I just had to post two pictures from the end of our Solar Eclipse Day here in Great Falls, Montana.
Heading out of Custer State Park our next destination was Bighorn National Forest just outside Buffalo, Wyoming. One stop along the way was Devil’s Tower Monument, you know, the one made famous in “Close Encounters?” Since we had been busy watching bison in camp for a few days, we needed another stop at Rapid City’s Wal-Mart for basic supplies, then off we went to Devil’s Tower.
The only glitch we discovered was there was very limited parking for motorhomes and trailers, in fact it was at the base of the tower and not yet up to the Visitor’s Center. Even though we could have disconnected the car to drive closer, we hopped out, took the shots and kept moving.
As we got closer to our destination, I kept scanning the low hills for anything that looked like mountains. Our campsite was in the Middle Fork Campground and it was hard to see anything that fit the description of mountains, but then it was very, very hazy on the drive. I couldn’t figure why so much haze and ground level ozone in such a wide open area, but then we learned we were in the path of smoke blowing down from wildfires in Canada and Montana. As we got closer to Buffalo we finally spotted the mountains looming in the haze… looks like a proper location after all.
Well, yeah… it was several miles of 7 and 8% grade up, relentlessly. Up, up we went, while the engine temp did the same. But the outside temperature did the opposite, going from upper 80’s to low 70’s. Wow, we had a bit of a pause to go downhill a bit, then Jackie shouted, “there, the turn is there – slow down.” We exited the highway, across a narrow cattle grate and the road seemed way smaller, in fact it turned into dirt and gravel. Hmmm, okaaaay… are you sure this is it? Oh yeah, the next turn was even tighter, across more cattle grate and less gravel.
But the sign announced the campground. We took a deep breath, drove very slow and across a one-lane bridge, found our gorgeous campsite and decided to disconnect the car and tow dolly and hope there was a turnaround ahead for the motorhome. There was, and we eased into the site, one that was the BEST ever. A clear mountain stream rushed along the site and we were in the midst of beautiful spruce and ponderosa pines in a narrow gorge that was now in the mid 60’s.
We knew the spot was without electric or water hookups, but there was a handy water pump across from the site, just in case. Took Kodi off for a walkabout, chatted with the camp host, grilled a great meal, played a game of cards and went to bed with the sound of the stream. Next morning it was 42 degrees and we were dead on power. The house batteries had drained to nothing and we couldn’t even crank the generator to recharge them. Ugh. What went wrong? I think we forgot to switch the fridge from automatic to LP gas. It drained the batteries overnight. So I cranked up the engine (hooray, that worked) and tried to get some charge to the house batteries, but it was never enough to spark the generator or start the fridge, even on LP gas. So we were without electricity and although we had plenty of water, we couldn’t operate the pump to get it out of the tank. So the hand pump across from us came in handy for cold, fresh mountain water.
Since we got up way early, thanks to Kodi’s alarm, we took a break to hike out of camp a bit and discovered the beautiful vista we missed the day before: Cloud Peak Wilderness area in the Bighorn National Forest. It was clear early morning, but within an hour the smoke moved in and you couldn’t see them at all. Other than that, we totally loved the spot. We did a late afternoon hike into the wilderness for less than a mile before the elevation got to us (trail was 8,000, camp was 7,400 feet). We did make a run into Buffalo with the car (down then up the 7% grade) to get a couple bags of ice to put in the fridge. Total boondocking camping without showers, running water, electricity, heat … oh my, could we survive?
We were only in camp two nights and took off early in the morning to see if we could get to our next stop: Billings, Montana and a KOA. Short detour to see the Little Big Horn Battlefield (Custer’s last stand against the Indians) and on to civilization and an electric outlet!
We made it, hooked up and got everything running again. Nothing in the fridge or freezer spoiled, in fact the ice cubes were still good. Lesson learned for the next stop off the grid (which will be Glacier for a week) – we need to check the fridge and be sure to run the generator before turning in at night to be sure everything is charged up.
Eclipse Day! We were off to Great Falls, Montana and figured to be about halfway there by 11:30’s solar eclipse moment. The route we took was a wonderful 2-lane road that went over the hills of Montana and through the Musselshell River valley, quite scenic. We still saw plenty of wildfire smoke in the distance, but it was easy to see the many hay fields and sheep grazing around us. Magpies flew up from the road shoulders as we passed a lot of worn and weathered small towns along the way.
We stopped in Judith Gap to watch the eclipse, which was around 90% and we had glasses in hand ready to view. As you can see, everyone in the area pulled off the road to watch the event.
We noticed it was a bit dim outside, but we still saw our shadows just fine. Ah, well.
We made it to Great Falls in time to disconnect the car and check out the three breweries in town, celebrating the “non’clipse” we witnessed. Mighty Mo, Black Eagle and The Front Brewing were a lot of fun with very friendly people.
Our campsite was the KOA in town, conveniently located just behind a huge Wal-Mart. So we are well stocked and ready for our journey into Glacier.
Yes, more adventures for two former teachers who should know to read and follow all directions. Blame it on the altitude, we were woozy headed. Stick with us, as we are headed to Glacier National Park.
Week two of our current westward adventure began as we drove across the prairie to Rapid City. We got to town before noon, so of course we needed to check out the brewery we saw advertised along the route with some two dozen fire engines: Firehouse Brewing.
Parked the motorhome near their Civic Center and walked through a beautiful city park about two blocks from downtown. Very cute downtown, with baskets of flowers and lots of trendy shops and eateries. Found the Firehouse (literally their old firehouse) and ordered lunch.
Doug was thirsty, so he had a flight of their nine beers. We both agreed their red ale was the best, even though Jackie was hoping for a robust porter.
