once you realize it isn’t anything like nearby Miami, you start to get it. The locals have it–that desire to never leave and the longing to return someday: The Keys Disease.Read More
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.
Almost like a nine-year-old kid again, I just assumed I could drive over to Cape Canaveral in my car, grab a spot a couple hours beforehand, and watch the shuttle launch. Right? Wrong! While many view the airborne shuttle from miles away, the actual launch pad itself can only be seen from a few special spots. Arguably the best free spot is in Titusville, just across the Banana River from the launch pad–about 11 miles. But I wanted closer than that! The closest spot (about three miles from the launch pad) is NASA property reserved for press, dignitaries, and NASA staff. That wasn’t going to happen. The other spot (just over 6 miles away) is on the NASA Causeway, a little strip of man-made land that connects Merritt Island with Cape Canaveral. This is also inside NASA property, so a special vehicle pass, a special visitor pass, and a special causeway pass are all needed to view the shuttle launch from here. And I found all three passes–on a good ol’ site called eBay! If I had really been thinking, I would have signed up for the NASA ticket lottery, but I had no idea that even existed and missed my chances of that by several months. Before you ask, I briefly entertained another option: renting my own plane and seeing it from the air. But NASA restricts airspace within 30 miles during a shuttle launch. So the causeway it was!
I had another issue: my camera lens. My Sony SLT-A55 is a sweet camera, but my longest lens is only 270mm. I needed more length, and once again I turned to the internet. I found a great place to rent camera lenses and equipment at lensrentals.com. For around $12/day, I was able to rent a $1500 400mm super-telephoto lens. It was so worth it!
With my tickets and gear in hand, I set off for Kennedy Space Center early in the morning on launch day. (Well, early for me–about 8AM.) By 9AM, I had passed through the magnetometers at the Visitor Complex, and had almost 8 hours to wait before the scheduled launch time of 4:50PM. So I went to see a movie! The admission price of the launch ticket includes a free showing of a 3D IMAX movie about the Hubble Space Telescope, appropriately called IMAX: Hubble 3D. Words cannot describe the “cool factor” of this movie. The images of the universe from Hubble’s lenses are absolutely jaw-dropping! Seriously, go see this movie! You will feel like a speck of sand in an ocean of boulders.
After waiting in line for the movie, and after waiting in line for food after the movie, I got to wait in yet another line to board one of dozens of buses to the causeway. After an hour wait, it was only about a ten-minute bus ride to the viewing area. As we were heading over, security stopped us to let the six astronauts pass by on their way to the launch pad–in a 1983 Airstream motorhome known as the astrovan! Overhead was a helicopter mounted with machine guns. After they passed, we were back on our way to our destination.
I ran off the bus and a made a beeline straight for a spot of grass with a direct view of the shuttle sitting on the launch pad. I couldn’t get there before several hundred others swarmed to the same spot, but I did get a spot in the second row–with nothing but water in between the launch pad and me. By the time the rest of the buses had all arrived, several thousand people surrounded me. Around 40,000 people watched from the Kennedy Space Center property, and an estimated 250,000-300,000 watched from the surrounding Space Coast. (I never knew this, but the Space Coast of Brevard County, Florida is the region around Kennedy Space Center. In fact, the region has the best area code out there: 321!)
So, really for the next three hours and 45 minutes, I sat in my chair and got a suntan. Food, beverages, and the all-important portable toilets were nearby. And loudspeakers blasted the live NASA communication and countdown. I had my iPhone with text alerts and Twitter updates, too. This came in handy because there were several tense moments when NASA had some delays, but the live audio feed was sometimes hard to understand.
The minutes and seconds leading up to launch were exhilarating! I think I checked my camera about 20 times to make sure all my settings were just right. The launch window for STS-133 Discovery was exactly ten minutes: from 4:45:27 PM to 4:55:27 PM. At about 4:40, we all heard the dreaded words, “no go” from the Range Safety Officer. Apparently there was an Air Force computer malfunction and the launch was in serious danger of yet another scrub. To this day, I think it was just the PR department creating anticipation. But they somehow fixed the glitch in a few minutes, and the crowd erupted when we heard the words, “Discovery is a go for liftoff!” It had come within two seconds of being scrubbed! Two seconds!
