Start Your Engines

Motor sports awaits its biggest day on May 30, when 135,000 spectators will gather at the Brickyard for the start of the 105th running of the Indy 500. It will be the largest assembly of people anywhere for a single event since the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the country and the world.

Last year, the race was held without fans, but this year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will accommodate 135,000 of 257,325 available seats, or 40% capacity. The number is staggering until the onlooker realizes that the curved rectangle is 2.5 miles long and occupies 559 acres,

with tiered grandstands reaching 7 stories on both sides of the track.

Having checked in at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for overnight accomodations,

we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming noise coming from the nearby critter pavilions…

so off we went to follow the commotion, and found the source. Apparently, it was a tire spin-off to Mecum’s 2021 Indy Auction:

The Dodge Challenge

…an annual event that brings out the best and most coveted collector cars for bidding:

But Leah and I were in Indianapolis during the Indy 500 Practice to watch drivers rocket down the straightaways in their IndyCars at 240 mph,

in anticipation of bringing home the trophy and chugging a bottle of milk.

So off we went to the fabled racetrack, built in 1909 and mostly unchanged, until the addition of the Pagoda, completed in 2000.

Trying to track the cars as they went screaming by in a blur

would have certainly resulted in whiplash if we continued watching with each passing lap, but thankfully, the video screen provided necessary neck relief.

And then the unexpected happened…

With 1hr 44min left in the practice session, #45 Santino Ferrucci turning too early into the #2 corner careened into the wall,

collapsing the front end of his racer.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1395482600823791620

Out came the yellow flag…

and it was time for us to call it a day at the track.

Fortunately, Ferrucci escaped serious injury, and was taken to the hospital for observation.

He has subsequently been cleared to race on Sunday, qualifying for the 25th position in a field of 33 cars, with Scott Dixon enjoying the pole position at the start of the race.

I hope the winner likes milk!

UPDATE:

Helio Castroneves wins the Indy 500 for a record-tying 4th time, finishing ahead of Alex Palou by half a second.

Top qualifier, Scott Dixon finished 17th in the field after his car ran out of gas before his first pit stop, and Santino Ferrucci finished sixth.

Castroneves celebrated with a chilled bottle of 2% milk, but swapped that bottle out for some strawberry milk, which perfectly matched his hot pink and white fire suit and No. 6 Honda.

Road Warriors

Living out of our newly acquired Airstream for the past few weeks has taught us a few things about durability and reliability when streaming through America across Eisenhower’s Interstate. Years of nasty weather and million-mile road wear (with subsequent band-aid repairs) have left our highways in tatters and our bridges at risk (more on this at a later date), which has a pronounced impact on any home on wheels, considering that bumps and ruts on the outside often translate to shakes and rattles on the inside.

It’s always surprising to see what’s on the cabin floor after a stint of driving between locations. Potholders frequently jump from their hooks, and occasionally, I’ll discover a rogue screw from who knows where, or an A/C vent that’s fallen. However, it’s more disconcerting to find a drawer on the floor or a cabinet door ajar because the locking mechanism has failed.

There was a time when a glass jar of spaghetti sauce was tossed out of the pantry during a rough ride and smashed to bits across the carpet runner that connects our living space to the sleeping space. Leah and I were finding spatter specks years later, stuck to walls, bedding, and curtains. We learned our lesson; today, we look for plastic containers.

One of our more notable challenges as we prepared for this trip was finding an appropriate bedspread that had gone missing since the last owner. Because the queen-size mattress is rounded and shorter than usual–to accommodate the bedroom dimensions—Airstream charges $534 through their design store to replace it. Fuhgeddaboudit! There is no way any bedspread is worth that much. Yet, an exhausting internet search found nothing close to what we needed.

After continued research, I discovered Top Stitch, an old Airstream supplier, who promised to customize our bedspread for $199. Their first effort was a flat cover and a total flop, completely discounting the unique mattress design. However, after checking and double-checking measurements, and eventually signing off on a scaled drawing…

the project was successfully completed for a fraction of the cost. Hats off to Top Stitch!

Additionally, a stack of drawers under the galley sink—that should have been better secured—needs to be realigned to fit better and roll more smoothly; the left channel of the Polk audio system needs to reconnected; and a missing freezer door lock needs to be located and installed.

We were hopeful that a one-day stopover at Airstream’s Factory Service Center in Jackson Center, OH would satisfy our fix-it list, but only if we were willing to stay through September for the next available appointment.

Airstreams waiting for service

Uh…no! But we did stay through the night with full-service hook-up for $10.

The next morning, we were off to Indianapolis with Painter Tape across the drawers and freezer door to limit the number of surprises at our next stop.

It may not be pretty, but it works.

