Leah and I needed a useful midpoint between Bruneau Dunes and Bend to divide the drive if we were heeding my tank-of-gas rule. And because I draw the line at driving no further than a full tank of gas will carry us, we were limited to a 350-mile range. In many ways, Crystal Crane Hot Springs offered the perfect locale: it was geographically convenient; it provided full hook-up; and it was also therapeutic.
We arrived at 1:30 PM and Leah entered the office to check-in.
“I’m afraid you’re too early,” said the clerk. “Check-in isn’t until 3:00.”
“But we reserved site #6 and it’s empty now. Why not allow us to pull into the space?” Leah asked.
The clerk was unmoved. “Our policy is that check-in is 3:00—no sooner—so, no, I can’t let you into your space at 1:30. However, you’re welcome to buy a guest pass for $10 if you want to use the facilities while you’re waiting.”
Leah returned to the truck with the news. “Are you kidding me!?” I exclaimed. “I’m cooking out here, already. Why in the world would I want to marinate in a 98° hot spring when it’s 102° outside? All I want to do is hook-up the electric to the Airstream and sit under the air-conditioning.”
“I tried,” said Leah, “but we need to wait another 90 minutes.”
“Ridiculous!” I remarked.
This stop was always intended as an overnighter, so there was never a need to unhitch—just plug and play. Meanwhile, the Airstream doors and windows were opened wide to circulate fresh hot air into a cabin that had already reached the outside temperature and cooling the space would take hours.
At 2:30 PM, I entered the climate-controlled office and approached the counter where a large, buxom woman with a mole inside her dimple was standing behind a plexiglass barricade. Rather than argue my case, I flattered her to the point where she conceded, and gave us access to the space a half-hour early.
With the sun setting and the day’s heat dissipating, the spring had become a hive of activity. It was finally time for us to ceremonially cleanse ourselves of all the dust and grime and sand that followed us through 5,000 miles of travel between New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska.
Extreme heat is baking the northwestern states in July, and historic highs are being set with every new day. Murphy, Idaho is no exception. Triple-digit heat has become the new normal, and we were about to cross that threshold, as we continued our journey across the Snake River Plains to Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, where temperatures reached 104° the other day with no foreseeable break in the heatwave.
Originally, the plan was a sound one–we would travel across Idaho, from Craters of the Moon to visit a raptor sanctuary. But at the time, we never considered that booking a Bureau of Land Management campsite (the only campground in the vicinity) would expose us to unbearable heat inside the Airstream, as most all BLM campsites are primitive–meaning NO services.
Leah and I needed to adjust our plans accordingly and without delay if we were to remain on course and on schedule, but we had to find a worthy substitute for the next couple of days. We thought about staying in Boise (it was nearby), but we had little interest in visiting Idaho’s largest city (pop. 230,000); we were looking for something more adventurous and outdoorsy.
After checking area state parks, I discovered that Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park was close by (1.5 hours away) and available with water/electric hook-ups. There would be no sightings of prairie falcons or golden eagles at Bruneau Sand Dunes, but if we closed our eyes, we could imagine them in air-conditioned comfort. …and lots of sand…again (seeGreat Sand Dunes National Park).
We arrived to a nearly empty campground on the edge of the “tallest ‘single-structured’ sand dune in North America,” with a peak rising 470 feet above the surrounding desert floor. The park also touts its own observatory within a Dark Sky Place, searching the sky with Idaho’s largest telescope (25 inch diameter) for public viewing.
My first inclination was to compare it to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I was determined to curb my skepticism and see what surprises awaited us inside our new backyard/playground…for the meantime.
The following day, we went exploring. Unlike a couple of coeds and a dog, we immediately dismissed the notion of climbing the dunes in extreme heat.
We were looking for a more sedate hike that required less elevation. Rather than follow the 6-mile self-guided hiking trail step-by-step, we improvised, skipping the Big Dune ascent, and followed the trail around the dune base,
where we discovered water, and that made all the difference.
We circled the lake…
and crossed over a few of the lesser dunes,
until we reached the observatory.
I was eager to stargaze that evening, but the observatory was closed until further notice due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, the only celestial offering on-site was a human sundial created by Girl Scout Troop 140 in 2015.