Back to the motorhome and then southwest to Custer State Park. The approach into the park is vast rolling hills of light green grasslands sprinkled with dark pines. We meandered into the park on serpentine roads searching for bison. Nothing yet. We made camp in record time, since the site at Grace Coolidge Campground was very level and an easy back-in. Yes, the car and hitch came off, but it was super easy. Electric only, but we had dumped and filled our fresh water at Badlands, so we were all good.
Over the next three days we stayed on the move. We drove the Wildlife Loop Trail twice, drove the Needles Highway twice, drove Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore, visited Custer and Hill City and Crazy Horse Mountain. Best way to describe them all is that nothing is straight, everything seems to be about a 20 mile loop and you better keep your eyes open for wildlife, cause it is there.
First trip around the Wildlife Loop Trail we were thinking about the first part of Jurassic Park when they kept asking where the dinosaurs were. Nice scenery, but where are the bison? Oh, those cars are stopped, maybe that’s … no, just pronghorn. Wait, there are more stopped ahead … no, just the local “begging burros.”
Plenty of prairie dog villages, but no bison. Hmmm, cars stopped ahead, woah …. look at the shoulder of the road there is a bison and calf and … yikes! Suddenly we were in the middle of the herd.
All the cars were stopped and for good reason, as the herd was moving from right to left across and down the road. We had the windows down and were snapping pictures as these big ol’ guys climbed out of the ditches and ambled alongside the car, their hooves softly clip-clopping down the road. It was amazing and a bit unnerving – I spotted two large males ambling up behind the car in the rearview mirror and they just stopped right behind, as if they were waiting in line. We probably stayed in the middle of this herd for 30 to 40 minutes. You really had no choice since they blocked both lanes of the road. Wow. We went back to that area on a different day and had another great “midst of the herd” encounter.
Later in the week we would see one or two in other sections of the park, just grazing or sitting off the road. On one of our trips around the park we pulled off behind another stopped car and asked what they were watching. Elk. We watched a small group of females munching their way up a hillside.
We also saw plenty of white-tailed deer grazing off the road, watched as about six turkeys crossed the road and caught a mule deer drinking at a stream. The wildlife moving through the park seems to be everywhere. By now we are both on a hunt for mountain goats, said to frequent the higher elevations along Needles Highway.
One excursion took us into Custer around noon, so we stopped to eat at Burger and Bun, a very popular spot recommended to us at Firehouse Brewing. Indeed, the burgers were delicious and the place had a cool vibe. Washed down with local beer, of course. Custer is another great town for tourists, with plenty or rock shops, western wear and local art. Their public art is painted bison placed around town.
We drove the Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore one morning and really enjoyed it. This roadway has tons of switchbacks, a few narrow tunnels and a couple of corkscrew turns where you curve under the roadway itself. One of the last tunnels you travel was designed to point directly at the mountain carving for a perfect framed view.
Once at the Monument, it became even more impressive. We walked the boardwalk and stairway trail that circled pretty close and got great views of each of the presidential profiles. All of the public areas have been updated beautifully and the restaurant/gift shop is impressive.
Needles Highway is another treat to drive. We first drove it downhill, then returned another day to go uphill. Each time was a crazy drive of U-turn curves, switchbacks, single lane tunnels and overlooks. When you approach the narrowest tunnel, Needles Eye (at 8’ 4”) it is a minor parking lot with people walking around snapping pictures, cars waiting their turn to pass … all surrounded by towers of smooth granite. The roadways are a favorite of motorcyclists, although we are lucky that the huge (500,000 or more) motorcycle rally in Sturgis just ended as we arrived here. Plenty still remain, however.
Ever notice how small a world it is? We met a very nice family in Badlands who were quite taken with Kodi. Shared our experiences and wished them well. As we were hiking around Sylvan Lake, a gorgeous but remote spot at the end of Needles Highway, who do we spot but our friends from the Badlands. We shared more stories and then snapped a pic of our new peeps from the Badlands/Black Hills. We learned that they don’t head back to school until after Labor Day, unlike our school, which began July 31. Kinda explains all the kids we see everywhere.
We had one more stop to make, at Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an impressive tribute to all Native Americans and it is going to be many more years in the making. We toured the museum collections and gazed at the profile of Crazy Horse that was in progress. They said that the heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit inside Crazy Horse’s sculpted head.
Funny how we ended up in town around lunchtime each day. In Custer we stopped in at Naked Winery/Sick ‘n Twisted Brewery for a flight. Quiet spot now that cycle week was over.
We were told their main location in Hill City was much better stocked, so on another day we were headed to sample more of their beer and also visit the main location of Prairie Berry Winery/Miner Brewing in town. Hill City looked like fun as we slowly drove through on our way to the breweries when …
… all of a sudden a deer ran across in front of the car, I hit the brakes, but we slammed into it. Rolled to a stop, deer continued on and we looked at the damage. Bumper and front grill not looking good and when I finally got the hood up, the radiator was pushed back.
So these things happened next:
- Pulled in to the visitors center just yards ahead of us and asked about auto repair shop
- Auto repair shop south of town said they couldn’t repair, but looked like AC was out, no leaks otherwise
- Told we must report the accident to State Patrol immediately, and did
- Headed up the road again to get something to eat at… Sick ‘n Twisted
- Spoke to State Patrol, who would meet us to look at car and file report (and where would that be exactly? Brewery)
- Officer filed his report, we called insurance, went in to have a flight and pizza
- Brewery had wifi and cell service, so we located nearest Toyota dealer in Rapid City
- Just yards ahead was Miner Brewing, but I only was able to run in and get a sticker (sad)
- Drove to Rapid City where they looked at radiator (we were expecting repair) and said it was not leaking and should be ok for rest of trip
- Drove back to camp and tried to shake it off
Well, at least we can drive the car, minus the AC. Since it has been in ‘70’s here and should be no hotter in Glacier, Yellowstone, Tetons, we can make it. The right headlight looks like Mad-eye Moody, all wonky and pointed in strange directions. Body work will just have to wait until we are back home. Well, at least it wasn’t a bison.