Coasting thru COVID–East Coast Edition

Leah and I have been eager to weave family and friends throughout our Great American Road Trip–Part IV. This summer tour is more than escaping Florida’s summer heat, or seeing the sights and exploring the great outdoors; it’s about personally reconnecting with the world after a year of COVID-19 constraints. For all the good that Zoom has given us to put us in touch with each other across the internet, there can be no substitute for face-to-face.

And in this moment of recalibrated norms, we are craving the sensation of normalcy.

From Virginia, we continued north to New Jersey, where it was previously arranged by Leah and her daughter Danielle, that we would occupy her driveway, and safely distance inside the trailer.

While Danielle and her husband Matt have been vaccinated for some time, Lucy, at age fourteen has not–although CDC officials are now in agreement that all teenagers will be eligible for the shot. So as an extra precaution, Leah and I agreed to a rapid test.

Honestly, I thought the PCR test was overkill, as Leah and I have been fully vaccinated since January, but half an hour later, all was forgotten after getting hugs from Lucy.

Other couples in New Jersey have been less fortunate. Phil and Cheryl both tested positive in November, but Phil required a hospital stay while Cheryl remained asymptomatic. To this day, Phil still suffers long-haul effects of COVID-19, so his reluctance to host our visit was understandable. Certainly, our negative test results must have eased his mind, and it was good to see him feeling more relaxed.

Whenever we return to New Jersey, we always turn to our hiking buddies, Doug and Arlene, who remained healthy throughout the pandemic. We reprised one of our favorite hikes at Pyramid Mountain during the height of pollen season,

sneezing our way to the ridge for electrifying views of New York City.

Next, we were on to Philadelphia with a lunch detour in Vineland to visit Leah’s brother, Harvey who’s lived in a group home with four other adult men for the past 20 years. It’s been three years since our last visit (considering our move to St. Augustine, and de facto quarantine protocols), and relaxed New Jersey state restrictions now gave us an opportunity to take Harvey out for the day.

Ordinarily, we’d plan lunch at a nearby diner, but group house rules precluded indoor dining, so a take-out meal, although less than ideal…

followed by a very brief walk through a minefield of goose poop, gave us some much needed time together.

Next day, while camping in Hatfield, PA, we coordinated a day trip to Lambertville, NJ…

to reunite with my oldest son Noah,

who most recently had been tasked with rolling out two dozen mobile testing labs for COVID-19 across metro Philadelphia–making Philly safe “one test at a time”–and ironically testing positive two days after his first vaccine shot. His recovery was rapid, no doubt because of the vaccine.

We cycled the Delaware & Raritan Canal Towpath together…

until we reached Washington Crossing State Park, 8 miles north.

Leah and I wrapped up our Philly reunion with a hike along Wissahickon Creek…

with long-time friends Alan and Andrea, who diligently practiced social distancing for the better part of a year.

On our way to the Valley Green Inn for lunch, I spotted a garter snake enjoying a meal…

by the covered bridge.

Lastly, Leah and I made our way across the state to Pittsburgh, my hometown and my heartbeat.

Leah and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of my first cousin, Sandy and his wife, Barbara, who allowed us to park our rig in front of their house. Our intention was to sleep inside the safety of our Airstream, but after learning that all of us were dosed by the Moderna vaccine, we were easily persuaded to accept Barbara’s invitation to chill at her 6,700 sq. ft., 100-yr. old resort with Sandy operating as executive chef.

To shed our extra calories, we pedal pushed through the hills of Pittsburgh on our manual bikes

while our hosts cruised along on their e-bikes, assuring us that they were working just as hard as we were.

I don’t think so! From Point Breeze to Point State Park Fountain and back,

we reeled off 26 miles, and worked off some of the food and beer from the cousins’ reunion the day before.

Bottom Line: Leah and I have discovered that COVID-19 may have temporarily disrupted our families, but it’s also brought us closer together.

Natural Bridge Has Caverns Too!

The Caverns of Natural Bridge can’t be more than a 15-minute walk from the Natural Bridge State Park parking lot. Along the way, it’s impossible to miss the Natural Bridge Hotel poised on it’s perch across the road…

where very little has changed as a popular destination for tourists since its rebuilding in 1964 after a doomsday fire.

Continuing up the road and around the corner, stands a rustic cabin set back from the parking lot that’s been open for business since 1977.

The attendant tells us that this is a quiet time for tourists–middle of the week, before Memorial Day–and that’s fine with us. In fact, so far, we are the only spelunkers to have signed up for the 2 o’clock tour. As the hour draws near, only two other women have joined us. But as a party of four, Brian, our guide assures us that we can linger longer at each attraction, since our group is so small.

We are descending into a wet cave (as opposed to a dry cave),

34 stories below the earth’s surface…

where an underwater spring still feeds the formation of speleothems (e.g. stalactites and stalagmites).

The temperature is a humid 54o F, and with masks on

my glasses can’t help but fog with each breath I take. It’s never been so frustrating looking through a viewfinder to frame a photograph.