I was curious about the design, but I required a human to test its accuracy.
Leah stood on the current month (July), for the sun to cast her shadow on the current time of day. Checking my watch, I recorded 10:24 AM, which from the looks of her shadow, validates her as human and punctual.
The rest of the day, we played by the water, and enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort of our Airstream, never giving Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey a second thought.
There’s a lake that straddles northern Utah and Idaho that boasts a turquoise-blue color that rivals any Caribbean beach, and it’s all due to the refraction of calcium carbonate (limestone) deposits suspended in the lake. The intensity of the color also shifts with the sun’s position, the wind direction and the current, to where it becomes dizzying, trying to frame and capture patterns of varying shades of blue through a camera viewfinder.
Leah and I camped in two of several neighboring Utah State Park campgrounds to round out our visit. When initially making reservations, the Rendezvous Campground only had openings for the last two of our three nights, so we took up residence at South Eden Campground on the east side for the first night, with an understanding that it was a primitive site.
To our surprise, the facility had been upgraded with water and electric service over the past year. Of course, we would have preferred to stay for the duration of our visit, but that’s not how reservations work at a busy summer resort.
Moving to a new site after one day was not a relaxing proposition, but with so much running around over the past two months, we owed ourselves some down time from traveling, and Bear Lake seemed like a good fit, despite the campground fuss.
Aside from the splendid color of the water, our beach was far from beach towel-friendly, with broken shards of shale, shell, and limestone liniing the shoreline…
and beyond, making hard-sole, water-shoes essential footwear.
But what mattered most to me at the moment were the clouds that were moving in and out of view.
Would there be enough cloud cover to support a world class sunset?
Armed with a camera and a silent prayer, I waited anxiously on the beach as the sun kissed the sky goodbye.
And then came the explosion I’ve come to expect. I would have my sunset, after all!
The following day, we moved to Rendezvous Beach on the west side of the lake, where the accommodations were as advertised: modern facilities and tighter sites,
followed by uncrowded sandy beaches? Where were all the people?
I later learned that all the “missing” were running their boats up the lake from the Bear Lake State Park Marina. And I’d like to personally thank each of them for the onslaught of wake that made for an average time kayaking in open water.
The final evening of our stay, we drove into Laketown for ice cream and a sunset. We found a quiet side street that dead-ended at the waters edge, and we waited…
“Not as brilliant as the other night, but not terrible,” Leah assessed. “C’mon, we need to go before the town shuts down and we miss our chance at ice cream.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry. Wait for it. Otherwise, you’re gonna miss the best part. The sky is still developing,” I predicted.
I got the sunset I wanted, but not the ice cream, as most of the town had shut down by 9 PM. With only one late spot open, we opted for flavored milk shakes and called it a night.
The moral of the story: A Saturday Night Sunset beats an Ice Cream Sundae!
Leah and I were en route from Albuquerque to Taos when I noticed an early road sign for Bandelier National Monument. As we got closer to our destination and signs for Bandelier became more frequent, I proposed that we make it a stop–not for overnighting, but a daytrip to break up the travel monotony–considering it wasn’t more than an hour out of our way.
While there wasn’t hardcore support for the idea, there wasn’t serious objection either, which meant I still had a chance to sell the idea.
“I think it’s been 46 years since I was there–probably some side-trip while visiting Santa Fe during my first cross-country honeymoon trip,” I started.
“I think I was there sooner than that,” Leah commented, “like in the past 10 years.”
“Really? It couldn’t have been with me,” I asserted. “Do you not have an interest in going?”
“I don’t know,” she maintained. “I mean, is there anything there that we haven’t seen before?
I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Would you pass up Niagara Falls because you saw Victoria Falls?”
I said, “It’s the site of an ancient pueblo village. It’s similar to Mesa Verde, and I think you may be mistaking one for the other, because we last visited Mesa Verde when we flew to Santa Fe for Carrie’s wedding 12 years ago.”
“What do you propose we do with the Airstream, ’cause we certainly can’t pull it around the canyon,” Leah asked and answered.
“We can work that out when we get there,” I proposed.
Sometime that answer gets me in trouble…but not this day!