On our last night in camp we drove toward the Wildlife Loop Road, expecting to see the herd again, but no herd was around. We did scare up the turkeys again and spotted about a half dozen solo male bison on the shoulder of the road. The evening’s highlight was watching a large herd of elk moving along a hillside and down to the fields below – probably about 30 or more, a mixture of females, youngsters and young males. They were bugling and making all sorts of noises as they moved along. Very cool.
So our stay in Custer State Park has been amazing. Animals all around, except the elusive mountain goats, and nice fall-like weather. Just one big thunderstorm at night.
So, what’s next? Off to Bighorn National Forest for two days, with a stop at Devil’s Tower on the way. Then a couple of KOA nights in Billings and Great Falls (the time of the eclipse) so we can take care of laundry, stock up on supplies and ready ourselves for Glacier National Park.
Thanks for following along (click to follow) as the adventure continues . . .
If someone dropped you here blindfolded, then said to open your eyes, you would probably think you were on some alien planet. It is a strange landscape. What the Lakota Indians called mako sica and early pioneers just called the bad lands, can be a wonderful experience for today’s adventurers. After all, we don’t actually have to guide our horses and provisions down steep slopes and rocky ravines, we simply have to follow the scenic loop road through the park.
We arrived in Badlands National Park after leaving Mitchell and the famous Corn Palace. On the banks of the Missouri River we stopped at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to learn about their trip up the Missouri River for President Jefferson. Also on the banks of the river was the tribute statue Dignity. There was a definite change in the landscape as we moved further west across the grasslands and prairies, with crops of sunflowers, millet, and flax and less corn. Spotted a small herd of pronghorn along the way.
As we drove into the park, we began to see the wall, an eroded landscape of rock and silt that is the edge between a northern prairie of higher elevation and a much lower prairie leading to the White River (aptly named due to the light color of the sediment it contains). All of it used to be an ancient seabed, so the layers of silt, sand and ash are subjected to wind and water erosion, leaving behind a landscape that looks like giant sandcastles. It’s hard to believe it doesn’t just collapse on itself, but with only 16 inches of rainfall a year, these hills have baked into a hard rock known as popcorn rock.
Our campground is below the wall in the area called Cedar Pass. We have the backdrop of scraggy brown peaks behind us and flat open prairie in front of us. What a sight! Before the day was done, we hiked some short trails to view the landscape and took the longer stairway trail along one face of the wall at Cedar Pass.
Back in camp we had a nice breeze and were glad the temperature dropped from the low 90s to 65 or less. We relaxed with a few adult beverages, grilled the last of the fresh corn from Minnesota and tucked in under the covers.
Next day was an early start, thanks to Kodi. As we move west, now in the mountain time zone, he seems to wake closer to 5 am. Argh. But it gave us time to get ready for more hiking – besides, a bank of fog rolled in and we had a light drizzle to start the day. Great hiking weather to try two trails before it got too hot and sunny. The Notch Trail is a mile and a half round trip across the sandy rock ledges to get a view of the White River valley from behind Cedar Pass. It involves a trail ladder of sorts that is a one-at-a-time ascent or descent. Some narrow edges and steep slopes made it a tricky hike at times, but it was truly a strange landscape. Reminded both of us of Arches NP and Zion NP.
Driving west on the loop a bit further we stopped for the Saddle Pass Trail.
This one was half as long, but much steeper and one with lots of loose sand and gravel underfoot. But the view and the challenge were definitely worth it.
Down from our climb we continued west on the loop road through the jagged landscape. We spotted another herd of pronghorn and two large groups of bighorn sheep. Also caught a golden eagle circling overhead. The photo isn’t as crisp as I would like, but it sure does evoke the paintings of thunderbirds by the Native Americans. Probably the most entertaining were the several prairie dog villages we saw. At first you thought you were looking at large ant mounds in the grass, but soon noticed the critters pop out of their holes and whistle out a warning. Off they went to gather grasses and bring them back to the den, tails upright as they ran.
Last stop before camp was in Wall, the home of the famous Wall Drug Store. Probably has twice the roadside signs than Rock City. Kind of a strange collection of western wear, Native American art, souvenirs and whatnot. Of course, this is where you find the jackalope, stuffed and mounted for you to take home. But we only bought some of the recommended maple-glazed donuts that certainly did taste awesome. Across the street was the Badlands Bar, with cold beer on tap calling out to us. I had a local brew with a Brunch Burger. Lesson learned here: a fried egg on a juicy burger with onions, hashbrowns and cheese sounds like a good idea, but it is waaaay too drippy. The beer helped, though. Dinner tonight might just be PB&J.
Tomorrow we strike camp and head to nearby Custer State Park for more wildlife sightings and exploring as the adventure continues. . .
As we continue to make our way to the Badlands of South Dakota, we have had gorgeous weather. The temperatures have fallen into the 70’s and even as low as 55 degrees overnight in Albert Lea, MN. The view from the cab is dark green fields of soybeans with ribbons of green and golden tassels for the cornfields, punctuated by white and red barns, silver and white silos and many white wind turbines spinning against a bright blue sky. Simply amazing. Yes, lots and lots of corn, from Illinois, through Iowa to Minnesota and into South Dakota.