I had my eyes on my camera viewfinder and saw the first puffs of steam from the launch pad. Yes, steam and not smoke. NASA installs a sound dampening system made of 400,000 gallons of water. The hot exhaust hits the water and it turns to steam. Without it, the blast would break windows for miles around. So, once I saw the steam, I just held my finger down on the camera button, and fired off as many photos as I could take. Exactly 30 seconds after I saw the first puffs, the sound waves hit me, and I heard and felt the half-million pounds of thrust. When I looked up and saw it without using a lens, the overall brightness of the exhaust surprised me. It wasn’t as bright as, say, looking directly at the sun, but it was close. And with that, Discovery was on its way to a 12-day mission–for the last time.
On the bus ride back to the Visitor Complex, our bus driver–who had personally witnessed every shuttle launch but one–entertained the passengers with NASA trivia. Even if you don’t agree with the principles of spending billions of dollars to go to space, I guarantee the space program is part of your everyday life. WD-40, microwaves, titanium, disposable diapers, invisible braces, memory foam mattresses, ear thermometers, long-distance telecommunications, pacemakers, cordless tools, water filters (and much, much more) were all direct inventions of the space program.
Once back at the Visitor Complex, I got to wait some more–in traffic. I counted about 7 hours of waiting before the launch and about 4 hours of waiting after the launch–all for about two minutes of thrill. But, oh, was it worth it!Read More
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.
It isn’t just the incredible architecture that makes Charleston great. It is full of culture, full of urban life, full of restaurants, shopping, art galleries, theater, and music venues. It is on the ocean and has several nearby beach communities like the super casual Folly Beach and the exclusive Kiawah Island. And it is recognized as the “best-mannered” city in America. Even without a horse and carriage ride, I truly enjoyed my time in Charleston, and would highly recommend a spring or fall visit to this fine, fine southern city.Read More
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!
Just a short drive down the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the tiny beach town of Avon. This is where I set up my base camp for most of my time in OBX. There are miles and miles and miles of pristine, white, sandy beaches. And many of those beaches allow vehicles! I took the Touareg out for some time on the beach, got stuck, got pulled out by “three nice guys from Samaria”, and decided I had enough driving time on the beach for the day.
The whole area clearly revolves around beach life–and life is good! It just had such a relaxed feel to it. A few parts of OBX (especially up north) had obnoxious tourist shops, but many of the towns have a genuine community feel to them. This is especially the case on Ocracoke Island and the town of–you guessed it–Ocracoke. It is a peaceful (and free) 45-minute ferry ride from the “mainland” to Ocracoke Island. Once in town, the official speed limit is 25 mph; I don’t think I got over 15. The narrow streets are full of bicyclists, walkers, and golf carts. Absolutely no one was in a hurry. No matter, as I wasn’t either. Time seemed to stand still in Ocracoke, and I loved it! It didn’t hurt that it was also home to quite possibly the most scenic sunset I have seen in my entire life! Ocracoke (and the rest of the Outer Banks)–go there!
From Ocracoke, it is another ferry ride to get back to civilization. This ferry ride is over two hours and is not free, but it is still reasonable at around $35. I boarded the ferry, opened up the Airstream, sat back, made lunch, and rode the ocean as someone else did the driving this time. It took a little to get used to being inside the Airstream as it rolled with the waves, but honestly, it was incredibly soothing and relaxing after a while. I would do it again in a heartbeat!Read More
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.
But first, a little geography lesson. To me, Nova Scotia is the shape of a giant whale. If the mainland of the peninsula is the whale’s head and body, then the tail (or northeast section of the province) would be Cape Breton Island. It is only connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a manmade causeway, and as a result, feels somewhat isolated–in a good way!