We first passed through Los Alamos (with maybe more nuclear physicists per square mile than anywhere else on earth), and climbed a ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains,
overlooking the Frijoles Canyon.
“Any of this look familiar,” I teased.
We followed a serpentine road that wound around the mountain, carrying us deeper into the canyon. A park ranger stopped us at the park entrance station.
“Sorry folks, but your trailer–nice as it is–doesn’t fit on our mountain roads. To get to our Visitor Center and trails, you’re gonna have to drive to the Juniper Campground parking lot and unhitch there,” he advised.
“Sounds reasonable,” I confirmed.
“You’re prepared to do all this work just to drive the park?” Leah asked.
“You’ll see. It’ll be worth it!” I said.
We walked the Pueblo Loop Trail, passing Big Kiva (a ceremonial underground chamber)…
and the 700-year ruins of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village—
originally a 3-story ring of sandstone rock debris exceeding 400 rooms.
From a distance we saw several families poking through the cavates, chipped out of porous rock.
We soldiered on, beyond the remnants of the Long House…
lined with protected petroglyphs,
and imagined what it once looked like…
when all that remains are chiseled-out rooms,
once hidden behind adobe walls.
We took the trail extension in anticipation of climbing to the Alcove House…
but Leah chose to sit this one out.
The climb was steep and narrow, and the ladder rungs were on fire from baking in the sun all day.
While Leah enjoyed the shade beside Frijoles Creek, I had an aerie to myself with a nestled kiva,
and sculpted rooms for meditation.
Which may have prompted me to say a prayer or two before my looong climb down.
With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.
But not so fast!
We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.
“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”
“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.
“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.
I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.
The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.
“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”
“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.
“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.
“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.
“You’re not helping,” I advised.
Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”
I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.
“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”
“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.
“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.
It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.
We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.
Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.
90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.
“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.
“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.
“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”
“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.
Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.
As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.
But not so fast!
Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.
So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.
The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole—
–ready for excitement.
When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.
“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.
“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.
“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.
“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.
“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.
I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…
“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”
“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.
“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…
except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.
I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,
which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.
The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.
P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…
After motoring through half of America in our Airstream for the past 1 ½ months and reporting travel highlights along the way (http://streamingthruamerica.com),
I’m temporarily suspending the chronological order of my posts to confess that I’m not as young as I used to feel. I’m usually up for a reasonable physical challenge, but I have to admit that today’s climb did not go as easily as I wanted it to.
Yesterday, Leah and I crossed from Taos, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado, and settled in at Base Camp Family Campground by midday. After hiking in Taos the past 2 days, we thought we had acclimated nicely to the thinner air (more to be said on that later), but we were feeling our age after our arrival. We took an early siesta in air-conditioned comfort, followed by a 27-mile sprint to the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center just before it closed.
The park ranger suggested a climb to the top of High Dune (699 feet), but to keep in mind that tomorrow’s high will reach 92o F. He recommended a 9:00 am start time in order to reach the top of the dune by noon, and before the surface temperature exceeds 150o F. The ranger predicted the 2 ½-mile trek should average 2 hours, round trip.
Since we were already at the park, we decided to have a look around. We found it very refreshing to glide through three inches of snow melt, ebbing and flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Considering it was a Sunday afternoon, and peak traffic was winding down,
there was still plenty of activity around us;
far too many interesting vistas to ignore;
and surprising driftwood sculpture to admire.
We arrived at the Dunes parking lot by 8:45 am the next day, and we were not alone. Many other families were already parked and trekking across the sand flats with sandboards in hand. Canopies and shelters were already sprouting up throughout and within Medano Creek, and kids were romping in the water and shaping wet sand castles.
We surveyed the 10,000 acres of dunes and plotted our course as there are no marked trails, but we followed along the ridgeline like most others.
Looking back gave us some satisfaction, because it reminded us of how far we trudged,
but looking ahead reminded us how much more we had to cover. The closer we crept to the top, the deeper our feet sunk into hot sand, slowing our progress.
We took a lot of breathers along the way,
and rated the sand boarders as they attempted to carve out a run…
but mostly, it was uphill twenty steps, pausing to catch our breath, having a look around, sipping some water, and repeating the process. Slow and steady wins the race. Right?