Up early and out of F.W. Kent park in Iowa, we headed north to Albert Lea, Minnesota, passing through Cedar Rapids and crossing the Cedar River. Not too far along we crossed the Winnebago River and Jackie quickly searched out the Forest City location of Winnebago Industries. Heck, it was just about 10 miles away, so we made sure the motorhome got to go home and visit. Treated ourselves to a new purchase (two Tervis cups with Winnebago design) after touring their visitor center. But all that corn was getting to Doug, so we picked up some farm-fresh corn at a farmstand and grilled them later that night. Melt in your mouth good.
We had booked a site at Myre-Big Island State Park for the night and were just hoping for an easy spot near the interstate. A little nervous, since all they had were back-in sites and we didn’t yet want to unhook the car, but couldn’t be helped. Turned out to be an amazing place.
Again, another example of tallgrass prairie with some woodland borders. An early afternoon arrival allowed us time to go for a hike on some well-groomed trails. Gosh, the grass on the trail was far better than my lawn at home. We watched lots of goldfinches on the thistle, but they were too quick for the camera. Tons of colorful blossoms and fruits. Kodi got spooked by some fox scat (droppings) on the trail and we in turn spooked a young doe (yet again the deer). I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Heading out the next day (yes, 55 degrees overnight!) we had South Dakota in our sights. The interstate was straight, flat and pretty much empty as we drove through the most gorgeous cropland. Once across the state line, we made a stop in Sioux Falls for a visit to the Big Sioux River and the start of our brewery visits.
The park along the falls was amazing to see and the several block walk to downtown yielded Prairie Berry Winery and Miner Brewery. Great spot to have lunch and a flight of three beers each (their Irish Red Ale was the best) and we were happy campers. Made some new peeps already: Alan, Jackie and their son Austin. Go figure, Alan was a high school math teacher and his son Austin had just landed a middle school math job (poor thing). Naturally we had nothing to talk about.
We wanted to sample one more brewery three doors down, Monk’s Gandy Dancer. Jackie was just enoying her bourbon barrel aged brew when in walked our new peeps. So the conversation continued. Good people.
Late afternoon we rolled into the Mitchell KOA, a typical KOA campground, but it does have full hookups to get us ready for no-water sites the next week. Unhooked the car, and drove to Mitchell to visit the iconic Corn Palace. Have a look.
We are off to the Badlands for a few days, followed by Custer State Park, so we are hoping for some good wildlife sightings. Catch up with you later.
The adventure continues . . .
Ok then, we are off on our trip to the West — so it means a lot of driving the first few days. Also means getting an early start. I have to admit that my plan for “wheels up at 0600” was thwarted a bit due to darkness. As I was sipping on my coffee at 5:30am I realized that it was going to be way too dark to hitch up the car on the tow dolly, so it was more like 0800 before we hit the road. We plan to drive around 300 miles each day and find quick pull-thru spots near the main roads. Don’t even want to disconnect the car from the tow dolly. Sometimes it can be a KOA or typical RV park, but sometimes we are surprised by the state and local campgrounds we find.
First day was rain all the way through Nashville and into Kentucky. We camped near Paducah, KY (which incidentally was the filming location for part of How the West Was Won) at a clean, paved RV park that was very quiet and had full hookups. As we pulled out on day two, we had the best weather for driving through the cornfields of central Illinois – a cloudless blue sky with bright green fields of soybeans and tall corn. Very flat and just gorgeous. We crossed over several of those mighty, historic rivers that were plenty full of muddy, brown water: Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Illinois Rivers. Soon to come was the wide Mississippi. Driving across and along them, you really can understand the importance of these rivers for transportation and commerce and how they shaped the cities that sprung up on their banks. Keep playing back those river scenes from HTWWW.
We stayed the second night at an old gathering spot for folks in the late 1800’s, the Weldon Springs State Park. Very nice campground with only about 15 of us in camp. Wandering out at dusk, we discovered some beautiful meadows and prairie fields filled with wildflowers. Naturally, our favorite ungulates were there. A doe, two fawns and a young buck (hmmmm, wonder if they followed us from home?) were munching in the field keeping a careful eye on us.
Third day took us through more cornfields (seriously, we grow a lot of corn), as we made our way through the rest of Illinois, across the Rock and Mississippi Rivers and into Iowa, where there were more cornfields and rolling hills. Our evening stop is at F.W. Kent Park, a real gem of a county park. Since we got here early afternoon, a hike around was in order. More fields of sunflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed and a host of other flowers that elude immediate identification. Did my best to capture a few before the battery died in the camera (of course!)
I should note that due to some great advance planning on Jackie’s part, we have been eating good in camp. First night was mac ‘n cheese with ham, last night was a spinach quiche with smoked sausage and tonight it’s chicken enchiladas. Yumm.
Next two days take us closer to South Dakota and the Badlands. I hope to get some good stories and pictures to post. Not every post is my best work, but at least you will know what we are up to.
More to come, as the adventure continues . . .
I always wanted to use that phrase, even though we are not flying anywhere, but it kind of seemed to fit the moment as we embark on our next big Western adventure. And as with all good stories, there is a little background information needed to bring you up to speed.
Tires and wheels are an important part of motorhome travel, as we all learned two years ago when we popped a flat tire. I have been just a bit concerned with one of our rear tires not holding full pressure between trips, so I took the motorhome to a great local spot for tire work, Contractors Tire. They figured the problem was a leaky stem hose, so we went ahead and replaced it. You see, to reach the stem of the inner rear tire there is an extension on the valve that brings it out where you can check pressure or add air. Happy that that is now fixed.
While checking the tow dolly tire pressure, one tire was definitely worn and had a pretty good chunk missing from the tread. Looks like it might have lost air pressure on the trip home. I ordered a replacement, actually a pair, online and have them now installed. I would have used the spare, but the valve stem on it bleeds air when the cap is removed, so it is pretty much impossible to get it to 80 lbs pressure. I also took that one to Contractors Tire where they quickly replaced the valve stem. So now we have three good tires for the tow dolly and all are at proper pressure. Yes, motorhome owners are pretty much consumed with tires (and toilets – the two big topics online).
