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.
The steep climb up to Signal Hill is worth it, though. It has panoramic views of the city, the harbor, Quidi Vidi Lake, the Atlantic Ocean, and nearby Cape Spear, arguably the easternmost point in North America. It is also the spot where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. Yes, there is a ton of history in this part of Newfoundland.
I stayed at a campground about a half an hour outside of St. John’s. It let me head into the city quickly, but also let me easily check out other areas like Brigus, The Irish Loop, Trepassey, Saint Vincent’s, Petty Harbour, and Witless Bay.
For years, I have been on the lookout for whales. From the Inside Passage of Alaska to Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia, a close-up view has always eluded me. Sure, I have seen them from afar, but never up close and personal. Bay Bulls and Witless Bay seem to have all the popular whale watching tours in Eastern Newfoundland. Most are on giant tour boats capable of holding several hundred passengers. I chose a slightly smaller one – an eight-passenger Zodiac from Witless Bay Eco Tours.
After jumping into our bright red survival suits, we headed to a spot just outside of the bay where whales had been spotted earlier in the morning. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the first humpback whale appeared on the horizon. So the captain sped towards the spot where we saw the spray. We found not just one, but a pod of humpbacks. One of the big tour boats had also spotted the pod, and was right on our tail. The whales were staying near the surface, coming up for air every few minutes. Every one in our boat was pretty excited to be a few dozen feet away from the whales. And I swear the big tour boat was about to tip over as everyone walked over to the starboard side. And then, out of nowhere, some of the whales made their way to our boat. At the time, I was so excited that I didn’t quite comprehend that some 40-ton, 50-foot mammals were directly underneath our postage stamp-sized home on the water. It was absolutely unbelievable! Soon the whales left, and we did the same. For a pure adrenalin rush, it was the most exciting two hours of my entire three weeks in Newfoundland.
It takes quite a bit of work to get all the way over to the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada, but it is so worth it. To get on the island, I took the short five-hour ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques. But since I made the trek over to the eastern side, instead of driving back to the ferry at Port aux Basques, I decided to take the ferry from Argentia back to North Sydney. If you don’t like boats, then this probably isn’t the ferry ride for you. It took 17½ hours, plus a couple of hours to board and an hour to disembark. In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad. There is a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a movie room, a game room, a gift shop, and plenty of places to sit and watch TV or hop on (unreliable) Wi-Fi. I didn’t get a berth, so I stayed up for as long as possible and then napped for a few hours in a reclining seat. I even had a steak dinner, some wine, and a little dessert at a table with white linens. See, it wasn’t so rough.Read More
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!
My day started so early that I had to actually set my alarm. I know! I drove to the ticket office, filled out some Customs forms, showed them my U.S. Passport, parked in an off-site parking lot, took a shuttle to the ferry terminal, waited outside with other somewhat confused tourists, and then finally boarded the catamaran ferry. I don’t know if it was the Newfoundland way, the French way, or a little of both, but the entire process was confusing. No matter, it was still pretty cool!
Fortune is about 30 miles from Saint-Pierre. After almost an hour on the fast ferry, we arrived at the downtown port. Again, it was a total free-for-all. There was a bus tour leaving immediately, but it would have gone right through lunch time. That wasn’t going to happen for me. I walked around town a bit, and finally found a restaurant open for lunch. Apparently it is French custom to close businesses from 11AM-1PM. Other than the random wandering tourist like me, it was amazing how the streets were empty. With a full stomach, I ventured out again, wandered the slowly filling streets, and figured out the same tour was available later in the afternoon. Well, it was available if enough people signed up for it. Apparently five was the magic number. Counting the driver and tour guide, the seven of us went for a ride on a giant bus.
