Not “On the Road”, but Travelling Again

I vowed to write no more blogs.   But when I thought about how we could communicate some thoughts and pictures from our recent trip, this seemed the easiest way.   Rather than start a new blog, and risk setting a precedent, I used the old one which was less work.

Since travelogues are inherently boring to others I will confine my comments to a few random thoughts.   These are basically for a family and friends who like this sort of stuff.  As background, we decided that we should see some new places, our of reach of the trailer, and also try “cruises” in case we liked them.   In essence … we did, and luckily we missed the February extreme cold.

Rail to Windsor, Ontario, taxi to Detroit, and a cheap flight to Vegas.  Always a fun town, but more expensive that in earlier times.  After a couple of days in Paris (Las Vegas), a good show and excellent meals, another cheap flight to Long Beach, California. (See footnote). Overnight there on the old Queen Mary, which was like sleeping in a museum.  Extraordinary.  Taxi to the cruise dock and off to Mexico, Costa Rica, and through the Panama Canal to Columbia and Miami.

Norwegian Cruise Lines was first-rate, with excellent shows, and they were obsessed with clean hands.   Reassuring.   An older crowd, but good fun and interesting stops.   But the organized tours add a lot to the overall costs of cruises.   In Cabo San Lucas we found one answer: a little old boat for a cheap wander around the local sights.  The motor was intermittent, but the captain remained optimistic.  He only got fuel after we had paid.  We did manage to catch the ship departure.

In Costa Rica we risked a private minibus tour, which took us to places that the official “tour buses” could not reach.  The white faced monkeys reminded me of someone, but I could not quite recall who.   It came to me later, when I looked in a mirror.

The Panama Canal was fascinating, with a couple of feet on each side to challenge the locomotives that pull the enormous ship through the locks.   Cartagena, Columbia was full of history, vendors, tourists and heat, but most interesting.  We were pleased that Bolivar put an end to the inquisition around 1811.  To photograph the dressed up fruit vendors was a $2.00 charge, so Elaine bought a $1.00 banana and we got a photograph anyway.  How cheap can you get?

Norwegian docked in Miami dead on time, and we rented a car for a laundromat visit, haircut for John, and lunch.  Then on to Costa for a cruise through the Caribbean islands  This (larger) ship was like being in Europe. Less hand-washing than Norwegian, but rigorous lifeboat drill, which is, of course, based on history.    Costa had outstanding Italian-themed food and a cosmopolitan collection of shipmates.  The first intimation of this was when I met a black woman, and we spoke in French.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“France”.

“Whereabouts in France?

“Guadaloupe.”

Most of the black people on board were from Guadeloupe, which is a “Department” of France.   Our visit there was a highlight, and strange to find oneself in a French environment with “first world” smooth roads and infrastructure,  Then the woman asked me:          “Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“You don’t have a Canadian accent … I can actually understand you!”.

Also on the ship I met a man from Birmingham, and I asked him what Britain was like these days.   In a rich Midlands accent he replied:  “Oh … not what it was … too many people coming in from places like Turkey and Bulgaria.”    Since his parents were from Pakistan, I found this to be a strange comment.

Costa was a lot of fun, and on “Italian night” the staff marched around to Grand Opera music with cakes and sparklers and distributed free champagne.  Elaine danced with our waiter, and then joined the Conga line round the restaurant.  Amazing.

OK … not a travelogue … just some impressions.  And yes, both Elaine and I swam in the sea in Antigua.   Marvellous!   A few random pictures follow.

John … with editing and comments from Elaine.

Footnote:  We avoid big airports, early departures, late arrivals, buses and other forms of torture as much as possible.  This results in interesting routings, but often major savings.

Gordon Ramsay has taken over the Arc de Triomph

Gordon Ramsay has taken over the Arc de Triomph

Champagne and Chocolate Strawberries on the Queen Mary (This is a mirror shot, which worked).

Champagne and Chocolate Strawberries on the Queen Mary (This is a mirror shot, which worked).

Setting off from Long Beach.  The adjacent container ship is a Stephen Harper nightmare.

Setting off from Long Beach. The adjacent container ship is a Stephen Harper nightmare.

 

Very smelly sea lions at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Very smelly sea lions at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

 

Seen one parrot, seen them all.  But this is a Puerto Vallarta parrot, and he thinks he is special.

Seen one parrot, seen them all. But this is a Puerto Vallarta parrot, and he thinks he is special.

 

Costa Rica - White Faced Monkey waiting for a banana treat

Costa Rica – White Faced Monkey waiting for a banana treat

Entering the Panama Canal.  Will it fit?

Entering the Panama Canal. Will it fit?

Flowers everywhere in Cartagena, Columbia

Flowers everywhere in Cartagena, Columbia

 

Fruit Vendors in Cartagena -- Elaine with her one-dollar banana.

Fruit Vendors in Cartagena — Elaine with her one-dollar banana.

 

Larger than life in Key West -- outside the museum

Larger than life in Key West — outside the museum

Costa to the Caribbean, and the food was fantastic

Costa to the Caribbean, and the food was fantastic

 

British Virgin Islands and a visit to the market

British Virgin Islands and a visit to the market

Antigua ... and yes, John really did swim in the sea.

Antigua … and yes, John really did swim in the sea.

Guadaloupe - Pointe de Chateau

Guadaloupe – Pointe de Chateau

 

The coast of Guadeloupe is stunningly beautiful.

The coast of Guadeloupe is stunningly beautiful.

 

Sunset from the aft deck of the Costa Mediterranea as we left Freeport, Bahamas.

Sunset from the aft deck of the Costa Mediterranea as we left Freeport, Bahamas.

