Deserts and the tales of the wild west

Leaving the giant state of Texas was a bit overwhelming. We had barely scratched the surface on this giant state, and we were sadly moving on. We drove through El Paso in exactly the same way we had bypassed Houston with its multi lane highway and overpasses galore. The historic markers allude to the old times when this was New Spain and the route between Mexico City and Santa Fe. Flat long highways that were lined with acres and acres of pecan and pistachio groves.

Shacks along the way advertised their availability. We stopped at the at the Don José bakery just outside of Big Bend Ranch State Park at Presidio on our way north to the I-10. It was the first of a few Mexican bakeries that we visited. Not a word of English was spoken but a few of the patrons were able to translate to the Mexican baker and his wife what we were looking for. We were looking for anything fresh and tasty and these clients had us buy their favourites; the rolls that were like brioche with anise seeds in it. OMG. These were fresh, still warm, and we could have eaten 6 of them in one go. The other buns we bought were a simple oblong white roll that were a bit of a staple. We found a plastic tub of rustic (homemade) pork stew in a cooler and bought fresh tortillas from them to have with it. Delish! We really just wanted a loaf of bread. Usually I bake bread but… this was way better.

We were headed for Las Cruces as we had heard from another full time RV family that the Organ Mountains right outside of town were gorgeous and there was a fantastic BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping area on the edge of the mountains. Las Cruces was also a good jumping off point to visit the White Sands National Monument and do some biking. We arrived before sunset and were set up in time for a phenomenal, warm, glowing sundown with a cold craft beer in hand. We were in a secluded, sheltered dip at the end of a windy road that was lined with campers. We had a gorgeous view of the mountains and no view of the campers. Behind us was the orange and red sunset with increasing glow of the lights from Las Cruces.

The highways were far enough away that road-noise was minimal, and the setting was quite peaceful. We felt so lucky. We BBQ’d steaks and veggies and settled in to plan the next couple of days. While we were eating, coyotes came close with their high-pitched yelps and whistles that we thought they were after the BBQ. Opening the door of the trailer we could see them 30 feet away then they vanished. We never heard them again close up like that. Next morning, a poopy present had been deposited beside the BBQ. We realized this was a symbolic marker of their territory and their tolerance of us in it. 

Next day we drove over the mountain pass and on the other side in the valley was the White Sands National Monument. The dunes that are the “white sands” are made of gypsum deposited into the base of the old seabed basin over 10 million years ago. They stretch for over 250 square miles and are part of a buried lakebed that is below the gypsum deposits. This gypsum sand is blown into a huge dune garden that changes with the wind. Much of it is preserved as a national monument (park) and the rest is part of a military testing range. As we approached the dunes in this stretch of Chihuahua desert, they were a messy white with patches of grasses, yuccas and other indigenous plants that survive there. We stopped at the visitor center, got all the info we needed, and headed into the park. As we drove in the plant life changed then became sparser until it completely disappeared, and we were on a snowy white plain with drifts of white sand completely surrounding us. The similarities to snow were quite striking, as far as its ability to blow around and become drifts requiring plows to regularly clear the roadways through the park area. The changing, monotonous landscape confuses some visitors that venture too far from their cars and become lost in the similarities of the landscape around them.

Signs regularly posted along our route reminded visitors to not stray too far from parking areas or marked trails. It was not sand (or snow). Sand is rock and silica. This white sand was gypsum. Drywall. It was in a low area in the desert and as with all lowest areas, water pooled at the bottom. Like a bathtub. Water cools as it evaporates so the gypsum was cool, hard and wet. WIERD!!!!

The park rangers suggested we take off our shoes and walk on it. The “sand” was cold. Because it was wet! In the desert! As we climbed above the parking area, it became “sandy” and warmer. WEIRD!! And our feet were pure white which continued into the truck and anywhere we had touched these dunes. It was like walking on wet drywall and smearing around the drywall mud. We stayed for about an hour, took the photos that said we had seen it and left. It was kind of neat but didn’t draw us to staying for a long time or returning. “Been there done that”.

The next couple of days were spent mountain biking up into the Organ mountains and visiting Las Cruces and Mesilla which is a historical part of greater Las Cruces. Mesilla once held the distinction of being the capitol of Arizona and New Mexico. It was here that we began to really feel the calamity that was the “Old West”. Mesilla and it’s old Capitol Building is also famous for being the location for the legal trial and conviction of Billy the Kid for murder. Cattle rustlers, Stagecoach robbers and gunfights colour the past of the area and mysterious disappearances of lawmen that chased them down are legend. On such lawman and Mesilla icon was Albert J. Fountain who, with his eight-year-old son, mysteriously disappeared from their blood covered wagon near White Sands NM. The culprits were never found but the suspects were members of a cattle rustling gang that Fountain had tried and had convicted. This area was where romantic Hollywood clichés meet gritty gunslinging survival. 

While Mesilla was cute and decorated for Christmas with evergreens and Chili wreathes, it had many reminders of difficult days gone by. While bike riding, the harshness of the desert was paramount. There is an exotic beauty to the gardenlike flora, but nothing you would want to touch or even fall into.  Desert riding through gravelly washes are slippery, the Barrel Cactus, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Yuccas, Creosote bushes, and countless other unforgiving plants give fare warning not to get to close or be harmed. Unforgiving enough to puncture Al’s tire! The rocky routes that we took through washes and ATV chewed roads managed to plunge me into some road rash and bloody knees. No pain; no gain! Right!?!?! Our BLM site at Las Cruces was one of the more beautiful sites to camp that we had experienced and we may come back another time if we are out this way. 

After Las Cruces, we were headed to the Kartchner Caverns State Park. En route we drove through so many different passes that were all different from each other. The most amazing one was a bunch of boulders piled up that made us feel we were in the Flintstone cartoon. The boulders were formed while underground when rains would drain down and rinse away the edges. Over time these carved monuments were pushed out of the ground with the shifting tectonic plates. The most impressive boulder formations along the road were in the rugged fortress called the Dragoon Mountains. This is where the tough and brilliant strategist, Apache Chief Cochise and about 1000 of his followers evaded the blundering US army for more than ten years during the Apache Wars. The “Stronghold” is yet another story of Arizona/New Mexico cowboy Indian army history.

We had heard there was some weather on the way and decided to find a hook up and plant for a couple of days and day trip out from there. The Kartchner Cavern caves are also very famous, but, for shame, we decided not to go below ground. We were feeling like the Carlsbad Caverns were so amazing we had “been there done that”. There was plenty to do and see if we didn’t want to head into these caverns. We went on a beautiful 5-mile desert hike above and behind the campground just before the rains came. We could see as far as the Dragoon Mountains, Tombstone, the mountains surrounding Tucson and far down the valley to Mexico.

The next day we headed for Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard. This area of New Mexico boasted its fair share of bloodshed. From warring with the Apache, to staking claims on gold, silver and copper, to ranching, to outlaws robbing stagecoaches while rustling cattle from Mexico to the US, and just desert survival, the hardships of the area were paramount. It also bordered the famously dangerous Mexican Sierra Madre where before drug cartels and borders, it was a renowned as a dangerous lawless piece of the world. After reading the book “God’s Middle Finger”, the Sierra Madre didn’t improve with the drug cartels! Tombstone was a town that was a ranching and mining town ravaged by drunken tough guys and ladies of the evening.

The gold seeking pioneer that founded the mine, and ultimately the town, was told “All you are going to find out there is your Tombstone”. Hence the name. The shootout at the OK Corral happened in Tombstone. The town was preserved as a mini museum with actors in period dress, gunslinging cowboys, stagecoach tours, and multiple daily shootouts at the OK Corral, which was really entertaining. Over the years all but one building were destroyed by fires but you wouldn’t know it. As you wander the few streets that portray the old west with saloons, brothel boutiques, and candy stores, you have to commend the locals who have turned what could have been one of the area ghost towns into a viable busy tourist destination. There is a local craft brewery, a historical society, multiple restaurants, museums, and the Boothill graveyard where all the “bad guys” are, including the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, killed October 26, 1881 at the OK Corral.  The memorable “good guys” that shot them were the Earp brothers Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt plus Doc Holiday. It is hard to know who the good or bad guys were, but the re-enactment had the sheriff running the saloon and the Doc visiting his consort….

The graveyard was a fantastic visit. The grave markers were maintained in a rickety fashion and the map of the graveyard told the story of pain and peril. Not sure where the uppity class were buried but we heard there was another cemetery that held the upper crust folks. 

Kartchner Caverns campground was about an hour south of Tucson Arizona and we hadn’t yet been to Tucson. We decided to drive via the southern entry and visit the Spanish Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the first Spanish Catholic missions built in North America by the Jesuits in the late 17th century.  After that, they were run out by an Apache raid the Franciscans took over about 100 years later. The building is the oldest European building in Arizona.

There was a very active historical and restoration society that was working on restoring the buildings to their traditional mud plaster architecture. The Spanish architecture with Indigenous folk-art was indeed novel as the paintings and carvings depicted the style of the local people rather than the white Jesus of most churches. Overall the religious tone felt laid back and cozy with the folk-art influence from generations of mixed race cultures  – Spanish, Native American, Mexican and British. We found a delicious Mexican restaurant for lunch in South Tucson and headed back to the trailer. 

Next day we headed out of the Chihuahua Desert and into the Sonora Desert. The Sonora desert had the iconic Saguaro Cactus popping into view often in numbers we considered a forest. We found a BLM site just south of the highway, but we also realized our gas tank was close to empty. Google sent us to a gas station along the highway, but it wasn’t a gas station yet or anymore. There was a pony tailed, elderly hippy, “kind soul”, supervising some others working on a car. He limped over and advised us to go 20 miles up the road. He had a friend in Canada! We got the sense that he was just as happy killing folks as meeting new folks. We made our way and passed hundreds of thousands of cattle that were destined for American dinner plates.

Gassed up, we headed for the BLM and our friendly saguaro cacti. While camped there we hiked over land to a rocky outcrop and caught the last of the day’s sunshine. 

Next day we headed to desert number three, the Colorado Desert, and the town of Yuma in the heart of the Colorado desert with the famous Colorado river sliding through the town as it nears its exit into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. At the tourist information stop, there was a train display immortalizing the fact that Yuma became a destination because there was a relatively easy pass to build a railroad to get over the Colorado River and to the Pacific Coast. Yuma, in Arizona, sits on the US / Mexico and California, so it was warm, cheap and full of delicious Mexican food. Yuma’s topography included a maze of dykes and rerouted Colorado river channels surrounded by mountains that were old volcano cones and farmland.

There was dry barren desert contrasted by hundreds of acres of rich agricultural land composed of citrus groves, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, kale and lettuce fields. All this agriculture was made possible by irrigation from the diverted Colorado river. While driving along the highway it was obvious that the main source of housing was similar to ours and that the people are only here for a few months. RV parks were everywhere. We barely saw any houses. We found a BLM site above the farmlands and the irrigation ditches and stayed a few nights. Our neighbours in the BLM were all snowbirds enjoying the free camping and many of them had OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) quads and dune buggies. All of these quads had 70 something year-olds and licence plates on them so they could also take them on the roads. The trails through the badlands behind the BLM was double track that had all been chewed up by OHVs and made mountain biking on them challenging. Imagine a solid sandbar being stirred up and mixed with rocks on a steep incline. I tried riding it but mostly pushed my bike up and down the trailways. I was so demoralized. From a distance it didn’t look difficult but when you balanced yourself on a two wheeled bike after the quads had taken the blender to the surface, it was really unstable. Even Albert had to renegotiate a few of the hills. Nothing but hard surfaces and cacti to land on if you bailed. I wept.