I am so glad I did the tour. Spread out and built on the side of a small mountain, the town wasn’t really designed for walking. In just a couple of hours, the bus took us to different parts of town and all over the island. The tour guide spoke first in French, and then quickly explained in English what she had just said. I loved it! So what did I learn? Here is what I can remember:
65% of the 6,000 residents work for the French government. The other 35% are seasonal workers usually unemployed in the winter. While unemployed, they receive 75% of their normal salary. There are over 5,000 cars on the island; they usually get shipped in directly from France. Almost no stop signs are found. Instead, the driver on the right has the right-of-way. Because of the rocky ground, very little produce is grown on the island. Since almost everything is shipped to the island, food prices are higher than average. In the local grocery store, a gallon of milk from Canada costs more than a gallon of milk from France. The new $100 million airport has two commercial airplanes. It is more expensive to fly from Saint-Pierre to Montréal than it is to fly from Montréal to Paris. There are four jail cells for the six current inmates. All police officers (or gendarmes) arrive directly from France; otherwise, it would be a conflict of interest since everyone on the island knows one another. There are over 10,000 buried in the one and only cemetery, often three to four levels deep. Once an entire family line dies out, the gravesite will be given to another family. If a person dies in the winter, the body is kept in the dépositoire (a morgue-like building) until the ground thaws enough for burial. To be honest, it was so touching, I almost didn’t take a photo.
The entire experience was so educational. But with the ferry leaving again in the afternoon, I had to make my way back to the terminal. Oh, first, I had to get rid of a few euros, so I bought a bag full of croissants – some plain and some filled with a chocolate cream. Yes, the island operates entirely on the euro system. A few places may take Canadian dollars, but I had to get another tourist to trade his euros for my dollars. I only spent the day in Saint-Pierre, but now I can officially say I have been to France!Read More
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.
A few miles outside of town, I got that feeling, made a u-turn, and decided to try the campground for the night. I stayed for five days. It wasn’t anything fancy at all, but it was clean, quiet, perfectly priced, and convenient to everything on the peninsula. Best of all, the owner went out of his way to make sure I knew of all the places to visit. The next time you find yourself on the Bonavista Peninsula of Newfoundland with an RV, stay at Paradise Farm.
So what is the Bonavista Peninsula, anyway? Why is it so cool? And why is it named Bonavista? Remember that Newfoundland is an island about the size of Cuba or Iceland. Its rocky and rugged 6,000 miles of coastline is full of inlets, bays, and peninsulas. On the northeastern side of the island is one particular peninsula that extends farther out into the Atlantic. Imagine sheer cliffs down to the ocean below. Imagine crazy rock formations carved out by the sea. Imagine locals with a crazy accent. Imagine brightly colored, old, historic buildings. Imagine little islands full of birds. Imagine whales swimming among those islands. That is the Bonavista Peninsula. In 1497, famed Italian explorer John Cabot first landed in North America on the tip of this exact peninsula, supposedly shouting, “O Buon Vista!” (“Oh, Happy Sight!”). The town, the cape, and the entire peninsula became known by the word “Bonavista.” It really is a happy sight.
The Discovery Trail runs from the TCH to Cape Bonavista, the tip of the peninsula with a lighthouse. There are a few different routes, but without stopping, it’s about a two-hour drive. In reality, the drive is much longer because of all the interesting towns and villages to visit along the way. My campground was only about 20 minutes from Cape Bonavista, and only about ten minutes from the towns of Elliston and Bonavista. So I spent a lot of time exploring those areas!
The main road into Bonavista has panoramic views of the ocean with a skyline full of historic wooden buildings. I was surprised at the size of the town; it is bigger than any of the other historic fishing villages in the area. I spent most of my afternoons in a small cafe with good food, a great staff, and so-so Wi-Fi. It was there that I got to hear the famous Bonavista accent firsthand. Some local gentlemen came into replace a refrigeration unit. (It was insanely hot and muggy.) In the few minutes they spent talking to one anther, I recognized maybe five words – maybe. Some other Americans in the cafe were in disbelief, too. It is unlike any accent I have ever heard. In my attempt to find an example, I stumbled upon a somewhat controversial ad for the Nissan X-Trail Bonavista Edition. View the video on YouTube to get just a taste of the accent.