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Weather, Bad Tires and a Really Bad Dog

Magnificent Site in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Magnificent Site in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

I am writing this at the tail-end of our final trip with our trailer.  It is not being “published” until now, but this writing is the sort of activity that suits a heavy thunderstorm, with threats of tornados here and there, in rural Mississippi.   Trace Park, near Tupelo, and the weather supposed to improve.   In this series of retrospectives, bad weather features often.   I have been digging into old Christmas letters, and other material in my archives, and apologize to those who feel that they may have read this before.   Again, mainly the tribulations, since good news is even more boring.    If all the tales of woe put you off the “RV life”, I should mention that it was nearly all fun, and we will miss it.

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend Park

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend Park

This is different from other postings since the pictures are not relevant to the text.  Rather than show depressing images of snow and mud, I have put in a few of our “happy pictures”, showing some of the beautiful places we visited during the past 15 years of travels. If you want to enlarge the pictures, just click on them.  This rather long post concludes the fifteen enjoyable years of “John and Elaine on the Road”.

Our First Visit to Tucson, Arizona

Our First Visit to Tucson, Arizona

We really started 2001 in the dying days of 2000, and we came close to expiring ourselves, of frostbite.  The snow started in November, and by Christmas it was formidably deep.    Undaunted we carved a small trench through to the trailer door and loaded up to our usual astonishing degree.   Maybe the weight is what did the tires in … but that’s later!     Still exhausted from Christmas we hitched up the van, determined to get out before the next blizzard.   Not being well organized, it was afternoon before we dug everything out and slid down the hill.

We had the whole of White Rock, Arizona site to ourselves.

We had the whole of White Rock, Arizona site to ourselves.

As darkness fell, we were approaching London (that’s the one in Ontario), and we realized anew that weather forecasting is an inexact art.  The overnight snow started falling early, and the visibility deteriorated.   We decided that London would be a good motel stop, unaware that London does not have many motels that accept dogs:  it’s that kind of town!     Like fools we headed down Highway 402 towards the American border in the snow.    When the truck 30 feet ahead of us started to disappear in the snow, and the “Highway Closed” signs appeared, we took an exit, and then in the sky was the ultimate vision:   “Motel”  “Vacancy”.    Heroically we backed the trailer into a corner of their snow-field, and hit the office.  The man was awfully nice, had a room, and explained kindly that the whole motel was allergy free:  i.e. no dogs!   He suggested leaving Boris in the car, but we love Boris, and clearly he would be no hot-dog in minus 25C temperatures.   With a sigh we turned on the furnace in the trailer, and left him there.  He was lonely, and did not seem to appreciate that over $15 of propane was needed to keep him warm overnight.

North Padre Island, TX.   Tow out of soft sand

North Padre Island, TX.
Tow out of soft sand

Could things get worse?  Of course!   The snow had almost stopped so we headed for the freeway anew.   It was still closed.    Undaunted we prowled the back roads, and crawled slowly down to the American border, where the US immigration guy seemed to welcome us.  After all, with the freeway closed he didn’t have much other business!  We reassured him that our avocado was not grown in Canada!!

Our Bigger Motor Home. On the Galveston Ferry

Our Bigger Motor Home.
On the Galveston Ferry

It remained extremely cold through Michigan, and then in Indiana it got colder, and snowed again.   “Never mind,” I said, “it’s bound to get warmer in Kentucky.”   It did: staggered up to an astonishing –10C.   Quite balmy, so we turned out the antifreeze (from the trailer plumbing) and turned on the heat.    The sewage end of things was frozen solid, but this confident idiot felt that once we hit Mississippi it would be warm and all would be well.

Dawn in the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend National Park

Dawn in the Chisos Mountains.
Big Bend National Park

I digress a moment to mention that around Kentucky we called home for phone messages.   The guy looking after our house was a bit excited:  our central heating was not working and things were looking desperate.  I would love to provide details, but suffice to say that it was my fault, and I did suggest how it might be fixed.    The biggest problem was that the Kentucky pay phone was outside (it always being warm in the south, right?), and my fingers kept freezing on to the metal numbers.

View from Trace State Park site. Near Tupelo, Mississippi

View from Trace State Park site.
Near Tupelo, Mississippi

Tupelo, Mississippi is where Elvis Presley was born.   There was a big picture of him on the door of the toilet in the campground.  (Many years later, our trailer toilet died in Tupelo, and I blamed Elvis). Fortunately there was a toilet in the campground, since ours was still frozen and it was still around –10C.  We headed south in quiet desperation.  Now Fiona had a lady working with her who lived for many years in Natchez … right at the southern end of Mississippi.   She had told us that it was always warm and never snowed there.    The highway maintenance people believed this too, which is why they didn’t buy any kind of snow-moving equipment or sanders.

Elaine's Purposeful Attack. Golf at Fort Clark, Texas

Elaine’s Purposeful Attack.
Golf at Fort Clark, Texas

I will add one bright spot to this saga of woe:  since nobody in Natchez under the age of 15 had ever seen snow (unless they were rich and went skiing), all the kids in town turned out to build snowmen and throw snowballs.    Meantime it stayed below freezing and the exit-plumbing remained an impressively solid block of ice.

 

Mondavi Winery Napa Valley, Calfornia

Mondavi Winery
Napa Valley, Calfornia

OK … let’s go over the bridge into Louisiana and south of here!   Ended the day in Kinder, just north of the Gulf of Mexico.   The next morning it was a balmy +2C.   The plumbing unfroze in the nick of time!   “Why are we sitting in a pond?” asked Elaine.  “It’s the Ontario snow on the roof,” I replied, “it’s finally admitting defeat.