So, we headed to the lower terrain and decided on a margarita instead of killing ourselves. When the sun went down the UFO’s arrived. Not really but in the dark the airplanes with large strips of floodlights were buzzing the fields below us. These crop dusters were a marvel in aviation skill. The hazards around the fields were not just the mountains but there were electrical wires flanking every field. Reading about them later we learned that many of these pilots had perished from plane crashes and the effects of toxic chemicals they were distributing in their back draft. These occupational hazards had been reduced now that computer and GPS systems were so precise. Electrical power line locations are now programed into their flight plans and sensors measuring moisture, insect infestation and weather conditions in the fields are all considerations in the administration of pesticides or nutrients. These efficient programming tools make mapping the planes route over the fields more effective using fewer toxic chemicals also making it cheaper and healthier for pilots, farmers and consumers. In addition, only fields with a problem were dusted. These amazing pilots were pretty fun to watch. Like dragonflies over a pond.  

After Yuma we were nearing our planned Christmas destination; Palm Desert for three weeks. Last year we booked the last of the time left on our inherited timeshare at the Desert Breezes resort on the border of Palm Desert and Indian Wells. Across the street from the resort was the huge Indian Wells Tennis Garden where the US open and countless other tennis tournaments are held. Marnie and Jim (my sister and her husband) were joining us. And for the one Christmas week, we had their daughter Quin, and our Mum and Don. The rest of our children were not able to join us. 

Greater Palm Springs aka the Coachella Valley, is a large valley oasis with deep aquifers, 9 towns and more smaller communities. There are many manmade lakes, golf courses, and most of the streets are walled, gated and closed to non-residents or non-members. It is very clean, tidy and antiseptic. We are not golfers and to be honest we were concerned that the area may not be “our thing”, although Christmas in a warm desert environment seemed like a great idea. But WOW, did we find lots to do!! Surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, Joshua Tree National Monument, the dead Salton Sea, the Mid-Century Modern architecture, artsy walks, movie star homes and the hillsides and oases that were the result of the San Andreas fault tripping through the area, there was hiking and discovery everywhere. 

We hiked up a trail overlooking the unique and impressive previous home of Bob Hope. Although it is someone else’s home now, it is still known as Bob Hope’s house. One day no one will know who Bob Hope is and they may call it something else. We hiked the Cactus canyon up near the Pignon tree line in the San Jacinto mountains. We hiked into a canyon wash along the Palms to Pine highway that narrowed as we ascended and saw, above us, a flock of bighorn sheep.

We drove through Joshua Tree National Park from south to north seeing the transition from Colorado desert to Mohave desert where the unique Joshua trees grow. We stopped and hiked to a palm oasis at Cottonwood Visitors center. We looked out over the whole Coachella Valley that encompasses greater Palm Springs all the way to the Salton Sea. We returned again after a snowfall in Joshua Tree and took sunset shots on the gorgeous rocky outcrops with snowy fields of these Dr. Seussesque cartoon trees.  

We hiked the “Ladder Canyon” driving around a sandy, washed-out road. Then parking beside all the fancy cars (weirdly including a Jag, Bentley and many Mercedes) in the sand and gravel up the canyon. It was a hike up the canyon wash, to a ridgeline overlooking the Salton Sea and the San Jacinto mountains, then down through a slot canyon in the Mecca hills which are on the San Andreas fault. This is the same fault line that hugs Vancouver Island. We hiked along the trails beside the Thousand Palms and through a creek running between them. These huge California palms occur when there is a water source up to twenty feet below the surface. The San Andreas fault has many fissures underground that form wells where these trees grow. Sometimes they were even growing out of the sides of the hills rather than at the valley floor which seemed out of place when we saw them. They were messy and so foreign to the orderliness of the greater Palm Springs cities.

Our cousin, Mike Everett, is the meteorologist for NBC Palm Springs and one evening we were invited to tour and watch the newscast in studio. 

Christmas this year was a completely different with no presents, a Mexican feast on Christmas Eve and another drive through Joshua Tree on Christmas day with our extended families. Quin’s partner Liam, lives in LA and his family visiting from Portland. They were staying in the town of Joshua Tree and joined us for Christmas Eve dinner. They were staying at the iconic Joshua Tree Inn where influential country-rock musician, Gram Parsons took his life with morphine and alcohol. We stopped to visit on our way past on Christmas day. There was a memorial at the motel, thus making our foray into dead musician memorials a thing. 

Jim returned to Calgary on December 29 and Marnie stayed on until after the first week of January. Our timeshare finished up on January 3rd so we took Marn camping in the desert. We headed to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park and with one trip back to send Marn home, we have been there ever since. What a park!!! With Marnie, we stayed at the Borrego Springs State Park Campground with full hookup for three nights. There was a beautiful 3 mile hike into the valley behind the park with a waterfall and more California Palms with their natural hula skirts draping to the valley floor.  The town of Borrego Springs originally had a development plan similar to Palm Springs and it is dotted with a few golf communities, mid century modern neighbourhoods, farming and a lack of water to sustain growth let alone to support the community as it stands. We tootled around the few streets and round-about that make up the town of Borrego Springs, went to an art opening and a drive through the Montezuma highway to the Old Stage Coach road and the town of Julian for pie. Julian is famous for apples and pie. It is on the highway to San Diego and we were there on a holiday Sunday so it was an absolute zoo. We didn’t stop and kept driving a further three miles to quiet Wynola where we found a bakery with DELICIOUS APPLE PIE!! Topping it with cinnamon ice cream, we had the perfect lunch and returned to the campground.

Here are some of our favourite hikes and places in and around Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Our journey north begins next post.

Rock Stars , rocks and stars, leaving the swamp and hitting the desert

Albert and I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. We were musically inspired by the bands that encompassed the end of the sixties as well. When we were planning the inevitable turn to go west, Albert mentioned that a stop in Jacksonville would be good because that is where the Lynyrd Skynyrd band was from. “Who?”, I asked. Anyway, I was kind of having him on and we ended up not stopping. Well now we were in New Orleans, heading for Austin and it would just be a bit north along the Louisiana/Mississippi border… “If we could just stop at the site where the plane carrying the Lynyrd Skynyrd band met its demise. There is a memorial to the band. We are here, it would be great to visit.” I kept having flashbacks to years before, the time we were really close to the James Dean crash site in California, and we couldn’t find it after driving back and forth and all around for hours. Now we were on the road, working with an old GPS with maps from 2012 and a different method of adding GPS coordinates. The Google on my iPhone had us driving off road. What to do. We went. We drove to the iPhone Google site. Fortunately, there was a road. Nothing. We drove towards the uploaded GPS coordinates, but it was in a totally different direction than the iPhone Google and in a different town. Then we looked it up on Albert’s Samsung and (angels singing) we found it!! We drove back, turned a few times, passed monolithic poultry barns, row by row, lined up for miles. Hundreds of thousands of chickens getting ready to be a happy hour wing or KFC special. The air was thick with the smell of mass farming and an economy for the few whose farms were the location of the mega company who paid them to grow these birds. As we arrived down very quiet backwoods, swampy Mississippi backroads we nervously pulled up to a cleared area along a dirt road. Three large marble slabs were erected, a wheelchair friendly path surrounded them and a guest book at a small table. There was one other car there when we arrived. Three people were sitting near the table and they greeted us. 

More cars arrived. More people came to see this memorial. And then we met Bobby McDaniel. He was there the day the plane went down and helped with the evacuation. When we left, we were part of a group of people who took the time to learn more of the story. Albert’s recollections of the visit to Gillsberg are as follows…

Bobby was in his early twenties on Oct. 20/77 and like most of his neighbors they were getting ready to have dinner and relax after a day of working around the quiet family farms in Gillsberg MS. The tranquility was suddenly broken around 7 PM by a loud noise and shaking throughout the neighborhood causing residents to look around for the source of the unusual disturbance. A ½ block away a private twin engine plane transporting the Lynyrd Skynyrd band had crashed into a treed section of a neighbor’s field forever changing the course of history for the remaining band members, the people of Gillsberg, and devoted Skynyrd fans around the world.

The flight started in Greenville NC. after a performance promoting the recent release of their 5th LP – “Street Survivors” (eventually going Double Platinum). The pilots aborted the flight to Baton Rouge LA. (approximately 900 miles) over Gillsberg due to lack of fuel. They attempted to ditch the flight in an open, marshy area of a field but over-shot it by about 1000 feet. The trees that it struck tore the craft open spilling everything along the way. It must have been a horrific sight when the local community (including Bobby) rallied together at the crash site providing triage to 20 injured, but fortunate, survivors and shrouded the 6 deceased in the fading autumn light. In the intervening years since that fateful event the town went about its day to day living – farming, raising families and healing their emotional scars from the traumatic events of Oct. 20/77. After 42 years of reminders from inquisitive, heart broken Skynyrd fans and international journalistic researchers into “the place” and circumstances where the Skynyrd plane went down, they formed a committee raising money for a memorial site dedicated to the remembrance of that fateful night.

Deb and I found the Lynyrd Skynyrd / Gillsberg memorial on Nov. 16/19. While we were there Bobby, and family, had coincidently decided to drive over. Seeing some visitors, he and his family graciously greeted individuals elaborating on details of the historic event and the town’s motivations for creating the memorial. During our brief conversation I felt he was unburdening himself and the community by relating their side of the story, providing a friendly and welcoming atmosphere and giving everyone some closure. If you decide to visit, I hope you are fortunate enough to meet Bobby, or any of the well-meaning folks that have given a public space to a tragic event.

There is a gofundme site called Lynyrd Skynyrd Crash Site Monument set up to raise money for the long-term maintenance of the memorial. If you feel so inclined to make a small contribution you will be assisting a group that hopes this space will be around for future curious generations. We are official Lynyrd Skynyrd Memorial donors. 

Enroute to Austin, we had decided to stay at another Harvest Host location in Lafayette. (pronounced La-fee-ett) On the way there we drove back into Louisiana and across a lake. As we drove the thousands of miles of causeways above the swamps, bayous and waterways, we had never seen trees that had such different trunks. We were too slow to take a picture and missed it. We decided to return on our way out the next day. On the outskirts of Lafayette is a neighbourhood called Bayou Teche. Our Harvest Host was the Bayou Teche Brewing Company. We arrived at about 4 on Saturday and the Cajun Zydeco band was on their last set. Oh well. We heard a bit and felt pretty lucky to arrive at that moment. Then the DJ (possibly the brewery owner) started playing music and songs by request. We bought 2 beer, ordered a pizza from the wood fired pizza business that accompanies the brewery and settled in. The DJ was giving away free beer for so many random reasons including looking happy or driving a green car. There was so much beer being compted one of the other guests were leaving so they gave us a beer ticket. When Albert went in for another round (one with a ticket), I quickly asked the music man to play a Lynyrd Skynyrd song when Albert came back out. As soon as Al came back, Sweet Home Alabama began blaring. Al asked if I had asked him to play it. What? Is that Lynyrd Skynyrd? So, he went to talk to the DJ and tell him about our day. Later, that resulted in two free beer tickets “Because we are Skynyrd fans”. (Third round) The night just got better. Music trivia was about to start. Twenty songs and you only need to write down the name of the group or singer. It was free to play. Rules-NO PHONES!! OK. After about 10 songs the DJ announced the prizes. Top prize was 4 tickets for McGee’s Louisiana Swamp & Airboat Tour. Every song was sponsored by a local business and there were many prizes. Then the DJ announced that for every correct song you would win a beer. We didn’t win the airboat tour but we won 8 beer and knew which company would get our business the next day on a swamp tour. When we collected the beer, they threw in another 4. WOW!! We drank about 6 beer, over the course of 6 hours so we were pretty sober, but we laughed so much and sang alot so it felt more festive. 