For those wondering the meaning of Nova Scotia, it is Latin for “New Scotland”. Québec has its French influence, Prince Edward Island its English, and Nova Scotia has its Scottish. Nowhere is this seen more than on Cape Breton Island. Let me tell you, it is a special, special place. English is still the main language, but road signs are also written in Gaelic, many of the locals in the small villages have a Scottish brogue, and there is even a Gaelic College on the island. I was lucky enough to visit during the Celtic Colours International Festival, a weeklong celebration of musical events featuring fiddlers, singers, dancers, bagpipers, and everything else Celtic. These events are held all throughout the tiny villages on the island.
Of those villages, I spent most of my time in the central spot of Baddeck, a thriving community overlooking the saltwater Bras d’Or Lake. Thanks to my handy Passport America membership, I found Adventures East Campground & Cottages, a cheap campground just outside of town. I had no idea, but Baddeck is actually quite famous, as it is the birthplace of Canadian aviation. It is here that Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that Alexander Graham Bell) successfully built his Silver Dart, a powered flying machine very similar to the Flyer built by the Wright Brothers. A National Historic Site in town displays his vast collection of inventions ranging from telephones to hydrofoils. Bell and his wife lived on their Beinn Bhreagh estate in Baddeck for decades. And I know why!
It is because of a 185-mile twisty, hilly, amazingly scenic loop around the tip of the island called the Cabot Trail. It is consistently rated as one of the best drives in the world, and Baddeck is the gateway to it. With its ocean views and autumnal colors, the trail combines the Pacific Coast Highway in California and the green mountains in Vermont. It is home to moose, whales, bald eagles. It is home to the serene fishing towns of Chéticamp, Petit Étang, and Ingonish. It is home to Highlands Links, an absolute gem of a golf course in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Because of all this, the Cabot Trail is now on my Top Ten List.
There is just so much to see and do in Nova Scotia. I didn’t get a chance to go whale watching, or hike the Skyline Trail in the Highlands, or kayak in the Atlantic, or have dinner down on Argyle Street in Halifax. These are all the on the list of things to do next time. And I can’t wait!
Oh, and for those who aren’t fluent in Scottish Gaelic, I am pretty certain that “Tha gaol agam ort, Alba Nuadh!” means “I love you, Nova Scotia!” It’s either that or “Get out of my way, you stupid American!”
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.
The first stop on my ”French highway”: Ottawa, Ontario and its neighbor Gatineau, Québec. After leaving Toronto, I had completely forgotten that Ottawa was the next big city on the map. And, well, I had never even heard of Gatineau before. As is typical, I changed my plans and spent the entire weekend in the area. For the capital of a nation, downtown Ottawa had minimal congestion, and it was easily navigated. I spent much of my time in the ByWard Market (a farmer’s market on steroids), and then crossed the Ottawa River to enjoy the fall colors of Gatineau Park, a beautiful national park overlooking the Ottawa Valley. Throughout Canada, most of the signs are in English and French, but once the border into Québec is crossed, all signs immediately turn to French only. It is quite clear Québec wants to secede from its motherland of Canada, and Gatineau was my first introduction to that independent feel of Québec.
The next stop, and the largest city in Québec, is on an island. Yes, an island. I had no idea, but the metropolis of Montréal is completely surrounded by water. Montréal is probably the most chic city in Canada. Vancouver and Toronto are similar, but there was something about the European feel of Montréal which made it the “cool kid in class”. Montréal is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. It is a modern, vibrant city rich in culture. Just steps from the modern downtown is Old Montréal, a step back in time. It is there I found heaven: my first taste of Montréal smoked meats and the dramatic architecture of the Notre-Dame Basilica. If I were to choose to live in a large metropolitan Canadian city, Montréal would be at the top of my list.
This brings me to my favorite eastern Canadian city so far: the capital of the province of Québec, Québec City, and more specifically the neighborhood of Old Québec. It is so memorable, that it easily makes my Top Ten List. I would compare it to Victoria, British Columbia, but with more of a colonial French feel instead of the English influence. Founded in 1608, Québec City is one of the oldest cities in all of North America. Most of Old Québec is still fortified by stone walls built in the mid-1700s. To reach Old Québec, I took a 10-minute ferry ride across the Saint Lawrence River from my campground in the town of Lévis. Like Old Montréal, Old Québec is a step back in time; unlike Montréal, which admittedly felt grungy at times, Old Québec is absolutely spotless. The tiny streets are lined with boutique shops, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries. The sounds of local street musicians fill the air, and the smells of outdoor eateries permeate. Old Québec. Go there! It feels like Europe–without the jet lag.