Deer at Fort Clark, Texas

Deer at Fort Clark, Texas

Down to Rockport and Corpus Christi.  It rained, and stayed cold, though admittedly just above freezing.   We took a boat tour to see the whooping cranes, and did go on deck for a few moments to see these rare birds.  The boat heating was not great, but it was better than outside.    Everybody we met lamented the record-breaking cold, and blamed Canada.   We headed south again to Falcon Lake on the Rio Grande.   It rained, and was cold with sleet.   Faced with the choice of going south into Mexico, with some complications for our insurance, we decided to head west.     It rained as far as the little town of Bracketville, Texas,  and by this time we were in cactus country … very sad looking cacti dripping with rain.   In case you don’t know, deserts are sandy, but that’s misleading.  When it rains they become mud.  Deep, awe-inspiring mud that threatens to swallow men, women, horses, dogs … and of course all varieties of recreational and other vehicles.  Our trailer was completely painted with brown sludge.   That’s when I noticed we had collected a flat tire.

Fort Clark, Texas. A Creek Runs Through It

Fort Clark, Texas.
A Creek Runs Through It

“No problem”, said a tough old bird from Indiana with a 35-foot fifth-wheel.   Pull ‘er up to the hard-standing there and I’ll get your wheel off with my “half moon”.   Don’t ask, it would take too long to explain.  It was academic anyway, since the van couldn’t get any traction in the mud, and bogged down in an impressive hole.   But next door were some horsemen.   They had a 40-foot horse trailer which even had a working wood-stove inside it!   Unfortunately they hadn’t yet bought the horses, so we had to make do with their enormous V-10 diesel pickup with ten wheels and all-wheel drive.    By this point we had attracted quite a crowd, who stood well back and thought they were attending a mud-wrestling match.   Everyone cheered when it all came unglued, and eventually we got the puncture fixed:  it was all caused by a flint that I think was an old Indian arrowhead.  Some kind of revenge, perhaps.    The second tire did not give out until we reached Alpine, Texas, and that’s where we also had the dirtiest job of the whole trip!

Bare Bones Landscape Texas

Bare Bones Landscape
Texas

Now Alpine is not the hub of Western Civilization.   As its lone radio station proclaims:  “AM 1430 Alpine … the voice of the last frontier”.   The tire place proved to be in one of the more inaccessible spots in “downtown Alpine”, but we managed to get in … and, more importantly, out again.   Still mad about the tire, I yanked the black water valve too hard, and broke it.   Now for those who don’t know, recreational vehicles have a tank of fresh water, a tank for “grey water” from the sinks and shower, and a tank for “black water”, which is best not discussed in detail.

Elaine Exercising by the Las Moras Creek at Fort Clark

Elaine Exercising by the Las Moras Creek at Fort Clark

There is no RV repair place within 120 miles of Alpine, but the local hardware store had a valve.   All I needed was a 7/16 inch wrench (spanner for the English types).   Bought the last one in the store, and then found I needed two.   The nearest place was … you guessed it … 120 miles away in Fort Stockton.    Trolling around the “Lost Alaskan” campground (I think he got lost!) I borrowed the right wrench, and then had the fun of getting into the worst part of the whole trailer!

"The Window" Chisos Basin Big Bend. Texas

“The Window” Chisos Basin
Big Bend. Texas

South of Alpine is Big Bend … really 120 miles further from places where you can buy valves and wrenches, so I supposed it could have been worse.  Nothing really bad happened in Big Bend this year … or rather … the javolinas ate the supplies of the tent campers, as usual!    But then we went to the Davis Mountains.    Beautiful deer came right to our door.   Boris took one lunge, broke his collar, and chased the deer into the far, far mountains.   No tag, no collar, no sense, and in an area filled with coyotes, javolinas and the odd cougar.     We put out the word with rangers, camp hosts, etc., but he did not come back, and that was likely the end of the road for Boris.

Javolinas at Chisos Basin Big Bend National Park, TX

Javolinas at Chisos Basin
Big Bend National Park, TX

The following morning, around 8.a.m. we heard a “wuff”, and a ranger told us very sternly that we should keep our dog on a leash in a State Park.

Boris -- He came back.

Boris — He came back.

Poor old Boris was in a dreadful state:  covered in cactus spines, and weary beyond credence.   He knew we were camped near the toilet building (with a light), but had gone to the wrong campground and shivered outside the toilet there all night!   “Do you think he’s learned,” I asked Elaine.  “No chance,” she answered, “he’ll be off as soon as he breaks the next leash or rope.”  Except he won’t find it so easy.  Got him a Great Dane collar (had to cut it down a lot!),  and we tied him up on a steel cable.

Back in Canada Lake Huron Beach

Back in Canada
Lake Huron Beach

On the way home, I got an abscess under a tooth.   As the weather deteriorated, so did my toothache.   When we got within about 200 miles I’d had it, and asked Louise to look up what it says about dental work in the health insurance book.   “Up to US$300 for emergency pain relief,” she said “-you’re OK, so long as you’re more than 300 miles from home.”   So Elaine caught the brunt of the driving for the last 200 miles … as the snow came down sideways and horizontally across Highway 401, the busiest freeway in Canada.   But she doggedly stuck to the slow lane, and then we came to the last stretch.    The wind picked up to minor hurricane levels, and the trailer kept fishtailing sideways on the ice.   Finally we climbed the last hill into Elora … well … all but the last 20 feet.   Elaine went out and shoveled old road grit, I cursed the tooth, the weather, and fate.  Darn it … 20 feet … after thousands of miles!    Oh, I forgot to mention  … the tooth needed a root canal job, but it was reasonably straightforward and I negotiated a good price!