Many hikers passed us on the way down offering words of encouragement, but Leah–realizing her feet were about to catch fire–decided to mush down the sand slopes and soak her feet in the creek while I continued to the top.
And so I pushed myself, and willed myself up the final ascent, foot by foot, grabbing air along the way, until I finally reached the summit with barely enough energy to greet the younger people who passed me on the way up, and wave my arms for Leah’s snap.
Perhaps it was self-gratification…
realizing that I can still push myself,
or maybe I needed to see the other side of the mountain.
Either way, it’s all good. Ironically, as I admit to myself that I’ve lost a step or two, to my surprise, I often find myself taking a victory lap. As I get older, I’ll eventually have to make do with being young at heart.
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.
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.
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.
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
With Tropical Storm Isaias skirting the Florida coastline, and hundreds of northeast coastal towns preparing for wind-driven rain, subsequent storm surge, and certain power outages, Leah and I are presently gazing at a hypnotic sky across Johnston County, NC.
Rather than wait for bad weather, we put Florida in the rear view mirror in search of blue skies elsewhere. Seven hours of driving north through occasional downpours and lightning strikes across our windshield brought us to Selma, NC, where torrential rain was turning our campsite into an ankle-deep pond.
At first, we waited patiently inside the F-150, but within minutes the rain reduced to a drizzle, giving me a much needed window to set up camp…except for a nearby limb that crushed a power line and prevented us from accessing electricity.
Eventually power was restored by 1 AM, when the AC magically resumed its roar inside our capsule, and delivered timely relief from the incessant humidity.
The following day was hot and steamy. We took a ride into downtown Smithfield–a ghost town of shuttered businesses–
I would have enjoyed a trip down memory lane with Ava, the area’s favorite sharecropper’s daughter from Grabtown, however the museum was closed due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, all I could do was appreciate her stardom through a pane of glass,
and wonder how and when it will be safe to go to the movies again.
Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.
Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.
It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.
It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.
So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.
Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.
Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,
and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.
Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.
Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.
Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.
After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.
To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,
who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.
After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).
She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.
She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).
Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.
Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,
while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.
A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.
Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.
For the following hour, prayers were chanted;
rituals were observed;
speeches were made;
wine was sipped;
bread was broken;
and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.
After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!
Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.
It happened early yesterday morning, although I was unaware until I awoke. I’d kept tabs from time to time, and I knew I was inching closer. And while I anticipated the result sooner than later, there was no predicting when.
It first crossed my mind earlier this summer when I began recording my travels through Southern Africa and the Great Lakes. Little by little, the notion that new posts were finding a newer audience, and past posts were being mined from archives was reassuring. But it wasn’t until I returned home, and caught up on summer highlights from my travels that I began realizing the possibility.
And it remained elusive until an alert on my phone notified me of the news earlier in the day.
After 2 years and 7 months, after 320 posts, after more than 187,000 written words, after over 5,600 uploaded photographs, after 23,000-plus visits and nearly 45,000 views, I had finally amassed my 2,000th WordPress follower.
However, to pass this milestone, it also felt at times like I was carrying this millstone.
What was once a convenient means to share the view from my Airstream with family and friends, had blossomed into a creative umbrella for me after the Discover editors saw fit to feature my blog. The initial response was seismic…yet emphemeral. While I initially gained new readers from the exposure, their enthusiasm seemed to fade over time. My followers were moving on. Alas, fewer views and fewer likes.
My confidence was soon replaced by self-doubt. Had I failed to keep things fresh? Had I run out of fascinating places to visit and report? Were my destinations and musings no longer blog-worthy? I also began questioning my purpose as a blogger. Was I a photographer who writes, or a writer who photographs?
My immediate, albeit measured response was to shape my waning success by constructing posts with wider appeal, and sharing them with the 145 countries that once signaled interest in my blog.
I must confess to moments of obsessing over numbers–thinking about ways to boost my online productivity, with guarantees for:
First page ranking on Google, Yahoo, and Bing
Improving organic traffic
Securing my website from Google Penguin updates 4.0
Increasing my conversion rate
Targeting future local markets
…but then I rejected the notion outright! Why would I pay to acquire an audience? After all, this isn’t a business where I have to drive masses of asses to my site.