Just beyond town is Cape Bonavista. It is popular with tourists because the paved road ends at a parking lot that overlooks the ocean below. As such, it is always full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale or two. It doesn’t hurt that an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant is right on the way. Dungeon Provincial Park is just a few miles before the lighthouse. Not nearly as many people seemed to find this gem because of its gravel road entrance, but I managed to make my way down the bumpy road with the Airstream. The views were incredible! Even more hidden is Spillar’s Cove. So hidden, in fact, I went there three times before finding the entrance. It was so incredibly rugged, I felt like I had hiked three days to reach the cove. I saw only one other person out there, and cautiously explored the cliffs while puffins and whales played in the water below.
Nothing compared to the puffins and whales in Elliston, though. Besides being the self-proclaimed “root cellar capital of the world,” Elliston is famous for having one of the closest land views of puffins in North America. And, by “close,” I mean puffins-at-your-feet type of close. It was pretty amazing. Hundreds of puffins were jostling for position on land, in air, and on water. They would feed on capelin, a small fish found only in cold saltwater. But they weren’t the only ones looking for food. As the puffins flew past my head, I was watching humpback and minke whales in the distance. They, too, were feeding on the capelin. At the time, I thought it was pretty incredible to see whales a few hundred yards away. Little did I know that, in just a few days, the whales would be the ones at my feet!Read More
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.
This time, the weather was absolutely perfect! I stayed right in the middle of the national park, at a KOA campground with electricity and Wi-Fi. I tend to stay away from the whole KOA scene, but having free Wi-Fi in a foreign country is a major benefit. The campground was just off the Viking Trail and minutes away from Norris Point and Rocky Harbour, two picturesque villages right on the ocean. I would go down to the harbor, find more free Wi-Fi from a local hotel, sit with my laptop, and work with views of fishing boats, rocky cliffs, and miles of ocean on the horizon. I also made sure to visit one of the places I missed on my previous visit.
Western Brook Pond is just up the Viking Trail from Rocky Harbour. Carved out by glaciers, it is a freshwater lake with 2,000-foot rock walls on either side. Some of the rocky cliffs are visible from the main road, but the lake is only accessible by a two-mile hiking trail. And to get a true sense of the beauty, you really have to go on the two-hour boat tour at the end of the hiking trail. And you even learn things! On the tour, I learned the water in Western Brook Pond has the highest purity rating available. So pure, water pumps failed when they couldn’t find the mineral levels required to know water was even flowing through the system. And I got my first taste of traditional Newfoundland music. About twenty minutes before returning to port, they played recordings from a local band. It actually was pretty cool, and an absolute perfect start to my extended stay in Newfoundland!Read More
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.
I don’t know if I ran over something on that little side excursion or if I simply had a tire failure, but soon after getting back to the main road, one of the tires on the Airstream had a major blowout. A good Samaritan let me park in his driveway and even drove into town to fetch the local mechanic. Yes, I was in the middle of nowhere! Within an hour, I was back on the road with my spare tire. (It took over a week to find a replacement Airstream tire near Halifax.)
With things definitely not going as planned, I decided to head straight to Lunenburg, one of my favorite places in Nova Scotia. I ended up waiting there a week for the weather to improve. It gave me time to check out Mahone Bay and Blue Rocks, two communities on either side of Lunenburg. In Blue Rocks, I met a family who had come from Quebec to deliver their baby out in the country. Before listening to the older sister tell the story, I had no idea the baby in her mom’s arms was a mere three days old! By the way, the girl was about four years old and was telling me this in both English and French (which her mother and grandmother translated for me). It was pretty adorable.
Blue Rocks is Lunenburg’s version of a place called Peggy’s Cove Village, just outside of Halifax. It is a working fishing village with a few shops and one famous lighthouse. Any visit to the Halifax Regional Municipality is not complete without a visit to Peggy’s Cove.