Cape Croker, Ontario View from our camp site

Cape Croker, Ontario
View from our camp site

We did have some fun in the summer too.  Camping at the Cape Croker Indian reserve on Georgian Bay it was hot and humid, and a really massive storm came through just after supper.   The wind howled and it rained buckets.   Trees came down, tents flew, but most of them got caught in trees rather than going in the lake.  This was fortunate for the baby inside one of the tents, who turned out to be OK.   Most impressive of all, the kayaks and canoes flew as well, wiping out bits of motor-boats on their journeys.   I have honestly never before seen a canoe flying upside down at about 20 feet altitude!    The power went out, but this didn’t bother us because we were running on batteries … at least until we went to re-fill our water tank, and found the whole area had electrically pumped water.  One disgruntled camper with a huge motor-home asked Joyce, the Indian lady at the office: “What kind of operation are you people running?”   Joyce did not miss a beat and replied: “We have a state-of-the-art computer system and water supply, sir, but we people are at the mercy of the power grid.  When the white men get the power fixed, we “people” will have water again.”   He stamped off, and Joyce and I had a good laugh at his misfortunes.

Dogwoods on the Natchez Trace, MS.

Dogwoods on the Natchez Trace, MS.

For those who need reassurances, we had a super year in 2001.  We discovered the Natchez Trace which is 440 miles of uninterrupted parkway with zero trucks and maximum scenery.  We also discovered that the coastal route, via a long ferry ride (free) into Galveston missed Houston altogether.  Hooray.   We saw the whooping cranes twice, but the real wildlife treat of the trip was this huge dog we saw while driving near the campground – at least as big as a deerhound.   Then it moved, and Elaine said, “it’s not a dog, it’s a cat!  What is it?”.   It could only be a cougar, and I mentioned the sighting to the camp ranger.

“Yup,” he said, “it’s a swamp cougar … ‘bout 90 pounds.  We saw it yesterday.”

“What’s the difference between a swamp cougar and a mountain lion,” I asked.

“Ain’t no difference, ‘cept we got no mountains round here, so we calls ‘em swamp cougars.   By the way,” he continued, “where did it go?”

Cougar Cub Print (We did not see Mom!)

Cougar Cub Print
(We did not see Mom!)

“Into someone’s back yard,” I said.

“Hey,” chuckled the ranger, “someone’s going to get a mighty big surprise when they let their little kitty out!”

“This is true,” I replied, “but not half as big a surprise as when they call their kitty back in!”    He explained that people who build houses next to Wildlife Preserves have to take their chances!   After all, this is Texas!

This is also the year we discovered Fort Clark, the Davis Mountains State Park, and rafted down the Rio Grande.  Since then we have spent a lot of time in that area of West Texas, and saved a lot of driving to far away Arizona.

Rare Desert Rainbow Big Bend, Texas

Rare Desert Rainbow
Big Bend, Texas

This is it … the end.   Just a few of the happier pictures to conclude some memorable trips  We were privileged to have so much sheer pleasure, and to visit so many out-of-the-way and beautiful places.  Our enjoyment exceeded our expectations, and you really cannot improve on that.

John … with corrections by Elaine

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The First Long Trip

This is another look back to our early days on the road, and again I am only documenting what went wrong.  If you want to look at all the wonderful places we visited, try Google.  If you are tempted to travel south in winter with a trailer, read this first.    Appropriate pictures have been a challenge, but I am indebted to my daughter Louise, who dug up some snow scenes, and also to Casey Palmer, who graciously allowed me to use his excellent picture from his own blog.  He is well worth visiting:   http://caseypalmer.com

January 2nd 1999 was our planned departure date, weather permitting.   The previous night it snowed … and snowed … and snowed.

Not a Good Driving Day

Not a Good Driving Day

The roads were blocked, doom-laden warnings pervaded the airwaves, and our snow shovel was interred without trace.    The next day it snowed again.    By Monday, January 4th, the snow eased, the temperature plummeted, the wind picked up, and the weather channel warned of “white-outs”, ice, and more snow on its way.   Meanwhile the village plough had cleared the road, and buried most of the trailer.    We left by about 3.p.m., assuming that things could only get worse.    They did, and by the end of the week Toronto had closed the schools, banks and subway (underground … but unfortunately not entirely!), and called out the army.   But I digress.

Seriously Deep Snow

Seriously Deep Snow

After some very careful driving through blowing snow, we reached the U.S. border at Sarnia, which was where we found that our umbilical had become dislodged.  (For those without trailer experience, that’s the cable that connects all the lights and things).   It had dragged on the ground, and quite worn through some of its multiple wires.   Since by then it was dark, we pulled into the Sarnia Holiday Inn, which had a ploughed car park, and spent our first week’s cash allowance there.   The next week’s cash allowance went towards the new umbilical and the fellows who fixed it.   Then it dropped even colder.

 

Through Michigan and into Indiana the temperature fell slowly but surely down to –15F (all temperatures are in Fahrenheit, since we were in the USA by then, where metrication is a dirty word for many!).   Night fell, the Interstate became icy, and littered with wrecks of large trucks and many more cars.    At the first opportunity we crawled up an off-ramp, and found a motel.   “I wouldn’t go down there,” said Elaine, “there’s nowhere to park.”   She was right:  the truck parking was beyond a fence.

Not Good Camping Weather

Not Good Camping Weather

Sheet ice, and a challenging reversing job.   Elaine was directing, and darn near froze.  (The wind had picked up).   We eventually escaped, and actually found a motel nearby with room to park.  The adjacent trucks ran their big diesels all night, since, as most people know, diesels are hard to start when the temperature drops below –10F.   But the motel did take dogs and also allowed trailer  parking.  No way would we sleep in the trailer at those temperatures, even if some insane fool had left a trailer site open.   The third week’s cash allowance was gobbled up.

 

 

Where Are We Now?

Where Are We Now?