Bottom line–I no longer believe I have an obligation to entertain/inform my followers. Indeed, I only have a desire to continue expressing myself, and I’m hopeful my followers will allow me–however and whenever–and still support me.
In the meantime, I’ll quietly celebrate my small victory in fulfilling an unexpected goal before moving on to the next challenge.
Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio.
Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).
Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.
In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.
Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.
When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,
to several vintage varities,
to newest production models–
all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,
and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.
After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.
We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.
Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…
…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.
By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!
The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.
After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.
And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.
Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.
Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.
We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.
Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.
Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.
What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:
This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…
After one month of travelling along Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior in Canada, we crossed the border into Grand Portage, Minnesota to continue our Great Lakes circumnavigation through the States. We made Duluth our first stop.
Our reservations, made months ago, took us to Jay Cooke State Park–about 10 miles south of Duluth– where we planned to camp five nights through July 4th, but not without sacrifices.
RV enthuthiasts would agree that a level pull-through site with electric, water, and sewer is the norm for comfortability. But a site that also offers cable TV service with highspeed internet is the Holy Grail. Sadly, Jay Cooke was offering us a back-in site with 30 amp service only…for three nights. The other two nights, we were assigned to a primitive site inside the park with no amenities. This was the best Jay Cooke State Park could offer, considering the popularity of the park and high demand for the holiday week.
Originally, we called around to other area campgrounds and RV parks hoping for better accomodations, but found no availability anywhere else. By default, we accepted our fate and placement at Jay Cooke, and considered ourselves fortunate to find any place at all to park our Airstream during Independence Day festivities.
We crossed the border into Central Time, and surrendered an extra hour of daylight in exchange for arriving at the park office during operating hours, and giving Leah one last chance to modify our reservation.
Not a chance; the park was completely booked! We were directed to site 38 for three nights, and redirected to site 66 for the balance of our time.
After 40 minutes of queueing to fill our tank with fresh water, we eventually found site 38 down a very narrow access road lined with crowded spruce trees. No matter how many times I tried, and I tried, I couldn’t swing 28 feet of Airstream plus bicycles into a shallow site without sacrificing my truck to the evergreens. Simple physics wouldn’t allow it.
Leah sought a refund, while I investigated last-hope possibilities, nearby.
As if by magic, I called Darren at Buffalo Valley RV Camping, only a few miles away, who minutes ago received news of a cancellation. And just like that, we had a new address…with electricity AND water.
The following day, Leah and I strolled along the first two miles of Duluth’s 7.5 mile Lakewalk, stretching from Canal Park through Leif Erikson Park to Lester Park.
Starting out at Canal Park, I was drawn to Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that guards the entrance to Superior Bay,
supported by two sentry lighthouses that jet out to meet Lake Superior.
Originally conceived as America’s first transporter bridge in 1905, passengers and freight were ferried across in a large gondola.
In 1930, the bridge was reimagined with a vertical lift,
and continues to operate much the same way to date.
The warm air prompted scores of beachcombers to scramble across the rocks in search of beach glass,
while a few brave souls channeled their inner polar bear by swimming out to “the cribs” in frigid water.
We followed the Lakewalk to Fitgers with a few notable detours along the way.
Free samples were irresistable at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and star-gazing at Duluth Trading Company…
It’s been two weeks since crossing over into Canada, and it’s been mostly cloudy and wet so far. I don’t know if this is a cause and effect circumstance, but locals are approaching me with snorkels and flippers.
The weather has put a damper on our outdoor time while extending our Airstream time. The mosquitoes have been hungry and swarming around the clock, turning mosquito swatting into a cabin past-time.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely bleak and dismal. We had agreeable weather during a brief stay at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, where we visited Georgian Bay National Park on an unusually clear day, and took a 15-minute ride on a Daytripper ferry…
to explore the network of trails on Beausoleil Island, guiding us to Honeymoon Bay,
and a keyhole to the many island cottages that dot Chimney Bay.
The weather also cooperated during a recent visit to Discovery Harbour, once a British naval and military base in Penetanguishene commissioned to secure back door access to Upper Canada after the War of 1812.