On every Québec license plate is ”Je me souviens”. It means “I remember”. For the Québec cities of Gatineau, Montréal, and Québec City, I will always remember!
While in Ottawa, stay at Ottawa Municipal Campground. While in Montréal, stay at Camping Aloutte. While in Québec City, stay at Camping Transit. They are all great campgrounds that are relatively close to each respective city.Read More
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!
In the few days I had to visit, I didn’t make it to the National Parks of Yoho, Kootenay, and Waterton Lakes. I will just have to see those when I return to the Canadian Rockies. Sometime. With someone special.Read More
Last updated on May 2, 2013
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.
Before I begin, try to imagine my living space. The official length of the Airstream is 23-feet, but this includes the 3-foot hitch outside (“marketing math” I guess). At a width of 8-feet, this means the total area inside is 160 square feet. To put that in perspective, many people have master bathrooms bigger than my home. So, yes, space is at a premium.
There are two items that help me keep that space clutter free: Velcro and IKEA hooks. Seriously, they are everywhere. All of my gadgets and electronics are velcroed to my desk shelf. An outside thermometer is even velcroed. And I have hooks for my laundry bag, jeans, shorts, towels on the walls. I have several foldable crates and cubes from The Container Store that hold everything on the counter that is not velcroed down. I also installed a magnetic knife rack from IKEA. Once everything is velcroed down, on hooks, or put away in crates, it is time to hit the road.
In order to stay connected on the road, I use a variety of communication tools. The most important device is my iPhone. I have it mounted on the dash of my Touareg with a clip from ProClip. It connects to my in-car stereo with a cable from USA SPEC. All audio from the iPhone comes right through my car speakers. This includes voice instructions from the GPS app and music from apps like Pandora and Rdio. I also use apps like All Stays Camp & RV and web sites like rvparkreviews.com and overnightrvparking.com to find places to stay.
All of this requires constant internet connectivity. Right now, the Pantech UML290 4G USB modem with Verizon is the one I recommend. I plug it into a Pepwave Surf On-The-Go Wi-Fi router. This router is always plugged in to the 12V power supply in the Airstream. So as I go down the road or when I am in a campground, all of my devices pick up the Wi-Fi signal from my Pepwave. I tell the Pepwave to get its internet from my Verizon USB modem or from the local campground Wi-Fi. I have two omni-directional antennas permanently mounted on my roof to help with 3G/4G mobile connections and Wi-Fi signals. When I had an iPad with a MicroSIM card, I used it as a Wi-Fi hotspot. In the US, it was on the AT&T network. While in Canada, I put a Canadian MicroSIM card in the iPad and used the Rogers data network. Brilliant! I also depend upon businesses like Starbucks or trendy, local coffee shops. I like to mix it up by getting out of the Airstream to work in a local favorite spot.
There is plenty of solitude, but I have no intention of being a hermit. To stay in touch with friends and family (and people I meet on the road), I have this blog. I send out updates through Twitter and Facebook. I track my location nightly with Foursquare and it helps create a custom Google Map. I also use text messaging, the new Apple FaceTime and Skype for video calls, and the regular ol’ iPhone for phone calls. And when that iPhone has no signal, I can use Skype over Wi-Fi to make the phone call instead. With technology, it is pretty easy to stay in touch with everyone.
The Other Kind of Connectivity
There are plenty of cables, hoses, and adapters that are an absolute requirement to making life on the road safe and easy. I use the Equal-i-zer hitch, recommended by my Airstream dealer. Other than the squeaks, it has been a great way to help combat the wind while towing. Update: Just a little bit of perfectly placed lubricant from Equal-i-zer completely eliminates the squeaks! Always looking for electricity, I have two 25-foot 30A power cords, a 30A to 20A attachment, and a 50A to 30A attachment. For water, I recommend a Handi-Hose. It beats rolling up a regular hose by hand on every departure. I also put quick connect valves on my city water and pass-through water inlets. Again, it just speeds up the connection/disconnection time. Finally, every serious RVer needs a high quality sewer hose. I have tested several (don’t ask) and settled on the RhinoFLEX RV Sewer Hose Kit.