Other than some more ice, snow, wind and wicked temperatures, we trundled uneventfully into Alabama, where all the experts said we would find some “above-freezing weather”.    It was actually around 35F, but all the taps were frozen but one, most of the trees were down because of an ice-storm, and their power had just come back after a week’s outage.   Most of the groceries and water in the trailer had thawed a bit, and that’s when we discovered that the best place to keep things from freezing on really cold days is inside the fridge.

 

It Even Snowed in Mississippi

It Even Snowed in Mississippi

Since we were now a long way south, we decided to keep going that way, and it did in fact warm up a bit once we hit New Orleans.   We had a nice site by a bayou, which is a kind of tidal swamp.   We were warned about the alligators and the fire ants, but that night’s frost likely deterred them a bit.     If you have a map, you will see that driving from Toronto, Ontario to Tucson, Arizona does not take you anywhere close to New Orleans, so we had to do some serious driving westwards before we hit … wonder of wonders … the desert State Park in Columbus, New Mexico.    This is where Boris-The-Dog learned that a prickly pear is not a tree.   Later he learned, also the hard way, that staying on the trail in a desert is much the best plan.   Elaine also learned this in Tucson, and that carrying a comb is a good idea for removing chunks of jumping cholla from dogs and parts of one’s person.

 

Elaine Dangerously Close to Jumping Cholla

Elaine Dangerously Close to Jumping Cholla

The rest of the trip, and in fact the rest of the year, was only a series of isolated misfortunes, interspersed with minor bad news of various kinds.

“What time do we have to arrive to get a site in that nice State Park?”   “They say about 7 a.m. should do it”.

“Why doesn’t Boris want to go for a walk tonight  in the desert?”  “Go outside and listen to the coyotes … not totally dumb, our Boris!”

Organpipe Cactus near Ajo, Arizona

Organpipe Cactus near Ajo, Arizona

“It’s a bit humid today.”     “No it’s not.  It’s just hot.  87F according to the guy in the next site, but he says that this is unusual for January.”

“We’ll have to stay another day –there’s a sandstorm and a wind warning for ‘high-profile vehicles’”.  “But we need water and groceries.”

“Why is the trailer battery almost flat?”    “The heater motor takes too many amps and it was cold last night.”

Boris With His Coat of Many Colours

Boris With His Coat of Many Colours

“We need a coat for Boris if we don’t have the heater at night.”  “He’s got a coat, but he’s still cold!”

“Where did the stopper go for the hot-water bottle?”  [in Elora, Canada!].   “Where’s the nearest hardware store?”  “About 100 miles north.”

Javolinas Eat Small Dogs

Javolinas Eat Small Dogs

“What’s Boris barking at?”    It was at a herd of javolinas advancing on him for their dinner.   These funny animals look like small pigs, but have fur, smell like skunks, and act like raccoons.   They are not afraid of coyotes, let alone a small schnauzer.   Campers in tents positively hate them!

 

On our return to Elora we found the ploughed snow had formed large ice-banks, and it really needed a bulldozer to get the trailer backed in.    Then the pipes from half the house were blocked, frozen, or something.   This took a day or three to fix.

In summary, a terrific trip and great fun, in spite of the above.  We resolved to escape winter the following year, and this trip had its own challenges.     Details to come.

 

John, with comments and edits from Elaine as usual.

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Where It All Began

We have come to the end of our strange wanderings with trailers and motor homes, but I have been persuaded to add some retrospectives, so the blog becomes part of the “family folklore” and might entertain the odd other person.

While I did not start this blog until several years after we entered the RV world, I did write about some of our early days “on the road” in a series of Christmas letters to family and friends.   These were intended as an antidote to those letters that documented perfect lives, well-behaved children, and wonderful vacations.  So I documented some of the “bad things” that happened, knowing that most people revel in the misfortunes of others.   Not tragic events of course, and as I had to point out later, we actually had some great times, among the minor disasters.  These are some extracts about those early days on the road, with some pictures that were originally on real film (remember those days?).  However that first year there were few pictures, so there are just a few general shots to illustrate this entry.   More later when we went further afield.

1998 — The Year Of The Trailer

Good Weather for RV Shopping

Good Weather for RV Shopping

Our first experience of a house trailer (or caravan as the English and Gypsies call it) started in January in Orangeville, as far from orange trees as could be imagined.   The tops of a hundred or so trailers and motor-homes, generally known as RVs, peeked out of the snowdrifts and the wind roared in from the Arctic with a vengeance.   A group of salesmen gathered round our old van, hardly daring to believe that there might be a “prospect”.   The largest salesmen elbowed the others aside, and with a smile as wide as the gap in his fleece-lined hood, said: “Hi, I’m Dave.  Come inside and have a coffee while we discuss your needs.

To digress, Moscow gets all the publicity, but in winter, Canada is actually much colder, most of the time.   We suited up and waded through half-ploughed paths to a lost and lonely corner of the field.  It took five minutes to chip the ice off the door, but eventually we entered a dark cave that resembled a butcher’s freezer.   When we returned to the sales shed and brushed the ice off our eyebrows, we felt so sorry for Dave that we bought the thing.  Deposit down, balance in April when it could be dug out.

Wintry Wasteland for Our First Trailer

Wintry Wasteland for Our First Trailer

Although this was only a 22 foot “tag-along” trailer, we needed a bigger and stronger van.   You think haggling for a trailer is lengthy?  Try a new van –also in January when sales people have nothing else to do but sell you ‘options’ and negotiate.   Since we knew we would be pulling a trailer, we agreed on the heavy duty alternator, and the ‘weight distributing tow package’.    Back to the trailer supplier to talk with their ‘technical type’.   “Hmmm, Hummmm,” he hummed, like Winnie-the-Pooh round a beehive.   “You’ve only got a receiver;  the hitch is extra –shouldn’t be more than three hundred.   Oh-oh –you’ll need a brake controller for those electric brakes.  Best you get that from the van supplier.”   The van people mumbled about umbilicals and such, eventually talked to the trailer guy, and told me how much more it would all cost.