Of the two warships safeguarding the King’s Wharf at the time,
the H.M.S Tecumseth has been replicated to stand guard once again,
Yet the schooner has been deemed unseaworthy by authorities, and is destined to be a floating exhibit, much like the original.
Because the Rush-Bagot agreement between Britain and the United States restricted the number of active warships on the Great Lakes, the H.M.S. Tecomseth was decommissioned in 1817, and kept in a state of readiness until it eventually rotted and was reportedly scuttled in 1828.
However, its 1815 hull was raised from Penetanguishene Bay in 1953, and placed in a climate-controlled museum inaugurated in 2014.
As day turned to twilight, the clouds began to thicken,
providing a curtain call that few campers had seen in weeks.
Moving our location to Manitoulin Island did little to change a now-familiar weather pattern. We pondered whether sandbagging the Airstream might become necessary, but that thought slipped our minds soon after being preoccupied with scratching our mosquito bites.
Working around the rain was challenging. Under cloudy skies, we hiked the trail leading to Bridal Veil Falls’ 35-foot drop near the town of Kagawong.
And despite the threat of rain, we continued on, climbing the cliffs of M’Chigeeng on the Cup and Saucer Trail,
for splendid views of the North Channel.
But our luck ran out as we drove to Ten Mile Point for a stormy lookout of Georgian Bay…
and found similar blustery conditions at Providence Bay, on the edge of Lake Huron,
before returning to the sanctuary of our Airstream.
The following day, our four-hour travel time to Sault Ste. Marie was compromised by a tire mishap (see Blowout!). And then it rained…a lot!
By now, mosquito bashing had turned into a bloodsport. There were a few brief intermissions that allowed us to explore Sault Ste Marie’s famed boardwalk, which carried us past a whimsical sculpture in Roberta Bondar Park,
on our way along St. Mary’s River…
to Sault Ste. Marie Canal–transitioning between Lake Huron…
and Lake Superior…
before continuing across to Whitefish Island, where the convergence of Lake Huron and Lake Superior forms St. Mary’s rapids.
And then a ride through downtown Queen St. produced a completely different climate,
where traces of snow formed around a movie set,
looking much like fire foam…
to create a wintery look…
for a Hallmark Christmas production adapted from Kevin Major’s The House of Wooden Santas.
The weather always sets the tone for the trip. At the moment, rain amounts are up 30% over past years, and lake levels continue to rise above one meter.
This is a time for the birds…
the mosquitoes, and black flies.
And while there’s little we can do to control or avoid the weather, at least we are now prepared.
Leah and I are back on the road again, touring in our Airstream and excited to explore and record our impressions.
Before mothballing the trailer in North Carolina for the past 11 months, we had traveled 44,000 miles, crossing 33 states, 4 Canadian Provinces, and 2 Mexican States in one-year’s time (see Epilogue).
Unfortunately, there were glaring omissions in our route that never took us through the Rust-Belt, so for our second act, we are circumnavigating the Great Lakes–visiting 8 States and 1 Province.
Our summer journey begins with a visit to historic Jim Thorpe, PA in the Pocono Mountains– a famed destination for winter sports and whitewater rafting.
With water levels high, and water running fast, it was shoring up to be a high-water adventure.
Class II and III rapids would be the perfect way to jump-start this trip. However, I scratched the raft ride after learning that only family floats were running the Lehigh River, with the earliest dam release scheduled for the following weekend.
Nevertheless, Leah and I were content to take a leisurely, 26-mile cycling tour down the Lehigh Gorge Trail, where we followed an abandoned railroad grade-turned-trail, offering river view…
canal lock relics…
and several hillside trickles…
culminating in captivating waterfalls by the Rockport Access, with fast water cascading 50 feet over flat rock and flora at Buttermilk Falls;
and Luke’s Falls, featuring 50-foot water flowing over mossy ledges;
and occasional Lehigh spillovers on the side of the trail.
While in the White Haven neighborhood, we ventured to the Park Office at Lehigh Gorge State Park for information on hiking the fabled Glen Onoko Falls Trail, but were informed that effective May 1, the Game Commission had closed the trail indefinitely until all safety issues have been addressed.