McGee’s swamp tours needs a minimum of 4 people to go on a swamp tour and fortunately two others had booked that morning for the same tour we wanted. As often happens, the GPS and google don’t have the right address for the location, so panicked, we called the company and explained we would be a bit late. We were traveling down a one lane dirt road on the side of a levy that contained the water in the Atchafalaya Basin and towing a trailer we needed to figure out a way to turn around. We did, they waited, and off we went! WOW. Turns out this lake was the lake we had driven over the day before. The bayou that is the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest swamp of its kind in North America. Prehistorically it was what is now the Mississippi River. We learned so much. The trees were cypress that have genetically evolved to grow in water. The alligators will not bother you if you paddle the bayou, unless you have a dog, they like to munch on dogs. The snakes are more of a worry if they fall out of a tree into your boat. The water is only 2 feet deep and in the dry season it is grassy, where during a hurricane or wet season the water will rise another 6 feet. It all depends on weather upstream. Our tour guide couldn’t actually talk to us when the boat was running. The engine was too loud. We had ear protection and were bundled for a chilly morning on the water. He said we may not see any gators because they hibernate in the cold. But Albert saw a small one slither off a log into the water when we came around a bend and we did see one in the water. She was far enough away that we could not see her body but we did see her eyes and nostrils above the water. Not photo worthy. But that’s ok. The trees were the best part for me. That boat ride and the information about the industries associated with the bayou was fascinating. Fishing, crayfish, oil, tourism and more were all part of this watery mass that was life in the swamp. Fascinating. We were starting to find more interesting things to see, but the clock was ticking and we were aching to get to the desert. After our airboat tour we headed to Texas.

Austin was too far away in the time we had and we decided on another Harvest Host just outside of Houston in Anahuac. When we left the boat tour we knew we needed to refuel and had seen a station near the turn off to Bayou Teche where we had stayed the night before. We decided to stop there because there was a shop beside the gas station that sold gulf prawns and boudin, a rice sausage that had added flavours such as meat, crayfish, or alligator. We fueled up, bought prawns, crayfish boudin, and another local delicacy from the freezer that was a soft yeast bun with a prawn and crayfish filling. Me -“Can you bake these?  The instructions say to bake them on a high heat. How do you like cooking them?” The clerk – “Y’all should fry ‘em. Or they dry.” Me – “Ok, we’ll try them.” Meh. They weren’t great. Mushy inside with fishy taste.  

The stop for gulf prawns, boudin and some weird buns

The next part of our trip had the cheapest gas. At one point we were gassing up for about $0.75CAD/litre. We did the math. It was no wonder. Every town we passed had some sort of oil refinery. It was depressing knowing that we needed the oil for everything we do and especially right now, living the life we are living. As we got closer to Houston, it was definitely evident that we were getting into oil country. It was about to get bigger once we got into the heart of Southern Texas, but that is later… About 10 miles south of the I-10 is a large bay, Trinity Bay, that is off the larger Galveston Bay. The GPS also had a built-in altimeter and it was reading 45 feet below sea level. How is that possible? Levis? As we drove, we were on part of the thousand of miles of above-water bridges that are the highways through the bayous and swamps that define the southeast corner of North America. We called the Frascone vineyard to reserve and he said he was on the side of a Texas Bayou in the small community of Oak Island. So off we went to see what a Texas bayou looked like. When we arrived, we met Mr. Frascone.  

Retired and probably the happiest man on earth. One of those people that you meet who has lost absolutely everything and has rebuilt from nothing. He was at the end of a road surrounded by houses on stilts, including his own. He owned most of what we saw. He had a few vines beside his house and his ground level basement was a commercial kitchen and a small wine making facility. In 2008, Hurricane Ike had completely destroyed everything in Oak Island. His home was uninsured. So he had packed up his RV and left for a couple of years and when he returned he was a recipient of one of 14 new homes that were donated by singer Neil Diamond. Over time he had rebuilt his vineyard. He had other vineyards throughout Southern Texas where he grew varietals with different climates. He claimed he was one of the earliest registered vineyards in Texas. When we arrived, he was working on a shelter that would become a wedding venue and his next thing was to put in about 6 RV pads with water and power.  His resilience was infectious. He was genuinely excited that we would detour off the I-10 to find his place as a free accommodation. They aren’t really free if you buy their wares. But he didn’t care if we bought or stayed 3 nights, since we would certainly tell stories of our time there and that was enough. We bought wine, olive oil produced by a neighbour, and honey harvested from his bees. He also made Meade…. really sweet. Not our thing….

“Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo… on the bayou…”

We wandered down to the shoreline and looked at his neighbourhood. All the houses were built at least 10 feet above the ground. Again, we were amazed at the human condition, eeking out an existence in such hazardous regions. Of course, these southern Americans probably thought the same of Canadians. So darn cold. 

Oak Island. Texas Bayou.

Next day we headed for Austin looking for music and Texas BBQ. We camped by the lake at a regional park for the first couple of nights and then wanted to move in closer. Texas cities were all about building more highways and parkades to increase the number of cars on the road. The traffic was shit. Our beloved I-10 had 9 lanes going each way through both Houston and Austin with at least 6 highways overpassing above. Crazy traffic. When we were in the regional park, we found some nice loops of cross-country mountain biking just down one of the highways about 15 minutes from our campground. And we rode through prickly pear cactus groves. We were officially getting closer to the desert. Austin is in a transitional zone between the arid dry southwest and the humid wet southeast. After biking we headed for a beer at the Oasis brewery. Situated high above Lake Travis, another dammed off piece of the Texas Colorado river, facing west, it was a perfect place to also enjoy the sunset. Plus, the beer was delicious!! 

We moved closer to town to an RV campground just south of downtown and commuted with Uber. We hit the tourist info office and then walked by the many defining landmarks that make Austin. We took pictures of ourselves with Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Leslie Cochran, the Austin City Limits, Angelina Eberly, the Driskell Hotel and the red granite Texas state capital building (larger than the US capitol building…its Texas…Everything is BIG)…That night we fit in a live music show at the iconic Antone’s. An Uber back to the trailer and next day we drove into town. We pulled our bikes out and rode the 20-mile bike way that winds its way around both sides of the Lady Bird Lake, the dammed river reservoir that winds through the city.  Fall was in its full splendor and the temperature was perfect. The trail-way was amazing, with cantilevered bridges over the river when a hill slope was too sharp. It was excellent. And it made us hungry for Texas BBQ.

There are two renowned BBQ places in Austin. One involves a day long line up and no guarantee the dish you want will still be available when you finally get to order. The other one is Terry Black’s BBQ. Great BBQ, Texas style and a system that makes sure they can accommodate all the customers that visit. No huge lineup but booming busy. We quietly parked, perused the BBQ pit, then went indoors.

The lineup runs past a self-serve beverage icebox, then you order your sides and they hit your tray, then the meat. Three BBQ carving stations so when one is done, go to the next. Like a Walmart cashier line. We got to the carving station and the cook explained the products. He ooohed and ahhhhed about the beef rib that was juicy. So, we ordered one. All the reviews had said, “have the beef rib”. He said it was about a pound or so and sold by weight. Mostly bone, lots of fat and a tiny bit of juicy meat. One beef rib like fatty brisket with a bone, one sausage link, 4 oz lean brisket, 4 small perfect pork back ribs, and 4 side-dishes. All was served up on a paper lined plastic tray. Turns out the beef rib, mostly bone, was about $35US/lb and by the time we had the rest and the sides plus 2 cans of beer it was over $85US.

How do people afford this?!?! It was good and our BBQ needs had been more than met.  But that was the budget blown right to hell! Austin was a nice city with a great vibe that felt safe and fun. We were done with the city vibe and were ready to get out.

Our method of choosing the next direction and ultimate destination was to find some biking and camping. We decided to go to San Angelo State Park in Texas. San Angelo is not a state park we would have known about except that it was situated in the direction we wanted to go, and it had over 50 miles of mountain-bike trails. We arrived at the gate and the ranger sent us out to our campsite in the horse camp.

We had to unlock a gate to get in there. We were the only campers. No horses. But power and water hook up for just $15 per night. When we arrived, I got out of the car and walked towards the site and a fully camouflaged fawn emerged out of the grass and ran away. It was surreal. We set up, got our bikes out and headed out on to “Dinosaur Trail”. Yep, dinosaurs were there before us. Amongst the Chihuahua desert cacti, grasses, deer and wash (that’s desert lingo for stream bed) were footprint impressions of a pre-dinosaur creature in what was mud during the Permian Age. Dusk was approaching and the whitetail deer were moving. At one point one shot across our path. We were lucky we weren’t hit. Its strides were at least 35 feet and it was moving at lightspeed.

Next day we rode all over that park. The trails were mostly easy cross country with some challenging bits which made the day spectacular. We found a dry lake and dry creek beds, old campgrounds and overgrown roads leading to them from the days when boomer families flocked to these parks, long horn cattle, wild turkeys, rocky drops, and the Flintstone trail with a rock table and chairs. With so many miles logged traveling seated in the truck, our 40 km ride felt like we had finished a marathon. The benefit of a trailer over a tent. A fridge. A cold beer. Yum. 

Our ultimate directional goal was to go to the Carlsbad Caverns National Monument in New Mexico and after 3 nights in the open wilderness of San Angelo, we headed out. Carlsbad is located on the northeastern fringe of the Chihuahua desert. This was an interesting drive because we were now fully on the Permian basin where oil bubbles to the surface and the old seabed is rich with fossils and fossil fuels. Traveling along this highway to Carlsbad was one oil refinery and fire stack after another.

Baton Rouge. A reason to keep moving.

Halfway from San Angelo we stopped in the oil-bubbling metropolis of Midland to refuel the truck and asked about filling with water since our plan was to dry camp at a BLM site just outside of the Carlsbad Caverns. The happy staffer at the gas station said we would have to buy water. Everyone does. They do. There was no potable water there. Then we noticed that all the trucks going by were water trucks. Tanker after tanker, bringing potable water to oil camps, businesses, houses, and retail water sites along the highway. We ended up driving into Carlsbad to refuel and the next friendly staffer at the gas station said we could fill with their water. Fully potable. We took the risk and are still alive so perhaps it was ok water. We were buying drinking water anyway. 

Carlsbad Caverns were a highlight. In order to access the caves, we drove up through a desert valley to the top of the ridge overlooking the oilfields of Permian Basin. The mountain ranges surrounding the basin formed a horseshoe shape over the thousands of square miles of oil rich land stretching through New Mexico and Texas. From the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center there was a milelong trail that descended 850 feet of elevation into the cave. Once at the base, where the elevator drops visitors, another walkway through the cavern looped through the “Big Room” for  1½ miles along a paved path winding through spectacular cave decorations with LED lighting staged by theatre professionals. Stalacmites, stalactites, draperies, soda straws and water pools with flowery lily pad formations presented themselves after tens of thousands of years of sulfuric acid carving and gypsum deposits followed by dripping water. Depending on the amount of water that would fall in the desert that year gave the cave its “life” to “grow” its decorations.