April finally came, and we waded through the mud to pick up our new pride and joy.   After a compressed course on compressed gas dangers, hitch hazards, electrical exotics and a plethora of plumbing, we cautiously drove it home.   Lest you think that there really was zero good news in 1998, we got our first break.   Jim, the guy opposite, drove tractor-trailers –the enormous ones.  He directed me (between chuckles) as I reversed the trailer on to our front lawn, which was the only place to put the beast.  Most of the other neighbours turned out to watch (covering their ears of course), and in fact did not tire of this activity until mid-summer, when I achieved a modest measure of competence.    I did suggest that they all pay a dollar ‘amusement tax’.  They pointed out that it was ‘marginal’ from a zoning viewpoint to park a 22-foot trailer on a front lawn, and I should count myself dam’ lucky that they didn’t file an objection with the Village.  I invited them all into the trailer for a beer, and said there should be no more talk of such matters!

Aboyne Linen and Lace Show Booth

Aboyne Linen and Lace Show Booth

We trailed around various antique shows, lost the dog a couple of times, and survived bugs, heat, hail and gales and just missed a tornado.  August came and we went on our first holiday with the trailer.   A week near Parry Sound on Georgian Bay (Lake Huron), with the grandchildren who were then around 10 years old.   Louise joined us in her tent.

Boris Loved The Trailer

Boris Loved The Trailer

Idyllic spot on a lake, and this time we had a ‘plug-in’ so we could use the air conditioner against the heat.  Awning out, barbecue steaks and a bottle of good California Cabernet Sauvignon.    Happy family!   This is the life … until about 7 a.m. Sunday morning … the traditional time for hell to break loose.   Wind, rain, lightning and continuous thunder.   Elaine and I grabbed the minimum of decent clothing and shot out of the trailer.   Louise came out of her tent in some sort of night attire, and we all wrestled with the awning, which was threatening to turn the whole works into a hang glider.    Elaine got the wrong end of the awning as it tipped … 20 gallons of water over her.     When we could draw a breath we found the whole site in a foot of water, and realized we had just missed our second tornado of the year.   The grandsons watched through the window and were agog … and nearly died laughing.

We Did Reach Arizona

We Did Reach Arizona

I won’t bore you with the ‘day the fridge broke’ or the ‘day the gas leaked’.  These are just routine incidents in the “Year Of The Trailer”.  We’ve never had so much fun!    Then came winter, and we bravely decided to hitch up the trailer and head for Arizona … land of deserts, cacti, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders and bark scorpions.

 

Enough for one posting –the first long trip had its own tribulations.  Stay tuned.

 

John (and Elaine – the long-suffering traveling wife).

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Forever Spring

Hundreds of Miles of Roadside Flowers

Hundreds of Miles of Roadside Flowers

No adventures this time.  Just our last journey with the “camper trailer” from Fort Clark, Texas, through “Middle America” to home in Fergus, Ontario.  We allowed several weeks, since the journey is part of our escape from Winter.

Bluebonnets and Firewheels

Bluebonnets and Firewheels

Elaine says I should call this a “floral journey” since we do indeed see some breathtaking blooms along the way.   I am not a botanist, and about as far away from horticulture as I can run.  But my more empathetic wife points out that others who read this blog love flowers, and I will reluctantly admit that flowers, both wild and tamed, beat bare trees, brown grass and frozen ponds.

Mountain Laurel in Fort Clark

Mountain Laurel in Fort Clark

Fort Clark is not the floral capital of Texas, but the trees were bright green, and the mountain laurels were in bloom as we left.

YuccaVarious cacti, including the yuccas were showing off.    The first portion of our route takes us north on a winding but passable road with fantastic rugged scenery.   Then I stop looking at flowers, and focus ahead for the cloud of smoke which hovers over Junction … aptly named because several roads meet there, and there is an enormous car park.  Not much else in Junction, but it is home for the original Cooper’s Barbecue House, with massive piles of mesquite logs and several garage-sized smokers.   Dining there requires tolerance, as the eyes of many stuffed deer heads gaze down on the pine tables and eclectic mix of bikers, truckers, bemused RV folk and other tourists.  The sprinkling of obviously poor people reflects the prices, which are very reasonable.   But it is one of those diners that feature on TV shows, since the smoked brisket and ribs are world-class.

Decoration for Most Hill Country Roads

Decoration for Most Hill Country Roads

Eastward through the enchanted Texas Hill Country, with a sea of bluebonnets and other wildflowers which, to be honest, is why we chose this route.   The flowers follow the roadsides all the way home, but this stretch is nature’s majesty at its best.   Photographs and even videos cannot capture the glory of these magical carpets of flowers, all the better for being entirely wild.

Azaleas in S. Mississippi

Azaleas in S. Mississippi

Through Louisiana, and into southern Mississippi the flowers become more “tamed” with banks of azaleas, towering magnolias, and other southern beauties, especially around Port Gibson.   General Grant who was notorious for torching southern towns at the end of the U.S. Civil War, spared Port Gibson, allegedly because it was “too pretty to burn”.

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Wisteria Were Magnificent

Wisteria Were Magnificent

Amazing this year in Louisiana and Mississippi were the wild wisteria, which reached high into the sky around trees that perhaps did not welcome this vine.