When I started my journey, I didn’t plan on watching any television, but that plan soon fizzled. If high-speed internet is available (and I am in the US), I can watch movies on Netflix and Hulu. For satellite television, I found a great product from Dish Network called the Tailgater. It is a portable dish that automatically finds the correct satellite. It is reasonably inexpensive, there is no contract, and there are no setup/cancellation fees. And it works! I also scan for local HD channels and use a regular antenna on the roof to watch TV over-the-air–for free. I love watching the local news broadcasts to get a feel of the area. (Ha! As I am writing, a comedian just dropped a few f-bombs on local Canadian TV!)
This is all powered by an 80W Sunforce Solar Panel when I am on the road. I really need more wattage, but simply don’t have any more room on the roof to mount more panels. I have it connected to a Sunforce 30A Charge Controller that charges two deep cycle 12-volt Lifeline GPL-24T AGM batteries. I could use more batteries (or even get bigger 6-volt batteries), but I am constrained by space. Even still, the Lifeline AGM batteries are so much better than the original Interstate deep cycle marine batteries that came with the Airstream. I also replaced several factory-installed halogen lights with LED lights. It was as simple as unplugging the old halogens, and plugging the new LEDs into the same socket. One halogen light uses 15W while one LED light only uses 1W! With a 1750W Go Power! Inverter, I can charge my MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad, watch TV, even make a smoothie — all while parked along the beach just running off solar! To find restaurants, I use Siri, ask the locals, and follow TV shows that highlight local eateries. I actually do some cooking on my own, too. When I get hungry for dinner, I just pull out the tiny Weber Q Portable Grill and grill fresh meat and vegetables from the local organic market. It turns out I’m addicted to my morning coffee. When I don’t have electricity, I use my good ol’ Bodum Chambord French Press, but when I have electricity, I love my Lattissima Plus Nespresso Cappuccino Machine. I finally broke down and bought a Yamaha EF2000iS 2,000 Watt Portable Inverter Generator. This lets me run everything but my air conditioner. Over a cloudy and non-solar-optimal weekend, for example, just a gallon or two of gas is used if I only run it as needed.
The Airstream does a pretty good job at dealing with all the different temperatures year-round. When parked, the windows and vents are almost always wide open. The vents will automatically shut if it starts to rain outside. Only for a few weeks in the summer do I find the need to turn on the air conditioner, and for that, I plug into shoreline electricity. I use the heater much more. Even in the summer, places like the desert get down right chilly at night. I normally just use the propane gas furnace because it can run off the 12V batteries. If I happen to run out of propane (it always seems to happen at night in the middle of nowhere) and I have shoreline electricity, I will switch over to the electric heat pump, but it is insanely loud. Whatever I choose, a digital thermostat near my bed controls everything. Update: I recently purchased a Holmes Ultra-Quiet Dual Ceramic Heater that is super quiet and efficient. It seems to do the job when I have electricity available. And it is small enough to stow away when I don’t need it.
There are a few things that help keep it a comfortable living space. One of the best decisions was to replace my factory mattress with a custom-fit memory foam mattress from Rocky Mountain Mattress. Awesome! On my dinette table, I replaced the standard mount with a sliding one. It lets me push the dinette table a few feet to either side, giving me more space to lay out and watch a movie, eat a meal, or get work done. When I’m outside, I sit on a Lafuma Mesh Recliner, and if it’s incredibly sunny or incredibly buggy, I work under the Coleman 10×10 Instant Screened Shelter. And if I can’t be comfortable in flip-flops and khaki shorts, I move to a different state!
