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
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
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
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.