Now about that trip – where exactly will it be taking us? It is a journey that follows much of one that my family took in the summer of ’69 (see prior blog about Plotting the 2017 Adventures). We have 5 days to head north and west to South Dakota and the Badlands and Custer State Park, where the adventure will really get started. From there we head to Bighorn National Forest, Devil’s Tower and on up to Glacier National Park, with a brief glimpse of the solar eclipse. Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park will come next, with a whitewater rafting trip down the Snake River. Leaving the wild west, we head southeast to meet up with friends Dan and Terri at Santa Rosa/Grayton Beach on the Florida panhandle before the final drive home.
We have a new spotting scope that we hope will help us see wolves, bears, moose, bison, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and whatever else happens to be around. I definitely hope to be posting some good photos, but I will need time to crop, upload and post them.
We also hope to continue our search for the best craft beers around. Looks like there are plenty of breweries along the way, so we will do our best to sample and report our findings. It’s tough, but somebody’s gotta do it.
To get ready for the trip, we read up on all the parks and “must see” attractions and watched “North by Northwest,” since it features scenes at Mt. Rushmore. But the movie that really set the mood before heading out is the classic “How the West was Won.” Do you remember the bison stampede? It was filmed in Custer State Park, South Dakota, one of our first big stops.
Hope to post more from the road very soon. Follow along as we embark on our latest adventure. Take notes – there might be a test at the end.
We were excited to be returning to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach again this year, but it took something of a circuitous route this time. You see our future daughter-in-law was having a wedding shower in Memphis just as our trip was to start, so we had to go west before going south. Turned out just fine, however.
We didn’t want to make the entire drive to Memphis all at once, so we made our way northwest through Huntsville, Alabama and stopped for the night at Joe Wheeler State Park along the Tennessee River. We prefer state parks when we can, since it is reasonable and you discover some cool natural areas.
Jackie made the reservation for a pull-through site, since we didn’t want to disconnect the car and tow dolly, but we discovered this was more of a pull-aside site. Maybe just a wide spot in the road, an extra bit of shoulder . . . It was long enough, there was plenty of room between sites, we had full hookups and a nice view of the lake, but it had a few problems. First off, we weren’t facing the campsite.
Sites are usually situated so your right side faces into the site, with utilities on the left. In this case we faced the road, fairly tightly, too. Putting the awning out was out of the question and we barely extended the bedroom slide – just enough to get around the bed and into drawers. Stepping out the motorhome door meant looking both ways for sure. And if we had wanted to use the picnic table, well that was way off thataways. But, it was only one night and easy to pull out the next morning. Overall it was a very nice campground and Kodi enjoyed the evening walkabout to meet children and other dogs.
After driving across northern Alabama and into Tennessee, we pulled into our site at the Agricenter International RV Park, a multipurpose fairgrounds in Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee. While it was a basic gravel lot, it did have full hookups and an onsite Farmer’s Market that was fun to wander through. We met up with Alex, Bethany and her parents and they took us to Central BBQ for some Memphis-style ribs and barbecue. I had a plate of ribs, half dry half wet (rub and sauce) that was fall-off-the-bone good and Jackie tried the pulled pork nachos with some good hush puppies to share.
Next day Jackie’s sister and niece arrived from Nashville and the ladies went off to the shower. Alex, Jim and I took Kodi and their two terriers to another part of Shelby Farms Park for some exercise, with a stop at a dog-friendly outdoor gear shop.
Once again, Kodi was a hit with the kids (he is such a friendly dog). Jim and Dawn hosted us all back at their home for a delicious (and I mean delicious) cookout and then it was back to the camper with Judy and Rachel for the night. However …
Wow did we get a thunderstorm that night! Everything was buttoned down tight, but the wind was rocking the van pretty good and the rain was quite loud on the roof. We had the paddleboards strapped to the roof of the car, but while we are parked I usually loosen the straps a bit to let the boards relax and flex. The wind was so intense I found myself peeking out the bedroom window to check on them, only to see them bouncing around more than I liked. I had visions of them slipping out from under the straps and snapping or just blowing away. I certainly couldn’t sleep with the thought, so I ran out to tighten them down and got totally, totally drenched. But the boards were safe. Unfortunately, the outside radio compartment popped open and I wondered how the speakers and radio would hold up when dry …
Heading south through Alabama, we stopped at Birmingham South Campground for the night, again with full hookups and a pull-thru site. Easy access to the highway and a rather nice park. It was entirely full, since this was now Memorial Day weekend, and we were glad we made an advance reservation.
Finally hit the road on the last stretch through Alabama and into the Florida panhandle to arrive at St. Andrews State Park. Got ourselves settled into the campsite and took Kodi on a walkabout to check out dogs, kids, deer and everything else around camp. While inside the van I suddenly heard loud voices outside and was a bit confused. Stepping out I realized that the radio had turned on, muffled as it was behind the hatch door. Odd. It mysteriously turned on and off a few more times during the trip, so I guess the rain must have short-circuited something. Just another project for back home.
Let’s see, what did we do for the next few days? Well, we paddleboarded in the Grand Lagoon out to the inlet, where there is a gorgeous spit of sandy beach and clear water for swimming. We always manage to spot fish below us and a few dolphin around us.
At the St. Andrews Beach you have a choice of the Gulf side beach or the lagoon side, which has a great spot of water perfect for kids and jetty snorkeling. Depending on the water conditions, you can snorkel the Gulf side jetty, too. So we alternated between both, since the water was a refreshing 81 degrees, clear and clean. Amazing.