I am the perfect fit for a mobile lifestyle. Years ago, I gave up on traditional paper-based newspapers, magazines, and postal mail. I consume almost all of my media electronically. Unfortunately, the IRS and banks and insurance providers still need a physical address. I used Earth Class Mail for a while; it gave me a mailing address in Oregon (no residency, just a mailing address) with all mail scanned into PDFs and sent to me electronically. If it was of importance, I had it sent to me (wherever I happened to be staying) via traditional postal methods. I honestly don’t get much mail, so I just switched to America’s Mailbox in South Dakota. It isn’t as fancy (or expensive), but it gives me the same options to get mail delivered to me, and I get official residency in the state of South Dakota. I got a driver’s license, a voter registration card (proxy vote), and license plates for South Dakota.
I use Ally Bank to pay bills electronically. I chose them because of their TV commercials. Well, kind of, but I also chose them because they reimburse me for any ATM fees I rack up by visiting random ATMs across the country. I use Mint.com to track how much money I spend on everything. It rocks!
Everyone–and I mean everyone–asks me about how much it really costs to live full time in an RV. The answer: it depends. Other than the initial cost of the Airstream and the Touareg, my two biggest expenses are campground fees and fuel costs. And these two expenses can vary wildly from month to month. During the winter months, when I seem to stay in one region, I usually take advantage of monthly campground rates which could be as much as 75% off the maximum daily rate. And because I’m not traveling, my gasoline bill is drastically reduced (by as much as 90%). But during the summer, when I seem to travel longer distances, it isn’t that uncommon for me to have to fill up my gas tank twice in one day. Depending on the state (or province) and time of year, fuel prices can be anywhere from $2.50/gallon to over $5.00/gallon. I can offset that cost by staying overnight for free at Cracker Barrel or Walmart, staying for free on public land, or staying for free with friends and family. I have seen campsites for as much as $175/night, but I seem to average about $20/night (Mint.com: “Campground” category filtered for the year “2011″). As you can see, the monthly costs of driving your house down the road can be a little more varied than the costs of homes without wheels.
I cancelled my gym membership (yes, I used to go to the gym) and bought an inflatable kayak from REI and a foldable mountain bike from swissbike.com. The kayak fits perfectly in a Thule Ascent 1600 Cargo Carrier. Every single thing I now own has an absolute purpose and place in the Airstream; otherwise I don’t own it.
The Good Life
I love the freedom, the flexibility, the spontaneous life on the road. There have been many times when I start to drive with no destination in mind. My only requirement: good weather!
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.Read More
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!
I know Oregon sometimes is associated with pot smoking hippies and a rainy climate, but there is also much, much more the state has to offer. (For the record, I didn’t see too many hippies, didn’t smoke any pot, and only felt a little rain.) Here is a sample of the photos I took as I followed Highway 101 from Astoria down to Brookings, with a side trip into the Portland area. OK, time to watch a copy of the “The Goonies” that I found on the internet!Read More
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 spent some time in the Lower Mainland and then on The Island. For all you out-of-towners, the Lower Mainland is the region surrounding Vancouver. I stayed just outside of Vancouver, in a town called Fort Langley, apparently the birthplace of B.C. I made a couple of visits to downtown Vancouver, and even made it up to Whistler. The entire metro area of Vancouver has spectacular mountains that overlook the ocean. Vancouver itself is a vibrant metropolitan city centered on outdoor – specifically marine – life. I’m sold! It is absolutely 100% the type of city I could call home. But wait, there’s more!
Another incredible city is Victoria, on Vancouver Island (or simply The Island as the locals seem to call it). Airstream in tow, I boarded a ferry at Tsawwassen and landed at Swartz Bay, just north of Victoria. My base camp was Weir’s Beach RV Resort, just south of Victoria. Steps from the ocean, I regularly saw sea lions, eagles, and deer from my front window. (I have yet to see a whale in the Pacific Ocean!) I highly recommend Weir’s Beach RV Resort. The staff is friendly, the grounds are immaculate, and the views of Victoria and the Pacific are spectacular. I plan to go back to The Island and will definitely return to Weir’s Beach.