I would have spent much more time in the Halifax area, but with the weather improving, I had a boat to catch in North Sydney. Next stop: Newfoundland!Read More
“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.
So, with sporadic internet and no Canadian dollars in my wallet, I started driving to the first ferry by following road signs. I must have missed a sign, because I ended up on a narrow road to the tip of the island. At the end stood East Quoddy Lighthouse (also known as Head Harbor Lighthouse), apparently the most photographed lighthouse in the world! Remember how I didn’t have any Canadian dollars in my wallet yet? Well, walking over to the lighthouse required a $5 toll. Sadly, I started walking back to my house, with nothing but a few glimpses of the lighthouse. An elderly gentleman, who must have seen the camera around my neck and the disappointment in my face, happily pointed me to some overlooks hidden in the forest that were totally free! Thank you, random old guy, for helping me take my version of the most photographed lighthouse in the world.
Still with a schedule to keep, I got back on the road, and found the signs back to the ferry. This is where things started to get interesting. Imagine a paved road. Now imagine turning off that paved road to a completely unexpected gravel driveway that leads directly into the Bay of Fundy. There was no terminal. There were no other cars. There was no ferry…yet. I somehow turned around, and made my way to a grocery store I remembered passing earlier. After getting some much-needed cash from the ATM and some much-needed food from the deli, I found a local who was pretty certain the ferry was still running for the evening.
I drove back to the ferry landing, and soon enough a tug boat with a barge appeared on the horizon. I crossed my fingers, gently drove down the gravel path to a bit of a cement ramp, and boarded the ferry to Deer Island, New Brunswick. With bright, sunny skies over the Bay of Fundy, the 45-minute ride on calm seas was spectacular! Little did I know that the ferry landing at Campobello Island was going to seem like a piece of cake compared to the next one at Deer Island.
As we started approaching the southern part of the island, all I could see was a shoreline full of dark shale rock – everywhere. Because it was low tide, this shoreline seemed to ascend straight into the sky. Quick fact: with a peak tidal range of 50 feet in some places, the highest tides in the world are in the Bay of Fundy. It was becoming very clear that I, too, would need to ascend into the sky to disembark the ferry. With a thumbs up from the crew woman, I slowly crept off the ferry – made sure my black water plumbing cleared the deck – and then floored it! The tires grabbed hold of the slippery shale rock and I somehow made it up the 10-15% grade to the main road above.
And that was just the half way point! I still had to hop on another ferry to L’Etete, a town back on the mainland of New Brunswick. Thankfully that ferry was a much bigger ferry with room for 25-30 vehicles. After maneuvering around a semi-truck that would have carved a gash with its mirrors, I was back on the mainland about 20 minutes later. And after a half-hour drive on the Trans-Canada Highway (known in Canada as the TCH), I was all settled in at a campground in St. Andrews. Whew!
St. Andrews (or “St. Andrews-by-the-Sea” as the marketers call it) is a vacation town on a peninsula that juts out into Passamaquoddy Bay, a small bay in the larger Bay of Fundy. The Kiwanis Oceanfront Camping is at the end of the peninsula. It is a great campground in a great little town. I highly recommend it as a first stop after entering the Canadian border from Maine. Just don’t try that ferry crossing from Campobello Island to Deer Island with a large RV! Instead, take the normal route across – you know – actual land.Read More
“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
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.
I spent the night, spent another night, spent another week, and before I knew it, I had been at Usery Mountain for over two months! Before Christmas, it was very easy to find an available campsite. But after Christmas, half of the Midwest seems to arrive in the Phoenix area. When Usery had no more availability, I had to move over to McDowell Mountain Regional Park and Cave Creek Regional Park, two more gems of the Maricopa park system. Of the three, Cave Creek is the closest to civilization, but it lacks somewhat in scenic beauty. The campsites at McDowell have 360-degree views of the surrounding desert and mountains, but it is really tucked away and somewhat isolated. Usery isn’t as isolated, and has some pretty good views of the Superstitions and the bright lights of the metro area. All three have miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. (I hiked and biked, but somehow forgot to pack a horse in the Airstream.) All three are solid campgrounds worth visiting again.