One of the first nights in town we wanted to try a local spot that was always crowded and seemed like fun: Patches Pub. The patio had live music (not as good as Blind Fate, mind you) and there was a nice selection of craft beer, but no open table. We were asked to join a couple and promptly learned that they were regulars and were also staying in a motorhome nearby. They headed out and we ordered a second round and some food, only to look up and see a few ladies who had come out on the patio and were without a table, too. “Why don’t you join us” we asked, and we were soon sharing stories about the local scene and what was going on.
One of the gals was from Kennesaw, — about 3 miles from our house! Turns out, two were sisters in town to visit their mother Henrietta, who declared that at 92 she was ready to party. Her condo sits next to the party spot LaVela, which bills itself as the largest nightclub in the US. Apparently she can catch the action from her balcony, some of which she described in pretty wild detail. As we were chatting, she swapped her plastic glass of wine for one of her daughter’s glass stems (adding her red to the remaining white for a nice blush wine…) declaring “it’s just classier” and we all laughed and enjoyed our newfound peeps.
How was Kodi in camp? He was great, and he certainly had his fan club. Every walk around camp involved meet and greets with kids and dogs – he even got the hang of being walked/run on the leash while Doug was riding his bike (a disaster-in-the-making, according to my brother). Later in the week we had folks saying “Oh there’s Kodi, Hi Kodi” around camp. Crazy that he became so popular.
My brother Jeff and sister-in-law Vickie (you will recall them from our cruise posts) joined us for a few days and we had a total blast. Our mission was a search for the best oysters around, plus some good snorkeling. But first we had to hit our favorite beach bar Sharky’s for grouper sandwiches and drinks. It was as good as ever, with a table at the rail along the beach. So of course there is a bit of a story, too. Jeff ordered a frozen margarita and was asked “large or small?” Large of course, and it arrived in a big plastic beer stein with a lid. Okay then. I ordered a ‘Shark Attack’ for Jackie and I to split, large of course, and got the same plastic mug. Cool. Well, during dinner we learned that refills were cheaper if you had the mug, so heck, why not? Even better, the mugs were good at two other spots that had the Fat Tuesdays bar setup. So keep that tidbit in mind for later.
Jeff rented a pontoon boat from the park for a day and off to Shell Island we went. Shell Island is just on the other side of the inlet and the lagoon side was waist-deep clear water along the jetty. Amazing to see so many bait fish – clouds of them in the water, plus mullet, pinfish, tang, and others that we really couldn’t identify. “I can’t believe we have this place to ourselves” was the refrain that morning, since it was indeed a quiet spot.
Lunch was the main event, however, and our quest for the best oysters took us to Old St. Andrews Marina and we tied up at the dock. Within sight was our destination: Hunts Oyster Bar. This local spot was busy, but we got a table pretty quick and put in an order for a pitcher of beer and two dozen oysters on the half-shell. Bam! We had our oysters before we had the beer. Cold, sweet and awesome beauties from the Apalachicola Bay. Jeff and I worked through them pretty fast and ordered up another tray, while we also asked for their fish tacos. I have to say that the tacos were really, really good. Jeff and I marveled at the speed of oyster shucking and he determined he was going to get some for later. Since we had the rest of the day on the boat, we decided to wait on the oysters to go.
Back onboard we returned to snorkel at Shell Island and then across the inlet to the sandy spit for a quick swim and then back to the marina. A great day – and I recommend the boat rentals from the park.
Next morning Jeff was pondering the whole question of a box of oysters to take home. “Dad’s gonna love them, but I don’t know if I want to drive around to Hunt’s to get them.” Those oysters were calling our name, so we decided to try the closer Treasure Island Seafood Market and bought 100 fresh oysters (hey, they were a good deal), piled in a box and filled with ice. Hmm, don’t have a clam knife in the van – guess we need to hit Winn Dixie. Oh, and what about that bloody Mary mix over there? Perfect! Back in camp it was time to shuck oysters (Jeff’s job) and serve up bloodys (Doug’s job). Ouch, that knife was sharp and the oyster was tight … well, 12 oysters and a bloody thumb later we had to rethink. 88 to go and “how exactly did they shuck those guys so quick?” Ah well, time to snorkel instead.
Before he left for home, Jeff left me with about a dozen to fight with. Grilling seemed to be the answer and that worked out for the next two nights – they were much easier to open when they had been steamed on the grill for a bit. Jeff later texted from home that he also steamed them and Dad polished off most of them himself (maybe his secret for reaching 90 years old?). Well done.
I should mention that there was much boating activity that weekend, mostly due to the 3 day season for red snapper in Federal waters. Best place to see them was at the fish cleaning station, where Jackie pretended that she caught a big one. I recall those fish-cleaning days on the Jersey shore when we came back in with barrels of bluefish and I didn’t envy the guys who were filleting them at the dock. But snapper is good eats! Made me also think of the lionfish cleaning in the Keys from last fall (see the post: Island Hopping).
So what is left to say about the remaining week at the beach? Let’s see, we changed campsites after a week and a visit to the dump station. New site was closer to the water for a great view.
Two days of rain – but that was really an excuse to have lunch beachside at Pineapple Willy’s for some amazing grouper po’boys (oh, and a refill rum drink using our special mugs).
More snorkeling (and my GoPro, since I finally got the batteries charged) and great swimming, since the water was amazingly clear and the bait fish were all over the place. A last refill rum drink in our special mugs (I mean, we just HAD to check out all the options) and grouper sandwich at Hammerhead Fred’s. Good times.
So, despite the 8 hour trip home – never fun at the end of a vacation – we are all set to plan it again for next year. Remember, those 8 hours include the time it takes to hook up and then unhitch the car and tow dolly and some traffic snarls in Dothan, Eufaula and Atlanta.