A week after I first arrived in Canada, I took another ferry from downtown Victoria, B.C. to Port Angeles, Washington. Even with inspections by U.S. Customs in both cities, this time it went smoothly. I had to answer a few questions, fill out some paperwork, and show the inside of the Airstream before boarding the ferry. Then, after arriving back in the States, I had to answer a few more questions, but was pleasantly surprised to “pass” the test this time.
I fell in love with the entire province of B.C., and fully intend to return and explore more of its beauty. That will have to wait for now, as I spend the whole week in Chicago – this time as a tourist.Read More
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!
For a few weeks, I was able to play tourist in my own hometown. I made it out on the kayak several times; lounged at the lake; hit the golf course; strolled down Main Street at the Bigfork Festival of the Arts; ate fresh crab, elk, bison, cherries, huckleberries; and visited Glacier National Park. And, yes, I still had to work. I just got to do it from my parents’ front yard with views of the Rocky Mountains.
So, Glacier National Park. I am glad I visited while the images of Yosemite were fresh in my mind. Both have incredible views around every corner. Yosemite has famous landmarks like El Capitan and Half Dome that are easily spotted from the main road. Glacier Park has glaciers (well, until 2030 when scientists predict all the glaciers will have melted), lakes, and rivers that are often only accessible by hiking trails. Almost twice the size of Yosemite, I definitely had forgotten just how enormous Glacier Park feels. Both are absolutely amazing areas of the U.S. that every person should visit at least once. Instead of spending time at Disney, head on over to Glacier Park in Montana for your next vacation. You can stay at the “Bolstad B&B”. Tell my parents I sent you!
I am heading back to the Pacific Northwest with plans to visit Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Any suggestions, anyone? Then, in mid-August, I will leave my home behind in Oregon, hop on a plane, and stay in Chicago all week. Get ready, gang, I am coming back to town!
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!Read More
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.
So, back to the campground. I have stayed in a wide variety of sites; some incredible, and some, not so much. Even though I was exhausted, even though it was a holiday weekend, even though I had no internet access to find another campground, I quickly decided to ask for a refund and hit the road. Why, oh why, do you ask? My reserved spot, the one and only spot left in the entire campground, was about the size of a VW Beetle. There were two big dogs chained up next to it, and a large group of people overflowed from their spot into my reserved spot. It was basically the sweatshop version of a campground. To be fair, the manager was completely apologetic and gave me directions to some other possible options.
I drove to the tiny town of Mariposa, California and stumbled upon the Mariposa Fairgrounds that just happened to offer a 24-hour self-registration area with full hookups. Call it complete luck, call it divine intervention, call it whatever you like, but I decided to call it home for two nights. It ended up being absolutely perfect! The next morning I left the Airstream behind, and went back to Yosemite with just the Touareg. As I traveled the exact same route, I couldn’t believe I had done it with 23 extra feet and 6,000 extra pounds just the day before. Completely safe? Yes. Completely insane? That, too.
I explored Yosemite all day, took some great photos and video, and came back to find the 4th of July Fireworks for the whole county set up a feet away from my site. It may not have been the biggest, brightest, or longest fireworks display of all time, but it was definitely the most convenient! It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
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!
After a quick stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats a few hours west of Salt Lake City, I drove across the high desert of northern Nevada. Man, there is just not much going on for miles and miles (well, other than the endless road construction). But, the final destination of Lake Tahoe made the boring drive completely worth it!
Seriously, how have I never been to Lake Tahoe? With majestic mountains, water as blue as an ocean and beaches with smooth white sand, it is paradise at 6,200 feet above sea level! I kayaked through the clear waters of Zephyr Cove and Emerald Bay, relaxed on the beach at D.L. Bliss State Park, and even got some work done at the Tiki bar just steps away from my 3-day home at Zephyr Cove RV Park & Campground. During my stay, I met two other families with new Airstreams. Hope you guys stay in touch!
In addition to the usual photos, I broke out the video camera to show just a glimpse of the roads around Lake Tahoe. I slowly made it around the lake just fine, but some of the steep climbs and hairpin curves were intense. Of the nearly 10,000 miles so far, the last 50 were easily the hardest.