The last ice age grew a lot of these decorations. A drip of water hitting you while walking was called a “kiss” and it may have taken 30+ years to drop. We took the elevator to the surface and returned the next day for a tour of another locked cave. The entrance to the caves had a huge amphitheatre built for people to watch the bats when they exit the cave at dusk or re-enter at dawn. Bats are a feature in the area and in Austin, as they fight for their existence worldwide. The bridges in Austin also featured bat awareness and were built to house bats. With the threat of white nose fungus hitting the world bat populations, huge efforts to educate and ameliorate the disease are in play. Entering the cave, the rangers check if patrons had been in any other caves and if so, they were to sanitize their shoes in special baths as if going into a science lab or animal farm operation. We saw no bats as they had retreated to Mexico for the winter. 

We met some lovely people, Donn and Judy, from Colorado at the BLM campground and shared some similar stories. They, like us, were “full timers” living in their rig and had no formal plans so we headed along to Big Bend National Park together. The highway south was along the eastern side of the Guadelupe Mountain range and climbed over a pass then down to the next part of the desert. We were driving during a cold snap with freezing rain and cold. We were glad it was a driving day. We poked into Marfa, a very cute artsy community, then overnighted in Alpine just down the road. Next day it was American Thanksgiving and the busiest park weekend of the year with no campsites booked, none available, and not sure where we would stay. Big Bend is just that, a park where the Rio Grande turns a couple of corners defining the southern Texas map. The land was full of mining, farming along the river, trade between countries, agriculture and a cross cultural population before it became a border and ultimately a park, and it still showed evidence of its history. Big Bend has plenty of excellent hiking and even a rowboat crossing where you can go to Mexico for a pricy taco at Boquillas.  We arrived knowing we wouldn’t have camping, so the ranger suggested we call local RV businesses outside the park. We did. No one answered and no one called back after leaving a message.

The park office had cell coverage, so I looked up RV camping on the Campendium website and found a place called “Biker Haven”. I called. It rang. A voice loudly and gruffly answered, “HELLO!” I said I found his number on Campendium and did he have room for a Class A Rig with a vehicle in tow and a truck with 21 ft trailer in tow. “Yup, no problem. No hookups but plenty of space.” He proceeded to give directions as the GPS and Google coordinates on the website were wrong. He said to call when we arrived, and he would come down and get us registered. Trusting the universe, we proceeded 18 miles north to a road called Terlingua Springs Ranch Road, “lots of mailboxes”, then 11.2 miles east. No service on that road for about 11 miles. Worry. Then the signs. “BIKER HAVEN NEXT RIGHT” Shortly after we saw a tell-tale yellow rattle snake flag that said, “Don’t Tread on Me”. We pulled in and shortly after that a sassy dune-roll-bar-type quad showed up with a rifle in the visor. Yikes. Texas. Ron was courteous and friendly; told us “we weren’t camping but joining a club”. In order to join the club, we had to sign some paperwork with the rules of the club and pay our membership. $15. The rules were mostly about being respectfully quiet during sleeping hours, putting trash in the cans provided and no open fires due to the chance of a brush fire.  Now the difference was that the very first rule was “NEVER CALL THE LAW”.  Ha!!!  

It was super safe, we never called the law, it was quiet and beautiful on the open savannah with leafless Ocotillo, Creosote bushes, Cholla and the ancient volcano cones surrounding the valley. We stayed 3 nights including a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with Donn and Judy. We hiked The Window trail, Boquillas Canyon trail, and drove some of the 4×4 roads that took us to old settlements along the river and in the hills. When we arrived at Boquillas crossing, we noticed a truck rolling big fat 4×4 tires off the cliff edge to the narrow river. We also noticed people in the river rolling the tires to the other side and loading them into a truck on the Mexican side. Ha! Import-export business!!

It was time to move on, do laundry, Christmas baking and shower, so we booked into a fancy expensive RV park west of Big Bend National Park at Lajitas. Donn and Judy kept going. We stayed 2 nights and explored the mountain biking in the area and in Big Bend State Park. 

We left Lajitas and decided to follow the scenic Texas Mountain Trail route back towards the I-10. We wound up driving over big hills and valleys in Big Bend State Park and Fort Davis State Park and up to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. About 10 k down the road was a picnic area called Madera Canyon, that allowed overnight parking.  We set up amongst the Ponderosa Pines and Alligator Junipers, ate, and went back for the “Star Party”. Bundled in our warm winter duds we and hundreds of others experienced the stories that the astronomers told of the constellations. No Big Dipper at this time of year in southern Texas. We hadn’t seen our easiest identified constellation for months. Afterwards, the telescopes were focussed on supernovas, lunar craters, and other galaxies. Next morning, I was out for a jog before we left and saw a herd of Javelinas. Cool!!

Our destination was Las Cruces and the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. We were leaving Texas. 

The drive into the North American swampy side

Driving south from Canada was like visiting a long US history museum. Driving west began with a swamp. From Jacksonville to Houston we travelled highways and back roads that depended on bridges or levies to keep the water either in or out. 

The drive from Live Oak, Florida to Pensacola is flat and along the road there are many signs promoting boiled peanuts. So we were in peanut country. But when we looked for the local peanuts, we didn’t find them. That said, every gas station had a coffee bar with stale sandwiches and boiled peanuts. The boiled peanuts were in a self-serve soup terrine and when we looked at them, they looked really disgusting. We had decided to try some but the staff said she just started warming them so they wouldn’t be as good. She also sold the smaller cans (kind of like buying canned vegetables) of them so we could heat some at home. Intrigued by this novel food fad, we bought a tin but have yet to try them. The peanuts are still in their shells and swim in a brownish water that is seasoned with spices or natural. Not sure we will like them, but we have them for that special day when nothing but boiled peanuts will do. The other abundant crops we saw were cotton and pine. The tall pine forests we saw were planted in rows and rows of straight lines. When we asked about how long it takes to grow a mature 50-60-foot pine forest like this, the answer was 15 years. What? At home, on the west coast, we rarely see trees harvested earlier than about 60 years. This seemed very renewable to us. The cotton fields we passed were silver grey with an auburn stem hue that was dry and seemed ready to harvest. As we traveled west, some were in the process of being harvested, some were close to harvest holding until the farmer had time to harvest. In some places wind blown cotton littered the street sides looking like a massive quilt had blown apart from the roof of a car or trailer. Large train-car sized bales of cotton would be lined up in the fields looking like long ghost trains waiting for approval to move. Once again, we had no idea that cotton was still a large US commodity thinking it had moved to lesser economies. 

Pensacola is along the southern edge of the Florida panhandle near the Gulf of Mexico. There are two large bays with a key that keeps them gently contained. We looked at the map and decided that we would get off our beloved I-10 and travel along the scenic Santa Rosa County Key between the bay and the gulf. Mistake. This is a playground for the wealthy with box stores that line both sides of the road for about 25 miles. With the promise of great retail comes the inevitability of stop and go traffic. While it was a shorter distance it probably added 2 hours of maddeningly slow, city like driving to our day. So avoid that piece of land unless you are staying there and can go to the beach. The beach was never visible until we got to the end of the key and headed over the bridge into Pensacola. At this point there is a minute patch of land, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, that has been left natural where there are sand dunes and the promise of wildlife and maybe some elusive alligators. 

Twentyfive miles later and we were at our campsite in Big Lagoon State Park. Big Lagoon is on a bayou on the north side of a big lagoon protected from the gulf by the Perdido key. The park is a giant white sand dune with some smaller lagoons and wetland area. There are boardwalks built throughout the park so that guests can walk, bike, jog, etc. through the wetlands and scrub brush without sinking in the soft sand, being covered in the sharp and spiky (very nasty) burrs that stick to everything. The possibility of coming in contact with one or more of the 45 species of snakes (six of which are venomous) is quite real and we haven’t started talking about the alligators yet. The burrs were everywhere, in the sand, along the pathways, and even stuck into our bike tires like cactus spikes and needed pliers or tweezers to remove them. (foreshadowing our desert days ahead) We set up our trailer on our level cement pad (WOW) and had a celebratory beer after dealing with the stop and go traffic of the day. 

Albert got our bikes out and we proceeded to explore the trails in the 700 acre park before sunset. 

Next day the cold weather arrived and we put away our summer clothes and dug out our warm stuff. Sadness as the mercury dipped a full 30 degrees. We dipped down to a snowy-white sand beach for some photos then raced back to our warm car. 

We decided to visit the Pensacola Naval Airforce base and see the aviation museum. The museum is staffed with a few air force personnel but mostly depends on volunteers. These volunteers are veterans, relatives of vets and just interested souls. We happened on a number of docents near various displays and aged airplanes who were excited to tell some of the stories of each aircraft or the people who flew them. We were there the day after Veteran’s Day so the tales of restoration, war, sadness, pain and victory, and the gratitude for their service enveloped all that we experienced. A life-size replica of the Fat Man Bomb dropped on Nagasaki (not live of course), the H-3 Sea King Sikorsky that flew Nixon (a life size replica of him in it) and Ford to work, Flying Tigers, the Apollo missions, Blue Angels and a whole lot more were featured in this massive museum. I was amazed at how many of these old WW2 planes had been pulled out of lake Michigan. With further research we found out that about 150 planes went down in Lake Michigan and 10 airmen were lost while training 17,000 for deployment to WW2. 

We had passed a BBQ restaurant named Brothers BBQ and decided we would go there for dinner while in the area and stopped in on our way to the naval aviation museum to see if they were open later for dinner. Yes! We went around the back and talked to their BBQ master. He was retired, bored and remembered he had learned BBQ as a kid. He was cooking up brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, chicken and jowls as a retirement job. Success. We took some great pictures. Later when we returned it was dark so we were glad we had stopped earlier. It was truly delicious and we ate too much before we even remembered to take a picture of the food, but the restaurant was not heated so we ate up and went back to our cozy abode. Next day we were heading to New Orleans. 

Driving along the I-10 from Pensacola to New Orleans is not a long drive. But you start in Florida, cross Southern Alabama and Mississippi, then arrive in Louisiana in under 4 hours. And it is flat and has many wetlands and oil refineries. We started noticing that the highways were above the water and flora that thrived in these places. The landscape truly didn’t resemble anything up north. Lots of cotton, fields of sugar and forests on higher ground with the promise of pecans. We stopped at the visitor center in Mississippi. This stately manor was built by the tourism sector and had fresh coffee and Elvis. We planned to visit the crash site of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band after New Orleans, so we looked for maps and information. 

We headed into New Orleans and found our campground in the French Quarter without any glitches. We don’t like getting caught in tight traffic when towing so we were happy about that. The French Quarter RV park was literally under the I-10 causeway. The campsite across from us was graced with a massive billboard advertising to that highway. But that was the only “camping” issue we could come up with. The location was walking distance to everything. We were 4 blocks from Bourbon Street, 2 blocks from a fantastic little speakeasy called Bar Tonique, and about a half hour walk or less to Frenchman’s street and all the live music that it is famous for.

The streetcars were a bit less easy to get around on since the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel that was under construction, so we walked with the full intention of taking a guided city tour while we were here. New Orleans has music everywhere and even the buskers command an audience. We quickly set up then headed down to the French Quarter. We walked and walked. Bourbon street was loud, raucous, and people walked and drank cheap beer and cocktails (literally) from penis shaped flasks. These were not our people so we saw it and moved on to other streets that promised voodoo, spicy food, happy hours with 3 for 1, or quiet dark lounges with the best crawfish or po-boys. We finished up at Frenchman Street at “The Maison” for food and music and Uber’d home much later.