I have to start editing the pictures and video from my GoPro, which may take me a few days, so I’ll make them a separate post. There are some teaser shots in the gallery below. You can check back later for more of the snorkeling shots and videos. I updated Happenings with news of our deer and Merlin says he made some comments on Mews, so be sure to give them a look.
And thanks again for following our adventures – we have fun with it and I enjoy writing the stories.
UPDATE: I have now posted some snorkeling and paddleboarding videos on the “Places” page, so go check them out.
Jackie and I were just itching to get out on our first adventure of 2017, so we finished up the de-winterization of the motorhome and packed for a trip to the Georgia Blue Ridge mountains before Spring Break hit the area schools. Plus, we wanted to introduce Kodi to our camping adventures and be sure we had the camper truly ready for the season.
Getting the van all set for camping meant adding water and bleach to the main water tank, running it through the lines and letting it sit overnight, then flushing and filling again for a final rinse. Our leveling jack is repaired and a double-check of everything showed we were ready to roll. What we love is how easy it is to pack the fridge, stock the pantry, load the bedroom closets and drawers with clothes and fill the bathroom with essentials and BAM! we are set to go.
Since we were headed for Helen, Georgia, specifically Unicoi State Park, we opted not to hitch the car but have Jackie drive it with Kodi as passenger. Not his first trip in the car, but first time with a seat harness. He has a nervous stomach, so he and Merlin had to go without breakfast (oh… the pain and agony of the starving cat!), but the little puppy still was drooling for much of the trip. We are taking to calling this his “flip and spit’ behavior – and if you were in the car with him you would understand. Poor guy, but we all arrived safely at camp ready for adventure.
We chose a full-hookup site that was an easy back-in and connection to electric, water and sewer. Our initial frustration was the lack of any information on the Unicoi State Park website about the available campsites, options, fees or even the choice of registering online. A couple of unanswered phone calls later and I finally reached someone to book a site, but it was first-pick of what was available once you got to the campground. That’s not too unusual for some state parks and Corps of Engineers campgrounds, but the lack of information online was disappointing.
Set camp and walked Kodi around to get his bearings, check out the lake, camp store and some of the trails. A dinner of grilled salmon was a nice finish to the day. Boom! Crack! and we had a good ol’ thunderstorm on our hands overnight. We were plenty high and dry and everything was out of harm’s way, but if you have camped in the rain, you know how noisy the raindrops can be – like lots of snare drums tapping. Not a peep out of Kodi, however. Oh, except a waaaaay early morning call of nature, once the storm had passed.
I hate plumbing . . .
Did I tell you how much I hate plumbing… toilets… water lines… all that? Oh, I manage to handle it just fine eventually, but water is such a pain when things go wrong. I mention this now because as I am having my coffee in the camper I hear Jackie remark that there is water on the bathroom floor. Not good. Something in the supply line for the toilet is dripping and of course the only option is to shut off the water. Hmm, maybe if I tighten the cap underneath? Nope, made it worse. Well, shut off the water and tackle it later, maybe. “Let’s go wander around Helen,” Jackie suggested, so I was all in.
It was a short drive into ‘Alpine Helen’ as it bills itself. and we went to take in the atmosphere of a German alpine community. Eh, maybe not so much, but it was kind of pre-season, so that may be why about half the shops and restaurants were closed. If you have been to Gatlinburg, TN, you just have to scale it back a little, add some German names and gingerbread to the buildings instead of logs and cabins and … well, you get the idea. But we had some bratwurst, kraut, corned beef and craft beer along the Chattahoochee River on a nice sunny day, so it all worked out just fine. Picked up some hearty bread and Danish at a local bakery and we headed back to camp.
The afternoon hike around Unicoi Lake was an easy trek for Kodi, but Doug didn’t find many blooming flowers or local wildlife to capture with camera, to his disappointment, but we did see the newest section of zip lines that were almost ready to use. Some pretty long runs across the lake. The course that was already in use looked challenging enough, so we decided we would try it tomorrow. Oh, and all that hiking let Kodi sleep through until 8:30! Yay, that’s a lot better than his usual 6:15 am.
Hmm… water problem was still not fixed. I turned off water, took the cap off, decided it must be a worn “O” ring and off I went in search of the nearest Wal-Mart (Cleveland, not too far really). No “O” rings, but Teflon thread tape and special rubber leak-stop tape might work. Nope, in fact even more dripping. So the solution was to put a pan under the leak and only pressurize with the water pump as we needed water, then letting off the pressure. Staying hooked up to the city water was just too much pressure (oh, yeah, wasn’t that the whole idea of full hookups though?). This fix will have to wait until we are back home.
Our last full day was a beautiful, sunny and warm day, perfect for a hike up to Anna Ruby Falls. The senior pass came in handy once again, as we didn’t have to pay parking/admission. What a great easy hike up along the creek to the double falls. Wildflowers were blooming and kept Doug busy snapping pictures, while Kodi met lots of kids along the trail with no fear.
We grabbed a quick lunch back at camp, then signed up for our zip line adventure. The course was 11 zips and 7 cable bridges and as we suited up in our harnesses, we were reminded of our favorite TV show “The Amazing Race.” With Jackie in the lead, off we went with our two guides. Just the four of us, so it was a very personalized tour. What fun! Here is a short video of Jackie on the zip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR5Eobzro-s&feature=youtu.be
Climbing up and across and zipping along the cables at treetop level was very cool. Our only other zip line experience was through a jungle in Guatemala, but that involved a lot more hiking up the mountain. Ahhh, back to camp for an adult beverage and a couple of strip steaks on the grill. Gosh, camping is tough work.