But as we snake our way through low overheads…

we are surprised to see boxwork, an uncommon, venous formation of calcite residue…

which forms when calcium carbonate dissolves within the cracks, resulting in unusual honeycomb patterns.

While not the biggest cave system (that belongs to Mammoth Cave), or the most ornate (that belongs to Carlsbad Cavern), Natural Bridge has a pleasant complement of columns…

and detailed domes,

and no shortage of surprises between the cracks and crevices.

The Remains of ESP

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, returns to life each day as a Philadelphia museum that’s open to the public year-round.

Completed in 1836, the imposing, neo-Gothic-styled architecture by John Haviland was intended to strike fear in all who might consider committing a crime. At the time, it was the most expensive public construction project ever built in the country. Famous inmates included Al Capone and Willie Sutton.

Decommissioned in 1971, ESP now lays in ruin, but awaits all who are fascinated by its unique radial design, towering castle walls and folklore.

Photographer, Tiffani Burchett Nieusma first visited ESP in 2016 and was awed by the unexpected beauty of the decay. Her recorded images eventually paved the way for a future gallery show during September, 2021 with a companion monograph of her work to be published on the subject.

Tiffani is currently seeking written word submissions to complement her photography for exhibition and publication. The deadline is May 31, 2021.

Click on the link to learn more about the submission guidelines.

Having reviewed Tiffani’s album of images, I’ve composed a trilogy of poems that were inspired by three haunting photographs:

L-1001*
Well-worn cells
yell hells of desperation,
as fallen walls recall
a marginal foundation.

L-1011*
Forgotten cots
and thoughts of isolation,
house black-hole souls
with goals of rehabilitation.

P-1013*
Pane glass collapse
with passing generations,
enshrines fine design
defined by desolation.

*All images courtesy of Tiffani Nieusma

Natural Bridge

If you’re searching for a town that’s so proud of their community attraction that their town is named after it, look no further than Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s an unincorporated town tucked within the Shenandoah Valley…

that unsurprisingly features a rock bridge of limestone located in Rockbridge County.

Leah and I masked up, and approached the Georgian-styled Visitor Center to surrender $18 to view this natural wonder.

Our downward trail followed a moss-laden terrace of twisted roots and vines laced with wisps of water…

descending into enchanted dripping pools falling on flat rocks…

until we reached a T-shirt concession at rock bottom and an imposing graphic…

that tells the story of Natural Bridge:

The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet wider than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls.

Looking up at Natural Bridge

The span contains 450,000 cubic feet of rock. If man had scales to weigh it, the mass would balance about 72,000,000 pounds, or 36,000 tons. The rocks that compose the bridge are early Ordovician, about 500 million years old. The internal forms of these rocks that break and fold in the layers were imposed on them during the Appalachian Mountain building process toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, more than 200 million years ago. At its highest point, the bridge is approximately 1160 feet above sea level.

This was Nature’s working material. Her tool, Cedar Creek–a simple mountain stream flowing toward the sea. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She painted her masterpiece with dull red and ochre, soft shades of yellow and cream, delicate tracings of blueish-grey.

Before white men came to our shores, the Monacan Indians considered this ancient wonder a sacred site, and called it “The Bridge of God.”

According to legend, in 1750 the youthful George Washington, engaged by Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, surveyed the surrounding acreage of Natural Bridge. During his visit, he scaled some 23 feet upon the left wall of the bridge and carved his initials, which may still be seen today.

On July 5, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good lawful money” (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge often, surveyed the area, and even drew a map in his own hand. In 1803, two years before becoming the President of the United States, he constructed a two-room cabin on the grounds.

From the literary classic Moby Dick, to such paintings as The Peaceable Kingdom, Natural Bridge has been used to portray the ultimate wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30.

Amongst many artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederic Edwin Church, followed in 1860 by Davis Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.

In later years, Natural Bridge became a merchandising magnet.

Personally, I was equally as intrigued with Cedar Creek as I was impressed by the monolithic bridge…

Even today, Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11) runs across the Natural Bridge, and that’s a very good thing, because we crossed many times to access our KOA campground down the road, and more importantly to visit Elvis at the Pink Cadillac Diner.

And We’re Off…

After driving hours upon hours of sameness along I-95 to I-26, Leah and I crossed the border into North Carolina, and rejoiced at our first sight at mountains in the past 9 months–the Blue Ridge. It was a sign that we were entering Pisgah National Forest and approaching Asheville, our first destination of the Great American Road Trip–Part 4.

Although the weather could have been more welcoming, we managed an urban bike ride through Carrier Park and by the River Arts District…

before doubling back along the French Broad River Greenway.

to admire the serenity of the lazy river.