Next day we went to the museums. The state museums have a deal if you buy tickets for more than one visit you get a discount. We visited “The Presbytere” and “The Jazz museum at the Old US Mint”.  The Presbytère was a must see. Here was a museum that housed the rituals, celebrations and costumes of Mardi Gras and the original secret social clubs and krewes along with the stories and displays of the many hurricane devastations. The museums give a glimpse into the making of the local culture. These people of the swamp were not only survivors of mosquito born illnesses, poisonous snakes, alligators, hurricanes, poverty and the slavery legacy, but they combined their cultures of Acadian(Cajun), Caribbean, French, Spanish, English and American Indian into a celebration of pagan voodoo life under the auspices of the Catholic church. As our local resident tour said “If you weren’t French or Catholic, you were dead”. We found New Orleans to have a very European vibe. Old, new, broken, fixed, and always looking for the bright side through times of great strife. We never felt unsafe, we always felt in awe. The Jazz museum had some lonely instruments, lots of photos and posters of jazz musicians throughout the ages with a feature on local jazz legend, Louis Prima.

It was across the street and down the street a bit from the iconic 157 yr old Café du Monde and their Beignets and Chicory coffee. Feeling peckish we decided to check this off our must do/see list. The Café, while on the BTDT (been there done that) list, was a letdown as the service was AWFUL and the products, while fresh from a mix, were mediocre. Iconic places usually don’t make us swoon. Portland’s VooDoo doughnuts was the same. Meh! 

Next day we booked the guided bus tour. We were entertained and saw more than just the French Quarter. The driver-guide told us of restaurants that were obscure, chefs who were James Beard winners, Emeril, and other famous culinary spots. He toured and told us of the system of “burying” the dead in the above ground cemeteries. He was a humorous foodie, history grad who grew up locally and was able to give us the stories behind the dates when New Orleans was French, Spanish, English and everything before, after and in between. We toured the levies that failed during Katrina and saw the difference in water levels between the low ground and high water. He explained the engineering and frustration with the engineers who built, rebuilt and acknowledged the design flaws in the levies. He explained that the locals were frustrated with the latest human idea, since the oldest levies didn’t fail. The $12M savings had cost $14Billion to rebuild. With untried technology. Now it is a wait and see situation. Frustrating many. We toured the park that has the mega millions of dollars’ worth of outdoor sculptures and the Art Gallery Museum in the park. He talked of the music and where to find good Dixieland jazz. He could recite famous recipes many mixologists would not be able to remember, including a Sazerac, New Orleans signature cocktail. We finished off and headed for our last night in New Orleans by walking to a discrete little bar called Bar Tonique near the RV park, ordering a Sazerac (our friends Jill and Cam’s favourite bar and drink;The the Sazerac), then proceeded to Frenchman’s street and the Blue Nile, just down the street from The Maison. The music was great. The beer was cold. The crowd danced and enjoyed. So fun. We were exhausted when we hit the pit. We really needed more time there and will be back. We barely scratched the surface.

Next day we were off to Mississippi and the crash site memorial for the Lynyrd Skynyrd band….Stay tuned, sing along….Sweet Home Alabama, y’all ….

Adventures with Albert in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

So, I set out after dropping Deb off for the flight to Vancouver. It was about 1:00 PM and my destination was Smith Mountain Lake State Park Virginia. We had a great taste of US mountain biking in Richmond at Fairfax Lake Park and Round Top NY and I was keen to indulge in a few rides in the area of Roanoke. Deb and I had fine-tuned navigating the US highway system with the help of Google Maps on her iPhone. My destination would certainly be as easy to find, right?! Afterall I had more than enough time (4 hours) to check in, settle into the new campsite and plan the following day of biking. About halfway along I made a stop for gas that started a series of turns that kept getting just a bit more like narrow winding country roads instead of major highways. Hmmm? The terrain is hilly as you travel west through Virginia. The Appalachian Mountain include the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah. The topography that makes cell phone signals a little less than reliable. This is frustrating when, alone, after the 5th “rerouting” message you begin to ponder the off-grid option from what might be the completely wrong end of a state you know nothing about!! In retrospect, part of the confusion was probably that this was the first time I had applied my phone to the task of direction finding. In any event, after cautiously steering our pride and joy home-on-wheels through more tight turns, in fading light and dwindling gas than I care to remember, I pulled into a roadside stop where kind locals assured me – I was close. Now punching the clock at 8:30 PM as I wheeled through the park gates, I prayed I hadn’t missed some deadline to check in. A note with my name on it was on the park headquarters door. I breathed a sigh seeing my site vacant and welcoming me through my headlights. Sometime after 9:00 I called Deb to see that her travels had been less arduous. After some grub and a good sleep, I woke to a new adventure, exploring this great looking park.

I had reserved for two nights. The trails around the park were quite bike friendly and very scenic. My first day was a big ride on mostly cross-country style trails in and around the lake. Fall colours and mild temperatures encouraged me to explore it all and at about 4 PM I could hear a cold, local craft beer calling me from our fridge (weird, I know, but these things happen to me). Day two was about checking out Roanoke for a mountain bike park that I reckoned would provide ample new mountain bike trail fun. Carvins Cove is a multi use municipal recreation park encompassing a large reservoir, smooth rising hills and mostly frequented by area residents. I searched and searched for the mountain biking side of it but that was easier said than done. My phone-map took me to an out of the way zone for boaters. After a few hours of lost, I resigned to do better research and headed back to camp. Next day I pulled up stakes and headed for a campsite that was a bit closer to town, Middle Creek Campground (MCC).

MCC was a smallish private campground nestled on the border of the Jefferson National Forest in a holler of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is an access point for the Appalachian Trail on the road that leads to the campground and a picturesque little creek with numerous fly-fishing enthusiasts along the way. The busy season was over, and it seemed that the pace was settling into a much welcomed off season mindset. The people that remained were mostly full timers that had found an accepting locale for their ATV/ dirt bike hobby and they were relishing the lack of competition for trail space. I rolled my eyes at the emphasis on off road mayhem and noise, but they were very respectful of morning and dinner hour curfews. Good thing because I had signed on for 4 nights. Eager to find Carvins Cove Mountain Bike Park I got on the road with a solid, direct route to follow to my destination.

Arriving without a glitch, I assembled the bike and disappeared into the beautiful autumn colours. My enthusiasm was hard to moderate, and I could feel the fine line between careless abandon and levelheaded self-preservation beginning to blur. A trail called “Four Gorges” provoked the less cautious characteristics in me. After about Gorge #2 I was “Carve’n” up Carvins Cove with great abandon.

All good things do come to an end and this one really came crashing down on me. An innocent looking too-close-for-comfort tree clipped my handlebar and sent me into a 30 kph reality check with the uphill trail edge. Humbled and feeling chastised for the lapse in judgment, I attempted to evaluate my ability to proceed in light of the increasing pain from the impact. My hand and wrist seemed to be the area most unwilling to comply with my adrenaline-fueled brain. Compartmentalizing this inconvenient truth, I continued on my way but with a renewed respect for the forces of excessive velocity and gravity (not to mention the limiting factors surrounding the diminished usefulness of my left hand). Unable to ignore the fact that I was now riding alone, onehanded on unfamiliar intermediate ability trails. I decided to avail myself to the wisdom of discretion being the better part of valour. The torqueing that my hand sustained in the fall would handicap me for a month and preclude my ability to enjoy a painless bike ride. The combined swelling with black, blue and greenish brown bruising lasted several weeks and is still a top of mind reminder to err on the side of caution when my inner seventeen year old begins to indulge its careless whims (I do realize that many others have learned to intervene sooner. I, admittedly, am a slow learner of this).

The city of Roanoke VA has a colorful history that intertwines railroads, mining and textile industries. Originally known as Big Lick (so named for the salt marshes where various animals congregated to indulge in these “salt licks”). This title is now remembered in the name of a trendy micro-brewery that I searched out called Big Lick Brewing Co. My first visit to downtown Roanoke left me feeling that I had somehow missed the vitality of a city that should have had more to offer the inquisitive visitor. My impressions of downtown were of a void in the atmosphere in the place, revealing a more desperate social disintegration. I arrived at the City Market area due to a boastful brochure I had read claimed “the oldest continuously operated Farmers Market in VA – open 7 days a week”. There was no visible activity of kiosks selling homemade wares just some homeless people gathered around the available tables in the square. After being accosted by an overly persistent inebriated guy photo bombing my picture at the Deschutes Brewery claiming he would take my picture – “give me your camera” etc. I fled to a nearby hotel before making a getaway back to my car. A quick search on my phone said that Big Lick Brewing was only a short drive away so I made tracks for the familiar sanctuary of a microbrewery.

I wrote that experience off to it being bad timing on my part – a late Sunday afternoon gap. But the next day, after walking a number of square blocks of downtown, it only reinforced my first impressions. There was one exception. The Taubman Museum of Art was excellent and I spent a couple hours enjoying the exhibits there. I resolved to explore the area surrounding Roanoke. After a harrowing Halloween-eve storm (that, incidentally, temporarily impeded my return to the trailer and campsite and cancelled the trick or treat festivities of resident kids) I drove to Mill Mountain and took my obligatory selfie at the Roanoke Star, surveyed the panoramic view from the observation area and took a short hike around the top on the easy trails offered there. My search for redeeming sites of interest led me to the historic Grandin Theatre. Opened in 1932, the Grandin Movie Palace provided locals with a luxury venue for movie escapism. The Joker (from the Batman comics genre) was playing so I decided to take that in. It was a great choice and the old theatre setting provided added nuance to the movie of choice.