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The Natchez Trace has featured many times in this blog, but it remains one of our favourite routes, running over 400 miles for the length of Mississippi, a wedge of Alabama, and into Tennessee.  This is a Federal Parkway, following the old trail (or Trace) that pre-steam boatmen walked back from the Mississippi port of Natchez, all the way to Tennessee to build new rafts and float more goods south on the rivers before doing it all over again.   The route became redundant when steam could take boats upstream, but it has been re-created as a magnificent two-lane highway.    50 mph speed limit, no commercial vehicles, no development for about a mile either side, and for its whole length you have the “right of way” over or under the highways, railways and rivers with only nature for company.

One of the Thousands of Natchez Trace Dogwoods

One of the Thousands of Natchez Trace Dogwoods

The wild dogwoods are legendary on the Natchez Trace, as well as many other blossoms and roadside flowers.   The daffodils and tulips give way to summer flowers n the South as April moves along, but these surface again in further north in Kentucky and Indiana.

Easter Sunday on Lake Huron at Pinery

Easter Sunday on Lake Huron at Pinery

We consider ourselves “privileged” to have several times experienced “Endless Fall” on our way down, and coming back we really enjoy a journey which is “Forever Spring”.

Amazing Easter Weather on Lake Huron

Amazing Easter Weather on Lake Huron

Appropriately we ended up on Easter Sunday at Pinery Provincial Park, and miraculously it was warm enough for a walk on the Lake Huron beach –a fitting welcome back to Ontario.

Now, it is all over!   Our trailer is emptied and ready for sale, and we are looking forward to seeing different places next year.   But this is definitely our last year “On The Road”, so logically the end of this blog.   However I have been persuaded (forcibly) to complete the tale of our years on the road with a look back on some of the more memorable moments, emphasizing the ones that were more amusing than others.  This mainly for family, but others might just be mildly interested.

Wonderful Winter Home

Wonderful Winter Home

John, with suggestions and help from Elaine

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Swarms In Unlikely Places

I said I would not document our journey back to Canada unless something “different” happened. Apart from a near miss from a tornado (which is quite common in the mid-South), we encountered swarms –not of killer bees, but of cyclists, cubs, and more cyclists.

We like out-of-the-way spots, and Fort Clark, in West Texas is such. As mentioned in other postings, it is a rather quaint old military base, dating back to the mid-1800s. We like the space (2,700 acres), the stream with water-lilies, Par-3 golf course, and quiet RV park with some friendly folk that we know well. In the main area by the office is a picnic pavilion, king-size “smoker”, and a patch of scrubby grass and dirt.

Like Mushrooms - 200 Tents

Like Mushrooms – 200 Tents

Then, one lunch-time some cars and trucks arrived with half-a-down young workers, who erected 40 matching tents. They were the advance crew for a bunch of older cyclists (men and women both with an average age of 65) who were on a little trip … from San Diego, California to Saint Augustine, Florida. Ask me not why, since it was almost 90F with a head wind, and frankly, not my idea of fun. The catering truck arrived and cooked the evening meal, the cyclists arrived, ate the meal and sank on to their air-mattresses in the tents. The next day they headed out at the crack of dawn, the crew took down all the tents and stowed everything in the truck, the chuck-wagon truck packed everything up, and by noon, Fort Clark was back to its usual sleepy self. The crew went ahead to the next planned stop and apparently did it all again. Strange, but no problem. It added interest, and, let’s face it, they were not as noisy as motor-cyclists!

A week later we were trundling East through Texas, and came to a nice quiet State Park on a bayou arm of a lovely lake. Fortunately we like children, and with over 400 little Cub-Scouts from Houston, it was not as quiet as we expected. But they were good, had fun, canoed and fished, and, like the cyclists, vanished in the early morning, tents and all.

We decided to stay a few days at Grand Gulf State Park, in Southern Mississippi. It is an historic military place with a museum and many relics of the Battle of Grand Gulf in the U.S. Civil War. It used to be a town of about 2,000 in the early 1800s, but then cholera decimated the population, a tornado took out half the town, and a Mississippi flood washed out 55 city blocks and reduced it to less than 200 people. To complete the destruction, there was a significant battle between the Confederates on the bluff above the town, and the Union “battleships” attempting to pass on the Mississippi to get at Vicksburg. The Confederates won that one, and the ships retreated, apart from one that sank. Then General Grant attacked from the rear, and won the land battle. He burned the remnants of the town, so all that remains are the old earthworks, the museum, and a small and quiet RV Park.

Sleepy and picturesque, it all changed on Tuesday morning. I got wind of this by listening to the local gossip, and told Elaine there was a surprise awaiting. She thought it might be an enactment with guns and the like, but I did not let on. A surprise is a surprise … right? So at 8.30 a.m. we got in the car, and drove the quarter mile to the muddy bank of the Mississippi.

American Queen at Grand Gulf Park

American Queen at Grand Gulf Park

There was the cruise boat. Five decks of luxury for rich tourists, traveling from Memphis to New Orleans!!

Cyclists from the American Queen, with Tour Buses

Cyclists from the American Queen, with Tour Buses

The last of the steam paddle boats on the Mississippi, tied to a tree against the bank, for all the world like a canoe. This was surprise enough, but apparently this happens every ten years or so.

Boat Travel -OK.  Cycling??

Boat Travel -OK. Cycling??

This boat carried another huge bunch of cyclists, who had bicycles-made-for-two, and headed off down the Natchez Trace to the boat’s next stop.

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The Boat Headed to Natchez

The Boat Headed to Natchez

Many of the passengers toured the area in the luxury coaches that materialized in the early morning, and some traveled by coach to the next port of call, Natchez Mississippi.

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Tour Buses Met the Boat

Tour Buses Met the Boat

We tried to get a tour of the boat, but there was heavy security, partly because the Mississippi Governor’s wife was there, and also because it seemed like a very expensive ship!!! In fact the organizer of the stopover asked, “How did you hear about this?” Clearly they did not want hordes of the local unwashed and scruffy campers getting close to the high-paying cruise customers!

