“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
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!
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Error: Photoset not foundRead 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
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
Anyone following my journey for the last year has probably noticed my lack of traveling the past few months. Well, that is about to change! The reason for my stationary status was due to one reason, and one reason alone: flying lessons. On my 35th birthday, I passed my check ride and officially became a licensed pilot. Legally it is a certificate and not a license, but I won’t get into semantics. Anyway, with my flying lessons complete, I will finally be leaving the San Diego area to explore the rest of the US and Canada. Before I get back on the road, I thought I would share my experience of learning to fly.
Airplanes and I go way back. In the 1970s, my dad and grandpa carved out an airstrip in our backyard in Montana. It is still very active: Ferndale Airfield (53U). As far back as I can remember, summer nights often included a quick flight around the Flathead Valley with my dad in our Cessna 150. I took a few lessons in high school, tried again while living in Chicago, took some more at a small airport in Indiana, and then decided to do this whole Airstream adventure. With the peace and solitude of Airstream living came the opportunity to really take flying lessons seriously. And as time had passed, aviation caught up with technology: finally, GPS was available in the cockpit; digital instruments were common; and fuel-efficient engines actually made the cost a little more reasonable.
I found a flight school just outside San Diego. Appropriately named San Diego Sport Flyers, it had the Sport Cruiser airplane I wanted to fly. I flew a couple dozen hours, studied night after night, and eventually summoned the courage to test my skills out in front of a Designated Pilot Examiner. This is my story.
The day began at 6:30 AM with a check of the weather and the realization that all my previous night’s calculations were a little off because the winds aloft had switched a complete 180 degrees in direction. Let me back up. The whole process has two parts: an oral knowledge exam, and a practical flying check ride in the air (if the previous knowledge exam goes well). The first part includes a mock flight plan to a pre-determined airport in the area. This flight plan is old school and literally includes getting out a ruler, plotting points, computing routes, headings, and distances — all with wind correction angles and variations with isogonic lines. Yeah, fun stuff, let me tell you! The whole point is to figure out how much fuel it takes to get from Point A to Point B. After all, there are no rest areas up in the air!
After I redid all my calculations, it was off to the flight school to meet with the examiner and hopefully go flying in a couple of hours. Little did I know those couple of hours turned into four hours. That’s right. Four hours. In a closed room. With no bathroom or food break. Talking about everything imaginable: from the scientific effects of density altitude to flash cards of airport markings. Those of you who know me, know that four hours without food is a feat in and of itself! With the knowledge portion over, it was now time to take to the skies.
The first beautiful Saturday in weeks, Gillespie Field Airport was overflowing with air traffic. We took off Runway 27R with a right downwind departure towards El Capitan Reservoir. The next hour and half was a blur of steep turns, power on stalls, power off stalls, emergency descents, turns around a point, slow flight; you name it. I managed to do all the maneuvers, so we flew over to Ramona Airport to practice various types of landings.
My most memorable part of the day was over at Ramona. After making a somewhat pathetic short field landing (trying to land within 200 feet of the numbers on the runway), my examiner made me go around and attempt the same thing again — but without power. On the downwind leg, I pulled the throttle and started the all-important glide towards the ground. I made the turns back to the airport, applied flaps, eased it down, and landed directly on the numbers with the two main wheels first — just as the doctor ordered. The examiner looked at me, punched my shoulder, and said it was an absolutely beautiful landing. I think they were my first, and only, words of encouragement all day! We flew back to Gillespie, made one last landing, and I got two thumbs up — apparently universal pilot examiner speak for “You passed!”
So, the next step is for me to graduate from a safe pilot to a good, safe pilot. I will be going to various airports around the country to practice my flying skills. In fact, the next stop I have planned is to a little town in northern Vermont to get my float plane rating. I am now free to move about the country, and I can’t wait!
After two and a half years of full-timing it in the Airstream, I have compiled quite a list of “less than stellar” moments. As you can see, I tend to do something at least once a month that makes me just shake my head in amazement.
- April 28 Remember to secure latch, so blender doesn’t fly out of pantry and shatter lamp
- April 29 Remember that lighted cabinets will singe pillows if stuffed absolutely full
- May 2 Remember to lock cargo container, so two backpacks don’t fly out on open road
- May 2 Remember to empty gray water tank, so shower doesn’t back up with water
- May 3 Remember that shower rod can’t hold bag full of heavy items
- May 4 Remember that dirty dishes left in enclosed space will eventually smell like death itself
- May 20 Remember to crank up stabilizer before moving, so it doesn’t rip completely off
- June 9 Remember the weight of the awning will snap the bar right off if it slips
- June 27 Remember to check hitch stabilizer, so it doesn’t fall off driving down the road
- July 4 Remember to make an advance reservation for all popular holiday weekends
- August 8 Remember to remove sunglasses and concisely answer Customs agent to avoid detainment
- September 10 Remember to back up s-l-o-w-l-y and watch for cement walls that suddenly appear
- October 31 Remember to secure all liquid containers — say, red wine — before driving down the road
- November 2 Remember to make sure dump station isn’t clogged before attempting to dump black water
- June 14 Remember to move satellite dish before backing up (and over said satellite dish)
- October 31 Remember to make sure sewer drain in ground is not completely filled with sand
- November 12 Remember to look out for big, solid trees before backing into a big, solid tree
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 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.
I spent the last two nights at Pokagon State Park in the northeastern corner of Indiana. Although the camp sites themselves only offer basic electricity, the rest of the park has plenty of activities and facilities (e.g. bike trails, fishing, hiking, horses, toboggan run, etc.). Who doesn’t like a good ol’ toboggan run? For state parks in the Midwest, this is a good one. I spent many, many hours at the Potawatomi Inn because of the free Wi-Fi. AT&T and Sprint aren’t doing so well out here.
I learned another valuable lesson on the first night here – don’t be an idiot. I got in late, somehow found my camp site, and tried repeatedly to find a half-way level patch of ground. During this process, I put one stabilizer down at some point, forgot about it, moved forward a few feet, and ripped the front stabilizer right off the bottom of the Airstream. So, I had to go “shave big monkeys” at Menard’s [listen to the commercial in your head] and get some more tools to patch things up temporarily. Fun, fun!
Luckily, the rest of the stay went much better. I cooked some steaks and burgers for the first time on the new grill and got to work from a scenic location! Here are some photos:
I left New Haven today to head back through Chicago. Right now I am staying in the middle of the woods at the Bellefonte KOA campground minutes from Penn State. I am pretty much set with free Wi-Fi and basic hookups. This place is perfect; the owners are incredibly friendly, the site is well marked, and it is centrally located near I-80. I will definitely be back! By the way, other campgrounds take note. While parked at a rest area in New York, I used my iPhone to search ReserveAmerica, reserved the exact pull-through location at the Bellefonte KOA in Pennsylvania, paid in advance via credit card, and had a map with parking directions sitting for me when I showed up very late that night. It was a perfect use of technology!
I would have found a free spot to stay, but I needed some electricity to recharge my batteries. The little test at Hammonasset Beach State Park drained the Airstream batteries down and for some reason the Touareg isn’t charging them back up. Time to put the Airstream in the shop!
Let me tell you just how much fun it was to attempt the hitching process with an electric hitch and find the batteries completely dead. After a quick call to Dan at US Adventure RV, I found the hidden spot to manually crank the hitch. Just as I thought things were working out, the wrench completely broke in two. [Yes, I am just that strong.] After half a dozen or so expletives, I realized there was just enough clearance after all, hitched it all up, and towed the Airstream on out of there. So, I am going to have to go get a new wrench; preferably one not made from the Fisher Price factory.