It was time to get back to Richmond VA to meet Deb after her trip to the Skills meeting so I set out for a “Harvest Hosts”(HH) site that  would be an easy few hours drive and get me within easy access to a park with close proximity to the Richmond Airport for my next camp site. The host was a small family vineyard off US 460 offering farmgate style local wines. As I mentioned above, the storm on Halloween caused some havoc with windfall in various parts of the state and when I arrived the owner of the property was hard at work with a chainsaw bucking up the debris of fallen tree limbs in his paddocks. From the minimal road signage I wasn’t certain that I had found my destination but when I rolled in, he approached the truck in his straw Stetson, sleeveless white undershirt, and hollered “You must be my Harvest Hostee?” to which I replied “You must be the Harvest Hoster?” As he got closer, I took notice of his Yosemite Sam moustache and a prominent shoulder tattoo of two crossed six shooters with smoking barrels, and what might have either been a confederate flag or a contemporary American flag. Clearly a man of convictions. With a neighborly smile he motioned for me to follow him up the long driveway to a spot where RV’s usually camped. I felt a bit awkward following while he quietly sauntered in front of my truck, walking in silence until we reached the barn shaped winery and tasting room with the adjacent campsite. He casually mentioned that the gravel road led into his vineyards and that I was welcome to proceed further if I wanted but that most people chose the current spot. It was level and that was all I needed to set up. Before he left I asked if the tasting room was open and he said that it being Saturday there would probably be visitors at which point his daughter would be providing tours and tastings. Great – I was curious as to the offerings of this off the beaten track fermenteria. I read and cracked a beer in the remaining sun. Eventually a fellow identifying himself as the son in law said he would show me around and provide the tasting. The wines were rustic and had some unusual characteristics that I found edgy but maybe quite common for the local crowd. I bought 2 bottles out of a feeling of obligation to patronize my “Hoster”. There were posters and t-shirts available as well but not with whimsical pictures of grapes and winery slogans, but these were Rock and Roll themed and more specifically in a Heavy Metal themed. Turns out the proprietor hosts a Rock festival that attracts tens of thousands and ultimately involves most of the town to assist in hosting. The plot thickened. At the till I noticed a stack of calendars and thought to pick one up for the trailer. I flipped through it and, not being too thick headed, quickly picked up on the theme in the images of guns and gun toting enthusiasts. The sponsor was clearly represented on the back in the “Support your local Virginia NRA Club” pitch. For whatever reason I put the copy of the calendar that I was thumbing through down without comment but the wheels were turning in my mind on a scheme to surprise Deb with a brand new 2020 NRA calendar for our trailer. Well the plan gelled after I departed the tasting and fortunately the son in-law returned to the barn/ winery around 8:00 PM to get his ATV so he could retrieve the 8 point buck he had shot in the not so distant pastures. I managed to squeeze in an inquiry regarding the calendars through his animated and detailed descriptions of the kill. “Hey, you know those calendars at the till inside, could I have one?” went my quick change of topic. I didn’t even think to ask if they were free or not. “ I’ll let my father in law know he is the one that takes care of that.” “Oh, okay, great.” Was my response, feeling like this was a bit more than just grabbing a free calendar from a local outlet. The next morning, I finished up with breakfast and with a short drive ahead I took my time planning my day. There was some rustling of activity around the front of the main building and I walked over and caught up with the son inlaw. Inquiring one more time about the “free” calendar he said “oh yeah I’ll get (whatever the proprietors name was) we are just getting ready to go to church.” It didn’t escape my notice that he was quite comfortable with the “Open Carry” status he presented. From my vantage point the firearm looked to be a 9mm Glock or like. I was invited into the tasting room again and “Yosemite Sam” appeared from a side door packing a similar weapon of self-defense. “Yes, you can have a calendar, but they are not free.” “Oh, ok how much?” “$50 bucks” was the reply. Closing my jaw with my hand I quickly backtracked on my intention to acquire the calendar and the surprise for Deb (wouldn’t that have been a surprise!). “But it’s a great deal! It’s a draw a month for some really nice guns. On the first Wednesday of each month there is a draw for collectors’ guns, look…” He proceeded to show me the prizes. He was right they were some of the “nicest” looking guns (rifles and hand guns) that I have seen. I made a feeble excuse as to my nomad existence and “How would they get the prize to me if I won?…” I pleaded lamely. My Harvest Hoster and his family were very courteous and friendly, I felt very safe and at ease the whole time. After-all this is their home and their community and I was a guest that they opened their life to and hosted in a friendly, welcoming manner. I proceeded to get packed up, they headed off to church and all I have is 2 bottles of marginal wine (not yet consumed) and this story but the memory is at least as good as hanging that trophy calendar in our trailer.

Everything progressed as planned. Checking into the new campsite at Pocahontas State Park, picking Deb up at the airport and continuing down the adventure filled roads we have chosen.

The rest of the Eastern seaboard…

Our plan was to go to Washington DC to see the town but more importantly visit my friend Rajeev who I worked with at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal over 35 years ago. We kept in touch for many years then lost each other… then Facebook. He left Canada with his family about 30 years ago to take on the role of Hilton Executive Chef outside Washington in the Pentagon area. Once we were set up in our RV site, we set the GPS to Rajeev’s address and had a fantastic evening with him and Sarita, his wife.  We laughed and chatted like no time had passed. Alas, that was the only time we could get together as his hotel had some big VIP events which required him to work a lot and we only had a few days. Sadly, we took no pictures.

Our campground was called Fairfax Lake Park and we were there for 4 nights.

It is just 2 miles from the metro that goes into Washington DC so we bought a 3 day metro pass and hopped on and off for three days.

The subway stations were impressive and many had funny names.

Albert and I walked all over that city. We walked the Mall. This is not a shopping mall. It is a massive greenspace with the Lincoln Memorial at one end and Generals Lee and Grant at the Capitol buildings at the other. There are lake sized reflecting pools along the way. Flanking the Mall are the White House, the Smithsonian Museums and the memorials of the wars including Korea, Vietnam, World Wars and Civil Wars.

We saw the Lincoln Memorial with the two famous speeches on the walls that he gave while President.

Hard to believe he was a Republican but that was then… It seems times have certainly deteriorated in that respect. In fact, we had a look in the Trump Hotel, and left some gold deposits in the gold accented restrooms. We didn’t bother using the entrance for the Presidential suite off to the side. The hotel is quite spectacular as it was an old post office that was remodeled. 

The Martin Luther King Jr memorial was very modern and refreshing in comparison with the European style statues and fountains that line the parks. He emerges from a giant rock or mountain of granite surrounded by 14 of his quotes in the square. Very inspiring. He was a mountain of a man.

To the side of the mall are many of the Smithsonian museums. All are free. We visited the American Museum of History and saw Edith and Archie Bunkers’s chairs, Julia Child’s kitchen, Dorothee’s ruby slippers, the Batmobile, Mohammed Ali’s red boxing gloves, and the muppet chef!! Ork de Bork Bork!!

Washington has many beautiful buildings and of course lots of history that we learn in our text books. Most of it forgotten.  Impressive buildings were the train station, the irish pub with all the police logos from all over the world, the FBI headquarters that became iconic with Ephrem Zimbalist Jr as the head of the TV show “The FBI”. My career has usually considered the FBI the Food and Beverage Institute just like the CIA is the Culinary Institute of America. These spy vs spy things are for the birds.

The day we went to the Pentagon, we just hopped on the metro and got off at Pentagon stop. We knew there would be security, but really you couldn’t even go anywhere outside of the parking lot unless you had an official tour or some other sort of clearance. We stopped to look at a bird house along the sidewalk. It was from Canada to help the population of Purple Martins, so we acted like this was the reason we were there, and feeling that this was some weird sort of Canadian joke. We thought it was funny anyway.

Speaking of Canada, we went to see the embassy and sat in the iconic Red Adirondack chairs that grace all our national parks and gave a shout out to west coast aboriginal artist Bill Reid,  and our friend Doug Zilkie who assisted Bill when his Parkinson’s was so severe he could not do the finishing work on the Spirit of the Haida Gwaii. There are just two of these bronzes, one at Vancouver Airport in the International wing and one at the Canadian Embassy. We have seen both. The Vancouver one looks green like jade (the Jade Canoe) and the Washington one is outside and is black (the Black Canoe). One more that I have seen is the original plaster casting in the Canadian Museum of History, in Ottawa. We went inside the building and were allowed only to use the WIFI and see the art gallery which was completely underwhelming with a few cartoons by Lynn Johnston, of “For Better Or Worse” fame.

We considered going into the Smithsonian space museum, natural history, American Indian, Holocaust, and so many others but we also wanted to see the outside stuff and get some biking in at the park where we were camped. The Fairfax Lake park and surrounding areas around DC are very hilly and there are no straight roads. There is a fantastic transit system plus a long bikeway that joins the many surrounding communities together. This park is filled with mountain biking trails, walking and hiking trails. With spectacular fall colours and dry conditions, we poked through the well-maintained trails. With the cover of leaves over some of the rocky bits, I just relaxed and let my bike do all its own navigating. Good thing, because if I had seen some of the chunky rocks on the trail, I may have had more reservations with the speed we were traveling through them. Only fell once!! On a narrow trail that dropped off to the right. So, I tipped over to the right and watched my big heavy bike sail over me. Sigh. 

We packed up and headed for Richmond, Virginia where I was catching a flight home and Albert was continuing on to the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke in the western side of Virginia near the Shenandoah mountains. Albert dropped me off at a hotel near the airport so I could get my early flights home. Even though I am newly “retired”, I am still involved with Skills Canada and BC will host the national competition in June 2020. Since that is my province, I am tasked with chairing the organization of our cooking competition and the planning meeting was at the end of October. It was good to see my folks, Alberts family, our son, a few friends, get the car insurance organized, and have a bit of time on Vancouver Island. The meeting went smoothly, and I came back to Virginia ten days later with a terrible cold and itching to get on the road again. While I was away Albert found his own adventures throughout the mountains in Virginia….(Albert’s tale to be in the next post. Guns, lost, heavy metal, bike crashes and injuries… it’s all there…)

Albert picked me up at the Richmond Airport at midnight. I left my voice in Vancouver so telling him everything at a time of day that is not my best conversationally was difficult then add the voice thing. We drove back to Pocahontas State park where he had set up our campsite earlier in the day.

He told me some of his adventures (related above) and I slept like a log for 10 hours. (add story of grocery store that has a bar in the center of it – men drink while women shop).

We stayed 2 more nights at Pocahontas as there were some good trail systems near and in the park. All the parks that we stayed at had the evidence of great family camping. They had pools with great slides and water features, tennis courts and wonderful trails for hiking and biking. Pools were emptied and deserted but the campers were still in the parks. When Albert was biking without me while I was at the coast, he had a big fall that hurt his hand and busted his dropper post on his bike seat. So while we were riding we found a bike store for some repairs. Great opportunity to catch up on blog writing. We found a library and completed another entry. The next day after picking up the bike we hit the open road. I was hoping to be healthy soon.

We were off towards Savannah. Usually we drive 3-5 hours a day and Savannah, Georgia was over 6 hours from Southern Virginia where we were camped so we found a Harvest Host winery to stop for the night. We stayed at Cartersville Winery in a small place called Timmonsville, South Carolina. We tasted his wine made with muscatel grape. Can’t say it was a favourite but we bought a bottle of white. Wine in the south is sweet with high acid, and while interesting, it is not a wine that we find easy to swallow. When he asked what kind of wine we like, and we said “dry”, he said “good luck”, and we proceeded to taste his driest offering and continued on to the sweeter ones after that. A tasting was $5 and it came with a small plastic stemless wine glass. We each tasted the wine, so he charged us twice. I couldn’t finish the small sweet pours he gave us. He was super nice, had a big BBQ camping area beside the winery and we parked there. Nice and level, and two other campers beside us. These people had booked their stays through a website membership called “BoondockersWelcome” where people can list their property and service available (electric, water, nothing) and campers can stay for free for up to a few days or a week. It is a nice way to meet travelers or to meet locals if you are traveling. We met a retired couple from Ontario that was staying a few days and another young couple from Florida who were considering becoming full timers (people like us who live in their RV’s full time) so they were trying out the lifestyle for a few months first. Turns out the young couple had a few things in common with us. He said he was a chef who grew up in Montreal apprenticing at the Queen Elizabeth hotel at least 10 years after I left there. He worked with the tyrant French chef who took over with the brigade change that followed the management change. The QE was a Hilton hotel for 25 years, the contract ended, and CN hotels took it over. They owned it. Years later all the CN and CP hotels amalgamated to become the Fairmont chain that circles the globe.  I never asked this fellows name. Why? Because he was one of those opinionated, apparently well trained, prima donna chefs. I am sure he was probably a good cook but there was no way he was going to let a “nobody chef” like me get close.  He boasted about $500 bottles of wine, working with Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and being involved with the Bocuse D’Or. He had never heard of Robert Sulatyky, Canada’s highest scoring Bocuse competitor, and Bocuse Team USA mentor alongside chef Thomas Keller. He did acknowledge that Thomas Keller is famous for running a respectful calm kitchen and that being a tyrant is not necessarily helping the industry. He said he had his CMC, was teaching Certified Master Chef classes with the Miami University or College or perhaps it was the Culinary Institute. Apparently, the largest university/college in Florida. He said he set it up. Ugh. His wife/girlfriend hailed from Holland originally, and was level 4 WSET and had great knowledge of the Wine Spirits side of the equation. She was super friendly, and like many front of house people, was able to skillfully keep a gentle tone to all of the conversations we were having. He did share a nice bottle of Bordeaux with the 6 of us that he claimed to have some involvement in as an importer. The Ontario couple barely got a word in. You meet all kinds of people on the road. Maybe his story was legit but he wasn’t giving us all the facts. Perhaps he will read this blog and let us know how important he is… really…

The next morning, we headed for Savanna Oaks RV park just outside of Savannah. This little RV park was shaded by all those sleepy Live Oak trees dripping with moss that you read about in Harlequin romances. Well that’s how I remember hearing of them as a teenager. We had heard about it as a great southern city to see the old South lifestyle and the downtown with its stately manors and paddle-wheelers that still ply the waters of the Savannah River for enthusiastic tourists.