Thank goodness for video downloads, because the incessant rain throughout the evening and into the following day kept us indoors–giving Smokey a much needed fire-watch break–

but preventing us from exploring our Lake Powhatan campground surroundings. Fortunately, by mid-afternoon, a partial clearing at the lakefront…

gave us an opportunity to loop around the water through mountain laurel archways…

past flora,

falls…

and flume.

All of which brought a smile to our faces.

Happy Campers

Leah and I are on the road again, continuing our Great American Road Trip–part 4, with some significant changes and improvements.

Last year, during the summer of Trumpandemic, we took an abbreviated trip to upstate New York in search of open outdoor vistas with blue skies and limited exposure to crowds, which we found at Letchworth State Park.

Soon after, we rounded the top of New England to enjoy a requisite Maine lobster dinner…

to dip a toe in the Atlantic on Hampton Beach…

and to gawk at the wealthy from Newport’s Cliff Walk.

We hugged the coastline until we reached Chincoteague, Virginia…

in search of precious ponies…

and to listen to the silence at the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, VA.

The trip was short (only 5 weeks and far from our ambitious itineraries of past years) yet refreshing, and daring (for all the anticipated COVID closures) yet unremarkable with one notable exception…I wrecked the Airstream in Tarboro, North Carolina.

Halfway to Tignall, Georgia (our final destination) and needing a lunch break and a leg stretch, we stopped at a charming town boasting a historic district of 18th century and antebellum landmark homes recognized by the National Park Service. I parked the Airstream inches from the curb on a narrow residential road across from Blount-Bridgers House, an 1808 Federal-style mansion-cum-museum,

and returned an hour later to continue our journey.

I casually pulled out, unaware that a protruding power pole ID tag had snagged the rear awning support and ripped all the cleats out from the aluminum skin, taking down the entire awning assembly and crushing the end caps to the tune of $17,000.

Thankfully, our insurance completely covered the damage. As we drove our beloved, but bandaged 27FB Flying Cloud to the Tampa Airstream dealer for repair, we considered the possibility of an upgrade should one be available. As luck would have it, a Florida family was trading a 2018 Globetrotter 27FB at the time, pending delivery of their new Airstream by February 2021.

We felt as if we had won the lottery. A deposit was offered on the spot, considering a total lack of previously owned inventory throughout the country.

The deal was sealed in April, when Leah and I picked up our reconditioned summer rig and took it for a dry run in Ruskin, FL in preparation for our summer adventure. We enjoyed the whisper-quiet, ducted AC; the ease of deploying the power stabilizer jacks; the convenience of rolling out the power awning; and the notion that our roof-mounted solar panels could provide us with increased boondocking possibilities.

Join us on the road as we explore 44 destinations (mostly new, sprinkled with some favorites) for the next 20 weeks:

  • May 1: Lake Powhatan/ Asheville, NC
  • May 4: Natural Bridge, VA
  • May 7: Vineland, NJ/ Northern NJ
  • May 12: Philadelphia, PA
  • May 15: Pittsburgh, PA
  • May 18: Jackson Center Airstream Factory/ Dayton, OH
  • May 19: Indianapolis, IN
  • May 21: Nashville, TN
  • May 24: Memphis, TN
  • May 27: Hot Springs/Little Rock AR
  • May 29: Eureka Springs, AR
  • June 1: Oklahoma City, OK
  • June 4: Amarillo, TX
  • June 6: Albuquerque, NM
  • June 10: Taos, NM
  • .June 13: Great Sand Dunes NP, CO
  • June 16: Rocky Mountain NP, CO
  • June 20: Cheyenne, WY
  • June 22: Flaming Gorge, UT
  • .June 25: Bear Lake State Park, UT
  • June 28: Craters of the Moon NP, ID
  • July 1: Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, UT
  • .July 3: Crystal Crane Hot Springs/ Burn, OR
  • July 4: Bend, OR
  • .July 9: Crater Lake NP, OR
  • .July 12: South Beach State Park, OR
  • July 15: Seaside, OR
  • .July 18: Olympic NP, WA
  • .July 21: Olympic Peninsula, WA
  • July 25: Mount Rainier NP, WA
  • July 28: Bothell, WA
  • Aug 2: North Cascades NP, WA
  • Aug 5: Spokane, WA
  • Aug 8: Glacier NP, MT
  • Aug 12: Great Falls, MT
  • Aug 14: Billings, MT
  • Aug 16: Deadwood, SD
  • Aug 19: Badlands NP, SD
  • Aug 22: Sioux Falls, SD
  • Aug 25: Baraboo, WI
  • Aug 29: Clinton Lake State Rec Area/ Dewitt, IL
  • Sept 1: Land Between Lakes National Rec Area, TN
  • Sept 5: Top of GA Airstream Park
  • Sept. 9: Skidaway Island State Park, GA
  • Sept 15: Home

Yes, we are happy campers!