The incredibly consistent weather and spectacular views of the Sonoran Desert were the main reasons I stayed in the area for so long. If you don’t like sunny days in the 70s, then this probably isn’t the best place for you in the winter. My vocabulary quickly included jumping cholla, saguaro, ocotillo, coyote, roadrunner, flicker, rattlesnake, javelina, Four Peaks, Superstitions, Red Mountain, Apache Trail, Tortilla Flat, Tonto National Forest, Bulldog Canyon, Canyon Lake, Roosevelt Lake, Apache Lake, Mesa, Fountain Hills, Cave Creek, Sedona, Flagstaff, Scottsdale, Quartzsite, McCormick Ranch Golf Club, Lookout Mountain Golf Club, Las Sendas Golf Club, Eagle Mountain Golf Club, Vista Verde Golf Club, Rancho Mañana Golf Club, etc.
Although I had already been to Arizona several times, never was it for an entire season. I now see why so many people call it home in the winter!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
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!
[vimeo clip_id=”16640113″ width=”560″ height=”315″]Read More
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!
Next, the course in Maryland, Queenstown Harbor–now that’s a golf course! Located just outside Washington, D.C., it truly is a golf experience. I played the River course, an Audubon Sanctuary on the banks of Chesapeake Bay. It was my favorite course since playing the Highlands Links course on Cape Breton Island in Canada. There were photo ops around every corner! No houses, no road noise, no distractions–my kind of golf!
After the round, I got back on the road with no destination in mind. I saw I was just minutes from Washington, D.C., and since it was election night, I figured I would see if I could catch a glimpse of the U.S. Capitol lit up in the night sky. One little problem: confusing restrictions. I wasn’t a commercial vehicle, I wasn’t a truck, but I certainly wasn’t just a car. With my GPS screaming at me to turn, I followed the local traffic signs instead. I did not want to make the evening news for bringing a trailer down to the U.S. Capitol on a media-crazy night. At one point, I even tried to ask a cop for help, but he cruised right on past me. Fed up, I decided to give up and head out to the expressway. When I turned the next corner, the Capitol was right smack in front of me. I snapped a quick photo (hence the slight blur) and got on out-of-town. To this day, it is shocking that someone didn’t give me some sort of grief–if only temporarily–for doing what I did. I found a rest stop just outside of D.C., went to sleep, and woke up the next morning for a taste of the 1700s.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia is a step back in time (1699 to 1780, to be exact.) For me, it is a perfect blend of historical restoration and interpretation with commercial interests. I am sure it isn’t 100% accurate, as some historians have noted, but I still think it is the ultimate field trip for school kids. No cars on certain streets, workers dress and talk in character, horse carriages clamber along. It really does feel like a step back in time. And it is big–over 300-acres big! Adjacent to the interpretive area is a more modern retail section with Baskin-Robbins, William-Sonoma, Talbot–all in a colonial theme. And just down the road from all of this is one historic golf course, The Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. It just reeked of old money! And rightfully so. Robert Trent Jones Sr. and son Rees Jones designed the world-famous 45-hole complex. It was an absolute treat to play!
With no advanced planning whatsoever, I just stumbled upon Queenstown Harbor, Washington D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg as I made way south to warmer weather. I hope to keep stumbling on places just like these! I have a feeling I may do just that in the Outer Banks of North Carolina!Read More
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 spent most of my time Down East. It is an area along the rocky coast of Maine filled with idyllic, rural communities and a simple way of life. Why is it called Down East? “When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term ‘Down East.'”