Savannah is now a sleepy historic city with a wealth of cotton history in strategically located old buildings along the river, a fantastic candy store and the Live Oak and moss that define the flora of the south. This is not a town for people in a wheelchair. There are stairs, cobblestones, uneven sidewalks and roots of the big Live Oak trees pushing up what was a level walkway 50 years before. But it is beautiful, friendly, sleepy and calm. There are quirky shops and award-winning southern BBQ. We had to do some tasting. We tried out Wiley’s Championship BBQ. Pretty good and our first indulgence of that local food genre.

While we were in Savannah the town was setting up for the Savannah Food and Wine Festival, which by all rights you would think we would want to go to, but we didn’t. What??!! It was expensive plus 30% US/CAD exchange. We had just gone out for BBQ and we were happy shopping in the local grocery store for typical stuff that the locals cook and enjoying it at our trailer. We spent one day at the beach on Tybee Island as it was recommended for biking. But when we got there it was more of a cute little seaside tourist town with big beaches, empty streets, happy hours and wetlands. The lighthouse was interesting. We rode around and made our way back to camp and the laundry room at the RV park. Exciting!!

After Savannah we headed towards Louisiana turning right at Jacksonville, Florida and starting on our way west. This was the first time we were headed towards home. The transformation from the Washington unionist history to The South and its history of economics built on the Slave populations that grew the cotton, rice, sugar and everything else that sustained a plantation system was remarkable. On the way towards Jacksonville we stopped at the Hofwyl-Broadfield rice plantation that is a state historic site in Georgia. But it no longer has rice growing for many reasons including proximity to the ocean and hurricane storm surges that ruin the rice and the wetlands for growing rice.  The descriptions of the horrible tolls it took on its slaves is incomprehensible. We took the tour of the old house, cattle shed and slave quarters.  The tour guide was very adamant that we understand the horrible conditions the slaves endured. This plantation was also not an easy place for the owners either which spoke largely to the immensely horrible conditions of its unpaid workers. It was a very modest plantation and the last of the line of five generations of owners passed it to the State when she died in 1973. 

That night we opted to say at another Harvest Host in a community called Live Oak, Florida. It was a few miles off the I-10 highway that traverses the Southern USA. It travels from Jacksonville, Florida to Santa Monica, California and was to become our friend for the next couple of months. The Gan-Eden farm raises goats, turkeys, ducks, sheep, geese and farm dogs who would guard the animals. We had a tour of the farm, bought some goat meat, chicken, jellies, vinegars and pesto.

We bade farewell the next day and headed for Big Lagoon State Park just outside of Pensacola, Florida. We were heading into bayou gator territory…

Heading South

We arrived back in Montreal after a one nighter in New York en route from Barcelona.

It was Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and we were ready to get our woollies on and bring on the fall colours. Leaving the warm Mediterranean and arriving in Montreal wasn’t too bad. At night it was a bit frosty but our trusty trailer has a great heater and not much real estate to heat.

 We moved back into our wonderful waterfront campground on the south shore facing Montreal and proceeded to get ready to go south. We managed to pay a few final visits to our favourite markets, Jean Talon and Atwater, a few rides along the St Lawrence, the ’76 Olympics site and the Route Verte bikeways.

We were staying at the marina in Longueuil again but this time there were not as many campers. In fact, the huge marina parking lot that was empty all summer, save for the thousands of seagulls, was full of pleasure boats that were “on the hard” for the winter. The yacht club next door had hired a crane for the weekend and was pulling boats out there too. And Port de Plaisance was ready to hibernate until next year after we left.

Elly and Taylor were busy with their theatre careers and we were itching to go south. We celebrated a lovely thanksgiving dinner with their good friends (the roller derby aficionados from an earlier post) and their big family. It was very nice to be in a family setting for that holiday atmosphere and we were very thankful for Leora’s family’s hospitality. And that cranberry sauce. Tangy. Cranberries left whole so they exploded with each bite. Memorable.

On October 15 we headed across the border.  We chose to go due south in an effort to get away from all things winter as soon as possible. We drove down the New York state side of Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is a long expansive lake that borders Quebec, New York and Vermont. Years ago, when I worked in Montreal, I went wind surfing on Lake Champlain. I went in one direction with the wind and the rental company had to come save me. Not sure if I had crossed any borders. Ha!! Driving the highway south, we couldn’t help but yelp at every bend in the road when another, rolling hill, or glassy lake reflected the scarlet red sumac, persimmon maple forest yellow aspen and sprinkling of evergreens that balanced the autumn colours. With a baseline of grasses and vertical tree lines in grey, cream, ochre and black.  I tried painting while driving. Nope. 

Crossing the border at this time in history can be a roll of the dice. This was our third crossing into the US in half as many months so we were unsure if there would be any oddities and weird screening questions. We had just heard of a Canadian couple, retired, that had been denied entry because they said they were going to volunteer at a music festival. They were not allowed back in for 5 years. Contemplating a snowy return drive through the Rockies and huge winds across the prairies if our plans were to change was the lesser of our goals. In anticipation we stayed emotionless yet friendly. The border guard asked us if we had any fruit or vegetables, how long we were staying, and we disclosed.  We told him truthfully, “half an eggplant, some spinach and an apple”,  and we were on our way to BC for the end of February 2020. “Have a great trip.” he said, and that was it!! Yay!! We weren’t going to be hung out to dry like other poor souls that had, for no apparent reason, been turned back. Quota? Who know?s…We had heard some miserable stories but it wasn’t our time. Thankfully, they didn’t want our Gin-ventory!!!

Driving the highway from Canada south is like relearning history lessons we had as kids. I remember hearing about the Adirondack mountains and here we were, driving through them. I do miss my Adirondack chairs!! Just outside of the town of Ghent was a AAA office so we stocked up on maps and guidebooks and proceeded to our first farm parking lot stay in the US. We stayed at a Harvest Host location called Love Apple Farm. This was our first HH in the USA and they were overly welcoming. Members of Harvest Host have an online access to thousands of listings of free overnight places to stay. We looked at our route, checked to see what HH listings were near the route and chose this farm because they had a farm store where we could provision the trailer since we had nothing to cross the border. We have found that the hosts are more than happy for you to choose their location as it is, more often than not, off the beaten path and travelers don’t generally find them save for these listings.  Along with some apples, we bought their home-grown vegetables, local sausages, milk, eggs and fresh sour cherry pie made from the fruit they had harvested earlier in the summer. We didn’t book any RV campgrounds until we got to Virginia just outside of Washington DC so Harvest Host onenight stays were the best choice without having to go into a truckstop, Walmart or similar, or a noisy highway rest stop. While we were having our dinner, a hot air balloon flew by. So cool. 

Earlier we found a website with top 10 mountain biking areas on the Eastern seaboard. Albert found a few places to go in Virginia for later when I was to return home to BC for the week after DC. While passing through the Catskills Albert remembered there was good biking nearby so I loaded it on the Google maps and off we went. The trail systems that Albert had read about in the Catskills were in an area known as Round Top. We made a little detour up into the mountains and turned left on Hearts Content Road (what a road name!!) and found a place to unhook the trailer and get the bikes out.

This end of the road location had a chalet shaped summer resort with pool, waterslides, tennis, mini golf, and access to these wonderful trails. We had a great hour or so on a bunch of trails with some amazing lookouts and the gorgeous fall colours. We packed up, the rains came, and we were off.

Our next Harvest Host was another orchard called Wrights Farm in a place called Modena. My second trip to Modena in 2019 (first one was Modena, Italy in March!!). We wished it wasn’t dumping rain so hard. We would have wandered in the orchards. Getting wet isn’t the issue; getting dry is. In a small environment of the trailer, moisture is not welcome. The farm had a full field set up for Harvest host and boondock camping. On the weekends they had a craft brewery open with food, music and their farm store had tons of apples, preserves, squashes and the best “Cider doughnut” we had ever tasted. We were glad we only bought one… each.  Imagine a cinnamon cake doughnut that uses fresh apple juice to moisten the flour. OMG! We spoke to the host/farmer and she said her daughter was a skier and had spent time in Whistler training with her team. 

The next day the rain held off and we had booked a Harvest Host in Kutztowne, Pennsylvania. When we stopped at the Pennsylvania information centre the staffer told us about the Yeungling brewery in Pottsville. It was the oldest brewery in the USA having survived prohibition by trading booze production for ice cream production until more clear headed souls rescinded the draconian practice of prohibition. It was a bit of a detour and we missed the brewery tour but the town was in itself a museum. The family tree shows the last 4 in the family line. All women! Each successive generation is not just given the reigns and the responsibility. They have to buy in. The old man put this in the rules of ownership.

The stately heritage homes from a prosperous coal mining era had seen some better days, the town seemed to be disintegrating, and the roads and sidewalks were dangerously uneven…not accessible…but the brewery was pristine. Pottsville is near a town called Hershey.  Yeungling made a Hershey Chocolate porter, on tap that was like dipping a chocolate bar into a Guinness. It was surprisingly quite good although not bottled or canned, so we couldn’t bring any home to share at Christmas!!

We finished up and headed to the Saucony Brewpub – Gastropub that was our Harvest Host stay for the night. We decided on dining in their in their restaurant. Patronizing these businesses is important to us and sometimes it is a bit more expensive than we hoped. This was the case here. Add 30% to the bill plus a tip and it is definitely more than a campsite. The food was ok, and the beer was ok, but didn’t scream have another, so we finished up and went home; a few steps away. Apparently “Gastro” Pub is an ambiguous restaurant niche.

Next day we were headed for Washington DC and as we were coming to Gettysburg, we realized this was a place we had to stop. This is where the famous Lincoln speech, the Gettysburg Address, was delivered. Dim and hazy memory knew this but what I had certainly not retained was that Gettysburg is where the civil war battle of Gettysburg turned the fate of the war from separating (Confederate – South) to staying in the Union. An overly simplified history lesson once again.

The town of Gettysburg is truly a monument to the civil war, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and all the stories that came with these leaders. The lands surrounding the town have been preserved as a military park with tours, interpretive driving route and a modern museum with a theatre, displays and the cyclorama. The cyclorama, a massive 360° circular oil on canvas painting that depicted the battle. It was researched and painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and his team in 1883. It traveled throughout the area on display for years, then in disrepair it was stored. The restoration effort seemed to be the catalyst that built the museum to house it properly. It came alive with narration, music, lights focussing on individual battles around the screen, plus a 3-dimensional foreground with narration on the points in the screen.

It was very impressive and well worth the stop, and the museum staff were very knowledgeable letting us know there were many Canadians who fought in the American Civil war. Apparently, Lincoln offered $300 to sign up with the Union army. 

It is impossible to take a photo of this so imagine being surrounded with the pained scenes of the American civil war while it has theatrical lighting and sound to drop you into the battle of Gettysburg.