Kodi made it through his first camping trip just fine, adapting to the motorhome, the camping routine, up and down the steps and leash-walking around camp to meet kids and other dogs. He’s going to be a great adventure companion (we really think Benji is giving him some advice).
Back home I tackled the toilet water supply problem. Took the supply diverter off the toilet, unhooked the hoses and will run to Camping World for a replacement. That should do it for now. (Did I tell you how much I hate plumbing?)
Hey, thanks for reading about our adventures. Be sure to “follow” us so you get updates as they happen.
Here are some quick stats on how our blog has been received:
We have readers in 7 countries!
2015 we had 6,220 views and 503 visitors
2016 we had 5,712 views and 584 visitors
And so far in 2017 we have 508 views and 141 visitors
The most popular pages are: Zion “Straight Up Land”, Hike Inn, Hard Knock Life, Caribbean Adventure and Memories of Benji.
How cool is that?
The rather mild Georgia winter is almost over as we make plans to de-winterize the motorhome and hit the road with some new adventures. I figured it would be a good time to update everyone and share the excitement of a new season of outdoor fun.
Repairs and Diagnostics (skip if you aren’t much into RV maintenance)
First task was to correct the problem of our motorhome’s gimpy back leg, so to speak. The leveling jack for which I replaced the springs and foot would not extend and it was more than my feeble brain could figure out, so we uncovered the van, drove it to our local RV shop and within days they made the repair and had everything back to order. It seems a solenoid needed replacement. Yippee – back to “four on the floor” when needed.
Back in the driveway I ran the generator a bit, connected the shore line for electricity to charge the house batteries and did a bumper-to-bumper diagnostic. The dashboard 12v power outlet (formerly known as cigarette lighter) had not worked since I replaced the radio, so this was a needed repair. Simple, right? Not so fast, buddy. The nice thing about the Winnebago dash is that it is hinged, so you can swing it up to have access to all the gauges and connections. But you also have to have enough flexibility in your wired connections not to unplug things when you do that. The short wire on the 12v socket needed to be a longer one, so I replaced a longer negative wire and connected to a grounding screw in the frame.
Power to the positive was harder, since I couldn’t find a handy splice or available connector in the wiring nearby. It must have been spliced into the old radio power supply. The remedy for this was to run a new wire from the fuse box way over on the left side to the outlet way over on the right side. Hmm… how to best do this? Let me remind you that I taught 6 years of technology and engineering, one unit of which was electricity and electronics – but that really doesn’t mean I have all the right wires, connectors and electrical understanding to just bang this out without thinking. A hammer, nails and lumber — that I can do. Automotive… not so much.
But after a few runs to several automotive supply stores I found a nifty add-a-fuse power splitter that let me connect to the radio’s slot on the fuse panel and we had success! Radio works, power outlet works, and now we can conveniently charge the cell phones and such on the road. Yes, we do have an inverter with AC outlet for just that sort of thing, but it is above the windshield and not within reach while driving.
So what’s next on our travel bucket list? We want to do some more camping in the Georgia mountains and maybe nearby Alabama and Tennessee State Parks this spring. We booked two weeks back at St. Andrews State Park, Florida in early summer, which is our time for snorkeling and paddleboarding. But the big trip late summer and fall will be out West to visit Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.
We researched and planned out the trip to do a southern route to Grand Teton NP, then Yellowstone NP and on up to Glacier NP before the snow arrived. Booked the date in Yellowstone and were all set to book Glacier when … my, my, what do you know? A little ‘ol 5 minute solar eclipse was scheduled to pass along the Tetons on the very day we wanted to stay there. Booked up full — the whole county. Nothing available until weeks later. We were told by park rangers that they had been getting calls about it 5 years ago! End of days? Nah, not for us, but it did require an entire re-working of the trip.
So I reversed our path to a northern route to Glacier NP first, then looping back down to Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP. We made the changes in reservations and filled in the gaps. On the trip out, we will camp in South Dakota in the Badlands NP and Custer State Park, checking out Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and the Black Hills. From there we stay in Bighorn National Forest, check out Devil’s Tower National Monument and then to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Lots of hiking planned and probably a rafting trip down the Snake River, too. I bought a new lens for my camera to better capture the wildlife and scenery and we are looking into buying a spotting scope for more close-up wildlife sightings (wolves maybe??).
Some of this is revisiting places my family camped in when we pulled off “The Great Camping Adventure of 1969.” Yes, during the most historic summer of the century, while hippies were hitch-hiking to Woodstock; Watts and Newark were burning from riots; Charles Manson and cult were murdering Sharon Tate and men were first landing on the moon, my family of six was packed into a Plymouth station wagon, pulling a Cox pop-up camper, speeding across the US on a 6-week grand adventure! No TV, no Internet, no cellphones or social media, just a poke-your-sister-in-the-backseat kind of entertainment.
In Yellowstone we listened by car radio one night as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. Yep. Missed that one live on TV.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know about Kodi from the postings that Merlin (our cat) has been making on his Mews page. Kodi is a few months old now and is somewhere between a toddler and a teenager, dog-wise. He loves going for walks on a leash, fetching a ball, rope knot or any of his toys, and is just learning some agility. He has made some new dog friends and visited lots of folks already. But the best part is that he will soon be joining us in the motorhome on our camping adventures. He has checked it out and it seems to work for him – although we haven’t rattled down the road with him in it yet. Benji will always be our special Adventure Dog and travels with us in spirit, now Kodi is set to learn what it is like and joins Merlin in the motorhome as we head out into the world together.
So while we await the arrival of nasty yellow pollen and plan the final de-winterizing of the motorhome, we do what everyone else at this time of year does: we plan for the upcoming season of warm weather, sunshine, warm water and wild adventures.
We will report back from time to time, so follow along with us!
PS. Merlin says you should keep up with his Mews page, too.