I spent a few nights with my friend’s parents in Blue Hill in a house with no wheels. While there, I brought the Airstream to a middle school in nearby Brooklin. It was an opportunity to share my story, teach some geography, and remind the kids to behave responsibly on the internet. I truly enjoyed my time at the school, and hope to do more of it around the country. Anyone know any teachers who want a part in a traveling show and tell?Read More
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.
I had only a few days to visit, so I spent all of my time on the western side of Newfoundland. I just didn’t have time to make the desolate, moose-laden 12-hour drive to the capital city of St. John’s. But I did make it up to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a little too late in the year to do any of the planned outdoor activities, like the boat tour of the fresh water fjord called Western Brook Pond. I saw the fjord from a distance, drove the Viking Trail, did some sightseeing, took some photos, found a great little golf course, had some pretty incredible fried chicken for dinner, and made the 4-hour drive back to my temporary home in Doyles.
The next day I ventured out for lunch and stumbled upon the Wreckhouse Haven Cafe, almost the only eating establishment open within 20 miles. Debbie, the chef/owner/conversationalist/dishwasher/server, was the real deal. I sat down, had some soup and sandwiches, and talked with the locals all afternoon. I loved it so much I went back the next evening for a traditional Newfoundland supper. Success! I found the perfect spot to learn about the local culture, share my stories, and eat same local meat and potatoes!
While at the Wreckhouse, and when I filled up with gas, and when I had that fried chicken, and when I went golfing, and pretty much anytime I interacted with some of the true locals, I was able to experience that famous Newfoundland accent firsthand. Wow! For the ones with the thick accent, it was like a Scottish/Irish/Somethingish brogue with peanut butter. That is the best way I can describe it–incredibly hard to understand, and definitely unique to that area.
But let me tell you; absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, the people of Newfoundland are the most sincere, welcoming, friendly, and memorable people I have met on my journey. It was just a little too remote for me to call home, but I would go back to visit anytime–if they’ll have me.
The photos suck. They really do. These are the best of the bunch. It’s an excuse to visit next year when the weather is better.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!”
[vimeo 15512899 w=560&h=315]Read More
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).
The National Park is right along the Green Gables Shore on the north central part of PEI. It is in Cavendish, near Green Gables, the inspiration for L.M. Montgomery’s, Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery is a semi-goddess on the island. She was born there, spent much time on her cousins’ farm that had green-colored gables, and is buried on the island. (I pumped 75 litres of gas into the Touareg about 50 yards from her gravestone.) I did a complete tour of the three coastal drives from tip-to-tip, and I think the Green Gables Shore was my favorite area of the island (ignoring the incredibly cheesy and touristy part of Cavendish). No spot on the entire island is more than 30 minutes to the ocean…unless you happen to get stuck behind a traffic jam of combines or tractors that regularly use the highways!
Yet again, I found a jewel of a province in the great country of Canada. I plan to return in warmer weather to play golf, play golf, and play golf. It was hard to leave, but as the Prince Edward Island Visitor’s Guide says, “You’ll never completely leave.”Read More
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
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!Read More
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!
I just wish the weather would have cooperated. The last month has been some of the most nasty, most dreary, most unpleasant weather of the last year. Many of my photographs just didn’t capture the natural beauty of the West.
[vimeo 12226433 w=480&h=270]
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!
The only incorporated city on the island is Avalon. Its streets overlooking the Pacific Ocean are full of touristy stores, restaurants, bars, and hotels. There are very, very few cars on the island; street legal golf carts are everywhere! The town just has a calm and serene vibe to it. There is also a Chicago connection to Avalon and the entire Catalina Island. The Wrigley family owned the island for many years, and the Chicago Cubs even used the island for spring training back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Catalina Island Conservancy now owns 88% of the island.
With the exception of the city of Avalon, a few remote houses, some farms, camps, and resorts — oh, and the Airport-in-the-Sky — Catalina Island looks like California looked like 200 years ago. I know California gets a bad rap sometimes, but let me tell you, California has some absolutely stunning scenery. And Catalina Island has some of the best scenery in all of California.