Overwhelmed, we got in the truck, and headed to our campsite at Fairfax Lake Campground just outside of Washington DC, the Smithsonian, Julia Child’s kitchen and my old friend Rajeev, and only another hour to go.

But we didn’t want to leave…

As we publish this, we have added 3800km to our odometer between Montréal – mid October and Austin ,TX – mid November. We had such a great time in Europe we procrastinated in getting our European travels posted….

We bid farewell to our friends with a mixture of sympathy (for their journey back to snow engulfed Calgary on Sept 30) and celebration (for such an amazing shared experience through Cognac, the Basque regions, and, now the outskirts of Barcelona). The route we had taken to get to Barcelona sorely lacked something – A beachside accommodation! We knew something was amiss when we saw some pics from our friends Luba & Bill who took a different route than us for a few days. They had detoured along the way in St. Jean du Luz to take in the amazing coast from the comfort of a great Air B&B. Their pics had us rethinking our next stop. “The hell with staying and hiking in the mountains” (that can still happen) we need some beach time! 

Anywhere along the Mediterranean Coast, north and south of Barcelona, there is a multitude of destinations worthy of exploration. Lori and Mike had chosen Casteldelfels as their final accommodation destination (close proximity to Barcelona Airport BCN being a significant motivating factor). After researching the general area for inexpensive properties, we found Vendrell Platja on the Costa Dorada; a campground resort 50 meters from Calafell Beach. Perfect, a small cabin with kitchen, 2 bedrooms, living room, bathroom/ shower and outside deck and chairs for $80.00 CDN. It had a massive pool and playpark, restaurant, grocery store and laundry too.

We checked in and aimlessly wandered the endless paved beach path from quaint beach to quaint beach as the sun set. All this aimlessness can work up an appetite and we soon found ourselves ogling the abundance of menus presented to any hapless, half-starved wanderer within aroma reach of the strategically located restaurants at hand. “You know, we haven’t tried a Paella since we arrived in Spain”?  Like magic, as the sunset, the very place presented itself. We kicked back on the beach devising a plan of attack for the local area and Al’s wine culture fascination won out for the next days’ foray of regional, tourist interest.

The Villafranca del Penedes is home to the Taverna de Vinseum and many international Cava producers (Cordoniu, Segura de Viudas) have representation here. Parking seemed as scarce as needles in haystacks and when we did find a spot it was a king’s ransom, so we cashed in an RRSP for ½ hour and set out. Alas, after considering the $20 EU admission and the many wine related attractions we had absorbed along our journey, we passed up this attraction. We trekked through the town taking in the great post-modernist architecture and returned to the sanctuary of Vendrell. The next day, we were going for a mountain hike.

Montserrat is a study in how nature creates and inspires the human manifestation of art and by default religious reverence. It is spell binding as you approach. The distant furtive glimpses leave one slack jawed and groaning woowww! If you have seen the Hoodoos around the south-central interior of BC you have a sense of the shape of the mountain peaks in the overall massif that encompasses this formation. The scale comparison is a completely different subject. Larger, much Larger!

After winding around the precipitous, serpentine road that leads to the tourist access for the attraction, we parked and set off feeling giddy as the full multi peaked spectacle presented itself to us from the diminishing road. We noticed both train and gondola access as we snaked up that skinny road with tour busses and cyclists training for the next Tour. Thank goodness someone had the clear-headed foresight to establish a tourist center at the entrance that offers, among other indulgences, Cava! We imbibed in the spirit of the place and from the vantage point of the terrace took in the scope of what we had found here. Now what? It seemed that many found this to be enough?! We found our way to the funicular and paid the fair for a ride to the top. 

The funicular is an attraction on its own. Originally built in 1929 and regularly upgraded, the route climbs 248m to an elevation of 970m, it has a gradient of 62.5% and lasts about 6 min. With the thought of hiking at the top, we set out from the funicular terminus with the intent of hiking back to the tourist interpretive center where we started. The trail-ways were excellent with many steps cut into the stone. We caught glimpses of what looked like vertical climbing routes on adjacent peaks for those so inclined. As we walked we became cognizant of all the other trailways built into the massive. These trails were well beaten paths from all directions as part of The WAY that hikers take on their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes. The place had an ancient, mythical feeling of the human multitude that preceded us for a glimpse from the top. We continued descending past religious relics that marked significant spiritual events for Christian pilgrimages to these unusual mountainsides through the ages.

There is a monastery honouring the cave where the carving of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were found. The divinely conceived statue is now enshrined in the Basilica at the center of the village on the mountain where the hotels and services can be found.  Deb’s skeptical side was sure that the carver was never found when that Santa Maria carving was discovered in that cave. We hoped the route we chose would lead us to the monastery, but our trail of choice took us around the back of the mountain and back to the start of the funicular and the Basilica where this divine effigy presides. The line to see this important icon was intimidating with the solemn tone of the procession. Many in the line were presumably teared up with prayers for the loved and lost.  Ones immersion in surrounding religious art began to impress on your own motives (even if you are not a practicing Catholic) for the patience prevailing in the lineup. Plus, the spiritual curiosity of what an (alleged) divinely created carving looks like. We had never seen one. Unless you include the odd cheese toast that might resemble Jesus. After the innocent, unavoidable “moth to a flame” journey in the narrowing halls you get your up close and personal moment with the “La Moreneta”. Part of the lore of the statue is, with the progression of time, the darkening colour of the faces of the two Christian deities has created a unique identity to the carving that only religious devotion can make well… spiritual. Behind the bullet proof glass is the legend and you have a moment to make your introduction, ask for a miracle or two, and bid farewell. It felt anticlimactic and somehow thrilling to have been so close to the myth and legend, the experience lingered for quite a while with the unanswered questions, mostly the why questions. 

Our time in Europe was fast approaching the end and so on check out day for Vendrell Platja we headed to BCN to return our car and hit the city. We found the rental car drop off without trouble and began the final stage of our adventure in Spain without wheels. The car rental people were impressed that we had added 3500k to the odometer over the last 4 weeks.

Backpacking Europe! just like the old days. Selfie in the window near the Hotel Barbara.

We had booked into a small, inexpensive hotel in the “old city”, Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, called Hotel Barbara. This accommodation is definitely no frills but friendly, secure and location, location, location (at least as far as being at the heart of this historic city). The room we checked into was clean and the shower was quite possibly the best we used while in Europe. The staff were extremely helpful and assisted with any questions in a caring and courteous manner. This general area of the city is older and has a vibrant but edgy multicultural atmosphere. A labyrinth of old narrow streets and market squares seem to never end. We had made plans to meet up with Luba and Bill at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia which is an amazing church designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.

Awe-inspiring is the best description for this attraction. We stood agape trying to grasp the scope of the work, which by the way, was not completed when Gaudi died (as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a streetcar in 1926) and may never be completed. However, tourism is high, and those tourist funds have grown the cranes that are building the rest of the towers and facades.

For years the cranes stood still until funding was available to continue the work. Now it is a work zone as skilled artists, sculptors and trades people bring the legacy to fruition. Gaudi is buried in a crypt inside.

Artists and skilled carvers are involved with the project that will take decades to complete. Thousands of people tour this remarkable Basilica every day and by the time we arrived all tickets for that day of touring were sold out. Oh, what to do? We grabbed a street-side table, ordered Cava and waited for our friends to arrive while we sipped and stared up at the surreal structure.

We found our way to a great Tapas restaurant and enjoyed some creative dishes accompanied, of course, by more Cava the whole experience was the best way to celebrate the introduction to Barcelona.

We said buenas noches to our friends and made our way back to Hotel Barbara. But along the way we walked through the legendary evening street festivities of Las Ramblas. After the workday world and the heat of the day start to wane, this street comes alive around 9PM. There are street vendors hawking their trinkets, strategic food kiosks tempting your appetite and an endless progression of lively street restaurants for tapas, beverage, people watching et al. We absorbed the scene with a curious but overwhelmed amusement, content with the evening’s previous indulgence to carry us through.

As we meandered the Ramblas our curiosity guided us to the world of numerous market squares off the beaten track and we soon found ourselves in the familiar surroundings of narrow, old and edgier street passageways resembling those surrounding our hotel. We knew we were close to “home” and as the realization of a conclusion to this adventure filled day became more relevant, we decided a nightcap would be fitting before turning in. But what would be the perfect place – there was every possible choice of purveyor for nightcaps that can be imagined.

Magically and just before we gave up trying, a perfect venue presented itself. Licoreria Lateria is a place you read quick notes about in a tourist info “Must See Places” while you fly out of the given airport. This time we found it before the publication found us! Do you want our sommelier to recommend a flight of wine in a range of criteria? Do you want us to recommend wine by the glass? How about a bottle of just the right this or that from here or there in this colour or that colour with bubbles or no bubbles or little bubbles in the price range that suits your budget? Oh, and how about a comfy chair after walking all over finding us? Yes, we found the treasure at the end of the rainbow of a day! We chose a bottle of a most delicious Rioja, luxuriated in the cozy atmosphere and consumed the proffered spirit with appropriate hedonistic indulgence. After, within close proximity, we found our accommodation and were quickly asleep. 

Our next and final day in Barcelona was spent on and off those double-decker sightseeing buses that are in every tourist town. They are a great way to get acquainted with the various locales that interest you and we have indulged in them more than twice. In addition, they often offer great vantage points for snapping relevant picture of worthy attractions. We toured around the city passing by four of the seven Gaudi UNESCO World Heritage sites in Barcelona (Sagrada Famillia, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Casa Vincens) the hospital Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site, the hillside church and ended our tour on top of Montjuic the hill that overlooks the city from the Palau Nacional / Nacional d’ Art d’ Catalunya.

St Pau Art Nouveau – hospital that is now a university and an art piece. Our smart-phone photos don’t do it justice. Worth googling.

At the Palau we marvelled at the ornate art painted on the cupola, the exhibitions on display and the vast Great Hall that is used for concerts and other performances. We meandered to a quiet tree covered concession that sold an icy cold beverage, sat and enjoyed the view and slowly walked down and into the city to find some dinner. Favouring the out of the way restaurants we found a promising purveyor of all things tapas and enjoyed a reasonably priced meal with little pretense. With the final day concluded in this historic city, we felt we had seen and experienced many aspects that others would turn their backs on but the edgy features enhanced our experience, enriching it with more visceral moments (especially the evening forays into sections that didn’t feel like the path most commonly chosen). We were never in any tense situations and the atmosphere was more festive than sinister but…

We hopped a train out of “Barcelona” for Sitges the next morning. Sitges is south down the coast about 40 Km. It is a pleasant artsy town with a penchant for zombies. In fact, they host a long running Zombie Walk with over 1000 participants, that is attended by at least two generations of zombies. The horror film festival is the main attraction here, is into its 52nd year and draws thousands to its movie presentations and related festivities. The zombie walk was being held on the first night of our stay and we found ourselves right in the middle of it all while meeting our friends Luba and Bill for dinner. The costumes and makeup were impressive, with professional makeup stations set up around the city throughout the day and the polished art of zombie walk was, well positively ghoulish! We had a great dinner while taking in the finale of the parade and went back to our accommodation. We had a rooftop apartment for four nights, a block from the beach that had a great location but also was central to some raucous parties that, no doubt, were celebrating the famous film fest. 

Our stay in Sitges was great. We visited at Luba and Bill’s seaside accommodation on a couple of occasions. They were a ½ hour walk down the beach from us with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. The town of Sitges was very picturesque and walking the streets was always fascinating. We managed to hit