Apparently, the risky behavior of many irresponsible and inexperienced hikers ended with far too many serious consequences, necessitating aggressive action. It was disappointing being unable to experience the Niagara of Pennsylvania, on a hike dubbed by Outdoor Magazine as “one of the 10 best waterfall hikes in the Northeast.”
Instead, the rangers diverted us to Hickory Run State Park, where we walked upstream along the Shades of Death Trail…
to Stametz Dam, culminating in a 25-foot splash.
While not a disappointing hike, it was anti-climatic and not what we came for, requiring some forward thinking.
When we eventually crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we were ready for sweeping views of gushing water…and we were not disappointed!
As a basis of comparison, we observed the falls from multiple vantage points…
varying focal lengths…
and different dayparts.
And we both came to the same conclusion: that Victoria Falls was more spectacular than all other waterfalls combined.
Now I fear that seeing the Holy Grail of waterfalls has tainted my impression of all other falls to come, and that’s okay for now.
Eventually, I will come around, and perhaps by that time the Glen Onoko Falls Trail will welcome us back in earnest.
It was an inauspicious beginning to our summer voyage. We pulled into the “secure” storage facility outside Charlotte, NC to awaken our beloved Airstream–asleep for the past 11 months–only to find a crush of aluminum along the top and bottom quarter deck of the frontside by the awning pillar.
Of course, there was no note–only a clue of “school bus yellow” paint left behind on the stainless steel stone guard. It was a devastating sight to behold that left us angry and bewildered.
The Huntersville police were called…
documentation of the damage was recorded…
and upon arrival, Officers May and Carter, filed the accident report, and attempted to recreate the incident.
Fortunately, a spot opened for our silver bullet at Colonial Airstream in Lakewood, NJ, where it will spend the next three weeks being body-shaped by the experts for only $8,000. Meanwhile, Leah and I will be touring Capetown, traversing Botswana’s savanna in search of wild animals and photographic trophies, and taking in Victoria Falls at neighboring Zimbabwe.
Today, we are hitched and ready to roll up to Jersey to begin our newest adventure.
Upon our return to the States, we will reunite with our rejuvenated “Streaming 52” and chart a course around the Great Lakes for the following three months–filling a large gap from of our year-long American tour of 2017-2018–before streaming back to Florida.
Here’s where you will find us on the road should you wish to visit and say hello:
May 21: Jim Thorpe, PA May 25: Cooperstown, NY May 28: Niagara Falls, ON May 31: Toronto, ON June 4: Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, ON June 8: Manitoulin Island, ON June 11: Sault Ste Marie, ON and MI June 15: St Ignacio, MI June 20: Agawa Bay, ON June 23: Neys Prov Park, ON June 26: Thunder Bay, ON June 30: Duluth, MN July 5: Apostle Island National Lakeshore, WI July 8: Munising, MI July 11: Green Bay, WI July 14: Wisconsin Dells, WI July 18: Milwaukee, WI July 21: Chicago, IL July 23: Indiana Dunes NP, IN July 25: Montague, MI July 28: Traverse City, MI July 31: Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, MI Aug 2: Detroit, MI Aug 6: Cleveland/Cuyahoga Valley NP, OH August 10: Pittsburgh, PA August 15: Ligonier, PA August 19: Jersey Shore, NJ
and completing the 105-mile drive through Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive from Front Royal to its southern terminus…
exposed us to more rain in 4 days than we had seen in all of one year on the road. There were moments when the deluge abated long enough to give us broken clouds and glimpses from some of the nearly seventy overlooks of the infinite Piedmont range to the east…
and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
But mostly, we held our breath as we rolled along the two-lane ribbon of asphalt that wound around the mountains and climbed through a fog and cloud cover so dense at times that Leah and I asked ourselves if our summary road trip on the way to retiring the Airstream could literally be a watershed event.
Our travel plans were non-negotiable, as campgrounds had been prepaid along Skyline Drive and the first 300 miles of the connecting Blue Ridge Parkway before we’d exit eastbound toward Charlotte. We had given ourselves this time aboard the Airstream as a last hurrah–a chance to enjoy one more trip and indulge in driving one of America’s great “scenic” byways.