Anyone visiting the Los Angeles area absolutely, positively needs to visit Catalina Island! Thanks for the tour, Laurie!Read More
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!
I really have enjoyed my time in the San Diego area. In fact, I like it so much, I plan to stay here at least another month!Read More
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!
[vimeo clip_id=”8132830″ width=”560″ height=”315″]Read More
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 left the Seattle area to head down Highway 101 and get closer to the coast. I was looking forward to a spot near the ocean, a spot to relax, a spot to do some laundry.
Have you ever had one of those vacations where the location just didn’t match the brochure? After I fought the Seattle-Tacoma traffic with periods of rain thrown in to mix it up, I finally arrived in the Bay Center, Washington area. Expecting to find a “quaint fishing town,” instead I found a few run-down buildings, one restaurant (technically, since it did look like it served food), a tiny store, and a campground. There was nothing else around for dozens of miles. As I drove into the campground, the first thing I noticed was a family — actually, almost an entire village — camped out under some tarps. They had “Whiskey Tango” written all over them; my immediate thought, “I feel sorry for the person next to them!” (You can see where this is headed.) I checked in, got my assigned spot right next to the aforementioned family, and proceeded to back into my spot as they took photos of me. I don’t know who was loudest: the unruly children, the cackling mother, or the whining dog. To make matters worse, I swear I was in the “Bermuda Triangle” of campgrounds. I had no cell service, no internet, no television, and — most importantly — no good food. I spent the entire night patiently waiting for sunrise, and left early the next morning.
Next stop: Oregon!
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
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.
The next morning I sought out a place far, far away from the smoke and haze. I remembered driving through a unique – if not “touristy” – town of Winthrop as a kid, so I headed in that direction. It is a tiny town with an Old West theme, tucked away in the middle of the Cascade Mountain Range. I found some free Wi-Fi, and worked out of the very modern Airstream in the very old-fashioned Winthrop all day long.
It just so happened, my very next stop was another town with another theme: Leavenworth, Washington. In the 1960s, Leavenworth – a town on the edge of collapse – transformed itself into a Bavarian village to revitalize its economy. The crazy thing; it totally worked! I really enjoyed the vibe of the entire town. From the sounds of oom-pah music in the streets to the tour guides dressed in lederhosen, I forgot I was in the middle of Washington.
Next stop: a place with another theme entirely; a place where it is often OK to go “100” down the highway; a place where “35” is a pretty high temperature; a place called Canada! Stay tuned…
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!
[vimeo 5926898 w=560&h=315]Read More
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
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.
[vimeo 5433897 w=560&h=315]Read More
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.
This little adventure has also been a great excuse to finish my goal of golfing in every state in the Union. I found some gems in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming to reach a total of 30 states so far!
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.
Now it is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a major tourist attraction with preserved woodworking shops, wine shops, meat shops, bakeries, and even a brewery. I picked up some homemade horseradish, smoked bratwurst, chocolate, and coffee. I found an enormous campground just outside of the main village, and stayed a few days. The whole area is fascinating, albeit slightly eerie with its homogeneous look. The next time you are traveling on I-80 through eastern Iowa, put the Amana Colonies on your list. And, yes, this is also where the Amana brand (now owned by Whirlpool) got its start. The factory is just on the edge of town.
This concludes today’s lesson. Wasn’t that fun?
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!
The next several days were spent at Fort Custer Campground near Battle Creek. A buddy stayed with me for a few days of golfing and grilling. We found a local brewery (Arcadia Brewing Co.) that makes great ales and also offered free Wi-Fi. In fact, many of the businesses in downtown Battle Creek offered free Wi-Fi. The entire region is struggling with the economy, though. According to a local, the state of Michigan has one of the highest rates of unemployment right now, and the Battle Creek area is the highest in the state. Other than the brewery and some of the golf courses, there aren’t too many other highlights for the area. So, yeah, there is not much of a chance Battle Creek will be my final home.