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Oh yes, we found a bunch of bees near Tupelo, Mississippi. Not a regular swarm, since these were bumble bees –the ones that physicists say could not possibly fly. Since it was Spring, they seemed to be looking for partners, and were generally uninterested in us, except for one that hovered around Elaine for the longest time. I did not think she looked like a bumble bee, but maybe it was because she was wearing a flowery T-shirt. (No picture of a bee, since my camera is not up to such dangerous stuff).

As mentioned before, I won’t ramble on with routine travel stuff, and perhaps nothing else dramatic will happen on the last half of our journey home.

John, with constructive additions by Elaine.

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Dogs and Other Critters

Before beginning this nonsense about animals, a quick update for those who like to follow our travels.

Golf Cart Dog

Golf Cart Dog

We escaped the snow in early February with a flight to Chicago, delayed a couple of hours by ice, but still managed an excellent Italian meal before settling down for a luxurious night in the ostentatious Palmer House.  The Amtrak Texas Eagle was also delayed by ice and snow, but eventually trundled down to Taylor, Texas, where we retrieved our truck and trailer.   Two weeks in Rockport, near Corpus Christi, and we reveled in the warm dry weather as we heard about the snow and bitter cold which lingers in Ontario.  West to the desert areas now, with cloudless skies and sunshine.  May the warmth continue.

So what’s this about dogs?

Illegal (unleashed) Dog

Illegal (unleashed) Dog

They are ubiquitous on RV parks, likely because traveling with dogs is much easier with some sort of motor home or house trailer, and it seems that every other visitor has a dog.

Sometimes More Than One Dog

Sometimes More Than One Dog

Occasionally folk have other pets like cats and the odd parrot, but dogs are everywhere.  Many look like their owners, but I am too polite to tell people that.

Another RV-Size Dog

Another RV-Size Dog

Spoiled and Pretty

Spoiled and Pretty

Small dogs are in the majority, likely because space in an RV is limited, but we did encounter a bull mastiff in a tiny trailer.  “That’s a big hound for a small home,” I commented.

“Yes,” replied the owner, “and if I find a wife, we either trade in the dog or buy a bigger trailer.”

Poet is a Real Guide Dog

Poet is a Real Guide Dog

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Like in city parks, condo developments and other public spaces, there is an endless war over dogs and their leavings.  There are dire threats of eviction for those with barking dogs, and for those who think scooping is only for ice-cream sundaes.   I have not seen anyone evicted, and no dog being shot, though threats have been issued and Texas is noted for direct action.

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Generally we like dogs, and they seem to love travel.  After all, we humans enjoy new and spectacular views, and the doggy equivalent is the cornucopia of new sniffs around a well patronized tree or hydrant.

We  did not swim here

We did not swim here

An Alligator We Did Not see

An Alligator We Did Not see

In the “unwanted critter” department, annoyances are mainly mosquitoes, fortunately sparse in drier areas with cool nights.   Dire warnings are posted about alligators, poisonous snakes, bears and mountain lions, but these animals are actually mostly rare and timid.   Likely the notices are mainly to avoid law-suits, and posted to keep insurance companies happy.   When we arrived at the Rockport camp site I asked a neighbour about the alligators.  “Heck, there haven’t been alligators on this park for three years.  But watch out for the water moccasins, tarantulas and scorpions”   I am fairly sure that he was making most of this up, but I do use a flashlight when walking after dark!

Javalina - courtesy Louise Simos

Javalina – courtesy Louise Simos

One nasty type of critter is the javalina.  Looks like a pig, smells like a skunk, and acts like a raccoon.  They travel in packs, and javalinas can also be nasty and dangerous, particularly to small dogs.   Boris, our much lamented schnauzer, decided to confront a herd of javalinas in Big Bend National Park.   I dragged him off, and pointed out that javalinas just loved small dogs for supper.

Cougar-Deadly Pussycat

Cougar-Deadly Pussycat

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For the major dangerous beasts, our own experience has been limited to the occasional bear and cougar, but these have been sightings … not imminent or real attacks.  Legends abound about others who are less fortunate, but these encounters are in the same category as tornadoes, lightning strikes, muggings, and casino jackpots:  exceedingly rare and pure bad luck (or otherwise).   Go with the statistics, and if you want to be safe, don’t stray far from home.

Armadillo - Strange Critter

Armadillo – Strange Critter

Deer are Everywhere

Deer are Everywhere

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In the “benign and interesting” category are turtles, and armadillos, which are much hated by gardeners since they dig a lot.   Cute though!

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Of course there are numerous deer, coyotes, squirrels and birds.

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One the coyote could not catch

One the coyote could not catch

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The road runners are mostly in the desert, and are funny birds.  When pressed (as in being chased by a wily coyote) they can can actually take off and soar up to a tree limb.

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Mainstay of the US Cavalry

Mainstay of the US Cavalry

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Horses are numerous in Texas, but now used mostly for recreation and rodeos, though the Border Patrol use them to chase illegal immigrants through the spiky desert.  Camels, which are now quite rare, surface at “historic events” like Fort Clark Days, where this picture was taken.  This based on the history of the US Camel Corps, explained here in Wilkipedia:

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The U.S. Camel Corps was a mid-nineteenth century experiment by the United States Army in using camels as pack animals in he Southwest United States.

While the camels proved to be hardy and well-suited to travel through the region, the Army declined to adopt them for military use. Horses were frightened of the unfamiliar animals, and their unpleasant dispositions made them difficult to manage.

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In case you think that only the United States indulged in this camel business, Canada also tried hard, but gave up for many of the same reasons.

Some of the pictures are mine, but those of the “nasty critters” are from various sources on the Internet.

John (with contributions by Elaine)

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