A moving van brimming with our belongings was awaiting departure from New Jersey to Florida, and slated for delivery by the first Monday in June while we slogged through foul weather on our way to Huntersville, North Carolina where our Airstream was destined for dry dock until the following year, giving us ample time to put our St. Augustine house in order and acclimate to Florida living.
Meanwhile, current weather stats revealed that remnants from Alberto (the first official storm of the 2018 hurricane season) had dumped over eight inches of rain along our travel route, punishing nearby dams and washing out essential bridge footings ahead of us, but we dutifully soldiered on, imagining the glorious views that would be to our left and our right.
Every so often, we’d take a break from our mountain miasma, and venture into the valley to escape the cloudburst and capture some of the local color (see A Touch of Blue and Mount Airy, NC), only to return to the Airstream and listen to the downpour pelting the roof like a torrent of bullets.
At times, we’d have a moment of clarity, like when we reached Mabry Mill at Milepost 176 (see Favoritism) and stopped to gawk at red-tailed hawks as they danced atop the thermals,
but it would be another hundred miles of slogging through doomsday rain before we’d catch another break from the storm.
Eventually, we disengaged the Airstream at Price Park Campground near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and backtracked to investigate Flat Top Manor, a 23-room, 13,000 square foot national historic landmark…
and once the summer home of Moses Cone, son of German Jewish immigrants originally named Kane,
and aptly nick-named the The Denim King, for Moses and his closest brother Ceasar dominated the textile industry by acquiring and building manufacturing mills throughout the deep South, becoming the world leader in denim, flannel, and corduroy fabric production, and the sole supplier to Levi Strauss for its “501” brand jeans. Moses Cone, entrepeneur, conservationist and philanthropist had led the South to the Promised Land.
Moses and Bertha built their mansion at the turn of the 20th-century for $25,000 with every modern convenience of the time, despite their 20-mile distance from the nearest railhead, and the remoteness of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The couple (they never had children) enjoyed central heating, indoor plumbing, telephone, and gaslight–for Bertha eschewed electric light–disliking its unnatural glow and how it affected her skin tone. However, years later, after the death of Moses in 1908, she allowed electricity into the house, replacing the blocks of ice once cut and carried from Bass Lake with a food refrigeration system supplemented by one light bulb in the basement pantry.
The house stands empty, and appears unfinished. No furniture accentuates its over-sized rooms, and cracks have ravaged once-smooth walls.
But there are notable wall decorations…
and at one time, a treasure trove of avant-garde art adorned the mansion thanks to lasting friendships and patronage between two unwed Cone sisters, Dr. Claribel and Etta,
and Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Their collection ultimately passed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, now recognized as the Cone Wing, and valued at over $1billion.
Today, the estate–managed by the National Park Service–services over 25 miles of carriage roads and trails.
Leah and I dared the rain, and hiked five miles to the Observation Tower at the southeastern edge of the property, where we were rewarded with pastoral guests,
intriguing butterflies feeding on unknown feces,
and a breathtaking panorama of nearby Boone–home of Appalachian State University, endowed by Moses Cone–and the neighboring wilderness.
Upon our return, we stopped to pay respects to Moses and Bertha, buried together under Flat Top Mountain,
and overlooking 3,500 acres of his legacy, where an orchard of 35,000 apple trees once produced prized fruit for the gentleman farmer.
The rain returned during the brief drive back to Price Park, but abated just as quickly to capture a lasting moment of smoke wafting across Sim’s Pond.
The next morning–our travel day to Charlotte–we awoke to blue skies and sunshine beaming across Grandfather Mountain.
The run-off from Price Lake was fierce, barreling down Bee Tree Creek.
Rangers alerted us that the Parkway heading south had been temporarily closed. Flash floods and mudslides had forced a partial shutdown of Interstate 40, necessitating a detour through rural America before we could connect with I-77 S.
Putting our Airstream on blocks in Huntersville was bittersweet. It marked the formal ending of Streaming thru America, but our future holds new surprises.
Already, we’re pre-planning a trip to circumnavigate the Great Lakes during the summer of 2019. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a journey of a different sort, and I hope to keep the world posted.